Category Archives: Memory
Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us. I said, toward the end, these words:
“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”
They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:
I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this: “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”
And this one from G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.
Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.
Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.
It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry
It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, said that she and her husband once drove across the mountains of central Washington state to a place that would put them in the path of a total eclipse of the sun. Early in that morning in 1979 they pulled off the highway and waited. She said:
The deepest and most terrifying [memory] was this: I have said that I heard screams….people on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream. The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon….it was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you only saw the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit. Read the rest of this entry
So now here it comes again. For many, a very painful day, still and always. For all of us who were old enough to witness it live, a memory permanently engraved, an ugly tattoo over scar tissue. Yet with time, inevitably, the intensity is not the same. This is an odd week for those of us in Birmingham. Sunday, we will have a painful memory remembered from fifty years ago. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed just before services began. Barnett Wright has written a wonderful remembrance in words and pictures of that fateful year, 1963, that changed America forever, and Birmingham with it. Those painful memories still rankle or stir devotion and sadness, depending on the person you talk to about it. Read the rest of this entry
Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places
that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history
What do 9-11, a pregnant woman, an orphan immigrant from Burkina-Faso, and a store specializing in Afro-pop music have in common? And on a day of such sadness, are there flickers of hope to fasten to?
Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history and humanity’s terrible bent to self-destruction. If we cannot always fathom the great purposes of God in the
rumblings of nations and enemies, we can listen to stories. My daughter Katie is a member of Metro Baptist Church in Midtown Manhattan, a thriving small congregation with dynamic social ministries and a loving fellowship. Last year, one of their members, Ken Braun, shared his story of that day. It was about his friend and colleague, Alberto Barbosa. “Berto,” as Ken calls him, was born in a poor village in west Africa. Orphaned, he made his way as a teenager, first to Portugal and then to New York.
Ken met Berto when he first came to New York and when Braun started a company dedicated to African music, Berto was his first employee. The business was located just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Eventually, they both moved their families to New Jersey and would meet in Newark and commute on the Path train every morning to the World Trade Center terminal and walk to work from there.
On September 11, Braun says he had some errands to do, so he didn’t take the Path train, instead taking the bus to the Port Authority. He never made it to work, and we know why. Braun said, “The bus route takes an elevated highway over the Meadowlands, and from there you can see almost all of Manhattan, especially when the sky is a lucid blue like it was that day. I saw the flames and smoke from the North Tower. I had no idea what was going on.”
Traffic ground to a halt above the Lincoln tunnel and as they stared out the windows, they had a panorama seat to see the South Tower impaled by the second plane. They could get no closer, and chaos ensued. It took a long time for Ken to make his way home and he spent the rest of that day calling friends, leaving a message at the school for his children, and following the unspeakable horror. He was particularly eager to contact colleagues because they all would have been going to that part of the city that morning.
He heard from everyone but Berto was the last. He was anxious, worried about him taking the train right into the station under the buildings. Finally, Berto called, and Braun anxiously sputtered, “Where the hell have you been? And he said, “Well…hell.’ I’ll let Braun himself tell the rest.
He had been on the last train to come into the World Trade Center, and when he exited into the underground terminal, people were shouting and running in all directions, so he thought, “I better get out of this and get to work.” So he went up to the ground level and exited the building and walked into pandemonium. Debris was falling and fireballs were falling, and he said, “Some I the things I saw, I didn’t want to look at them, I don’t want to know what they were. I just wanted to get out of there.”
So he kept walking toward the office, but he didn’t get far, because he came upon a woman, a very pregnant woman, sprawled out on the sidewalk, and he knelt down beside her. She was gasping for breath. He thought she was having her baby. He tried to motion for a policeman or a medic, and there were many, but they were all rushing toward the fire, and no one noticed him or the pregnant woman on the ground.
So he picked her up in his arms and he carried her as far as he could and then he set her down in the shelter of a doorway, and took out a bottle of water and gave it to her. And when she could finally catch her breath, she said, “I’m not in labor, I’m just terrified.” And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together.”
And when she had enough strength, he helped her to her feet, and he put his arm behind her waist, and they walked. They walked north, and whenever she needed to rest, which was frequently, they would stop and then keep going.
It took them seven hours to walk seven miles. She lived in New Jersey, so they went to the Hudson River Ferry crossing on West 33rd Street, and there were masses of people there because that was the only way to leave Manhattan.
Berto found a bench for her to sit on, so he went to find a person of authority to help her get on this ferry ahead of all the people who got there first, so eventually he found somebody and they escorted her up the ferry. She said, “I will not go without this man,” so they brought him and he went with her.
When they got to Hoboken, there were masses of people there, too, but had no place to go because the buses and taxis were full. But someone with a car saw how pregnant she was and said, “I’ll take you wherever you have to go.” But there wasn’t room for Berto, so he said, “You’ll be okay now. Good night.” Then he made his own way home, which took another two hours. He got home at 9:00 that night.
In 2009, Berto was shopping and a woman bumped into him and said, “Alberto!” he recognized her and said, “I know you. Where have we met?” And she identified herself as the pregnant woman and told him he had saved her life. Berto said, “Ah! I didn’t save your life! You were strong. We helped each other.”
She said, “Alberto, when death surrounded me, I prayed to God that He would spare my baby, and when I opened my eyes, there you were. And you lifted me up and carried me away from danger. You saved me and my baby.”
What moment that had to be! He asked how the child was and she said, excitedly, “Wait here.” She ran off into the store and returned with a smiling man and young boy in tow. The husband threw his arms around him and a party broke out.
The woman said, “Every night I thank God for you and pray that we will meet. I want you to meet our son. Alberto, this is our son. His name is Alberto.”
Berto, still uncomprehending, said, “Oh! Is that a name in your family?”
And the father said, “It is now.”
Listen to Ken Braun tell the story on the Metro Baptist Church website.
A New York Times piece about Ken Braun’s love of African music.
This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press. I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.
Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep. People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon. Holding a baby. Counting blessings. Waking up and drinking coffee. Chance encounters. Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin. A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself. God can show up anywhere, unannounced.
I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship. I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting. That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS
During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve
string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen. I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs. After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.” Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God. It is all personal and private.
The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.
But as I sang it, something remarkable happened. I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools. We moved from there when I has only seven. Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.
I am from the old school. Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate. But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy. I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.
The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses. Then they perform tantrums. They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.
Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up. It was twenty-five years after I got the news.
Not that I had failed to grieve at all. The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss. I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.
Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well. Up to you. Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why. Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live. Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.
Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.” Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me. But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.
At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music. He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there. He is a terrific arranger and composer of
choral music. He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief. One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click) He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.
I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it. You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it. I write out of those wells of feeling. Disconnect from them and the song never happens.
You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog. The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.
I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around. And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture. Too bad. A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.
Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years. Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.
Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin. Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever. You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone. But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.
In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days. It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel. When I was a student, I
heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others. I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers. Now it was at hand.
I sent biographical info about me ahead of time. The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives. Here is what I wrote:
As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary. Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins. You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team. Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby. The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!
My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking. I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever. We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.
Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us. We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something else. Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful. It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva. More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am. I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.
My teachers changed my life. Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience. She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.
Henrietta loved her subject. She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages. “By heart” was an apt discussion. When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.
But she was more. Henrietta was our neighbor. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month. A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her. She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her. She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer). And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.
Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety. He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible. Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it. She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion. Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class. “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!” Every day they happily walked down the street together.
We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years. She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor. Our first real neighbor as a couple. The best. And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her. Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss. He was buried in the backyard of her home, a different house from the one we knew. We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack. No doubt.
Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more. I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.
But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either. Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions. She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.” She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.
So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time. We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night. We sat in the parlor where we courted. And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.
* * * * * * * * *
My chapel fantasy? It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way. Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper. It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.
Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven. My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book. Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone. I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby. Life doesn’t stop. Neither does death.
People who love you even leave eventually. There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably. It seems untouched, not altered by time. A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us. How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes. But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,
‘Tis in my memory lock’d,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins. Thank you for the keys.
There were times as a young man when I complained to myself
A memory of Dad…where do you start? I have pictures in my mind. First, of looking up at this tall, silent man. Looking up in fear sometimes, in awe most of the time as he went about life. He was strong, good, quiet, rarely angry with us. I looked up when I read his scrapbooks, hook shots flying through the air, frozen forever as the ideal athlete. Playing catch in the backyard or playing basketball while he watched, always the same. You were the mount Everest of my childhood.
I have pictures of you with tools, hammering, sawing, sweating, up on ladders, on the roof, in the garage, in the yard. You weren’t still very much. I wanted to be like you. When I got married and got desperate enough, I got a job pulling nails and then driving them. You gave me my first hammer. I still have it, by the way. I barely knew which end was which, but I always watched you as a boy, so I tried to draw on that and learned enough to do for myself and become a certified carpenter, which convinced me that preaching and air-conditioning was a pretty good way to go. But still, you showed me how to use my hands.
Pictures of you at the store, day in, day out, working long days, all day, nearly every day, and never really griping about it. How tired you must have been! But, come the next day, up you got, out the door and on about your business. It was a mystery until we all did our time on the McCrory’s Christmas chain-gang in the toy department. Then we wanted it to be a mystery again. But I would watch you, handling things, helping people find what they wanted, setting up displays, really enjoying it, to tell you the truth.
I have pictures in my mind of you at my wedding, at my ordination, reading my charge, coming to see us. You stood around at the edge of all the noise and stories and excitement and grinned, taking it in, feeling no need to say much, but delight shining from your eyes. My girls adore you for your sweetness and gentle spirit.
Oh, and what would I do without those images of you sitting in the bedroom in the evening, by yourself, plucking that black Sears Silvertone electric guitar, singing, “I Want to Go Home” and Hank Williams. You gave me bluegrass and my first guitar and the love of music. Mother gave me method and lessons, but I have you to thank for playing by ear and the instinct for improvising. The joy of your retirement years has been sharing music together, rediscovering the music you knew as a young man. How I wish Uncle Paul were still here when I could really enjoy it!
Hear Gary’s song, “Daddy Never Said” from his permanent world of pretend album [clilck here to listen]
And I remember some pretty short but wise proverbs you gave me. “We’ll be there when we get there.” “People do what they have to do.” Lots of stories. And as far as jokes, some of the worst groaners I’ve ever heard. Corny, but we told them to our kids anyway.
There were times as a young man when I complained to myself that you were so busy and I wished I could have had more time with you. But now I look back and see that my life is full of images you gave me. Work, family, music, faith. Plenty of good things for life. And I realize what a big, cool shadow you cast over my life in the heat of growing up. You were always there to provide for us, show us, and delight in us. I am grateful and I love you.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.