Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veteran's Day

Rating: SL, GRG
Thanks to BlueWren for inspiring me to post this.

Life with my dad was not what you’d call a picnic—unless we’re talking about the one when you were about four years old and you sat down in a fire-ant bed. But we learned some important things from that experience: first, that there are situations which call for drastic and immediate action, such as jumping into the tub fully clothed and opening the taps to full; and second, to always, ALWAYS, watch your ass.

My dad knew the importance of these two principles; I think he tried hard to teach his children these things in ways that would be less traumatic than, say, leaving your family and friends and new bride at the age of 19 to go to Europe with the American Infantry in WWII. He said to me once that “sometimes you wish you could bore a hole in a kid’s head and just pour a little wisdom in, so they wouldn’t have to go through what you went through.” And then his eyes kind of squinted up and he got that little half a smile, and he said, “But you can’t. But that doesn’t stop you from wishing you could.”

Dad loved his children fiercely. I think it hurt him that he could not often find a way to express that love in ways that we could understand, at least when we were small. But I believe that that pain never banked the intensity of the fire of his love for us. I learned from Dad the value, the necessity, of continuing to love someone fiercely even in those times—maybe especially in those times—when you cannot bear to speak to them, nor they to you.

I remember when my brother came back home and told Dad he wanted to go back to school. Dad and I were alone in the house and he just started talking about it. I listened, kind of wide-eyed, as Dad looked at me, then looked away and started blinking rapidly, cleared his throat, and said, “Man, I’m proud of that boy.” Dad had an idea of what it took for this particular son to do that, and the admiration he felt brought tears to his eyes, though of course he would have eaten a bug before he’d let them fall in front of me.

He knew what it was like for a boy to not get on so well with this father. It’s funny to me think that Dad—I think—felt a lot like the prodigal son himself. It’s funny because I know that going to school on the GI bill, going on to get a Master’s degree, raising 5 children, serving on the Vestry and being a lay reader at church is not what I normally equate with a Prodigal-Son-type itinerary. But for Dad, none of this could change the fact that this was not the life his father had in mind for him. Dad was profoundly proud of his son’s grit, and, I think, deeply moved by his ability to make the first move, to stand at the door and knock.

I try to imagine what it took for Dad to marry our mother against his father’s will; to sacrifice not only two years of his life in defense of his country, but the first two years of his marriage; to sacrifice his image of the boy he was and his dreams of the man he wanted to be; to sacrifice the ability to sleep peacefully through the night. Dad had nightmares, I believe, every night of his life after he came back from Europe, and while he expressed his distaste for snow and for standing in lines, I never heard him express bitterness or regret or blame for his service in the Army. Mostly he just didn’t like to talk about it.

When I turned 18, Dad took me to lunch and somewhere between ordering and the arrival of food, looked at me and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I had not studied for this pop quiz, so I made a joke or two and then asked him how he decided what to do with his life. He said when he got out of the Army, he wanted to be able to support a family, and he wanted to do something that would make a little corner of the world a little bit better than he found it. Sanitary engineering seemed like a feasible way to do both things.

Then he said to me, “Find what you love to do, and do it. Because if you love it, you’ll be good at it.”

I was so completely surprised by this entire conversation that I was hardly able to string together a coherent sentence for the rest of the meal.

Usually, Dad loved surprising people. Nothing cracked him up like seeing the look of shock on someone’s face when he shattered their preconceptions, or when they realized he’d been pulling their leg for the last 20 minutes. Playing cards with my dad always started with him saying, with the most puzzled of expressions, “How do you play this game?” and ended with him totally ransacking everyone. Dad was funny. His sense of humor was subtle and relentless. Dad gave me the gift of finding the funny in the darkest of situations. It’s a double-edged gift, for sure, but one worth keeping.

In the last couple of years, I find myself noticing the good traits in myself and my brothers and sisters that come from each of my parents. When a friend calls at 10:30 at night and says “I can’t be alone in my house right now” and I say “Get on over here” and check the fridge and how many clean sheets we have, that’s Mom. When I’m at work and I choose, at the risk of extreme unpopularity, to do the hard thing that’s right instead of the easy thing that’s not, that’s Dad. They are with me. And because they are with me, they are with you.

I thank God for Dad’s life here on earth. I thank God for the amazing, incomprehensible gift of the resurrection. I thank God that his child and servant Ray is whole, and home, able to love his children fiercely without having to figure out how to show it, able to sleep without nightmares and rejoice without regret. I thank God.

yours in the struggle,

The King Of Israel Tore His Clothes

Rating: SL, GT
Psalm 77
2 Kings 5:1-19
I think of God, I am restless, I ponder, and my spirit faints.
You will not let my eyelids close; I am troubled and I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old; I remember the years long past;
I commune with my heart in the night; I ponder and search my mind.

Has [the Lord’s] loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed forevermore?

I have wept, and shouted, and screamed aloud at God to WAKE UP!! What are you THINKING?? Either get off your Divine Ass or explain to me what you’re doing, RIGHT NOW. Please. Are you paying any attention at all?

My anger and pain comes from my conviction that God IS paying attention. Why, then? Why? I recognize that I have done things and left things undone that create my own circumstances, but what did my parents ever do to deserve what happened to them? And even if they “deserved” it for something in their pasts, what happened to mercy? Where’s the grace? This can’t have been for the good of their souls, the amendment of their lives; they’re going to die this way. So let them die. What sick Being would desire their fruitless torment?

Oh, I remember it well, the righteous wrath I felt, the grief, the sense of abandonment and betrayal of my parents, two flawed, wounded, courageous people who kept on keeping on with service and work and humor and love, in weather rough and smooth. God, I know you’re there; WAKE UP!!! Don’t you care?
6[Naaman] brought the letter [from the king of Aram] to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 8But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

The king of Israel rent his clothes, because he could not do what the king of Aram asked of him. His arrogance was thinking that he had to do everything himself; his mistake was in forgetting that he was a king. The letter was sent not to him personally, but to the king of Israel, who is more than the individual. He need not despair. All citizenry, from goatherd to general, was encompassed in his kingship. And the prophet spoke.

Well. I’m not a king. But I often rend things in frustration at being asked to do what I cannot do. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do things you think you cannot.” Which is all good—but some things I really CANNOT do. OK, I admit that sometimes I mostly just think I can’t, or I just really, really don’t want to. But it’s bitterly frustrating to be held responsible for something that is simply not in my power.

And then, then we come to the thing I think I cannot do, the thing I fear to do. The thing I dread. Asking for help. Ideologically, I approve of asking for help. I think asking for help means accessing resources, plugging into available power, a strong, smart, healthy, positive, constructive act.

But what if I ask for help and no help is forthcoming? What if it just reveals my weakness to the ones I thought would help, and what if they exploit that? What if my best interests are of no interest to them, as has happened? What then?

What happens then is an experience of betrayal as damaging as the originating circumstance. We’re not talking momentary disappointment; we’re talking about long-term, catastrophic change, the kind that can require daily energy for the rest of my life in order to heal. This isn’t the touchy-feely pink-and-yellow-tinted 70s crap about “let yourself be vulnerable, take off your mask, only through taking risk can you grow, yadda yadda blah blah blah.” No matter what saccharine psycho-babble people spout, asking for help is exposing oneself to judgment and betrayal.

Has [the Lord’s] loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed forevermore?

I hope it has not. I pray it has not. And so I shout at God. I make an offering of my righteous wrath, my grief, my utter failure to understand and to see God’s hand at work. Sometimes it is all I have to give. I try to make peace with my brother before I offer my gift, such as it is, and when I cannot, I offer that failure to God as well. I depend upon the grace of God to make all sufficient. Sometimes it is all I can do.

yours in the struggle,

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