A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
Friday morning, I got up early. I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off. I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.
Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece. Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves. I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen. The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song. What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?
A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood. I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product. And here is what I wrote:
“Greg: I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar. The mood suggested a title for the piece: “Weeping in Ramah” CLICK TO LISTEN from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents What do you think?
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home. Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours. I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired. The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.
I had many thoughtful calls about Hurricane Sandy because I have a daughter in New York City and another in New York State. Both, thankfully, escaped the worst of it, neither even experienced a power outage. They had friends, of course, who did. But inevitably, an avalanche of odd theological statements come forth.
Speculation on natural disasters are not, of course, new. A few people said, “God is telling us something.” Having been through a tornado that hit my church many years ago, I wince at such statements, especially since the tornado spared every part of our proposed expansion program and hit every part that we had not considered, namely the offices and the sanctuary, where it ripped a hole in the roof right over the pulpit, which a few sawdust trail preachers in town suggested was payback for our liberalism (we ordain women and are open to all races and do not marginalize divorced persons, and have practiced these ways since the 1970s).
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?”
…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.
Whitney Houston made your heart soar with that magnificent voice. You kept hoping for her—so lovely, so achingly vulnerable, so fragile. “Come on back, girl,” you hoped. In the end, she didn’t. There will be moralizing—drugs, bad choices, all the rest. But such times are wrong for moral lessons. There is a time to criticize, and a time to refrain from criticizing. A time to learn a lesson, and a time to let the dead alone and mourn.
The story of Whitney Houston makes me think how hard it is to care for one’s own soul when there are so many other agendas vying for us.
Diane Sawyer recounted on the news last evening about that famous interview in 2002, when there was so much speculation about how thin she was and wondering about her condition.
Sawyer:If you had to name the devil for you, the biggest devil among them?
Houston: That would be me. It’s my deciding, it’s my heart, it’s what I want. And what I don’t want. Nobody makes me
do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. So the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy. And that’s how I have to deal with it.
I respect her right to assess her own life. But to take it a little deeper, I would add that it is important to understand what it means to genuinely accept the responsibility to care for oneself. If that sounds easy to do, it is not. We are stewards of our lives. A friend of mine told me of a seminary teacher colleague who used to say, “The first spiritual law is this: God loves you, and everyone has a plan for your life.”
Whitney said on the interview played on the news that the most terrible sound in the world is the sound of 10,000 disappointed fans. That in my opinion is the demonic temptation of being an entertainer or for anyone who works with people on a large scale. Preachers know: one or two venomous critics can cancel 100 who are blessed by us—if we give them that power.
But why would we? And then there is that restlessness in oneself. I asked an ambitious classmate of mine, who was never satisfied that the current church he was in was not a “good fit” for him, “How many people will it take to tell you how wonderful you are before you can be happy?” That’s the question you have to answer before you can do this work. That was three churches ago for him. Hope he finally found the grass above the septic tank.
A pastor friend put it this way wants: “I’m not bothered by what the critics said nearly so much I am bothered that I let it bother me.” THAT is the place where the devil does his best work.
Rest in peace, Whitney. Sing with the angels, and fear the critics no more. In heaven, every judgment heals and purges, and there are no more tears or pain, for the former things have passed away.
The website “Sightings” put out an interesting piece this week. Thanks to my good friend and blog reader Lamon Brown for forwarding this to me. It is a piece on the music of Adam Arcuragi. I was unfamiliar with Arcuragi, but immediately was drawn to go read the piece and the NPR interview of Arcuragi. His album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It, writes M. Cooper Harriss
…has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi. Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier
Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.” Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.
I was immediately drawn to this for a couple of reasons. First, because in my work as a minister, I am around death and dying on almost a weekly basis. I’m guessing my funerals are now in the hundreds over 32 years of work. I have buried old people, babies and everyone in between. Suicides, cancer, tragedies, fires, drowning, car wrecks, sweet release from Alzheimers, folks whose loved ones and friends were all gone, and those who left too soon. On only a few occasions did I bury people no one was sad to see go. One funeral prompted a member to come, “Just to see what you were going to say about him, Preacher.”
Yet in a recent gathering of ministers when I asked the question, “If you quit your job now, what would you miss most?” children and funerals were at the top of everyone’s list. Way ahead of committees, raising money, and listening to people comment on our appearance every Sunday. We all understood—there is something holy about death and the grave. It takes us to an edge of life that paradoxically renders it precious and intoxicating. All the people in one’s life, gathered together, all the stories and sadness, food and laughter in one place. Everything stops for a few days, no matter how “busy” we are, it’s not too busy for this.
Second, it is intriguing because I have, oddly, found myself writing about death a lot in songs. I have one about a man remembering the love of his life just after she has died, another about a man named “Michael” who faces death from cancer, a song I wrote in college, but added a bittersweet fourth verse years later. I have one called, “Hole in the Ground” that is so morbid I have never performed it, and another called, “Farewell, Baby Girl,” about an anonymous newborn found floating in the Chattahoochie River when I pastored in South Georgia. While some of it is fictitious, the basic story is real—a tiny infant, drowned by her parents, shortly after birth. I donated my services to bury the child in a pauper’s area where babies were buried in our local cemetery called, “Babyland.” What resulted was a song so somber that my wife never likes to hear it performed. I’ve only done it once.
I had a great time in concert last night at the Moonlight on the Mountain venue, appearing with Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. Afterwards I found myself engaged into two intriguing conversations. One was with a fellow musician who is a Christian and an English teacher, and we had a fairly substantial conversation about suffering .
I did a little more milling around and found myself standing at the car talking with another new friend about science, evolution and the possibility of real faith. My acquaintance commented that the unreality of his childhood religion, its failure to look at its own shortcomings, made faith quite hard.
Acoustic music fans are serious about their music. I continually find the most profound conversations that happen in that place, where artists write gritty, funny and sometimes raw takes on life. That all of this happened at the end of a musical performance in which I did not do any overtly Christian songs is rather remarkable. It does make me wonder if the guaranteed happy praise and triumphalism of too much Christian music is rooted in a shallow theology underneath that cannot paint life with much reality because it renders death as unreal.
We are actually more comfortable with the denial of death. After all, when one of the most powerful commendations of many so-called “different kind of churches” is their claim that they make church fun, what in the world is that? And then we go and hear far more difficult truths from our secular songwriters, who often are actually taking all these things seriously. Strange.
I started singing in the Jesus movement in one of the early youth choirs. I remember one song in a musical called, “Life,” by Otis Skillings, when early contemporary Christian writers were cranking out material for a hungry marketplace of churches. I remember very little about the musical. I loved singing. I only remember one line, though: “LIFE, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.” It sounded musically like elevator music. Even then I thought, “This is pretty shabby.” True art tells truth, it doesn’t gloss over it or make it more palatable with shortcuts through the hard places. Tell the truth—onto every cheek some tears must fall. And then…REAL life can break through. I have another song that puts it this way, “Life is for real.” Without death, you never know.