Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Feast of St. Ray

I know where I was 19 years ago this afternoon...standing in a cemetery in Nashville, TN, on what may have been the coldest day I ever have had to endure. I was thankful for my robe as I read passages from the Psalms, a snippet of John and said a prayer. Beside me was Bill Malone, a good friend of the deceased, one suit sleeve stuffed into his pocket on account of the drunk driver that hit him as he worked on his stalled car beside the interstate. It is a wonder Bill was not killed.

Of his friend, the one we were helping to bury, Bill said, "I can only say I envy him, that Ray got there first. We have spent so many days, so many hours, so many times talking about heaven, about the great reunion to come, about being free from the pain and heartache, the disappointment and distress, about being at last with Jesus. Go in peace, Ray," Bill said. "I will be there with you before long."

And he was.

Ray, of course, was my father. It was on this day in 1988 that I preached his funeral, presided at his graveside service, endured the bitter cold of the cloudless afternoon and the, if anything, colder reality that Dad was gone and gone, away from me and away from any chance we might have had for some kind of deep reconciliation. Which is not to say we were estranged, not exactly. It was just hard, our relationship. Like dads' and sons' can be.

He was proud of me, I think. He resented me, I know for a fact. He loved me in his own way. He rarely said it in ways I could hear. He was never pleased with me, and never accepted that I was proud of him. He was too ashamed of himself to believe anyone could love him: a wife, children, Jesus. He was a sad, sad man in many many ways: unhappy in marriage, in vocation, in almost any way you could imagine. Emasculated in the flesh, first situationally and then by surgery, he seemed also emasculated in spirit. He excoriated his lack of faith, his lack of happiness, his lack of success. He excoriated others who had some of what he did not. His expression, most times, was one of disgust. That disgust started with himself but it by no means ended there.

Still, he could laugh. Had a great sense of humor--on occasion. He was never violent, never just mean. He just seemed tired all the time. And sick.

Illness became his first best identity.

He died deep in Advent, and I have come to believe that his life was a kind of parable of Advent. He longed for Jesus' appearing, as Paul says it in II Timothy 4, and even if Daddy could not see the ways in which Jesus had come--did not have eyes to recognize how the whole world is aflame with the presence of God--he had faith in the flame to come, the purging, purifying flame which would burn away the bad memories of his life, the dross of his existence, and deliver him into the light of God's eternal life.

His hope was the only warmth we felt that afternoon, I think. At least it was my warmth as the wind whipped my robes around my legs and cut to the deeps of my flesh.

I go to that place now and again, when I am back home. I find his grave by sighting coordinates between the chapel and the statue of Jesus. There he is, beneath the ground beneath my feet, but not there at all. Resting, waiting still. Either for the resurrection of the dead which will complete his journey, or for the deaths of his beloved ones that will complete ours--either way that we might all enjoy together what together we prayed and preached and hoped that cold afternoon all those years ago.

Rest in peace, Ray. Rest in peace, Daddy. I miss you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Omaha and Isaiah

I am spent with grief on account of the shooting last evening in Omaha. I am sure it will find its way into my sermon somehow (the rough draft of which is at Share It, in the Sermon Feedback Cafe). Something like, "they shall not hurt or destroy either on the holy mountain or the Great Plains."

I feel so sorry for the shooter who, as the news reports this morning, spent several months "in the fetal position chewing his fingernails." That, apparently, because of "problems" with his stepmother. Sounds like Walt Disney gone horribly wrong. So he loses his girl and he loses his dead-end job, and that makes him dead-end people he did not even know: so many others now have lost their girls and guys.

"Now I am going to be famous," he says, and when and where and why did it happen than our disaffected came to imagine that this is the way to be famous? Then again, in the ethos of American Idol, perhaps if you can't sing you shoot.

And why was his landlady not alarmed? A sad and bitter child showing off his assault weapon?

I pray for the dead and their families. They were doing their Christmas shopping. Got up yesterday morning and dressed and had lunch and went shopping for their kids, their grandkids, their parents, their spouses. A nice afternoon at the mall, feeling the Christmas spirit. They had no reason, nor did their families, to expect that this Advent would be any different than any other, except for this other advent--this dark coming of this poor, blind soul and his assault rifle.

And so I recall, somewhat eerily, the Gospel text from last week: two were in the boys department, and one was taken; two were trying on shoes and one was taken; but know this, that if any of them had known at what time the boy was coming they would have stayed awake or stayed away and not let the thief into the mall.

Especially so, come quickly, please, Lord Jesus.