29 September 2015

untitled poem VI

He looked at me with a gaze approaching pity when he realized I had never heard of the band playing on the computer, my computer, which he was there to fix.

Jeans tighter than any Christina Z wore when I made out with her in eighth grade, though his figure was about the same as hers was then.

And a beard, worn as if meant to prove something to someone.

Every word was quick, every other patronizing.  I’m nearly old enough to be his father.  He makes twice what I do, a fact we both know.

I held my tongue through his unsubtle registration of superiority.

I wanted to tell him that I have been around the world; that I have eaten caviar with poor Siberians and shat in Guatemalan bushes and walked drunk on Dublin streets.   I wanted to tell him that I am friends with poets and philosophers; that my young children speak ill of the bourgeoisie; that my wife corrects the subtitles in Mandarin films we watch.  I wanted to tell him these things.

But I looked at the frayed ends of my WalMart pants legs, and remembered the four kids I have to feed, and considered the futility of words, especially these days.  

He continued, “oh, next time just click right here,” and “I’m not sure you are supposed to have access to that,” and “do you have much experience with our L Drive?”

With that, I finally broke.

“I can sit still longer than you.”


“I can sit still longer than you.”

“I’m here to fix your computer.”

“I know, but I can sit still longer than you.”

“Okay, but I’m here to get you back into Insight soooo you can do your job.”

“Yes.  I don’t think you understand.  You sit most of the day in front of screens.  But I can sit still with no screens, for longer than you.  Much longer.”

“Are you okay?”

“The older I get the harder it is to answer that question according to protocol.”

“Uhm, okay, well I'm just about done here and you should be able to get back to work.”


He did more clicks.

I thought of those summer nights, when dad was in seminary, and I would cut some of the yard and dad most of it, and after we would lay on shorn grass and look up at the sky.  He would be silent.  I would interrupt with questions. 

I thought of West Virginia deer stands with Jerry, deer piss scent poured all over us, saying nothing, the only movement between us the rising and falling of our chests, listening to the wind.

The sitting along the Minnesota River in winter.  I would make the sign of the cross on my forehead with drops of water that fell on me from snow weighted branches.

I thought of the pine root that created a hillside seat in Ellsworth, Maine, white clapboard church behind me, a short walk from the shelter, eagles in the air, where I tried to pray, but usually just sat.

The late afternoons, after a shift in a Memphis furnace, sitting on the concrete by the bay door, staring at crape myrtle across the street, wondering if I had the energy to drive home.

The thousands of hours with babies asleep in my arms, the most demanding quiet and stillness.

The storm I pulled over to watch last week. 

Today, on a bench in a grove at work, listening to kids play in the new playground.

Those I have watched come into the world, and those I have watched leave it.

He finished his assignment, giving me banal orders about what not to do next time.  He left.

I returned to my vacated chair.  I turned it toward the window.  Geese were marching in non-formation through the grounds, rings of red mulch were now worn by the trunks of the oak trees in the quad, the squirrels were busy in their northern frantic way, the sky was turning.  The window was cracked just enough to hear the wind begin to be restless. 

07 September 2015

on my best friend, David.

There are the stories we live by.

Sometimes we become them, sometimes they haunt us, sometimes we try to drink or smoke or fuck them away, sometimes they are old friends who guide and encourage us, sometimes they are measures by which we measure what we know we should have or could have been, sometimes they are that single thread by which we still hold on to this life - the lifeline that the old Gospel songs speak of.

The scriptures contain stories that are all of the above for me.

I grew up in a home wherein there could be nothing but that imprint.   This doesn't result in a love for them in any sentimental sense.  I'd say most of my adult life my relationship to the scriptures has been one of anger and arrogance mixed with later-than-should-have-come epiphany and rootedness.  The scriptures are my intellectual hometown, I know their act backwards and forwards - half the time I'm sick of it, but I get pissed when somebody puts them down or suggests that they are not good enough, and they know me better than I know myself, they knew and know my people, and they know I ain't so special, well, nowhere near as special as I think I am.

God's word and I frequently start conversations with a "who the hell do you think you are?" look in the eyes, but like small town neighbors, our actual conversations are more civil.

But this post isn't about scriptures, it is about the stories that make us, that linger in the middle of life and past it.

My best friend in this life is David, my old bible college roommate.  I'm not sure what "best friend" really means.  There are only three men I know who I would apply that designation to, and Dave is the longest and the one who most matter of factly accepts it.  I sure as hell have not been "best friend" to him.  Hell, I was supposed to be best man in his wedding and cancelled last minute, financially broke (life theme?), in the middle of a broken marriage, and not able to get the coverage at work to get there.  I had once even advised him against marrying that girl at one point (never take my advice, I never place good bets, and you can be damn sure I ain't wise), though time since has made it clear that the marriage was and is a miracle - in the sense that two people loving each other for decades on end and bearing fruit of love, and life, and hospitality, and the welcome and peace of Christ is always, everywhere and anywhere, a miracle.  No doubt I have let Dave down many times.  But he never tells me that.  Unlike me, condemnation is not his way.  Story is.

He has made my life so rich with stories.

Years ago, Dave had cancer.  Lymphoma.  He was diagnosed when we lived together at college.  One day he took his shirt off and asked me what I thought about a lump on his chest, not far from his collar bone.  It was larger than a gold ball.  Soon after he went to a doctor.  I ended up going with him there.  When we (his friends at college) had a bit of an impromptu service for him before he left home to get treatment, I ran off to the kitchen and back to the chapel with a little bit of canola oil, and we blessed him, and as I made the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil (what spiritual arrogance! I know), I told him that God would kill him if He had to in order to save him.

As you might imagine, dear reader, I had some confidence in my own spiritual prowess, meaning, I was a damn fool.  I had seen horrible suffering in the world but other than one bad night my senior year of high school, had hardly experienced any of it.  But the God who speaks through jackasses struck a nerve with Dave that moment, or so Dave has told me over the years.

Dave got engaged with Rachel shortly before he left home for cancer treatment.  Rachel, who was also from Ohio like Dave and I, was from an Assemblies of God home and came to our bible college, shall we say, very Assemblies of God.  I could not stand her at first (hence the early on recommendation to Dave about not hitching up with her).  Later I would end up in Mexico doing mission work with her when Dave was at home doing the cancer thing and she would tell me all about abuse she suffered as a kid from an extended relative, and I would follow a pattern I have many a time in life and eat some crow.  Seeing her in Mexico speaking Spanish and interacting with street kids, including young male prostitutes, also signaled to me that my previous impressions were off.  Here was a young woman who was broken, who had some awareness of her brokenness, which is rather rare among young people, and, I could tell, loved Dave in part because he was so differently and wonderfully open about his own brokenness.

Some time later, my ex wife and Rachel and I would drive Rachel to Dave's house in Marion, Ohio during one of our school breaks.  Dave's people are from Arkansas (another congruity in our lives) and his mother frequently sent me applesauce cookies when I was at bible college.  Dave's family, with whom Dave was living during his treatment, lives in a trailer park outside Marion.  I was completely exhausted that trip, having driven through the night to get there and just plain tired anyway, from work and school and life stuff that was not going well.  I recall a huge fight with my ex wife on the way there, with Rachel's words finally shutting me up.  That anger was so under the skin, always, then.  When we got there I remember Dave's mom making pancakes in a cast iron skillet still holding a good amount of bacon grease, and serving those pancakes and bacon with sausage and biscuits, and me thinking, after over a year in Minnesota, "thank God, a woman who can cook proper food."  I slept in a big bed in a bedroom at the end of the trailer a good bit of the time there.

When it was time for me, my ex Heather, and Rachel to head back to Minnesota Dave's dad shook my hand.  His handshake hurt it was so firm (and I don't think I have a pansy handshake).  He looked me square in the eye.

"Son, thank you for coming here.  Thank you for bringing Rachel.  That should cover your gas."

In his handshake was some cash.  I nodded and said something politeish, I don't remember what.  I put the cash in my pocket.

Later, after we were on our way, I checked the cash and it was nearly $300.  I drove a Ford Escort.  Gas was not that expensive then.  He lived in a trailer park and his son was dying of cancer.  If I had been a man of any virtue, I would have made sure some of that money went back to Dave's dad..  I didn't.  Lord knows how I spent what went beyond the travel expenses.  It probably went towards books I wanted.  Fucking words.

5 years after Dave recovered from cancer his doctor released the records of Dave's treatment to Dave and Dave's family.  In it were notes in which the doctor described having difficulty because he knew this kid was going to die, but Dave kept insisting to him that the Lord would save him.  At one point in the notes the Doctor frustratedly expresses that he just doesn't know how to get through to this kid that he is going to die.

But back to Dave's dad.  Stories.  One time, when Dave was an elementary school aged kid living in Arkansas, they had a neighbor whose car died.  Dave's dad gave him the only vehicle Dave's family had because, as Dave's dad figured, the neighbor man had seven miles each way to get to work, and Dave's dad could walk the one mile he had to cover in order to get to work and to town for needed things without as much trouble.

Dave's dad moved himself and his family from rural Arkansas to Marion, Ohio because he had gotten a word from the Lord in which he was told that the unification of all Christian churches would take place in Marion.  They moved into the trailer park I visited.  For some years, Dave's dad, a chain smoker then and so far as I know still now, rode a kid's style bike for miles going to and from work.  The last time I visited Dave's family in Ohio, his dad was working on a house he and Dave built on a little piece of land with a tiny pond.  

One time back in the day Dave's dad pastored a tiny little church on the side of his day job, when he was in Marion.  When preaching one Sunday, another man in the parish challenged his interpretation of scripture during the sermon.  A fist fight ensued, right during the middle of the sermon.  The pastor gig didn't last much longer.  Though when Dave first told me that story there was something in his eyes that shared with me a belief that the Gospel meant something more than many a suburban kid could possibly know.

Speaking of eyes, I can remember looking into Dave's dad's eyes when he gave me that cash filled handshake like it was yesterday.  That moment still kind of haunts me.  Here was a man.  Whatever the world calls crazy, however much a hard ass he may have been and for all I know still be, here was a man.  I have known some famous people in my lifetime.  I have made small talk and sat beside well known politicians.  I have known (at least on a nominal level) and worked for some very wealthy and powerful men.  But there are perhaps a score of men I have known in my life of whom I will say, there is a man.  A person who I have complete confidence will suffer whatever comes in pursuit of what he believes God demands him to do in the moment of suffering.  A person who is not and never can be bought or sold.  A person who sacrifices for his family (Dave's father raised four kids in that trailer) without any hint of resentment.  My father is such a man.  Dave's father is such a man.  They both have their faults.  But they are men.  I'm 41 years old and I don't know that I could call myself a man yet without being facetious.  I can't even support my family.  Our age doesn't seem so keen on producing men.

That stubborn and straightforward spirit didn't fall far from the tree.  I remember one time going to a movie with Dave when Dave let his Arkansas out.  We were getting snacks before the movie and they had some deal where if you spent 25 cents more you could "upgrade" from a medium drink to an extra large drink.  Dave ordered a medium size drink.  The dude in the ridiculous mimicry of a train ticket taker outfit behind the counter told him about the deal - if Dave would just spend 25 cents more, he could have a cup of soda the size of a gas tank on a Volkswagen Bug.  Dave said "no thanks."  Odd uniform dude said "but for only 25 cents more you can get this much more" as he held up both cups.  Dave said, "no thanks, I'll take the medium."  Maroon velvet vested dude: "but you get so much more for just 25 cents."  Dave: "I don't want more."  Teenage corporate pawn: "but it is such a better deal!"  Dave: "I said I want the medium, what do I have to do to get the medium?"  Slightly shocked popcorn serving lackey: "But everyone gets the extra large; it's so much more for your money!"  Dave: "GIVE ME THE MEDIUM OR GET ME YOUR MANAGER.  THE EXTRA LARGE WILL MAKE ME HAVE TO PEE DURING THE MOVIE.  I WANT TO WATCH ALL OF THE MOVIE."  People all around us were staring and taking note of the situation at this point.  Dave got his medium sized soft drink.

Dave survived his cancer.  The oncologist, in his notes, made clear that he was not a believing man, but that he didn't know what to call it other than a miracle.  Which is true statement, but the secularists are so mundane with their use of that word.  Dave is the miracle.  His humility, his love, his forbearance, his making straight broken things, his determined and unwavering kindness, his sometimes irritating to those of us who are hurried patience - those are miracles of which I have no other explanation than divine allowance.  Dave's recovery from cancer is an icing on the cake, now twenty years later, and four kids of his own after the medical professionals told him that all the radiation and chemo were such that he would never have kids.

His kids are wonderful, by the way.  Human, bearing a patrimony of brokenness that they do not yet understand, but will - you can see the "but will" in their eyes.  Full of love and laughter.  Gems on the crown of a good life.

Years ago, when I was going through my divorce, Dave told me that I needed to become close friends with Matt Lockerby, another bible college buddy.  As some of you know, I took that admonition seriously, and the Lockerbys, themselves no strangers to horrid sufferings, have been the couple closest to Joy and I over the years.  When Dave first told me that I thought he was crazy.  It turned out he was prescient.  Matt and I share vagabond hearts.  My wife and Matt's wife Esther became soul mates many years ago.

When Dave and I were freshmen in bible college Rich Mullin's album A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band came out.   We listened to it over and over and over again.  I read Brennan Manning, an inspiration of that album, and went to hear him speak a half dozen times in the next few years.  I had had some interactions with Mullins during my teens, and considered myself an expert on his ethos and spirituality.  Dave just took his music and words in.  And lived it.

Dave and I both came to bible college with guitars, but Dave actually played his.  Unlike a lot of Evangelical kids at Christian colleges, Dave was never really keen on just mimicking the typical praise and worship motifs that other guitarists were into.  Like Mullins, music and story were inextricable for him.  The guitar has always been his language, his first voice.

Dave is a quiet soul.  Which isn't to say mute or diminutive.  He makes his living, at a church, talking to people and organizing social things.  But as I have gone about the world looking for battles, Dave has been content to let them come to him.  His initial inclination to encountered phenomenon is to sit and compose a response.  After decades of keeping this all to himself, he has begun to make public his inner musical life.

Take, for instance, his song Hannabelle.  Listen to it twice.

Last year Dave released his first full length album, Mountain in the Sea: A Griever's Hymnal.  It brought tears to my eyes as it brought to fruition so much of the silence and words of the time that I have known Dave.

This year he released a followup, Plane Takes the Sky.

And yesterday he sent me the link to his newest single release, Hands.

When, at a bit past mid age, you have known a person for longer than you have not, a person who has known you in all the cringe-worthiness and energy of your youth, and the ordinariness and lacklusterness of your past youth years, and they continue to speak to you kindly, if you are not given to madness, you take that as something of a treasure.  When that person's inner quiet is able to calm you, musically, at 41 years of age, poor, finding yourself against another wall (they don't end, do they?), with four kids you worry about providing for, living with your mother-in-law, having failed at this that and the other thing, you thank God for the miracle.

I could tell you so many stories.  The legendary unkemptness of our dorm room.  The time I opened the back door of the moving van when Dave and his family had to flee to Arkansas again after a bad gig once years ago.  The time Dave and Rachel, then not much past newlyweds, let me sleep on the floor next to their bed in their one room married student studio dorm when I had no where else to go.

I have known, for these many years, that I have had a friend who, bearing the weight of his father's spirit, would give his car to me if I needed it, would house me and mine if we needed it, would be at my door near as soon as I needed it.  He, like me, wrestles his life through words.

His recent song Hands is not autobiographical in the obvious sense.  It's a song about a troubled romantic relationship, at least on its surface.  Dave has known his shares of betrayals.  Communities and people, myself included, have broken sacred if unspoken contracts.  The song reminds me of the Minnesota winters of my youth with Dave.  It reminds me of the uncertainty of relationships we knew then, in our very different manners of knowing.

I, along with my wife and kids, were able to see Dave and Rachel and their family recently.  Dave and I walked our babies (both of us ended up having baby sons in the mid season of life) and some of our older kids to the park nearest his house.  We passed some kids playing in the street on our way there, speaking the tongue of the hood.  The park was run down, in an urban way, which is akin but not the same as the run down park in our rural Wisconsin village.  Dave told me about his church's plans to have a Trunk-or-Treat near those apartments those kids playing in the street were from.  He pointed to a rough field near the park and said that they would have a bunch of classic cars there for the event.  We walked our babies.  The older kids competed on the swings.  The men's room at the park was locked but Dave's middle son discovered that the women's room was open and used it.  Across the street from the park an African family played soccer in their yard.  It was hot and humid.  Dave and I didn't talk much.

We don't have to anymore.

21 August 2015

the good thief - a review of light

Years ago I attended a small Orthodox parish that had a priest who was a tradesman.  It was a poor parish with mostly cheap reproduction icons, and in typical Orthodox fashion there were a lot of them.  I was in the choir, and I used to frequently look across the nave to what had been an entrance to the building, once a house.  There was a door there that was never really used, with a thin vertical window to the side of the door.  This allowed light in, and I found myself drawn to a section of wall where this light often hit, a section that was bare.  This wall had been redone by the priest and the wall and trim and paint were very well crafted.   From time to time I would wonder about the fact that I was so visually drawn to this bare space in a sea of icons, this well crafted bare space, that made room, as it were, for the more overt iconographic spaces.  And I would consider the way in which the iconed spaces and non-iconed spaces, if you will, supported each other aesthetically.

These thoughts have, from time to time, also corresponded to my noticing that reproduction icons sold in the U.S. typically are all about the icon print, and evidence what might be seen as a lack of devotion to the wood on which the icon is mounted.

Recently a friend asked me to review an icon from Orthodox Christian Supply.  I went to their website and discovered this description of their icon mounting method:
Our Traditional Panel IconOur signature product, the Traditional Panel icons, are made with the upmost care.  We begin with carefully selected 4/4 solid poplar.  Then we route dovetailed keyways through the reverse and insert the red oak splines (shponki or шпонка in Russian).  This process is to keep the panel from warping over time, the same process as used in hand painted icons throughout antiquity.  We also route coves and chamfers on the splines themselves to create a decorative appeal, in the same fashion that is commonly used in Russian icons today.We print our images on the lowest tooth market available canvas with natural pigment based inks.  The prints are then sealed with the highest quality giclee canvas varnish, complete with UV inhibiting properties (will not fade).  For our varnish we use a special mixture which brings out more color than a flat matte, yet still eliminates the glare commonly associated with gloss varnishes.
All our icons are sealed on face, backs, and sides.  We sand out every icon glass smooth to ensure that our customers not only see, but feel the quality of our product.
There are over 25 individual process which go into every Traditional Panel icon, each preformed by hand.
Our mounted icons are built to last and to be handed down from generation to generation.  Every process has been approached with the aim to guarantee our icons in the excess of 100 years.  We build heirloom quality reproduction Orthodox icons.  

I selected an icon of St. Dismas, the Good Thief.

When the box arrived, it was packaged thus, already displaying a level of care that is exceptional:

So a newspaper outer wrapping, then bubble wrap under that, then a paper wrapping.  Also note the mounting bar to attach the icon to a wall.

Here is what the icon looks like unwrapped:

The finish is very matte, which is exactly how I prefer it.  The process leaves a textured surface which, while clearly not painted, I find much preferable to a smooth, flat surface, especially when it comes to kissing and touching the icon.  The detail of the image is crisp and clear, the demarcation of colour is subtle, and doesn't offend in the manner of an advertisement as one sometimes finds with reproduction icons.   This icon is not trying to be flashy or shiny is provocational way.  The aesthetic connotes humility.  This is a truly beautiful reproduction icon.

And what is behind it, and supporting it, I find myself drawn to just as I was once drawn to that bare corner in my old parish:

As soon as you pick this icon up you can tell that you are experiencing something unusual in the American icon reproduction world as the weight of the thing is unlike any other reproduction icon I have ever had in my hands.

And the woodwork is exquisite.

The 9" icon you see here sells for $40, which is a steal (fitting that I got St. Dismas then!).  The icon image itself is of a comparable quality (though a different aesthetic -- much more matte, and with the texture) to the Masterwork Icons sold by the good monks in Wayne, WVA at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross.  But the wood and woodwork of the icons from Orthodox Christian supply are far superior, and the Masterwork Icons from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross cost $79 for a similar size.  Honestly, there is such care in these icons from Orthodox Christian Supply that I don't know how Silouan Campbell, the craftsman behind the company, can make much of a profit selling these at $40.  Given the affordability to quality ratio here, I can't recommend Orthodox Christian Supply icons highly enough.  I would strongly encourage you to get yourself some of these icons before Silouan wises up and increases his prices.

There is a sort of piety that becomes so focused on the sacred object that it diminishes regard for what is around the sacred.  We often forget that when the holy comes into contact with the mundane, this movement is for the transformation of the mundane.  Ours is not a religion which ought to seek to protectively and parochially venerate pockets of ghettoized holiness.  We should rather expect the light and image of Christ to make beautiful and whole all that touches and is touched by that light.  In 20 years of purchasing and collecting reproduction icons made all over North America and Europe, I have never encountered another reproduction icon monger whose work reminds me of this truth in the way that the Silouan Campbell's icons do.

12 August 2015


Today a friend had me watch Ben Carlson's talk at the NRA convention.

Earlier this year I sold and gave away the last of my guns.  For various reasons, some of which had to do with coming to terms with the anger that I have held onto for many years, I made the decision that I could not, under any circumstances, take the life of another human being.  I have hungered for the deaths of others, numerous times, and because of this I needed to make the decision to never, under any circumstances, fuel that hunger.

This is not to judge those who do kill in difficult situations, especially those who do so in order to save lives.  This had to do with my own issues and my own convictions regarding myself.

It had to do with St. Tit, whose patronage I have been given.

I have enjoyed hunting at various times, and I like to shoot guns.  But the experience of shooting a gun, for me, evokes a certain appreciation of power, and control, and when I am honest with myself, it also corresponds to innate feelings of fear and resentment and a desire for justice, even when just shooting at a target outside.

I certainly don't believe that this is the way all gun owners and shooters experience the use of guns.  I have a brother who is a cop, and I know that he is a noble one.  As I said, this has to do with me, and my own demons.

But I also note that the populist gun cult rhetoric in this country associates guns with justice, with restorative righteous anger, with a reconciliation of wrongs, with the safety of little and weak ones.  And every trustworthy analysis of the use of guns in this country seems to more than suggest that such associations are uninformed at best, if not downright delusional.

I still sleep with a baseball bat next to my bed, even though I live in a small rural village with virtually no crime.  I am willing to die should a gun armed person enter my home, and I am willing for my children to die, I suppose, after seeing their father not take a life while trying to shield them.  I would rather that happen than for them to live having seen the violence that consumed their father for many years, as hard as it is for me to conceive of such things.

Once, when I was a child, though nearly an adult, armed men did come into the home of my parents, my brothers and I.  And I did wish those men dead, and told them so.  And my father and mother rebuked me, stating that Christians cannot and must not approach the violent in that way.  In my rage, I thought my parents fools.  That night (a story not to be told publicly yet) had a great impact on my life, and anger from that experience touches me to this day.  But, after years, and weakness, and certain experiences softened my heart, I sold my guns, and I made a decision not to kill those men in my memories, or anyone else.  I have enough war within me, and I cannot play pretend wars or wanna-be wars or prepared-for wars with guns anymore.  It is just too much.  This life is such a fleeting thing anyway.  I must, within me, fight myself to make peace with everyone.  I do not mean to suggest that everyone need do this.  I have hated more than most.  It seems so childish, even trivial, this very basic Christian notion - to not wish the death of your enemies.  But that is a struggle for me, and I must not arm it.

01 August 2015

You know, it seems to me that a lot of pixel drama, especially of late, reflects competitions between victim statuses and jerk statuses.  This victim is more important or far more meriting our sadness and outrage than that victim.  This jerk is far more an asshole than that jerk.

Please forgive me my "french" here, but the longer I live, the more I see the worlds of our makings as massively and systemically fucked up, and the more I can't argue with the notion that we are all victims, and all assholes, save a very few righteous ones.  Even the rich, my usual source of agitation.  I work with some of their kids sometimes, and their kids are miserable, at least the ones I see.

I get angry every day.  Every damn day.  There is so much futility in the world, and such a lack of kindness, and no end of petty hurtfulness and disregard.  And the posturing and pathetic role playing and rote regurgitation of cliché - the things we do to convince us of ourselves.  And in me as much or more than anyone.

It is so hard to live by the words of Jesus (Ben Sira):

He who avenges will discover vengeance from the Lord,
and when he observes carefully, he will carefully observe his sins.
Forgive your neighbor a wrong,
and then, when you petition, your sins will be pardoned.
A person harbors wrath against a person -
and will he seek healing from the Lord?
Does he not have mercy on a person like himself
and petition concerning his own sins?
His being flesh maintains ire -
who will make atonement for his sins?
Remember the end things, and cease to be at enmity;
remember corruption and death, and cleave to the commandments.
Remember commandments, and do not be irate with your fellow,
and remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook a mistake.
Refrain from strife, and you will reduce sins,
for a hot-tempered person will kindle strife
and a sinful man will disturb friends,
and among people at peace he will cast slander.
In proportion to a fire's wood, so will it burn,
and in proportion to the obstinacy of strife, it will increase;
in proportion to a person's strength, will his anger be,
and in proportion to his wealth, he will raise up his wrath.
A quarrel being hastened kindles a fire,
and strife in a hurry sheds blood.
If you blow on a spark, it will flame up,
and if you spit on it, it will be extinguished,
and both proceed out of your mouth.  

Sirach 28, 1-12, NETS.

I guess then, may I lack wood, and be docile, and be weak, and be poor.  And spit, like this Jesus, and another.

26 July 2015

There are so many things I am thankful for in this life.  Parents that never divorced, something I value more and more the older I get.  Churches that sent me around the world before I even left home.  Growing up with music and books all around me.  Parents committed to justice and love.  A woman who loves me.  Babies who've kept me up walking and rocking and reading and singing to them, and thereby kept me out of trouble.

One of the things I am thankful for is a childhood with one foot in the black church.  When my dad worked at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Lincoln, PA, my parents had to bribe me to sing in the children's choir at the campus church with Matchbox cars after the performance.  I was the only white face in the choir.  When we moved back to a very racist appalachian Ohio, the Baptist church my dad pastored had a sister church from a couple villages over that was an African American church.  Let's just say that when their choir came to our church it was a lot more fun than when ours went to theirs. When I was in track in junior high we used to steal booze from this rich lawyer's kid in our class.  We took a bit, or more than a bit, of this and that from many bottles in a huge walk in liquor cabinet and poured it into a good sized mason jar.  We called this concoction our Funky Cold Medina, after one of the first popular hip-hop songs among whites, and drink it on the back of the bus when going to meets.  First time this happened, I was chided for sharing our Funky with the black kid who was the son of the preacher from that sister church (another PK looking for trouble).  How dare I share our booze with a nigger, I was told.  My fellow PK caught the drift of my chiding and broke out into Funky Cold Medina and the white guys were so impressed we had interracial junior high track team drinking for the rest of the season.  

Black culture was always in and around the home I grew up in.  Appropriation?  Sure.  Though not in the normal suburban ways.  My little brother Joe is the only white guy I know who was nominated for Student Council President by the Black Panthers group at his high school.  If there is one thing that my parents taught us, it is that we stand in solidarity and spiritual communion with our black brothers and sisters.  Something from that childhood constantly in company with black folk left its imprint on me.  I have never felt fully comfortable in white churches, but the black church always has felt like home to me.  When I lived in Memphis and went to weddings and funerals and prayer services with black coworkers, no matter where my ecclesial allegiances were, my existential bearings found a place to breathe.

There is that plaintive voice, that troupe of the broken, that taking in of the hopeless, that different measure of what failure is, that never ever ever giving up on the lost soul, that glorious elevator cadence that raises the dead heart, and my God, when you say you are needy or hurting in that company, they don't look around as if they don't know want to do.  I can't tell you the number of times I've been in a black church and an elder has said that we aren't leaving until there is enough money in the basket to take care of a given need - always a very specific need.  One time in north Mississippi it was a kid whose parents were dead, living with an auntie, who needed new glasses and clothes for school.  It was a poor Missionary Baptist church out in the middle of nowhere.  They kept singing and singing, and the pastor was clearly serious.  I took my last $20 out of my wallet (this was back when I still had money) and Lawrence, my coworker, standing next to me, tears in both of our eyes, said to me, "it ain't like you can't," and we both laughed.

I know a lot of intellectual Christians, in conservative Catholic and Orthodox and Magisterial Protestant camps, who make fun of and/or disparage revivalist Christianity.

I've written about this before, but 20 some years ago I read Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a decent enough book, but in one section where he is dealing with the environment he goes into a rant regarding the manner in which Evangelical eschatology lends itself to a lack on concern for the welfare of the planet.  In the course of this argument he particularly went after the hymn I'll Fly Away.  I took his point, but I was also angry, and when I first read it I was not quite sure why.  Upon reflection I thought of my grandfather, who worked hard appalachian hills in his childhood, saw hell in WWII, and then spent an adult life in the steel shops.  He wasn't inclined to claim Christ until his elderly years, but who had every reason, at damn near every point in his life, to want to fly away.  I thought of the poor folk I had known throughout my life, and, of course, I thought of the black church I had known since not much longer than I could remember, with its spirituality always sung in Jacob's wrestling plaintiveness.  Most of human experience has been such that any sane man, woman, or child would want to fly away.  Mark Noll has lived a very comfortable life, and by all accounts I could find, he has always been quite comfortable.

Yes, white American revivalist Christianity would end up with Left Behind novels and WWJD bracelets bought at Christian stores in malls by white kids going home in SUVs that cost 30k.  I can't grasp that level of banality.  I don't know that from the revivals of my youth.

I do know that there remain a lot suffering folk in this land.  White Christianity has become a largely middle class and up affair, but Christianity of color still brings in the working and poor classes.  I remain uncertain as to how a Christian milieu that is intrinsically linked to a patrimony of comfort is even possible, outside of the work of demons.

I would ask this - if you are inclined to disparage revivalist Christianity on the whole, and you have never seen a group of elders in a Missionary Baptist church in north Mississippi sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in the above manner, well friend, I'm sorry, but consider that perhaps you don't know what the hell you are talking about.  The Spirit goes where He wills, and He wills the company of those who pray in desperate tones.

24 July 2015

wisconsin friday night lights

I'm not sure what to make of this life, so many quick vapors and lost breaths.

Lace in the corner of a field, setting sun.  I hope that God in His poverty gleans these for His kingdom.

23 July 2015

stone of help

a heart.
this one a charles bukowski going forward at a tent revival sort of heart,
cursing every step and everybody,
drunk crybaby faced,
walking to grace,
or from it, 
hard to say,
every third step looking backward and forward 
unable to measure the easier route,
but then you see some grandma smile
then they sing here I raise my ebenezer
and you think fine, I don't drink on ice but I'll take life on the rocks over no life at all.

Are there two mes?
probably not.
but that answer might be hopeful.

dad always said he was a baptist existentialist.
kierkegaardian altar calls
Jesus every moment
there is mercy now
not yesterday.  we all know how that went.
tomorrow is a pipe dream at best
what you flirt with putting off will never be consummated.
 you take to the dead now.
you follow Christ now.
hung dead on a tree of His now,
and on our yesterdays and tomorrows which cursed Him.
these old ladies won’t be here again
this is theirs and your only moment
the tree outside blooms today.

so stumble up 
and answer him when he asks
why have you come forward son
so you say it, 
i need to be saved
you pray the ritual, line after line you follow the preacher,
through the wordly token,
sacrament of the sacramentless. 
well, that is not true, 
now is the sacrament,
but light empty, not heavy, so that’s nice.
then the hymn ends.
preacher says this man has come forward to be saved
old ladies pull out handkerchiefs.
soon as the music ends you are thinking about drinks at
the jack'sstop tomorrow night and jenny’s legs, maybe tonight. 
what the hell kind of saved man are you you ask yourself?
preacher whispers back,
the only kind there is.
oh. you said that out loud.
mornings after an all-nighter with tommy don’t make for safe repentances.
you look at him.
he looks at you.
alright then, 
you guess.

you eat the fried chicken and leftover funeral potatoes and mud cake downstairs.
drink two cups of percolator coffee in a styrofoam cup
look down at the black inside white and hope God isn’t trying to make some point.
people smile and shake your hand
prodding with eyes a mix of surprised and not sure.
talk about the weather and friday’s high school football game 
and the the millers’ place getting tee-peed last night.

after church you help old llewelyn change a tire on his truck.
he pays you with a can of snuff,
already opened.
you listen to some radio.
old mrs. branson calls
tells you how blessed her heart was this morning,
and can you look to her hot water heater tomorrow?
yes ma’am.
you read a few lines.
can’t write.
the dog is restless.
you sit and watch the brown of pine needles carpet the back corner of the yard.
the wind is hot.
you’re on your second reading of
four gospel fingers into a fifth of cutty
when jenny comes over after the end of her shift.
she talks too much and her prime was a half dozen years ago but she’ll do.
you don’t seem to enjoy sin any less.
she does raise an eyebrow and half smile
as you say the word marriage 
of your own accord
having ascetically avoided it for months.

is this all saved is?
a little bit better?
a step better than yesterday?
well, yesterday did go....
so say two and a half steps better.

jenny leaves.
you fall on the couch
the dog jumps up and licks your feet
you remember Jesus and His feet perfumed by a whore
though you owe the dog as much as he owes you so bad analogy,
plus you hope you're not about to be killed,
you pray,
Jesus, you NotBastard,
You come from Somewhere
You’re going Somewhere
i’m barely here.  
i can't say for sure where i've been,
and if things go as they have, 
where i end up is the bounce of dice in a crap-shoot I will lose as usual.