Thursday, January 21, 2010

Family Room

He was seated at the front, looking out at the room full of people. The service this warm, September morning was, as usual, having a different effect on each one there. He turned his gaze to the lector. The reading from Deuteronomy was being read earnestly, if flatly. For some it inspired devotion, and their eyes closed serenely as the scriptures were proclaimed. Other eyes closed in serenity, but not so much from a feeling of religious devotion. Many simply stared into someplace distant and to the right of the altar.

His whole family was there, as they were every week. He looked around at their familiar faces, and felt the gentlest tug upwards at the corners of his mouth. It was good to be home.

There was Adam, three rows back, with whom he'd been so close growing up. He had once accidentally clobbered little Adam with a stick, during a game he and his friends called “Swing The Stick”. He smiled at the memory now, but he'd felt pretty awful about it at the time.

Sitting in the second row was cousin Jim. He was once in a gang with Jim. They were known as The Tigers. Membership involved being trained in the correct usage of a sword, which looked very much like a bread knife pilfered from his mother's kitchen. It was a very exclusive gang, having only two members. Jim had carefully instructed him in the art of the deadly weapon, and together they kept the streets of their small town safe from their rival gang, The Jaguars. They played Swing The Stick with The Jaguars from time to time, and it was during one such match that he'd met and subsequently clobbered Adam. (They both cried.)

There was also Ruthie, two years older than him. Once, during a party, they'd fallen in love and secretly been married. For him, “falling in love” meant that Ruthie had declared to him that she was now his best friend, and that they should kiss. They were married immediately, and kissed behind a tree stump. The marriage didn't last long. Ruthie found him to be “too bossy.” She explained to her mother, “He won't do anything I tell him to do!” They divorced quietly later that night.

There was also Aunt Elizabeth. She had always been grandmotherly to him, as she had had a child late in life. She would kneel down, hold his little face in her big, soft hands, and plant a zerbert on his forehead. She always made him laugh, and even now managed a wink from the back pew in which she sat.

There were also the ones to whom he wasn't related, but who were family nonetheless. Ms. Judy had often brought his mother to the edge of her patience, and always seemed to have a terribly important story to tell. It usually involved overcoming great adversity at the store that day, the end result of which had been a substantial discount. Judy had on more than one occasion (and to her supreme satisfaction) actually procured an item at no charge whatsoever. But she was always kind to him, and offered him sweets.

Uncle Dave, who was not his uncle, was the greatest belcher he had ever known. Ever. The sheer volume and fullness of his belches had mystified him as a child, not to mention their frequency. God, he loved that man.

Susan, Dave's wife, was ten minutes late for everything, including the punchline. “Whuddid he say?” and “I don't get it” were her two most oft-repeated phrases. But she put up with Dave, and Dave put up with her, and they had been married for nearly fifty years.

There were, of course, other family members (again, not to be confused with relatives) also in attendance who were not always so endearing. The ones who, if they really knew the real him, would not understand. But he couldn't be too concerned about them, could he.

The lector had finished his tranquilizing reading of Deuteronomy. He took a breath, stood and took his place at the lectionary. With a little rustling, he found the reading for the day. Someone coughed. A fidgety toddler was hushed. He cleared his throat, and began to proclaim the Word.

He read through it with great clarity, with feeling even, until he came to this verse:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,”

And his voice cracked a little.

“because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor,”

And his lip quivered.

“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives..."

He gained some volume.

"...and recovery of sight to the blind,”

He gained momentum.

“to let the oppressed go free! And to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

And he was silent.

He turned, gave the book to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone watched him, waiting for him to say something. Adam. Jim. Ruthie. Even Uncle Dave. Rarely did a reading get quite so... expressive.

Finally, he spoke. “Today,” he said, “This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Everything was still.

A voice was heard from the back of the room.

Whuddid he say? I don't get it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


The clouds had overtaken him, and his friends stood there, breathless, still squinting their eyes to see what was already gone.

He took his hand from his brow, and his eyes came to rest on the brown, green earth. A breeze tickled his ear. The call of a gull in the distance reminded him of how silent it was. His eyes met the red dot of a ladybug crawling along a blade of grass. How silly that it didn't know what had just happened here. He puffed a single chuckle through his nostrils, and wiped his eyes of what was left of his tears. The ladybug crawled on.

His mind was filled to overflowing, and what spilled out came in tears. What now? he thought. He felt another swell begin from his gut, rising up through his throat and out through his eyes. How can we do this? It's too big! And he's gone! It's too big, and you're gone!

Memories and connections came to him in a rush. Things that didn't make sense, but now seemed to lurch toward meaning.

He saw his friend falling as he carried the cross, and he could hear him crying out. He saw him holding a prostitute, and sobbing with her. He saw him holding a drunk and laughing with him. He saw him carrying the cross. And he remembered the slow thrumming of his heart, when he had leaned upon him at supper. He saw him carrying the cross. He saw him smile as he spoke to them just moments ago. “Go...” he'd said.

The ladybug began to stretch its hidden wings, and suddenly flew upward with the faintest trill.

It was then that he saw the man standing beside him. He was dressed in white, with his face to the sky, and John could have sworn he wasn't there just a second ago. He looks Samaritan, he thought absently. But he's got familiar eyes. John realized he was staring, but before he could turn his gaze, the man looked at him and smiled. He smiled back. “Do I know you?” was on the tip of his tongue.

The man kept smiling and looked back up into the scarcely clouded sky. “What are you staring at the sky for, fellas?”

John could almost hear the whooshing of a hundred heads turning. Peter said, “Are you kidding me?”

But the man just smiled again. “This Jesus,” he said, “who's been taken from you, into heaven, will return in just the same way.”

Then he was gone.

The air was electric and silent. The communal gasp seemed to have emptied it of oxygen. Peter was the first to speak. “Holy...!”

John began to laugh. His brother James caught his eye and started a low chuckle that gained momentum. The laughing brought tears to his eyes, and he hung on to his brother. He saw Jesus again, in a hundred moments, and the meaning of it all swept over him. It's a comedy, he thought. It's a comedy.

Friday, January 08, 2010


She came for an instant coffee in a styrofoam cup, but all she really wanted was a friend.

“How are you, Kathy?” I asked as I handed her her drink.

“I don't think I'll make it through the winter,” she said.

I met her this past summer. She and her boyfriend were living on the river, and our friendship began when a team from Ohio did a clean-up project for her space by the water. I asked her what made her think she wouldn't make it. Are you sick?

“No, I just have a feeling I won't make it through the winter. I've always been able to hope until now. I just feel like I have no hope. I feel worn out.”

She's been selling herself for a long time, and now, in her forties, she's spent.

We sat at the back of the van and talked. Somehow, she trusted me enough to let her secret thoughts out.

“I know what I do is a sin. Do you think I'm going to hell if I die?”

Her eyes ached and pleaded for hope as she looked into mine. I told her that God's mercy is great, and that she is his daughter, and that he loves her very much. I told her the good news. Jesus came to show us what God is like, and he spent most of his time with rejects and prostitutes and people who didn't think they could ever be loved.

Her eyes teared up a little, and she smiled.

We talked more about recovery programs and resources she didn't know about. I gave her some phone numbers, including my own. We prayed together, and although I'm several years younger than her, I tried to give her the most fatherly hug I could muster.

“Peace be with you, Kathy. Take care.”

She started walking back towards the river, where she would be sleeping that night. We would talk again soon. I whispered a prayer to someone unseen. And away she walked, this Magdalene in waiting, a faint flicker of hope resting somewhere in her heart.