There’s a Light Beyond These Woods

Thirty-five years ago my brother and I fell in love with the same woman.  She was between our ages, closer to mine, but he had seen her first.  My wife didn’t mind because I loved her “From a Distance” – as I first heard Nanci Griffith introduce Julie Gold’s song to the world.  

The songs Nanci wrote and those from other artists that she brought to our experience are the perfection of graceful simplicity.  As my wife Nancy & I shuffle through our ITunes library, any of Nanci’s songs are forbidden to be skipped.

Nanci died last Friday.  Twenty years ago, I inherited from my brother 4 VHS tapes of Nanci’s concerts or specials.  Wonder if I can dust off an old player as I grieve those who dance a little closer to me tonight.

……..I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney, and Cronkite, and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am the backseat driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can’t drive on the left side of the road

It’s a hard life 
It’s a hard life 
It’s a very hard life 
It’s a hard life wherever you go 
If we poison our children with hatred 
Then, the hard life is all that they’ll know……

“It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” by Nanci Griffith, 1989 

Preaching to the Choir

Our children’s choir practiced and performed a Christmas Cantata with our adult choir at church.   I still can sing a song or two from “Lo! A Star” (1962) although I resisted the impulse to get the one copy on eBay this morning.  During weekly worship I would observe the choir as they sat and sang before us and behind the preachers.  Their expressions often changed but their faces remained steadfast.

In the decades to come pastors moved, the message was reformed, but the same faithful faces remained in the choir.  While some new singers took the place of a few, and while all of them aged over the decades, the constant choir was a reassuring testament to an enduring faith in God’s love, justice, and purpose for the creation in every church I served.  

When Lynn Turnage led 6000 Triennium youth in singing, moving, and miming the Nylon’s song “Face in the Crowd” I would internally sing a face in the “choir”.  

The Moberly choir was “a fellowship group that sings.”  That was a way of practicing hospitality to anyone who wanted to join us, but it had a deeper meaning.  Like other choirs, ours was a small, supportive, and sensitive community who were committed to the church and to each other in weekday rehearsal and Sunday worship.

In various churches I’ve felt the year-long grief of life-long choir members seeking new ways to worship and support each other from a distance after we learned that “singing is like a 5-minute cough.”  (And that was not just a critique of my singing).  As with all grieving, we “grieve with hope” for something better to come that is waiting to be born.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “she was just preaching to the choir” – a preacher who invites people to be faithful followers of God when the only listeners are already faithfully leading worship each Sunday.  It seems to me that a lot of media proclaims opinions by preaching to their own choir — reinforcing beliefs and biases already held on the full spectrum of points of view.  

If one purpose of the church is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” how are you supported by or challenged by those you watch and hear?  What refrains are being repeated to you?  Are they helpful or harmful?  How do you sing your songs of Zion in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

Lowered and Lifted

One of my earliest memories of Sunday School was gluing popsicle sticks together to make a walled home, a roof, and a stretcher.  We tied strings to the popsicle stick stretcher to lower it through a hole in the popsicle stick roof over the popsicle stick home.   It probably took a month of Sundays for the lesson to “stick”.  We were learning about the miracle from the gospel of Mark, chapter 2 — Jesus returning home and forgiving and healing a paralyzed person.  

Mark relates to us that because of the hometown crowds gathered in and around the house where Jesus was, four friends of a paralytic tie him to a stretcher, climb to the roof of the house, dig a hole, and lower the man down by ropes so Jesus could see, touch, and heal him. 

When Jesus tells the lowered man that his sins are forgiven, the scribes — basically the religious lawyers of that day — hold court about the legality of a human forgiving sins.  Jesus gives them an object lesson that a human can forgive sins plus even more amazingly say to a paralyzed man, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk home.”

In childhood Sunday School, I didn’t get all the religious legalese…. guess I still don’t.  I wondered what the man would do with the mat that he would carry that was no longer needed to carry him.  I fantasized he could hang it on the wall as a memory, use it as a hospitality mat, or donate it to another paralytic.  Mostly, due to the myriad of popsicle sticks and my role of lowering the stretcher we made through the roof we made, I identified with the four faithful friends who brought the one they knew into the loving and healing presence of Jesus.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney published a poem “Miracle” in his final collection of poems.  He said he could only have written the poems in “The Human Chain” due to suffering a stroke in 2005.  He too focused on the friends who had known him all along and he brought to light the image of “paid out ropes” — which would come to fruition three years later when friends lowered the ropes of his coffin in faith and hope in the funeral tradition of Heaney’s Ireland.

As you support those who labor and remember those who “from their labors rest”, I  invite you to read Mark 2 and the poem “Miracle” by Seamus Heaney.

Unforeseen

Paul had been my weekend best friend for several years.  His father worked for the local NBC affiliate WAVE-TV.  While I had three stations to choose from at home, only one was on at his during many Friday nights playing pool, watching Johnny Carson, and collapsing in exhaustion.  The Friday tradition was changed on one Sunday in July 1969.  While most would remember Walter Cronkite’s almost speechless “man on the moon… whew boy, oh boy”, I watched with Paul’s family Huntley, Brinkley, and McGee describe the unbelievable.

The next month, I started to attend Louisville Country Day School and lost touch with Paul — changing schools and friends.  I didn’t hear about Paul until I was in college, when mom called to say Paul had been working as a guard at a gated community when someone drove up and shot him to death.  When I came home I wanted to go see his parents, but I didn’t.  I hadn’t seen them in years, I feared feeling a tinge of survivor’s guilt around them, and I didn’t know what to say.  I regret that I didn’t offer some consolation and a few childhood memories to stand by those facing “the unimaginable”.

Years later, I helped out with Senior Night as an associate pastor.  Until Mexico built its own YMCA, we bussed that day’s graduates to the YMCA at Jefferson City or Hannibal for an all night alcohol-free party.  I helped at the roulette wheel as part of the mock casino.  The bus ride home was always quieter than the party.

One year, a graduate drove to the mall in Columbia the day he got off the Senior Party bus.  On the two-lane 54 highway home he fell asleep at the wheel and was killed in the crash.  I gathered with about 30 shocked and grieving grads, asking “Why?” and questioning a loving and powerful God when “theodicy” is no longer just a theory.  As with Paul’s parents, I didn’t know what to say, but this time I stayed, sat, listened, hugged, and wept with the others.

Even with the best of intentions, planning, and safety concerns, horrible things can happen.  The consequences we face can be harsher than our choices deserve.  The illegal or unjust actions of others can lead to suffering.  Maybe we can learn from the friends of Job in the Bible — being with others in their suffering does much more good than trying to explain it.

What areas of your life are touched by these stories?  What questions have you asked about the theodicy of God?  What answers have fallen short of God’s love you know revealed in Jesus?