Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kicking up Whatever Dust I Have Left

I'm not old enough to be this nostalgic. Maybe it was going to see the new Get Smart movie and all the other "old" TV shows it made me think of and want to watch again. Maybe it is fed by the old Lone Ranger radio episodes I have been listening to on my iPod. Maybe it has something to do with the old reel-to-reel tape of David and I singing together in high school I found in the box of memorabilia brought back from my parents' move. Maybe it has to do with the old slides I have been scanning into digital form. Whatever is the explanation, it seems that I have been spending an inordinate amount of time lately looking backwards rather than forwards.

Perhaps it is the inevitable challenge that grows increasingly complicated the longer one lives: integrating a constantly growing number of experiences and memories and relationships and accomplishments into the ongoing opportunities and demands of the present and the future. However large may be the mountain of sand representing the whole of one's life that starts out on one side of the scale, every passing day moves some of that sand to the other side. Before you know it, the arms of the scale begin to tilt in a different direction.

Maybe that's what's on my mind -- less nostalgia than a nagging sense of mortality. Shifting sands. No amount of rerun-watching is going to obscure the fact that life, regardless of how long it turns out to be, is short. Which is to say that I had better quick sulking around, wake up, and plunge into however much I have left -- kicking up a little dust instead of simply watching it shift and settle.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jesus on the Tracks

Who knows the possibilities and desperate needs that await us down this very road -- and whether we will have the presence of mind to notice them, or the character of heart to respond? Who knows what compelled us to turn in this direction in the first place? Some of course, would say random luck. Brian has a different thought.

The man was stuck. What might have begun as frustration, this interruption on his way between unknown points, had since turned into agitated fear. He was quite literally stuck -- his motorized wheelchair was stubbornly, tenaciously caught in the gaps between the railroad rails. Nothing he tried was making any progress. This elderly, anonymous man was held hostage by the pavement and the steel and the gaps in-between. He jerked his body back and forth, wrenching the chair as best he could, trying to lurch a release, but whatever held him would not let go. He was stuck.

Having arrived early enough in town to exhaust the shopping possibilities before the train was to board, Brian and Michelle were, by this time, killing time. Strangers to the community, they were simply driving through the neighborhoods, enjoying the scenery until the "call time" to pick up their tickets. By his own admission and Michelle's confirmation, Brian isn't ordinarily the observant type. This time, however, inexplicably, something -- a bit of movement, perhaps, or maybe the flash of emotion -- caught the corner of his eye. A man, it turned out, his wheelchair stuck in the railroad rails. Steering the car out of the way, he parked, jumped out without a word, ran back to the prisoner and muscled the wheelchair free and safely beyond the rails. Wishing the agitated man a better evening, Brian returned to his car, stepped inside and immediately heard the powerful whistle, and the thundering sound of the train whooshing by that he had no idea was coming. How long ago -- a minute perhaps -- had the man been trapped on those very same rails?

Hearing the story later that evening over dinner on board what surely must have been a different train, we named the obvious with appreciative awe: "You saved that man's life."

So, we wondered together, how did it happen that these two strangers in this town came to turn down that particular street, at that particular time, especially given the fact that they had arrived with other plans in mind? How did it happen that this desperate situation caught this otherwise unobservant eye? Coincidence? That isn't a very compelling explanation for Brian, or presumably for the man in the wheelchair who is even now, thanks to Brian, telling his own version of the story.

What might be plainer is the recognition that every street has its desperate and precarious moments, and the lingering question to consider -- will we have the presence of mind to notice them, or the character of heart to park the car, get out and respond?

"Then," in the story that Jesus was telling, "the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’" When did we see you caught on the tracks and freed you? "And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" (Matthew 25:37-40)

Just last Friday evening, for example, on the streets of Boone, in the wheelchair in which Jesus was riding.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Passing Through and Missing the Point

The iPod devotional I listened to on my way to church this morning considered the disciples’ question to Jesus about his use of parables. It turns out that we aren’t the first to find them at times…er…uh…inscrutable. Parables apparently seemed to the disciples like an uneconomical way to get your point across if half your listeners miss the point.

“The reason I speak to them in parables,” Jesus responded according to Matthew, “is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

The presence of God, the wonder of God, the Word of God, passing right over our heads – or through one ear and out the other. I’m hearing this as I whisk my way up Fleur Drive, past the mists rising from Grey’s Lake on my right and the fluttering leaves in Water Works Arboretum on my left; past the once colorful planter medians in-between now decimated by the floods and uprooted; past the Des Moines River and its swiftly moving current and the root-torn trees horizontal along its banks; through the light controlled intersections and the morning commuters squeezing through as yellow shifts to red.

I’m imagining all these things, of course, because I wasn’t really paying attention. I was “seeing” but I wasn’t “perceiving.” All of those views have been true on previous days – the mists, the rustles, the colors, the cars – but this day preoccupations claimed my perceptions --

Mentally arranging the pieces of the day at hand.

I drove on auto-pilot, stopping when forced to, turning when called for. It’s a route I’ve driven thousands of time. The truth is I think it was raining, but I wasn’t really paying attention.

Parking at the church and making my way inside, I heard the thick, lush sounds of the organ. Deanna was at the console, practicing for Sunday. The sanctuary’s darkness broken only by the organ’s music light, I slipped quietly, anonymously inside.

And stopped.
And listened.
And paid attention.

For the first time today I began to imagine what else could be in front of me this day to see – and perceive – and hear – and understand.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wisdom at the Bottom of the Bag

I recall reading, a few years ago, the comments of a graduate school professor about a particular student he had been supervising. "Doesn't integrate well," wrote the professor. He was talking, of course, about the student's limited ability to bring the insights and learnings from his or her various courses into conversation with one another. Each course of study, in the student's mind, remained compartmentalized, isolated from each of the others, resulting in a mish mash of often conflicting thoughts and convictions.

I've thought about that description often since first hearing it, and how it indicts so much of our culture these days. Failure to integrate. Putting forward conflicting convictions without even noticing the intellectual or moral collision. What we claim as values and assert as priorities often bear no resemblance to the actions we choose. It could, I suppose, be simple hypocrisy -- that we talk a better game than we actually play -- but I think it is more disturbing than that. I see little evidence that we even recognize the disconnection.

This weekend several men from our congregation participated in a denominational gathering of men. Checking in, we were each given a "goody bag" of stuff -- the usual pencils and pens and pins and emery boards, luggage tags, key rings and brochures conventioneers have come to expect. There was even a hat; some were lucky enough to get a T-shirt left over from some community event last year. All that, and, of course, a program booklet.

After the evening session, back at the dorm where we were staying, we emptied the bag for a closer inspection. The pens all seemed to be in working order -- and I'm always running out of or losing pens; the pencil and nail file could come in handy. I wasn't sure why we men were receiving brochures detailing the need for, and the steps involved in, breast self-examinations, but the city map could come in handy. I didn't really know what to make of the plastic heart-shaped thingy with the retractable cord, but it had a belt clip so I'm sure it's cool.

And then two last things fell out. A sticker and pin.
"Use Less Stuff" they said. There, at the bottom of all this stuff was the counsel to "Use Less Stuff." All I could think about was that professor's critique: "Doesn't integrate well."

Back home now, I've put a couple of the pens in my desk drawer, assigned the emery board a place in the bin next to the clippers, put the sticker on the refrigerator and the pin on my dresser to serve as a reminder, and the rest I'm throwing away -- trying my best to integrate what I've learned... use less stuff.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Where Now to Store the Memories

There were boxes. Wall to wall and floor to ceiling in the single-car garage. After arriving at my parents' new home we relaxed for a few minutes, letting the drone of the highway fade away, and then went to work. "Where would you like this?" "Should this go in the Salvation Army pile?" "How would you like these arranged?" "I think we will need to build some shelves." Boxes opened. Boxes emptied. Boxes flattened and taken outside. And slowly, like the tide receding to reveal a beach, a garage began to emerge.

Periodically a box would surface that would only be pushed aside -- one, and then another, and another; ones that bore my name. These we worked around.

Through the weekend we worked, and then beyond; calling it a day, only to find second winds that drew us back to the garage for more cardboard spelunking. By Wednesday only two towers remained: one for the Salvation Army, and one for me. Stuff from my old room. Stuff from my old story. Stuff from my old dresser and bulletin board and closet and desk. Remnants. Tracks of my life. Memories. Some of it, Mother had guessed, was disposable but she hadn't wanted to presume. There was a poster board ping pong tournament bracket from some church camp past that demonstrated my championship run. There were theater posters from the plays I had been in -- along with the scripts to support them -- going back to The King and I in 5th grade. There was boyhood jewelry and scrapbooks and high school annuals. There were my little boy cowboy boots probably 45 years old, and my first snare drum, and the ukulele on which I had entertained thousands with my own rendition of Tiptoe Through the Tulips. Well, dozens anyway. There was my 7th grade Texas History spiral notebook from Mrs. Burleson's class in which I had dutifully recorded that the textbook, among other pieces of vital information, had been published by Steck-Warren. There were my various high school awards, some college Dean's List certificates, and my acceptance letter to seminary. And there was one box filled almost entirely of shoeboxes.

Shoeboxes. Intrigued, I gingerly withdrew one and removed the top. Inside, and likewise inside the several others, were letters. Letters and cards. Several were from people now lost to my memory. Camp friends, I discovered, who wrote to keep in touch. Camp counselors, a few of them, writing to appreciate our small group time together. There were even a few from teachers who had become special to me along the way, who wrote to me in college, whose thoughtful notes made me fall in love with them all over again.

And others. Shoeboxes of others. From Kristi Kesey, my kindergarten girlfriend who faithfully kept in touch even into college; from Belinda and Mary and a handful of others. For reasons I no longer remember, I had saved them -- carefully, envelope and all -- perhaps anticipating that from time to time I might need some affirmation. Love letters, for lack of a better description. Neither scented nor grandiose, they were simply the loopy handwriting of innocent affection. Randomly rereading them I noted how mundane is the vocabulary of love -- glimpses of the weather, tidbits of family vacations, activities of the day -- narrated threads with which was woven the fabric of affection. How else does one communicate another's significance, after all, than by including that other squarely in the midst of one's own ordinariness?

I read -- tenderly, appreciatively, fondly, melancholically -- and ultimately moved on. There were bigger boxes remaining, and limited trunk space for the journey home.

And finally the job was essentially done. The trash had been collected, the truck had picked up the donations, pictures were on the wall, shelves had been added, flowers were in the planters, and order had been created. Out of the raw materials of a handful of rooms and a hundred or so boxes a home had been created. Eleven days after driving into the driveway, Daddy raised the door on a now-empty garage and proudly moved the car inside. It was, he observed, a happy punctuation point to the experience. Our own car precariously loaded, we exchanged goodbye embraces, swallowed hard, squeezed ourselves into the reserved spaces, and found our way back to the highway.

One chapter ended, another begun, and a lifetime retraced in between. Now all I have to do is find a new place to store all the memories.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

To Independence -- and Happy Mutual Dependence

Today we hit the road. We appear to be bucking the trend. According to AAA, this will be the least traveled 4th of July weekend in a decade. Not that the roads will be empty. Expectations are that over 40 million will venture 50 miles or more from home, 85% of whom, fully 34.2 million, by car. That's a 1.3% drop, to be sure, but it hardly represents paralysis. We will have plenty of company in the "out and about" between here and there. Along the way we will stop for the night, before arriving in the Fatherland on the 4th.

There is nostalgia in the weekend, as well as work. The work part will occupy the entirety of the week ahead, helping my parents unpack and settle in their new environment. The nostalgic part will burst like a bottle rocket in the night sky tomorrow night. It was during the fireworks display in West Des Moines (July of 1997 to be exact; I've learned to remember such things) that our personal histories took a turn. With colored explosions bursting overhead, I proposed -- at least I would have had she let me finish. Mid-stream in this carefully crafted, romantically poetic speech, surrounded by 50,000 or so of our closest friends scattered on blankets and perched in lawn chairs, I was cut short by an eager "Yes! Yes! I will! I do." Never has an interruption been more welcome or happily accomodated. Less than three months later we were married. It still feels like fireworks to me.

Ever since we have indulged in this annual delusion that all across the country people pause, banks close, and mail goes undelivered, all in honor of our engagement. The best part is that no matter where we go these fourths of July, when the sun goes down the sky lights up -- bursting reds and whites and sparkles and blues. And we light up as well...with memories, gratitude, contentment and eager dreams.

It's ironic that this holiday set aside, more accurately, to celebrate our independence is, for the two of us, the celebration of our recognized mutual dependence. Funny how that happens.

To all who are traveling, be safe. And happy anniversary, all Americans...
...and we two in particular.