Friday, February 23, 2018

Singing the Songs of Distress and Longing

            On Ash Wednesday, I came to work earlier than usual.  I opened a Psalter[i] to Psalm 6, found a midi file for the tune ‘Rockingham (old)’, and croaked my way through verses like this:

Have mercy, Lord, for I am faint, My very bones in agony.
Come heal me Lord, my anguished soul
Cries out, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’

That night, I went to Bethel AME, and with about 40 others, stepped forward and had ashes placed on my forehead in the sign of the cross; ashes to remind me that from dust I was made and to dust I will return.

Every morning now, as part of my Lenten devotion, I arrive at my desk early, open my Psalter and sing.  Every morning now my songs are cries for mercy, pleas for healing, angry fist shaking to the sky rhymed accusations to the Creator, affirmations of blessings past, hope for blessings yet to come.  These are the stuff of the Psalms and the stuff of my heart as I face the spread of the cancer in me from my lungs into my pelvis.

If your vision of Christian piety is a gentle older woman, head bowed, hands pressed together, eyes closed, reciting, “The Lord is my Shepard . . .” that’s a good start, and it’s not wrong by any means.  But if you really decide to open a Bible and start reading the Psalms for yourself, put on your seat belt first.  The ride is plenty wild.  The Psalmist accuses God of delaying action, of being asleep at the wheel as his promises seem to go unfulfilled.  One Psalmist, near death, asks just who the heck does God think will praise Him if he is taken down to Sheol.  Surely the dead don’t praise God eh?  A friend of mine from my days in Toronto grad school has an article in a theological journal.  He writes, “In contrast to the posture of unquestioning submission to God that informs spirituality in many faith traditions, the Hebrew Bible assumes a stance of vigorous protest towards God as normative”[ii]  I think he’s on to something that answers my needs far better than those who look at me sadly and say, “well, I’m praying for God’s will”.  My songs are too full of anger and lament for that kind of docile piety. My songs are the Psalms, full throated, deeply human cries for wholeness and blessing in the midst of fears and uncertainty.  

Long ago, the exiles asked (Psalm 137), “How can we sing the songs of Adonai here on foreign soil? 

The Psalms are the songs of Adonai, and I can sing them now, into the face of cancer, because I can sing no other.  I promised my wife that I would be Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok.  I would clasp tight to God and not let go until I got a blessing.  Each morning now, as I wrestle, I sing a song of distress, a song of longing, a Psalm.

These are the tunes of my Camino now. 

[i] The Psalter was a wonderful gift from my friend Peter Harris.  Go to for the on-line version.  Once, Peter and I walked 500 miles across northern Spain. We prayed.  We sang. We ate.  For 40 days we got drunk on beauty and grace.
[ii] Middleton, J. Richard, “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible”.  Canadian-American Theological Review, Vol. 5, no. 1, 2016,  pp. 51-65.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Noises in the Hall*
I went to Texas to celebrate with my mother on her 90th birthday.

     Ninety years, now that is quite the milestone and she is quite the woman.  MaryBeth was raised in Texas.  Hard poverty was padded by the love of a very large family.  There were seven kids in all (and I grew up with 16 cousins!!!).  My mom met my dad, an Indiana boy who interrupted college at Purdue to join the Army Air Force during the war, when she was 17.  They married and after the war she went north with him, far from family, as he finished his time at Purdue.  His first, and only job after college, Kellogg's of Battle Creek, took her further north.  My sister and I were born there in Michigan. After our father died in 1983, mom moved back to Texas.  She met Dick and together they have laughed and loved into their 90s.
     MaryBeth has dementia.  Everything is truly new to her.  As I visited she asked again and again about my wife and our daughters---sometimes again and again in the space of 5 minutes.  She sometimes knows she forgets, sometimes she doesn't know.  She is happy most all of the time.  I've asked her what she has been doing and she replies, "I don't know, but I'm sure it was fun."  Not bad for a nonagenarian eh?  Not bad for the rest of us if we could manage that good grace.
     When I visit, I sleep on the pull out couch in the study.  It is at the end of the hallway that leads from the bedrooms out to the living and dining room.  Every morning, at around 6:30 or 7:00, I heard noises in the hall, muffled voices, and the sound of my mom's walker.  My sister tells me that frequently, MaryBeth comes out of her room, goes to my sister's door and wants to make sure she is "up for school".  While I was there she was heading to the kitchen to make sure my lunch was ready in time for the bus.  Every morning, there were noises in the hall---it was our mother.  In the newness of each day, still she comes to take care of us and make sure we are ready for the day.  Buen Camino.

*We took Mom out to dinner--husband Dick, Tammie and I, cousins Jerry and Jim with spouses Jane and Brian, granddaughter Megan, her husband Pat, great grand kids Alex and Jordan and Jordan's partner, Sabrina.  Glasses were lifted, stories were told, and the doorway to 90 was opened with style.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Fear Not*

Fear has been much on my mind: weighing my heart and sickening my stomach.  It seems that my last few weeks have been themed around fear.  
One of the fellas I visit at Milan FCI is being released after eight years of incarceration.  As much as we might think of that as an occasion for joy, our last visit together chewed over his fear.  Will his family receive him after all that he has done?  Will his “I’m so sorry,” carry any weight?  What will he tell folks about where he has been and why? 
 A good friend of mine is in his last days as pancreatic cancer does its awful worst.  He tells me, sick and wasting away, that he wants nothing more now than to live these last days without fear.
  My own cancer seems to have returned.  With each cough and pain, my fear grows.  I await the poking and prodding of tests and the heart stopping moments waiting for the healers to speak the news.  My days are out of my hands.  I’ll recite Un’taneh Tokef with my family on Yom Kippur and wonder with the ancient poet, “Who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death . . .who by water and who by fire… .  We come from dust and return to dust.”
Fear, slowly coils around me.  Fear threatens to blind me to all that is good.  So, to this fear comes a shout of Gospel.  Luke records the most succinct version of the Good News in his version of the Jesus birth narrative.  You’ve probably heard it before, but recall what the messenger says to the night shift folk, “Fear not.”  That’s it, sermon over, church is done, “Fear not.”  
In countless stories, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek Scriptures, the Word from God to the whole of the creation is “Fear not”.  The risen Jesus greets his disciples with words to that effect.  Paul tells the churches he writes to that there is nothing in this life to fear, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  The writer of John’s letters assures us that love drives out fear.  That short phrase has special resonance with me of late.
What can it mean to “Fear not”?  For some, it is a commandment, like “Thou shalt not have the emotion of fear.”  Well, if that’s the case, I, and probably others as well, have violated the commandment repeatedly.  How do I stifle an unbidden passion?  For the last 40 years, I have been given a great gift: a Jewish wife.  Slowly and sometimes painfully, she draws me away from the Gnosticism that denies bodies and feelings. She draws me ever closer to the world of the Gospels and St. Paul’s world: a world where bodies, complete with feelings like fear, are to be redeemed by resurrection not discarded as husks simply bearing our “spiritual” identity to a supposed “true home" in some unearthly place.  Under my loving wife’s gentle tutelage I have come to understand “Fear not” is not a command to stifle emotions, but is shout of joy in the dark night.  Following the cry, “Fear not” we can find our way to the love that created and delighted in creation.
Does the angelic cry “Fear not” simply make the difficulties my incarcerated friend faces as he tries to repair his relationship with his family disappear?  Does it suddenly cure my friend’s wasting from pancreatic cancer?  Does it give me more years to love my wife and daughters?  No and no and no.  The Gospel, “Fear not”, isn’t magic.  Jesus, resurrected and made new, asked Thomas to touch his wounded flesh.  “Fear not” is the assurance that the wounded hands that hold all things, even my cancer and my future, also hold the book of life (Rev. 21:27) of Un’taneh Tokef.  God indeed has more mornings than I have dark nights.  There is a balm in Gilead.  The dead rise.  Love is stronger than death.  Tears will be wiped away and all things made new.  "Fear not", for the future is in the hands of the One who delighted in all creation—delighted even in me.
These next few days promise needles and tests, waiting and fearing.  Let them be a buen camino for me.  Let me hear the loud cry, “Fear not.”

*The painting is by Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp (1612–1652), a Dutch painter.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

It started at the table . . .

It started at a service of Holy Communion at Stony Creek UMC, a church that I had attended for 19 years.  In the United Methodist version of the liturgy, the minister issues an invitation:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another.

As I had done each time, I watched the line form as my fellow congregants went forward to once again announce by their action “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 11:26), and that, as the liturgy says, we were made “One” in Christ.  The Church teaches that what goes on at our table here on earth is a mirror image of what happens at the great feasting table of heaven.  Our table is an intimation of the world to come where “[His} will is done on earth just as it’s done in heaven”.  This, for me, is the high point of worship. 

But that Sunday was different.  I had watched a summer full of news about dead black kids, white police, demonstrations and rebellions.  I heard the frustrated, sad and angry chants of “Black Lives Matter” answered by folks objecting: “No. All lives Matter”.  The dreams of a post-racial America following the election of the first Black President were well and truly shattered.  It did not seem that “they were always bringing up race”.  No, it seemed more like men and women were being shot down because of race, and these were the screams that the rest of us should pay attention to this horrible, unjust, tragedy.

So that Sunday, what I noticed was all the faces of these people I had come to love over 19 years looked just like my face.  I couldn’t imagine that the holy feasting table in heaven was only occupied by folks that looked like us.  Yet stubbornly, for complicated, and some awful and not complicated at all, reasons, what Rev. Dr. King said so long ago is still true: “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."

Awakened from my self-assured liberal pieties finally, I was stirred by a summer of dread and convicted by the Spirit.  It is so easy to just talk and talk about racism in America. It is much more to actually do something that might heal this wound in the world.  If the Church is not in the healing up things business, it has no business being in business.  I lacked the imagination to see a way for making the communion service at my little country church look more like the feast table of heaven.  Despite the cost in losing close touch with those who had nurtured my faith for so long, I looked for a racially mixed Methodist church in driving distance.  It was deeply disappointing to find, in my lifelong denomination, there was none nearby.

Because the pastor was away I preached one last sermon at Stony Creek on July 17.  The text was story of Mary listening and learning like a rabbinic student at Jesus’s feet, Martha objecting, and Jesus’ pronouncing that the walls that kept women out of teaching and leadership were being broken down.  I said then

“Friends in the day to come, when we come to the feast table of heaven united to earth, it will be filled with folks whose faces don’t look like mine, who grew up in houses where a different language was spoken, and where different bedtime stories were told.  I don’t know how the walls between us will fall before that day, but we see Jesus breaking walls: walls between Samaritans and Jews, between the righteous and the not so righteous at all, between men and women.  We to are to be part of the breaking of walls.  And I do know that kind of remodeling can a mess.  It can be painful and hard to get through.”

So I left Stony Creek and started to attend Bethel African-Methodist Episcopal church.  The average worship attendance looks to be between 120 to 200.  The congregation is a lively mixture of university folk, doctors, engineers and accountants, bricklayers, bakers, and contractors.  Like most churches, the average age is probably higher than the population (but it is lower, much lower, than Stony Creek).  The congregation is 98% black.  I sometimes squirm because this is a place where I don’t know all the norms and folkways.  It is a place where the sermon illustrations are sometimes unfamiliar for they arise out of a culture I only partly share and often out of experience I’ll never have.  There are a lot less of the liturgical trappings of worship I so love: few 'smells and bells' here.  It is also a church where the oftentimes uncomfortable truths about race in America are a normal part of the conversation.  I sometimes feel an intruder into one of the safe places where folks feel free to speak and express themselves unfettered by the tortuous need to be ‘presentable’ to white majority norms.

Yet and all I am lifted up.  The prayers of longing, the exuberant songs, and passionate sermons of worship are filled with a desire to praise and to follow the Crucified and Risen Lord.  There is an urgent and authentic edge to the prayerful pleas “Lord help us” “Lord deliver us”.  The adult Sunday School class examines, quite deeply and quite personally, the scriptures week after week.  Folks share from the heart, and class members have welcomed me with arms open wide.  When I tearfully shared my cancer diagnosis, soon after beginning to attend, I was fussed over by “church ladies” in that way that expresses love and compassion so clearly for all to see.  One younger woman on hearing of my cancer put her hand on me and cried, “Begone.”  Men who seriously try to follow Jesus in daily devotions and daily service to others came to me and prayed on me.  When I was hospitalized the cards came, sent by people who had known me less than 3 months: church as tender loving family just like it should be.  Now that I am clear of cancer, I hope to explore the ministries of the church to find an opportunity and a place to serve.

It all started at the communion table, the place where we kneel and are made one with each other and one with the Crucified and Risen Lord.  I was invited, I came and ate and drank my fill.  Now, at Bethel, the table is set as well.  I am invited forward to come and share.  I go, along with all the faithful, and partake of the greatest gift.  I’ve been invited to come, to learn, to change, and perhaps to begin to be healed.  That’s what that table will do: bring healing to me, and to the nations and with the promise that we will one day "live in peace with one another.”  It is well and truly, Buen Camino. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Prayer in the Waiting Room

I just finished with my oncologist.  While the news is still positive, the course of treatment is rough, and the atmosphere in the oncology department, well, it reeks of misery, desperation, and despair.  I wait my turn at “check out” and don’t find the irony amusing.  I look over the waiting room. 
There is an aged and limping husband who lovingly wheels his partner, gaunt, thin, and hairless into the room.  He replaces her vomit tray when it falls off her blanketed lap. He cleans her mouth. He patters with her a bit to pass the time.

There is the couple that bickers and bickers, loud and long.  Nothing is right. She does everything wrong. Maybe, just maybe, nothing has been right between them for long before these awful days.  Cancer does not always bring out our best.

There are some who look healthy, like me.  See me anywhere else, and you wouldn’t guess that malignancy may lurk beneath the surface and knives and poison are the tools of treatment.  Yet here they sit, and here I am waiting to walk down to infusion.

Worst on my heart are the parents leading their teenage child to a chair.  They ask gently if she needs anything. Their worried broken hearts are there for all to see.  I am a weeper and have to control myself.  I think of Anya and Rachel and Ketl. I wonder who really has it harder: me under the knife and needle or they able to do nothing but watch and hold my hand.  I wish the parts we play on no one.

So there waiting to “check out”, holding back the sobs, the sobs for me, for them, I do the only thing I know.  I pray.  I don’t even know what to pray for—certainly healing, certainly hope and light, certainly.  Mostly I invoke compassion.  “Lord, let them feel love: Yours, those around them, these healers working so hard, and mine, rouse my compassion.”  I have nothing else.

I no longer even can make sense of most prayer.  Does God not know?  If more prayers go up, does God hear more clearly?  If no one prays, what?  Mark Twain wrote a hilarious short story in which everybody in one small town who prayed had their prayers answered: one farmer’s rain blessed rice field floods his neighbor, an overly heated young man gives his aging neighbor pneumonia when his request for a cold spell is answered, a cheating boyfriend is struck down in the street, etc. etc. 
Even in the Scriptures themselves, the inspired writers express confusion when prayers are answered. Israel prays for purity and reformation (Make Israel Great Again???).  God sends the Babylonians to answer their prayers, and their temple is burnt, their walls are shattered, and they are carried away from the very land God promised to them.  Habbakuk wonders:

God, you chose Babylonians for your judgment work?
    Rock-Solid God, you gave them the job of discipline?
But you can’t be serious!
    You can’t condone evil!
So why don’t you do something about this?
    Why are you silent now? (Habbakuk 1:12-13)

All prayer seems, inevitably, to fail.  Everybody “checks out” despite our prayers for healing.  When that happens we walk away from our convictions that God answers our prayers and spew pious bumper stickers that we think make better sense of our disappointment: “Well God’s ways aren’t our own.” “God needed another angel.”  “He’s in a better place.”  “She’s not suffering now.” “God has a plan, even if we can’t see it.” Yuck.  Why do we try to avoid the pain and uncertainty?  Why do we avoid the rage?  Aren’t we human?  Didn’t we see on that Friday afternoon so long ago what ‘human’ really looked like?  What ‘human’ really costs?  Our God didn’t sugar coat it with pious claptrap.  He hung crying, asking why he’d been abandoned.

Yet even still, what comes unbidden to me is prayer: “Lord, let them feel love.”  The despair is real, but then so is the only task we have: “Let them feel love.” I plead for love and to be love for others because I have known its power for me.  I lived in it on a long walk across Spain.  I see it in the eyes of my wife, the calls from my children, the cards from church, the prayers of friends, and in the stories, the ancient stories. Even if I don’t quite understand why they are not real for us here in the waiting room.  Stories of sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, healing for the afflicted. Those stories, don’t make sense to me right now, but they do tell of prayer in the midst of despair and the warm human touch of the love of God.

So, “Lord, let them feel Your love, and maybe ours too.  Please could you show us again how to be love.”  That’s my only prayer in that awful place, that waiting room.  
Buen Camino

Friday, November 18, 2016


I am sitting at a coffee shop inside of a library, as fine a combination of institutions as I can imagine.  I am listening to Daniel Barenboim’s rendition of Mendelssohn’s 'Songs without Words’ on my headphones, but the tune drowning out Barenboim in my head is The Old One Hundred.  I am chant/humming the ending to some 300 year old Christian hymns for the morning and evening prayers by Thomas Ken that we now call The Doxology.
Yesterday my surgeon called me at home.  He said he had the pathology reports from the samples sent for biopsy during my lobectomy last week.  The waiting for the phone call had been difficult.  As the time Ketl and I first expected we might hear from him passed, I became more anxious. “Maybe the news is bad and he wants to wait until the 'tumor board' (yes there is such a group) meets to add authority to his news and treatment plan.” “Maybe he is too busy and wants to put off bad news.” Maybe, maybe, maybe.  You cannot reliably infer from silence.
I had tried to promise myself to sing Dayenu no matter the news.  Yet despite my prayers, as Ketl and I walked in the evening I grasped her tight to me and sobbed.  I sobbed for our future, my children, for my life.
Anyone who tells you not to argue with God has not carefully listened to the biblical texts as they formulated such ideas.  The psalmist, in a tight spot, surrounded by enemies, or I imagine, waiting for pathology reports, pleads, “Who will praise you if you send me to the dust of death?” Or, “Who will sing of your great power to heal, to set things straight, if I am dead?”  (see Psalm 6 or 30 or 115) You get my drift, I wanted to sing Dayenu, but fear, loss, regret, longing, all rose up as I waited.  I always told Ketl I just wanted one more day to be her husband, the father to our children.  Just one more day.  And if given that day, surely near its end, I would want another.  That is why Dayenu is such a profound response to the inevitable about us.
But now I sit with coffee and books and Mendelssohn's lieder and The Old One Hundred in my head.  The results are negative, no sign of cancer.  No return to the halls of that surgery unit to hear, and possibly endure, horrors.  Time to hold my wife some more. Time to hear Anya sing and laugh some more.  Time to find adventure and a good night market meal in Singapore with Rachel.  As he spoke the words to me, 'the results are negative’, a new song “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Praise Him all creatures here below.  Praise Him above the heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” just broke into my head.  Years of Sundays in church with faithful parents and later as an adult, 40 days and 500 miles walking and praying in Spain, holding hands and singing this song after sharing the Eucharist at my new church, Bethel AME, all that repetition over all those years splashed that tune and those words into my heart.  That was my Dayenu.  Well maybe it wasn't gracious equanimity in the face of bad news quite yet, but it surely was gratitude for a return to an open-ended future.
I shared the news with friends and cribbed from the V'ahavta of my Friday nights, 'Cue up the Doxology and sing it when you rise up.  Sing it again when you lie down.  Sing it as you enter, and again when you leave.  Write out the words and tie them around your wrist so they are always handy. If you need to, make a recording and play it through headphones so you are always humming it.  Make sure your children know how to sing it too.  Sing it so often it is as much you as your very blood and bones.’ So if that 300 year old song is really the first thing that springs from my mouth when I hear that I am out of a tight spot and I will live: dayenu.  I will have to keep singing for a while longer to be ready so it springs from my mouth when the news is otherwise.  Meantime, cue the Doxology.  Ketl's rabbi showed me a 400 mile pilgrimage trail across northern Italy to the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome. Ketl and I have to get in shape for surely days of sweat walking through wonders and nights of wine and holding hands in village squares will be involved.  Cue the Doxology indeed.  Hum along. Buen Camino.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


I wasn't really supposed to hear.  “It looks like the chest tube site might have become infected.  She is on meds for schizophrenia and she is a type 1 diabetic.” I wasn't really supposed to hear, but I am walking the halls of the thoracic surgery unit.  I am exercising and regaining my health.  She, whoever she is, she is in my prayers.  I am shuffling along in stocking feet.  She, well, I hope someone who loves her is close by. 
I wasn't really supposed to hear, but I was walking awaiting my own news.  I had a 'spot’.  Then it was a 'lump’.  Then it was cancer.  That word caused all who heard to shrink back.  I often wept as I said it aloud.  In my Sunday School class a woman put her hand on me and cried '”Begone.  Just Begone.”.
My surgeon says, in a slightly different form, much the same.  He worked with great skill, as the Imago Dei he was meant to be, to, as my Rabbi's prayer says, bring order to chaos.  He took the top lobe of my right lung. "Begone".  So I am shuffling the halls and hearing horrors.  I am pacing waiting for the pathology report.  Was order really restored or has microscopic chaos escaped his skilled hands? 
Today as I await my news, I have been humming a song from the Passover we celebrate with such joy.  The song is called “Dayenu”.  You sing of one of the blessings of the great liberation and the chorus “Dayenu” reminds us 'it would have been enough.’. We sing of the next blessing and again sing “Dayenu”--it would have been enough.

I walk the halls, regaining strength.  I think on my wife who has held my heart next to her’s for these many years.  I sing “Dayenu”.  I settle on my beautiful children so full of grace.  I sing “Dayenu”.  I think of a long walk with a dear friend, 500 miles across Spain.  I sing “Dayenu”.  I whimper in the face of the news to come.  Oh let me sing “Dayenu” today, before the news, and tomorrow, after the news.  I should not have really heard about her chest tube or her schizophrenia or her diabetes.  No one should hear because no one should have chest tubes and schizphrenia, and diabetes, and so much more.  But she does have. We do have. We await pathology reports, so we must learn to sing “Dayenu”.  Buen Camino