Celebrating the Life of My Mother-in-Law

woman of valorThis is what I had the honor to share at my mother-in-law’s Memorial Service on Saturday.


We’re here today to celebrate the life of Irene (Mickie) Taylor. And, what a life to celebrate! Ninety-nine years of love and caring. As I began to reflect on her life, I was drawn to portions of Prov. 31. I’d like to paraphrase these portions beginning at verse 10, “She wears strength and beauty and she laughs at the future.

“She opens her mouth with wisdom and the learning of kindness is on her tongue. Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her works praise her in the gates.”

The ‘she’ that the writer was speaking of is Eshet Chayil. Those two Hebrew words are the first 2 words of verse 10. They have been translated many ways. Some translations say a “worthy woman.” Others, an “excellent wife.” Still others, a “wife of noble character.” While these may indeed characterize Mickie to an extent, there is another way to interpret Eshet Chayil. A “Woman of Valour.”

The word valour carries with it a kind of macho, male connotation. However, several synonyms show this to be an appropriate description of Mickie. Some of these synonyms are pluck, courage, bold, spirited. Anyone who knew her knows these words can surely describe her. I’d like to take a look at some other Women of Valour whose lives reveal some of these characteristics.

There was a woman who lived in what is now Iran. For whatever reason, her father-in-law thought it would be a good idea to pack up the family and move. So, they traveled to a place in the vicinity of Northern Syria. After a while her husband came to her and said, “God spoke to me and told me to pick up stakes and head south.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that by now this woman was beginning to wonder what was going on. But, she listened to her husband, they packed up all of their belongings and moved on. This woman’s name was Sarai. And, she was definitely in a trying relationship. After all, she had been perfectly comfortable in Ur of the Chaldean’s. Then just as she was settling in at Harran, her husband is hearing voices and the family was on the move…again.

After some time in this new land, Canaan, there was a famine. So, the family moved to Egypt where there was food. Her husband, Avram, made another not so grounded decision. He told Sarai that she had to tell everyone that she was his sister. He was afraid that, because of her beauty, someone might kill him in order have her. Well, that didn’t work out so great. Pharaoh found out about her and took her into his harem. God came along and bailed Avram out and Sarai was returned to him. The famine ended and Sarai and Avram went back to Canaan. Some time later God came to Avram and made a covenant with him to make him a Father of Nations, so God changed Avram’s name to Abraham. God also changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Abraham and Sarah moved around in Canaan because they had no land of their own. At one point they stayed in a certain place where there was a king named Abi-melek. Abraham apparently didn’t remember the trip to Egypt. He again told his wife to say she was his sister. Maybe Abraham thought that since things worked out so well before, they’d work well again. The story repeats that Sarah was taken into Abi-melek’s harem. Bad things happened and God came to the rescue. This was the second time that Abraham had placed Sarah, his wife, in harm’s way. And, the second time she followed his lead. That says a lot about Sarah’s character. Mmm, maybe not so much about Abraham’s.

Finally, Sarah became pregnant. She bore a son and he was named Isaac. Isaac was adored by his mother. After all, she was 90 years old! And, Isaac was her first born. What joy she experienced! When Isaac was older, however, Abraham said that he heard from God that he was to sacrifice this beautiful son that had been promised. How much he told Sarah about this, we don’t know for sure. But, the next thing we hear about Sarah was of her death.

Sarah surely had many trials being married to a difficult man. Yet, she persevered. She showed real ‘pluck’ throughout her life with Abraham.

For most of her married life, Mickie, too, had to show that same pluck. Every day she and Gene would get up and she would drive them to work. After a full day at Flexo Products, she would drive to Columbia Gas and pick Gene up. She would then drive across the street to a pub where she would wait in the car while he ‘unwound’ from his day. They would drive home where she then prepared a meal for the family. It was hard. She persevered through many trials. However, when asked what had attracted her to Gene, she said that he was kind. She was able to see the very best in people. That integrity and inner strength of character allowed her to not only be tolerant, but to be extremely gracious. And, that grace spilled over on to all of us who knew her. Truly, like Sarah, Mickie was Eshet Chayil.

Another woman lived at a time when her people had been deported far from their homeland. Her name was Esther. Through a number of events, this woman was noticed by Xerxes, the king of Persia. He took her into his harem. There, Esther became Xerxes’ favorite. As the story progressed we find that Esther’s uncle, a guy named Mordecai, uncovered a plot to assassinate Xerxes. He told Esther, who informed the king, giving credit to her uncle. We see here a glimpse of Esther’s commitment to her family and her people.

A little later a man named Haman rose up in the court of Xerxes. He enjoyed the honor and adulation of everyone who was subordinate to him. Mordecai, however, refused to honor him. It became known that Mordecai was a Jew. So, Haman petitioned the king have all of the Jews throughout the realm put to death. When Mordecai heard of this, he went to Esther and asked her to intervene. Now, it’s important to understand, that at that time anyone who entered the presence of the king without permission did so on pain of death. This held even more strictly for a woman. Yet, Esther prepared herself and, taking her life in her hands, she entered the inner court. Xerxes saw her, and “he was pleased.” Esther asked the king to come to a banquet that she was holding to honor Haman. (A wisdom that we aren’t privy to til this point.) On the second night of banqueting, Xerxes asked Esther what he could do for her, up to half his kingdom. She answered, saying that her petition was for the king to spare her people. She told him that she was a Jew and that Haman had orders to kill all of the Jews. The king reversed his decree and had Haman killed instead.

Esther was willing to forfeit her life for her family and her people. Regardless of any obstacles, she was truly courageous. Mickie absolutely would do anything for her family. She saw herself as the glue that held them together. No sacrifice was too costly. No discomfort too extreme. And, she could be very adamant about that. I remember once when Hope and I were dating, I brought up the possibility of Hope graduating from high school early so that we could get married. Mickie, in no uncertain, (and I might add colorful), terms let me know that was never going to happen. I’m sure many of you can relate a time when she drew a line and said, “No further!” Discussion over! Esther was definitely Eshet Chayil. Mickie was Eshet Chayil.

Finally, I want to tell you a story about a young woman. She was about 14 years old. She had been brought up and trained to be a good Jewish wife. All of her expectations and dreams revolved around this future. After all, in a very patriarchal culture, her options were limited. She lived in a time when a woman was little more than property. First to her father; then to her husband. These roles were strictly enforced by religion and culture. One day a man showed up saying, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” He explained to her that she was going to give birth to a son. Wait a minute! She wasn’t officially married. In fact, she had a fiancé who would be oh so ticked about his virgin wife becoming pregnant. Not only that, her family would be publicly shamed. They had promised Joseph a virgin. Not only would she not be that, she would bring an illegitimate child t, too. This young woman, brought up in a strict, religious home knew the repercussions of all of this…stoning to death. Yet, her response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled”.

We don’t usually contemplate this. Mary’s response could have sealed her death. But, she trusted this messenger. No, she trusted God who sent this messenger. Mary’s response caused her to later praise God saying,

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is HIS name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Mary Lou mentioned to me that Mickie was as ‘born again’ as anyone she ever knew. I don’t think that Mickie would put it that way. She would simply say that “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled”. Her faith in God never wavered. She loved the fellowship of saints. She loved the opportunity to worship God in spirit and truth. Mary was Eshet Chayil. Mickie was Eshet Chayil.

There are many more women who were Eshet Chayil that I can’t say a lot about. There was Deborah who helped lead her people in their struggle with the Canaanites. Tamar, who was cheated by Judah and who boldly confronted him for the birthrights of her sons. One of whom, Perez, was an ancestor of Jesus. Ruth, who was also called Eshet Chayil, whose boldness continued the lineage of Jesus. Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Junius the apostle. Lydia, the first convert to Christ in Europe. Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Paul’s true son in the faith Timothy.

I could go beyond the Bible and cite Joan of Arc, Marie Currie, Mother Theresa and many, many other Eshet Chayil who have formed us, protected us, nurtured us and passed on faith, courage, integrity and strength of character.

Eric S. Kingston shares:

A woman of valor makes the world change

Her strength is the content that guides through the days

Defined by her actions that bring light to all dreams

Valor is something that’s defined by her deeds.

Her valor is golden, sparkled and gray

She stands up to the challenge no matter the way

It can’t be held back or defined by her age

Yes, a woman of valor makes the world change.

For valor’s not held by the young or the old

But by the deeds of the heart that give and unfold

It’s merit and honor that hold no disguise

Like the creation of being in the blessed Holy One’s eyes.

For valor is the color of the song of her soul

As she changes, creates and turns light into gold

Divine is Her Presence, be it joyous or sad

— A Woman of Valor —

May offer little, but it will be all that she has.

For only her heart will know the depths of her soul

That nurtures and blossoms and forever unfolds

And holds in its essence new life and new gain

Yes, A woman of valor makes the world change

A woman of valor makes the world change

A woman of valor makes the world change.

There is no doubt that Irene has taken her place as Eshet Chayil.

Who’s Your Best Friend? Pt. 2

orkut_friends_for_ever_scraps3This is the second part of a series about the possibility of women and men building ‘best friend’ relationships. As I reflect and write about this topic I find that it continues to morph and grow into something more than a simple yes or no can address. Yes, there will be a part three. And, at this point probably a part four. We’ll see where God takes us.

Last week I began writing about relationships between women and men here. Particularly, on the possibility of them being ‘best’ friends. I stated some of the common objections to these relationships. And, I began to deconstruct some of those objections as having their origins in a particular, privileged male view of sexuality. I pointed out how this view demeans and silences women, as well as reinforces the image of how poor, weak men are bound to be ensnared by the sexual wiles of women. I feel that view of sexuality is pretty much crap talk. I’m not about to go along with any position that unfairly labels women as sluts or gives men a pass on their own, personal faults. What I am going to do today is try to unpack some of the issues regarding cross-sex relationships.

When I was a young boy most of my best friends were other boys. We played in the woods and climbed trees. We raced bicycles and played baseball. We prided ourselves as being true ‘He Man Woman Haters.’ However, I knew who the fastest kid in our class was. And, she could beat any one of us boys in a foot race. When teams for kickball were chosen, I tried to make sure she was on my team. In the classroom I spent more time with the girls because they were smarter than most of my guy friends. It always helped to be on their team during spelling and math contests. Many times outside of class boys and girls played together. (That is, as long as the girls didn’t want to play house. Yuk!) The point is kids know how to be friends with anyone, regardless of gender. But, something happened as we got older. Our bodies began to change. Hormones started messing with us. Parents and other adults started telling us that boys and girls needed to start preparing for marriage. Physical pressure, peer pressure and social pressure built to the point of bursting. I’m surprised anyone survives this! All of the sudden…the innocence is gone. Now, we have to learn a whole new way of relating to one another. The girl who once was one of my best friends has become a sexual object. Not because we chose that path. But, because others defined it for us.

I want to be clear about something before I continue. In this series I’m not addressing casual or professional acquaintances. These relationships are viewed as completely necessary and acceptable by most people. I am writing about the possibility for women and men to have relationships in which their hearts are knit together. In which they become kindred spirits who support and encourage one another. In essence, they are best friends in every sense that implies. However, they remain just friends.

Impossible? I don’t think so. Let’s take time to look at some of the issues.Please note that these are serious issues. Many good people and relationships have been shipwrecked because of them. So, I do not take them lightly. I do, however, want to place them within a context that may, perhaps, shed some light on them and offer hope to people who may feel lost and hopeless.

In my last post I shared a video clip from the movie, “When Harry met Sally.” Billy Crystal’s character said that it was impossible for women and men to be friends because ‘the sex part’ always gets in the way. I think there’s some truth in that statement. Whether it’s always an issue, I’m not sure. I do know that in many cases physical attraction and desire are potential deal breakers. I don’t want to belittle this issue, but I think that we need to understand that ‘the sex part’ is totally natural. As I wrote before, we are sexual beings. However, we tend to obsess over this. Especially, in the purity culture, sexuality is whispered about or it is ignored. This sentiment seems to have its roots in how the early church incorporated the Christian scriptures and Greek philosophy, particularly Plato. That view divides the unseen ultimate concept of things from their physical representation on earth. The physical is always something ‘less than’ the ultimate, non-physical reality. The church began to understand that the spiritual reality, therefore, is something to be sought after. The physical, or the ‘flesh,’ was something to be despised. Spirit=Good; Flesh=Bad. However, the folks who wrote the First Covenant did not seem to view humanity like this. Theirs was a wholistic view of people. It looked more like this: Flesh+Spirit=Soul. This view honors the whole person. We can accept and embrace ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s Good Creation. I truly believe that grasping this is the first step in freeing ourselves from the prison of shame and false modesty. That freedom is necessary for openness and friendship to be established between women and men. Freedom can be won when a person admits and owns their sexuality. When I confess that, yes, I am attracted to this person, I don’t have to hide it or deny it. I can embrace it. After all, this ‘sexual’ me is part of who I am…who God has formed me to be. By not giving into shame and obsessing over my human nature I don’t empower it. I can simply admit that it’s there and move on. I do not have to gratify it. It took me a long time and some monumental failures to learn this. And, it wasn’t until I realized that one of my best friends is a woman that I began to understand that embracing who I am is one of the greatest safeguards against pursuing ‘the sex part.’

There is another potential hazard that I think is vital to understand. It is, perhaps, even more important than this one. But, you’ll have to wait for part three for that.

How do you feel about your identity as a sexual being? Is it possible to accept and embrace ourselves as whole persons and share that with others?

Remembering Grandpa Tom

TomThis past weekend I got to know my paternal grandfather a little bit. I never did meet him before he died in 1959. I was just a wee lad and he lived in another state. My dad never talked about him much. He and my dad’s stepmother had divorced and Tom left dad with her. I don’t think dad ever really forgave him for that. The story was that Tom was an alcoholic and pretty much not good for anything. At least, that’s the version I was told.

I have spent much of the last month since dad’s passing sifting through papers, photos and other bits and pieces of his and mom’s life. This past weekend I finally got to the boxes of pictures and old letters. Scribbled on the lid of one box, with black magic marker, was “Tom.” In that box I found a treasure. There were photos of a young child in clothes that would definitely get him beaten up if he wore them today. Tom was born in 1897, so the styles, especially the dress styles, were…well, something to behold. Think of Ron Weasley at the Hogwarts’ Yule ball in The Goblet of Fire. There were a few family photos showing Tom with his parents and siblings. All of these image revealed the family standing rigid and straight-faced as if the camera was a firing squad. Then, I found a couple pictures with Tom and his first wife, Mary. That marriage did not last long. His second wife was named Goldie. My dad came into this life as the consummation of this union. Unfortunately, Goldie passed from tuberculosis when dad was just 6 years old. I don’t think that Tom ever really recovered from that. It seems that the loss of his beloved Goldie was the beginning of his downward spiral into the maelstrom of alcohol and forgetfulness. Tom did remarry, I think for Bill’s sake, but as I wrote above, that did not last nor end well.

Tom relocated to Florida where he pretty much fell off the grid. Perhaps, he thought that the further he could run from his past the better he would feel. He found employment on various farms helping to harvest citrus and other fruit and vegetables. These years have been erased…at least for me. Perhaps one of Tom’s siblings kept some information that has been passed on. But, I really don’t have any contact with any of  them. What I did find, however, was a stack of old letters and other correspondence from the last few years of Tom’s life. Most of the letters were written by Tom to one of his sisters in Ohio. These letters, dated between 1956 and 1959, revealed a man who was lost and reaching out to the only people who could connect him to a happier existence.

Tom was a simple man. The letters were penciled on small note pad type paper. The hand that drew the characters was not steady. Maybe from drinking. Maybe from handling something as foreign as a writing instrument. It was obvious that his education was not a high priority when he grew up. The spelling and grammar were at a grade school level. He was ‘shure’ glad when the ‘wether’ was nice and his ‘cocial security’ check arrived. The content was simple. He asked about his sister’s life and condition. And, he replied with reports of his health and the current weather conditions. I found out that my dad had been writing to him, as Tom wrote that he had received letters from Billy. Funny, Dad never mentioned that. From these letters I learned that Tom had to have a leg amputated 4 inches below the knee. He considered the repercussions that the ‘wooden leg’ he was getting would have on his life. I don’t know why the leg was removed. I think that the cause was a work related injury because he mentioned disability checks. But, that’s only conjecture. In letters dated form 1958 I learned that Tom had throat cancer. His frustration at getting straight answers from doctors was quite evident. (I guess some things never change.) At one point he wrote that he was convinced that he did not have cancer, but a ‘toomer.’ And for that, he was getting ‘treetment’.

In all of the letters there was an almost desperate longing for relationship. Although he put on the façade of someone who was independent and was taking care of himself, he ended the letters with pleas for his sister to answer the letter quickly. Or, he wrote for his sister to tell Perl, his brother, or Billy to please answer his letters. It was as if he was shouting, “Sis! Please tell someone…anyone…to talk to me, listen to me…touch me!” As the summer of 1959 unfolded, Tom’s health took a turn for the worse. I found a couple of letters from Tom’s doctor stating that there was nothing more that they could do for him. The best treatment they had was simply palliative, or comfort care. Late that summer my family and I were in Maine on vacation. It was there that dad received the call that Tom had passed.

We packed and returned home.

Tom’s sister made all of the arrangements to have Tom returned to Ohio where he finally found peace lying next to his mother in a small cemetery on a hill in the countryside.

I still don’t know Tom. I’ve learned a little about him. But, just like the word ‘tree’ is not actually a tree, these mementos are not actually the real man. There is so much that I don’t know about my adopted family. People I will never know…places and events that have long since escaped memory. I have few ties with the past…the legacy of humanity. I have embraced my place as one grafted into this family tree. Thomas Lester Helbert is the name of my branch.

Whose Side are You On? No.

liberal-conservativeFor anyone who has been awake in the U.S. in recent years, the conflict between conservatives and liberals, right and left, has taken center stage, not only in the political arena, but in economics, religion and anywhere else that people can stand against one another. We have all witnessed the vitriol spewing all over broadcast and social media. And, I suppose that many of us simply cannot identify with everything being claimed and counter-claimed by pundits and so-called ‘experts’ who speak and write with self-proclaimed authority. I know that I can’t. In truth, I cannot align myself with either side in these arguments.

One of the problems is that we have allowed these people to define and shape the discussions. Regardless of the issue, there always seems to be someone willing to stand up and ask, ‘Who’s with me? Who’s against me?’ Immediately the line has been drawn and everyone is expected to stand on one side or the other. Then, we can all snarl and growl at each other. What if we were to say “no, I don’t feel like playing those games? Too many people get hurt.”

I used to play, though. For years I stood on the left of the line. Those were the days when I was a young, naïve idealist. I really thought that the folks of my generation were going to stand up and change the world. We watched as American apartheid was dismantled. We were front row witnesses to the downfall of a president and the end of, what was up until that time, the United States’ most unpopular war. People were being liberated from constructs and systems that had bound women, the poor and people of color for centuries. (Well, at least we thought so.) Then, as I grew older, got a job, married and had children, I heard a voice from the right, ‘red rover, red rover, let Mikie come over.’ And, I did. The idealism of my youth was slowly replaced by pragmatism. The reality of caring for hearth and home turned my gaze inward. It was more important to feed my family than to concern myself with feeding ‘those’ people. Yeah, we dipped our toes into the humanitarian pool by supporting organizations that helped others. But, by sending a check we didn’t need to really think about them.

Then, a funny thing happened, though. My inner idealist woke up. I began to see that the conservative blood that was coursing through my veins carried no nutrients to my soul. The polarizing effect that is inherent in so many of the discussions and decisions that I was party to simply drained me and left me with a conflicted identity. Seriously, I really didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. So, I moved back toward the left. This, too, was not satisfying. What we call liberalism today is empty. It has its roots in the enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries. At its core is the belief that human reason can lift humanity to higher self-realization and prosperity. Liberalism exalts individuality even as it strives for a sense of communal accountability. The modernist ideal that grew during that period brought about giant leaps in technology, science and medicine. It also was at the foundation of White privilege and Manifest Destiny. These caused unsurpassed damage to indigenous people worldwide and environmental destruction beyond reason. So, no…liberal doesn’t fit me.

I do lean to the left, however. I stand firmly with the 99%. I support LGBT people in their struggle for rights and identity. I think that the Affordable Care Act is a great step forward, albeit, not the final step. Food stamps and other tools that can help people who really need help are good. I also feel that infatuation with the military can only cause harm and hardship. Some people might say, “Yeah, looks like a liberal and smells like a liberal. Gotta be a liberal!” Well, let’s not jump there so quickly. Over at Homebrewed Christianity, Bo Sanders has written some good stuff on the differences between liberals and what has been termed Progressives here and here. While I don’t pretend to fully understand all that Sanders wrote, I do notice that the emphasis appears to be more on the community of believers rather than on the potential of human individualism. For me, then, the concept of a body that has a source outside of human achievement begins to come into focus.

Perhaps the most distinguishable difference, at least for me, is the reality of the transcendent. I embrace the mysteries of faith. Those things that human reason simply cannot grasp, but are real. I believe in miracles. I long for the transformative nature of God’s Holy Spirit. I embrace the relationships between humans and the Good Creation. Relationships that are more than simply utilitarian. We are more than organic mechanisms, yet less than divine. It’s because of this that I must support organizations and policies that are designed lift people out of misery. That’s why I cannot support Western arrogance and militarism. That’s why I give my hand and my heart to those deemed ‘less than’ or ‘other.’ No, I’m neither liberal nor conservative. I’m simply a human being.

To Suffer…and To Suffer With

In a recent post I mused about God’s relationship with the entirety of the Good Creation. That, perhaps, at the moment that the universe began to grow and form God had shared a part of God’s own essence. We are all interconnected, related, because of the Breath of God that has given to us. In another post I wrote a little about my own journey through depression and self-loathing. The story is painful for me to recount. But, I must share just a tad more.

This week I messaged a young person who is battling her own inner demons of depression. I don’t know why, but something about this person has caused my heart to be open…vulnerable. I have tried to encourage her to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ In a reply she wrote something that really caught me off guard. I quickly responded with an apology. But, I felt horrible inside. Now, for most people the exchange would have been nothing to be concerned about. The words shared were neither abusive nor inappropriate. However, what I had thought would be helpful was rejected. By extension, I felt rejected. When a person lives with depression, any rejection, real or perceived, can throw that person into a downward spiral into interior depths where all sorts of beasties live. Throughout the remainder of that day I was pretty much lost. It got to the point where I asked a friend of mine why I was such an ‘asswipe.’ Sleep was lost to me that night as I considered and reconsidered what had happened. I beat myself up for feeling bad. I cursed myself for the words, as innocuous as they were. Other unrelated issues began to pop up and cause more anxiety. You see, with me that’s how depression works. It causes all of my strength to focus inwardly. I can see nothing but my own faults and inadequacies.

The next morning as I was trying to meditate and pray, I picked up a book by Brian McClaren compassionentitled Naked Spirituality. I had been reading it recently for, I don’t know, the umpteenth time. I opened it to the place I had marked the last time I had read from it. The words jumped off of the page! He was writing about compassion. Particularly, how we respond to the suffering of others. The word does not, as some have said, have anything to do with having passion, as in “she is passionate about someone or something.” The passion part of the word carries the same meaning as when people speak of the Passion of Christ. It is derived from Latin and can be translated “to suffer with.” McClaren wrote that when we are presented with the suffering of others we can respond in one of several ways. We may become “calloused, uncaring, embittered, or overwhelmed.” I had become clearly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by this young person’s suffering and by my own inability to deal with rejection. Compassion was what  I needed. And, I needed it now! Compassion forces folks to look outside of themselves. Our gaze looks upward and outward for relief for the object of our compassion. It breaks forth in pleas for mercy. And, as McClaren wrote, it enables us to “choose connection over disconnection, compassion over apathy, commitment and expansion over constriction and contraction.” I began to pray. Prayer for this young person and her life. Prayer for the enlargement of my heart. Prayer that took my eyes off of me and fixed them on the loving Creator who imbued me and this other person with God’s own breath. Have I found a cure for depression? No, it’s something that I will continue to live with. However, I have found another weapon to use against it. Compassion.

Tumbling into tumblr.

tumblrIn July I was introduced to tumblr. Mostly, because Rachel Held Evans started a blog there. (Ok, I pay attention to what she does cuz she’s successful and I’m not.) Many young folks have migrated there because Facebook has become the hallowed grounds of the Old and Unknowing. I don’t understand how young folks don’t get that wherever they go, the old and infirm are sure to follow.

Anyway, I’ve become addicted. I never thought that social media could grab me and drag me in…but, tumblr. has. CRAP! The tumbr. world is diverse. There are people posting images, poems, short prose and quotes. Some of the blogs are designed to enable writers and artists to share their work and to learn from one another. Some of these allow others to submit their work for online publication. Others simply offer tips and encouragement. And, actually, much of the art, photography and writing is quite good.

There is another side to tumblr., however. Many of those who blog there, perhaps most of them, are young adults. This particular medium offers them a venue where they can explore and expand on the conflicts that they experience as they journey, the best that they can, from the safe world of childhood to the unpredictable world of adulthood. I think that part of the allure of tumblr. is that it allows people to post pretty much anything and everything. Someone may post an image of a forest stream one minute. In the next, they show the scars where they have cut themselves. Another may post kittens and unicorns followed by images that suggest drug abuse. The whole universe of teen angst is on display for the world to see. Shocking? Yeah, some of it is. And, I think that’s the purpose for much of it. Through images and words that press against social morés, many of these people are clearly seeking attention. This is nothing new. Young adults seek to find an identity that they can live with. By drawing attention to themselves they can test and find that which will, in some way, make them ‘acceptable.’ There are others, though, that seem to be stuck. For them depression and sadness have led to self-harm and other self-destructive behavior. These are the people that I can empathize with.

I am, as one friend puts it, “a sensitive musician.” He usually says it as a kind of fun pejorative. But, he’s right. In a brain dominance test many years ago, I was the group’s ‘space cadet’ because I live in the right side of my brain. As a young person I felt misunderstood and marginalized by family and friends. I experienced deep depression and sadness. At times I fell so far into myself that I didn’t realize that I had just scratched the skin off of the tops of my hands so that they bled. I found some solace in drugs and alcohol. Yet, this only seemed to help for a short while. I have always had a sense of unworthiness. Unworthy to receive good things…including love. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is a person who can love without condition. This person understands the alienation and pain that I know so well because he experienced it himself. Yeshua ben Yosef…Jesus son of Joseph…is that person. Am I well now? Hardly. I still deal with depression, self-loathing and some self-destructive activities. But, I am not alone. And, I have a relationship with Someone whom I am confident ‘gets’ me. More than that, however, I have a connectedness with others who, like me, have hope for the future. Perhaps, this is why I’m so drawn to the young people who inhabit the tumblr. universe. They are me. We are a community of hurting misfits. We think and reflect deeply about our world and how we can be a significant part of it. We desire to be understood, yet, in a way we take pride in knowing that we can’t be understood. We refuse to be categorized, preferring instead an enigmatic life. But, we appreciate your presence more than you can ever know. We receive life from you when you notice us. The God who I follow has fashioned us to be a community. We are all interrelated in ways that my puny, little brain cannot ever hope to fathom. I can only share my small spark of life with those who need it. tumblr. is a place where I can do that.

Relationships…What if?

CreationI started to write this post a few days after we buried Dad. It’s taken a little longer to write than I had originally thought.

I’ve just gone back to work after Dad’s passing. I have mixed feelings about going back. Part of me really would like to take a few more days to recover from the emotional stress of watching Dad during his final hours. Lack of sleep and good nutrition has left me physically drained. Another part of me feels the need to get back in the saddle. Work can be a good diversion, focusing the mind on tasks other than funerals and mourning.
The outpouring of support from extended family and friends has been amazing. I’m not sure that I would be of much use to anyone if not for their encouragement and presence. Yeah, I still like books, but all of these people made the last week not only bearable, but in many ways, pleasant. What can I say? We’re all connected in some way. There is something more than just our common humanity at play here. We all share in the brevity and frailty of life. Love given and received binds us with others as we form communities.
But, there is something more. The connection between us as humans is vast and wide. Why would a person in one part of the world care about the needs of someone 14,000 miles away on the other side of the world? Especially, when that one person has more than enough cares and troubles of her or his own? How can I travel to another culture, not knowing the language, and actually communicate with someone? Perhaps, there is an affinity between us because we are the same species. You know, ‘birds of a feather.’ That could be part of it, I suppose. However, those birds simply flock together. They don’t go out of their way to care for the needs of others. Some birds don’t even care for their own young! No, I don’t see that being the common thread that binds us. I think that there is something other than our physical reality at play here.
What that something is has been speculated about ever since humans began to think. (Although, there are some folks today that I wonder about.) I’m not going to join in that philosophical discussion. I’m woefully under qualified for that.
However, I might speculate on something else… relationship. What if that common characteristic is buried deep within humanity? And, what if it is empowered by an outside source? (I’m just musing.) Could it be that what we call God, or Creator, or any number of names is responsible for touching each of us? Perhaps there is a relationship between this God and the Good Creation that acts as a catalyst causing humans to care. Not only caring for other humans, but for the Good Creation as well. That would explain why there are organizations such as Green Peace and Doctors Without Borders. There are thousands of shelters for battered and beaten people. Environmental and human rights organizations flourish. All of this in a world that seems bent on self destruction. Why? I have no pat answer. Nor, does anyone else.
Maybe, the relationship between the Creator and the Good Creation has been damaged. This has been the position of the Christian Church. They accept that sometime in the distant past, between 6 & 10 thousand years ago, God created all things and declared them ‘good.’ The entire created universe was pristine, if not ‘perfect.’ Humankind was innocent and enjoyed relationships with God and the creation. However, these humans were somehow enticed to disobey God and suffered a ‘fall’ of some sort that affected all of creation. The good relationships with God and the cosmos were damaged. Yet, there was still something within them, a broken shard of God’s image that continued to allow some people to do good things. This idea was first articulated by Augustine of Hippo in the late 4th to early 5th centuries. Personally, I don’t agree with him about the ‘fall.’ But, more on that at another time.
What if, about 14 billion years ago, the known universe erupted and began to form into the wondrous environment that we now live in? Then, somewhere around 4.5 billion years ago this system of planets and asteroids and other matter began to form around a larger mass that became our Sun. Over time changes occurred due to any number of causes and effects. On the third rock from this sun these changes caused organisms to develop that contained within them the potential for what we call ‘life.’ Eventually, millions more years passed until a certain small segment of these organisms developed and matured until humanity emerged…upright and aware of itself within this Great and Good Creation. Now, I hear the voices saying, “Whoa! Where is God in this? Isn’t this just a rehash of some Darwinian theory?” Well, yeah it is…kind of. But, what if God has been a part of this entire process? Perhaps not in an entirely active way. Nor, as the deists would say, as a passive observer. Maybe, God breathed God’s life into that original bit of matter and imbued it with God’s own presence. I’m not going to go into panentheism. I don’t think that the universe is part of God nor that the universe is synonymous with God. I’m saying that, perhaps, God is the One who animated and gave ‘life’ to the process. That God has carefully watched over the cosmos, not as an ‘intelligent designer,’ but as a caring and loving parent who knew and trusted that things would develop a certain way.
In the beginning, the breath of God…Ruach Elohim, who hovered over the formless void…was God the Spirit. The Word of God, spoken, brought order out of chaos. God, present from the beginning, shared part of God’s self with what became the Cosmos. Humans, aware of time, space and self also had the capacity to ‘know’ God. Far from being a separate entity at the top of some cosmic hierarchy, humans have derived their essence from that which erupted all those billions of years earlier. We are ‘part and parcel’ with all of the Good Creation. Relationships…they are built into us…from the beginning.

What’s in a Legacy, Anyway?

green_guyI’ve spent the last two weeks mindlessly wandering. I can’t seem to put one cogent thought with another. I don’t know if this is a normal step in the mourning process. Perhaps, the incredible number of tasks that must be done after the death of a loved one is simply overwhelming me. After all, my brother and I have been left with the responsibility of disposing of my parents’ property and liabilities. We’re kinda new at this. We are listing their condo for sale. It’s not expected to sell for much. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get enough to cover what is still owed on it. There are outstanding medical bills that need to be paid. And, we still have a lot of ‘stuff’…furniture, odds-n-ends, and papers…lots of papers to deal with.

What we’re finding is that my parents had very little in the way of a material legacy. They did not prepare for a secure financial future. And, they certainly didn’t spend time thinking about what they were going to pass on to the next generations. They lived for the present. Some might say they lived ‘in the moment.’ Theirs was a relationship that was devoted to enjoying life with one another. I remember Mom saying that she had some regrets that they had not given more thought to their legacy. She would have liked to leave something more materially substantial. But, by that time it was really too late to begin preparations for that. The best that they could do was to ensure that my brother and I simply split whatever property and assets they had.

My question, is this a bad thing? Should children expect their parents to take care so that there is something to leave as a material legacy? My parents lived for each other and their family. They gave a lot to us while they lived. Not ‘stuff,’ but love and care. They modeled devotion through their relationship. My dad, if nothing else, was loyal to his wife and to us. No, they did not show us how to accumulate things. They certainly did not instruct us in how to stay out of debt and to be ‘fiscally responsible.’ Saving money or spending it on large insurance policies didn’t seem to be a high priority for them. Dad once told me that he and mom made a lot of money…and, they spent a lot of money. For them it was more important to use what they earned to enjoy life.

Yes, I’m losing sleep and focus with all that needs to be done in order to settle my parents’ obligations. And, yes, there won’t be much left when the task in finished. But, maybe…just maybe…there really is more to leaving a legacy than leaving a lot of pictures of a green guy named George lying around.

When the Magic Happens

Alone. I like to be alone. Alone with my thoughts. Alone in a world created by my imagination. Alone with stories imagined and captured by countless others. People have recognized this and, understandably, have called me a ‘loner.’ Then, of course, they feel it their duty to invade my privacy. “It’s not right for you to be alone. Get out and meet people! Socialize! Enjoy life!” (As if it’s not possible to actually enjoy the quiet solace of solitude!)

There are times, however, when folks gather together for a common cause…and magic happens. This is the point where some people would provide a litany of group activities that are worthwhile. These would range from the marches in Selma in the 1960s to those who challenged tyranny and oppression in Tienanmen Square in 1989. They would add events in life where more than one is necessary…marriage or a soccer match.

Those who know me know that I am a musician. I’ve made music for more than 40 years. In fact, it’s when I am creating music that I find myself closest to myself and to God. I find enjoyment when I am sitting in my room, alone with my guitar, simply noodling about. There is something about closing my eyes and feeling the strings under my fingers that soothes. It can create a moment of total mindfulness. I am aware of the sound; the touch; my breath. Awareness fills my senses and I am carried away on the wings of the moment.

I have played with other musicians and singers. While, for me, being with other people is not necessarily the most comfortable experience, it is still an opportunity to experience the magic. There is something in the struggle with others to create art that adds life. Just as a butterfly struggles to free herself from her cocoon, music that struggles for its freedom can then spread its wings and fly. The band may be enriched by the experience. However, the real magic happens when the newly freed music touches the souls of the listeners.

Today, my dear friend sent me something that exemplifies how people gathered together create a magical moment that far exceeds any solo effort. She sent me a video of a song. She had introduced me this particular song a few months ago performed solo. I’m sure that some of you have heard of ‘The Cup Song’ from the movie Pitch Perfect. It’s a cute ditty where a girl sings a song at an audition using only a cup for accompaniment. When I saw it, I was intrigued by the imagination of the writer and producer. They had taken something exceptionally simple and presented it with a creative twist. And, there was magic. In the video I viewed today, the song was reimagined for quartet. There was magic four-fold! The addition of harmony, rather than cluttering, added new layers of color and texture that makes the song compelling. More than that, however, I saw people who were interrelated. They had worked and struggled to produce something together that was impossible for one person. In collaborating they created a ‘community’ gathered to enjoy the moment and each other. In the process…magic!

I Am a Rock

island_moon

One of my favorite songs of all time is “I Am a Rock,” by Simon & Garfunkel. When I hear it, I hear a description of me.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I’ve always envied people who, at least from my perspective, seem to have no trouble opening up to others. They have many friends and enjoy spending time with them. I am not one of them. Yeah, I have several people whom I like and get along with. We socialize and sometimes work together. But, they are not folks with whom I share myself. I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty.

Over the years there have been a few people that I have let in. I’ve escorted them inside of my fortress and showed them the tapestries and paintings on the walls. I’ve opened the secret cabinets holding the silver plates and gold-rimmed chalices that I keep there. I have exposed my heart to these. But, like my cat who is socially handicapped, I don’t know when to close doors. In my exuberance to be accepted I hold nothing back. Soon, I find that my exposure is too costly. Either my emotional offering is not returned or, like Hezekiah who revealed his entire treasure to the Babylonian delegation, I find my treasure plundered and carried off.

Don’t talk of love,
But I’ve heard the words before;
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

One would think that I would remember this. But, emotions tend to awaken. They open one eye and gaze about. If that eye spies something interesting, suddenly they become alert and search for ways to sate their desire to share themselves. You see, emotions must be shared. They cannot exist in a vacuum. While one may experience them in private, there is always some object that they are attached to outside of themselves. Taking on a life of their own, the emotions push all other considerations out of the way and present themselves with all of the false modesty and flattery they can muster. After all, one must offer oneself as perfect so that the other person will be impressed. There cannot be any warts or blemishes showing. We cannot risk rejection. Once disturbed from slumber, however, the inevitable journey toward tears begins.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I’ve written in other places that most of the time I find the company of books preferable to that of people. Books offer refuge. They are worlds in which emotions can live safely. I can wake them and let them out for a little fresh air and sunshine. They really don’t seem to care that books are not reality. They see relationships and trees and flowers and butterflies. They are given a safe environment where they can laugh and cry. And, no one gets hurt.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

“I Am a Rock” lyrics: Copyright: Paul Simon Music, Eclectic Music. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/simongarfunkel/iamarock.html Accessed: 8/12/2013.