Monday, May 31, 2010
"The conditions were awful. It would rain and rain for days. Your clothes would finally begin to rot off you. We lived in a sea of mud. And the heat and bugs. Some of the guys caught malaria bad. Then the stench of death- you could taste it in your mouth. I don't really know how we did it... Had too, I guess."
John Allen Deahl is sitting opposite me in a green leather office chair. He is dressed in his uniform- the one he wears when he does color guard service at military funerals. Behind him is this U.S. Navy flag and the "Welcome Home" banner. He is squinting because of the spotlight I have set up. I am drawing in paint with a brush on the large canvas on my easel- 4 x 6 feet. I am working on the design and composition and am beginning to sketch him into it.
"Pretty soon in them conditions, you lose the idealism, you know the thing that made me go to Pittsbugh on December eighth. You just want to stay alive and you want your buddies to stay alive, so you just make up your mind to kill that Jap bastard that is tryin' to kill you. It comes down finally to killing so you and your buddies will get to go home when the whole sorry mess is over. I still have bad feelin's about the Japs. I won't buy their cars or their TV sets. I saw this commercial the other day about "Mitsubishi" cars. Mitsubishi made the engines in the planes that bombed Pearl Harbor and now they're selling their cars in this country! Crazy!"
"I didn't realize this was goin' to be such a big painting. Makin' a reg'lar production out of this ain't you, Preacher?"
I ask him, "What kept you going?"
"Well, Chloe for one thing. I kept this picture of her in my helmet through the whole thing. The idea of Chloe being here when I came back. I didn't have much of a faith when I left home, but when you see what you see out there, it makes you think. Made me think, anyhow. And, I wanted to get back home and go to work and make a life. Hunt, fish, you know."
"We saw awful things, Preacher. And, we did some awful things. Didn't seem awful then and I still think some of it is funny. We was stackin' these dead Japs one day. Just to get 'em outa the way. There was this dead Jap officer who died with this huge erection- this happens some times when people die in battle. I read once that it happens to hanging victims. Anyhow, here was this Jap officer with this big hard-on, so we just tied a little white flag of surrender to it! I still think that's funny. I haven't even never told my children the stuff I'm tellin' you."
"I mentioned this forgiveness thing, Preacher. I want to forgive these people, but I can't forget what they did. They were horrible, worse than animals- what they did to the Kid and others. What they did to prisoners in them camps. I try to forgive 'em, then I remember something and I'm right back where I started. The Bible says that God forgets when he forgives, so I reckon I haven't forgiven them if I keep remembering stuff. Whatd'ya think."
I tell him that God's forgetting is probably a figure of speech to stress how fully God forgives. God can't not remember, but he chooses to forget in the sense of not holding it against us. We can do the same thing. Forgiveness is not forgetting, but choosing not to hold things against those who have injured us or those we care about. John studies this for a minute.
"I think I like that idea. That's stands to reason about God "can't not remember." I'll think about that, Preacher. How many times will I need to come up here? Not that I'm complaining; I like talkin' with you."
I tell him that three or four sittings will probably be enough and that I can borrow the uniform to work on it and his medals and ribbons without him in it.
In the weeks that follow he talks on and in doing so I think he talks a lot of pain out of his memories- memories over fifty years old.
"There was this sky-pilot, a chaplain, who talked with me near the end about faith in God. Told me God must have had something in mind for me to keep me alive through all those campaigns and all the mess. That's when I started to pray more regular. If I got back home I wanted my life to amount to something."
"Preacher, I'm really glad you decided to do this. All this talking has done me good."
When I finally finish the portrait, I ask Chloe and John to come and see it. Their reaction is mixed.
"I thought you were going to paint him like he was back then," she says. "And he looks so sour, so grim." All John says is, "Preacher, that mole on my face is as big as a Japanese beetle!"
I enter the work in the bi-annual West Virginia Juried Exhibition. It places and hangs in the Capitol complex for three months. I hear that Chloe and John are taking friends and family every week to view the portrait. I have called it "Semper Fi."
Months later the phone rings. "Preacher!" he says. "Come down sometime today when you get time. I want to show you something."
At the end of the day, I drop by. John leads me into his den and asks me to have a seat. Then he goes to his gun cabinet and digs around in it. When he returns he has a bayonet in one hand and his Marine Ka-Bar knife in the other. "I want you to have these. But, don't tell my kids that I gave 'em to you." I am visibly moved and so is he, but he brushes it aside. "I could get into a load of shit if they knew I gave 'em to you."
Years later, I am telling another Marine friend this story.
"He must have thought a hell of lot of you to give you his Ka-Bar and bayonet."
Yes, I think he did.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
His name was John Allen Deahl. He was born in 1920 and died in 2006. I was his friend from 1979 til the day I buried him in a cemetery in South Charleston, West Virginia. I was his neighbor and pastor for twenty-two years. We spent lots of time together because of our love of art, wood working, hunting, and tools. We regaled one another with stories and jokes (not always the Sunday School variety!). He may have been the funniest human being I have ever known- and I have known some funny ones. He was also rough and tough. There was a brutality in him, even though he was a very gentle, neighborly man. I am going to tell you how that brutality came to be in him.
He married his high school sweet-heart, Chloe. She told me once that her father, a German-Swiss farmer, not given to emotional displays, sobbed on her wedding day. He was sure that John was the wrong man for his little girl. But, they enjoyed over sixty years of wedded life, raised six children and sent them to college, working as a glass-cutter and a nurse. Chloe was a girl of film star beauty; even as an old woman who had endured fifteen major surgeries ("My body looks like a road-map," she once said to me.) and the births of those six kids, she was still strikingly beautiful til her last illness. Chloe was tough, too, more than a match for John. For more than sixty years they were faithful Christians, serving and worshiping in the church I pastored.
On Saturday, December 6th, 1941, John traveled from his hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh and bought a brand new Oldsmobile sedan with money he had saved working in the glass plant in Butler. On the following day, he took his uncle for a spin in the new car, the radio providing background music for their conversation. When the programming was interrupted with a special announcement, John pulled over on the berm of the country road they were on. They listened in silence as the announcer declared that the American Pacific Fleet had been bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
After they had listened for a while, John clicked off the radio and turning to his uncle, said, "I want you to go with me tomorrow to Pittsburgh, take this car back to the dealership, and get my money back. I am going to join the Marines." And that is just what they did.
From the 8th of December 1941 until the 18th of November 1945, John A. Deahl served his country and his fellow-Marines as a combat fighter in the Pacific. He endured some of the most horrific fighting and dehumanizing conditions in places like Guadalcanal and Okinawa. He watched as his fellow-Marines were cut down or obliterated. He suffered the privations and terrors that have been so well documented in the recent HBO series, The Pacific.
"I had this buddy from Baltimore," he told me, "who was always going into no man's land in the lulls between engagements...lookin' for souvenirs. You'd a been like him. Looking for all this Jap junk. Wanted him a samurai sword... Well, we kept tellin' him, 'They're goin' to get you, kid. You keep it up and they're goin' to get you, sure as hell.' Well, preacher, they did get him and we heard him screamin' all night long. Found him the next day. They'd tortured him all night long. Animals. Worse than animals! They'd cut off his privates and stuffed 'em, in his mouth before he died. Animals! I've had a lot of trouble forgivin' the Japs because of stuff like that. I still don't know if I have forgiven them. I know as a Christian I should, but it's hard."
How I came to hear such stories is a story in itself and I will tell it to you...
I am like the "kid" in the story John told. I am always looking for treasures among the junk that other people collect. Some days I am lucky. On this particular day I was very lucky. I was prowling in a real junk store (not an "Antique Mall") on west Washington Street in Charleston. It was a gloomy day and I was about to leave when I spied this plastic bag with something colorful in it. I opened the bag and inside it was a woolen U.S.N. ensign with the battles from the Pacific written in India ink on the canvas rim. Also, there was a home-sewn banner, probably a "kit" from the same period, with the eagle of the American Seal and the words, "Welcome Home" emblazoned on a navy blue ground. I was breathless, as hunters and collectors of such stuff are from time to time. I got both pieces for fifty dollars. I went straight to John's home to show him the stuff. And I asked him if he would sit for me to paint his portrait in front of the flag and banner. He agreed and we started the next week. In the meanwhile, I made a large stretcher and stretched and primed a Belgian linen canvas on it. I let it dry and waited for Tuesday afternoon of the coming week...
To be continued...
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Tbone imagines the angels watching him at various points of his life...
Angel 1: "What's he doin'?"
Angel 2: I'm not sure."
Angel 3: "Not THAT, surely not THAT!"
Angel 1: "He's goin' to do it. I'm sure of it!"
Angel 2: "Naw, surely not...I don't think he will."
Angel 3: "Well, he's done that kinda dumb, stupid thing before..."
Angel 2: "Yeah, I remember, now..."
Angel 3: "No, no, no! Please, Tbone, don't do that! Please, please, please..."
Angel 2: "There he GOES!"
Angel 1: "Oh, NO, please God, NOOOO!"
Angel 2: "He's DONE IT NOW..."
Angel 3: "Well, we're in for OVERTIME again! Blast YOU, Tbone!"
Friday, May 28, 2010
One of the curses of getting older is what I call "the retrospective obsession." This may be because we think the happiest years of our lives are found in the past. Or, to the contrary, we may be captive to injuries or violations that took place in the past, and we cannot or will not forget or forgive them. Sometimes, we are fixated on bad choices and violations we have ourselves perpetrated. Mark Twain, speaking of his own dark memories and the sleeplessness they entailed, said, "Like the rest of mankind, I am never quite sane at three o'clock in the morning."
The Christian world-view offers us a way to put our whole lives into perspective- whether the past, present, or future, whether the good, the bad, or the ugly. This is because the Christian view believes that the whole of life is under the wise and loving direction of a sovereign God. I say, "believes," because this is a faith claim. Like all faith claims this cannot be achieved by observation or verified by proofs. When St. Paul says, "And we know that all things work together for good..." Romans 8:28, he is saying that we know and are confident of this through faith in God.
Permit me, to again be autobiographical. My own life has been a life of extremes, extremes of tragedy and blessing. My beautiful and vivacious mother died of cancer just after my first birthday. My young father, lacking her faith and stability (she was his faith and stability), wandered, literally and spiritually, for the next twenty years. I was a fellow-traveler in these wanderings, moving over fifteen times before my thirteenth year. For a time, I lived with him and one of his several wives. She was a tragic mental and moral wreck, and having herself been a victim of abuse, abused me from the time I was five until I left at age thirteen.
But, from eighteen months til five, I lived with my paternal grandparents and their younger children in a household of pure love. They taught me what it is to be loved and cherished. This grounding in love enabled me to survive those bleak, dragon-filled years of abuse.
In my high school years, I lived with a Christian family who opened their hearts and home to me. I have written elsewhere in a critical vein of those years, but I want here to record my undying gratitude to them and many others like them who loved, nurtured, forgave, and put up with me. Many of these helped provide me with the financial assistance necessary for my formal education, and one unknown person paid for my first year of college- courses, books, room and board. There is no doubt in my mind that these people were motivated primarily out of their love for Christ and for me. I would be a cad if I did not recognize their role in my life and achievements.
My adult life has been spent in service to three Christian congregations. The first of these received me in my early twenties and survived the ten years I spent among them. (This is a argument for the existence of God!) My family and I were supported, encouraged, respected and loved by these people. In those ten years, there were many mistakes, petty quarrels, betrayals, and misunderstandings. Many are to blame for these things, not least of all myself. But, when Kathy and I visit the people from that time and place, the thing we indulge is our love for one another and for those who have gone.
My next church was a conservative congregation made up primarily of people the age of my parents and older. I was a child of the fifties, so I was in their minds like one of their adult children. I was also of a liberal bent of mind. Given those things, conflict was inevitable and sharp. They suffered from this, as did I. But, during the twenty-three years my family and I spent there, they generously supported us, enabled us to build a beautiful home, put up with my excessive travel to preach at conferences, tolerated and encouraged my art-making, and endured and forgave my eccentricities and all-out-less-than-Christian lapses in judgment and behavior. I buried most of that generation, and our mutual love for one another enabled me to turn their funeral orations into a final act of love and an art form.
During these years, Kathy and I have enjoyed a marriage of growing love and respect and have raised three beautiful, interesting children.
Now, all of these years have been marked by the same things that mark every human life: moral failure, ignorance and stupidity, miscommunication, good intention gone awry, bad intentions fulfilled (and, mercifully, thwarted), acts based on unworthy convictions, hurts, deaths... But, they have also been crowned with blessings: acts of love, self-sacrifice, altruism, humor, gratitude, generosity, sympathy, support, encouragement, and countless other things like these.
I am what I am today, not simply despite the bad things, but because of their mixture with the good. I have known darkness, but I have also enjoyed immeasurable, blinding light, the light of love. I have been loved and continue to be loved by countless people. I have been blessed to love them back. My life is multi-storied and rich because the stories of these people have become mine, and mine has become theirs. And this love has been lived out in the face of much human weakness and sin- theirs and mine.
All of which is true, I believe, because of the preexisting and over-arching love of God. The love of God has worked in my life in such a way as to make me a better sort of person. The love of all these various friends has worked in the same way: to make me a better sort of man. This is true despite my many moral and spiritual weaknesses, blind spots, and vulnerabilities.
Thus, God in his wise and loving sovereignty works the warp and weft of our lives, creating things of beauty and strength. This he does through his love and the love of other human persons.
Which leads me to say one, final thing: All of it, the whole sometimes baffling, always complex, but wondrously polychromatic thing, makes me grateful, grateful for each actor in the play and for the great Director of it all. Grateful.
"The truth is like a fiddle string, or a piano wire. Loosen the tension and you lose the tune." Rabbi Tbone
"The truth is never at one extreme or the other. Neither is it in the middle of extremes. Truth is always at both extremes...simultaneously." Charles Simeon
Thursday, May 27, 2010
There is a problem using the word "lust" in a piece like this. This problem lies in the fact that in the English language, "lust" almost always has dark, negative connotations. This is not true in other languages. In common Greek, the word for "lust" and "strong desire" is the same. Context means all. So, in my use of the word, I mean "strong desire" or "over-powering drive." Context means everything.
What I am urging is this: We must replace our lusts for those things that are most commonly the objects of our strong desires, sex, money, power, fame, etc.- things are are usually destructive- with a an over-powering desire for and appreciation of the little, common-home-and-garden blessings and gifts of our daily lives. These are things that enhance our lives and make us a blessing and gift to others.
In one way, all of this comes down to what visual artists call "seeing." The painter is engaged with the world as one who "sees" what is in front of her. She is aware that she comes to the world full of conceptions of it, that is, mental ideas. But, in order to depict the world before her, she must put aside her mental ideas and really and deeply observe. When she successfully moves from conception to perception (from the left brain to the right brain), the world and the objects that are the stuff of the world begin to show themselves in their wonder and mystery. Something similar takes place in the life and brain of the successful field-biologist.
We must learn to "see" in this way- though I use "see" to encompass all the senses. We must take the time to be quiet, to look, listen, smell, touch and taste the world we are in.
We must take time. We are too much in a hurry and those who rush through life pursuing a variety of goals very often achieve their goals while missing life. Think of that morning cup of coffee. We may gulp it down or pour it into the travel mug for the commute. But, what a difference there is to take the time to savor it, and, better, to savor it with a loved-one or friend.
We must engage all our senses, connecting with the morning light, the birdsong, the new growth in the garden, and the voice or fresh-showered smell of a lover.
The best things in life are free. They are also carefree. Nature, family, friends, books, music, food and drink, honest work, gardening, sports, play,the family dog or cat, and on and on... These are things available to us all. They are among the things that John Berryman calls "the quotidian miracle."
The more enamored of these little quotidian things we are, the more we shall see their compulsive power to eject from our lives those darker, destructive impulses.
And for the Christian believer there is more. The Giver of all these things is the God who has affectionately known us from all eternity. He has given himself to and for us in the bloody death of his Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ's resurrection, he has given us hope for a future that will return us to ourselves and the creation- in body, in mind, and in heart. Each facet of our beings at peace and each at peace with the others. And, each complete human being at peace with every other complete human being.
So, in a culture driven by lust let us cultivate this lust, a lust for little things.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
"I spend a lot of time studying on thangs, but a lot more jist lookin'."
"I always try to let the other feller talk more'n I do. That-a-way, I can be a'thankin'. It also helps me to avoid makin' a fool of myself, which is always a good thang."
"A man never was a fool for keepin' his mouth shut. I have tried the other way around too many times, and always regretted it."
"A windy man is like a windy day in March. Both of 'em tend to agitate and irritate me."
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
To control is human. From the moment that Adam set out to order the Garden, the human enterprise has been one of control. We try to control our lives, our personal environments, and hopefully ourselves. This is natural and good.
We live in a world that is, to all appearances, out of control. Think of the recent weather in Oklahoma. We are often in job-settings and even families that are chaotic and threatening. Children in unstable families are often noted for excessive tidiness, while children in secure homes are just as often human pigs. Such a world means we do not have to argue for a reasonable control and order of things.
It is when we move to the realm of human relationships that the issue of control becomes sticky.
Some people, for a variety of reasons and pathologies, are inclined to the excessive control of the people in their lives. Thus, the "Jewish mother" and the "control freak" have become idiomatic in our speech. "He has control issues," we are told; we are expected to understand this; we think we do.
The fact is, we are all inclined to this kind of control over others. We just express and enact it in different ways. The different ways are "Legion" and are just as demonic. Guilt, shame, fear, intimidation, deceit, manipulation of another's lusts and desires, superstition, God, heaven, hell, rewards, punishments, self-interest, self-preservation...and on, and on. Human beings employ all of these in our quest for mastery and control over other human beings.
To put it in another idiomatic phrase, we all "play God."
Now, this is a misnomer and an irreverence if truth be known. In a way that takes our breath away, God respects our freedom, our individuality, our uniqueness, and our humanity. He is not a control freak. This is, in part, because he does not share our fears and insecurities.
Religious people, because they think they have a special link to God, can be the very worst control freaks. Mark Twain excoriates a certain Buffalo, New York minister by saying "he acts as if he is awaiting a vacancy in the Trinity so that he can take the seat." Good old Mark!
This is one of the really ugly faces of religion. And this is why religion is so often taken captive by people who want to control their families, their communities, their cultures, even the world. This motivates both the Jihadists and the Christian Right. It can also motivate Tom Jones and Mary Smith. And, too often,does.
Christian control freaks are just that...freaks. This is a contradiction of terms. Christians are supposed to believe in the sovereignty of God, in his wise and loving providence, in his purpose that is being inexorably worked out, even in a world that looks out of control. But, of course, the fundamental Christian truth is the truth of human sinfulness and stupidity. We are sinful and stupid. I am sinful and stupid. This sinful stupidity shows up in my ongoing quest to control other people.
This thing shows it ugly face among Christians in a plethora of ways. It is seen in manipulative evangelism, where I make friends to make converts, where I play on people's vulnerabilities to get them to "come to Jesus," and when the churches use marketing tactics and strategies to "get people saved." It is seen when Christians abuse the trust of those in their care to get them to do things they themselves are uncomfortable with. This results in anything from control over another's time and finances to the sexual violation of boys and girls.
This last thing can be most dangerous in the way we give spiritual direction to others about Christian vocation or calling. For over a century, the American Evangelical churches have been enmeshed in a personality cult. We have had our "stars," from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham, from Lottie Moon to Sandi Patty. All of which has led us to believe that "everyone is special, but some people are "more special than others." Those who are "more special" are those in "full-time, professional Christian vocations," such as preachers, singers, missionaries, etc. And, among these "more special" people are the "Most Special." These are the "stars," those specially gifted people with charismatic personalities. I don't think I need to mention any names at this point; just let your remote control surf the channels on any Sunday morning and you'll see what I am talking about.
The message we, who are Evangelicals, are sending is this: This is the best place to serve God. These are the marks of God's blessing: Fame, wealth, influence, distinction. Some of these celebrities are brash enough to even say such things out loud.
Now, the only thing that is wrong with this picture is this: it is a lie. It is a complete fabrication. It not only has nothing to do with the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, it is a demonic replica. It is like a blow-up doll as compared to a real woman.
We have come to this place because we wanted to play God. We did not trust him, we did not trust his Word, we did not trust in the gentle, subtle methods of integrity and love, and it has brought us to this weird, grotesque place. It is like a stage in the theater of the absurd, where a new polytheism reigns: all these little maimed and disfigured people trying to play gods, each writing his own script, each unaware of the babbler next to him, each lost in his or her own babblings.
The problem is we have had no real theology of spiritual direction and in inventing our own, we have been left prey to the cult of self. We end up being manipulated and manipulating others, controlled and controlling others.
There is a better way and I want to give you one example of this from the life of Saint Paul. I his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of his co-worker, Apollos, and says,
"Now, concerning our brother, Apollos, I strongly urged him to
visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his
desire to come now. He will come when he has opportunity." 16:12
Here is an apostle with apostolic authority from the Lord Jesus Christ. He "strongly urged" Apollos to go to Corinth to work among these troubled churches. Apollos, for whatever reason, said, "Sorry, but I don't want to go." Paul says, "OKAY..." and then writes, rather apologetically, to the church explaining why Apollos has not come.
No manipulation. No control games. No "pulling rank" as the Lord's apostle. There is here a staggering example of someone respecting the freedom, the uniqueness, and the individuality of another human being who is also a Christian brother. In granting Apollos his freedom, Paul finds his own and avoids playing God.
Monday, May 24, 2010
I saw the above words on a billboard on my way to St. Louis last week. It is a succinct expression of the American ethos. What matters is not "persons" with common-garden-variety lives and callings. What matters is "personalities" with fame, wealth, power, and all the toys these things can get.
It set me to thinking. It set me to thinking about persons and the "cult of personality."
A "person" is a human being of either sex with a particular name and history. Theologically, a person is a son or daughter of God, made in his likeness and image. Because of this theological content, every human being of either sex with a particular name and history is unique, significant, and valuable. They are persons, and no matter what their station, status, calling, limitations, or historical obscurity, they are wonderful. Nor, is this to say that all persons are morally good. Many are morally indifferent, blown by every wind. Some are morally evil and leave a legacy of suffering behind them. All of us are morally weak and vulnerable. But, despite these qualifications, persons are wonders. Even the capacity of the truly evil is the result of being persons, of being a composite of creative mind, emotions, and will. It is the wonder of "persons" that the Psalmist celebrates in the 8th Psalm, and, in a different way, Walt Whitman glorifies in "Leaves of Grass."
A "personality" is another thing altogether. A personality is a fictive creation of the market and the media. Here, talent is the main thing, the only thing. This is talent in terms of the ability to do something well, even extraordinarily well- say, like playing a five-string banjo with your feet, or preaching a "wow" sermon. And it is the talent of presenting oneself in a winning, impressive way, personality in the sense of "she has a great personality." Both of these things are necessary if one is to become a real "personality." Charisma without talent will soon lose its attraction, and talent without personality will usually be unable to get the attention necessary for success in the first place.
What is important for this discussion, however, is the realization that the cult of personality does not value personhood. What is valued is talent and charisma. I was struck by this recently while talking to a Tulsa firefighter who moonlights as a security guard at rock concerts in his city. He told me that he and the other security guards were prepped before each concert. Among other things, they are told "Never look the stars in the eyes." Such talent and personal magnetism must be treated like royalty in the high Renaissance! Persons must not presume to be on the same footing as Personalities!
Now, the making of a Personality does involve more than talent and charisma. It requires "handlers and improvers," or, as they are sometimes called, "star-makers." These are the experts who know what is necessary for a person to be morphed into a Personality. This may involve physical changes-the right makeup, wardrobe, even plastic surgery, voice and accent alterations. It will involve story changes- the writing, even the inventing of new histories, name changes, etc. It will compel even personality changes, the loquacious will be made into the silent type, the timid into the wild-boy-or-girl, the chaste into the slut, the temperate into the addict, or vice-versa.
When this happens, for whatever motive, the person is transgressed, invaded, violated. A dark playground of cognitive dissonance is created. A kind of practical schizophrenia is let loose. The real person is separated from the Personality. It is little wonder that such persons become alienated- from their histories, their families, their friends, and from themselves. It is also, unsurprising that such persons frequently fall prey to destructive addictions/behaviors, to chronic depression and other mental disorders, and, too often, to suicide. The human person is not made to live in dissonance with himself. When the dissonance becomes insanely cacophonous, relief must be found.
To be sure, there are a few people who seem to manage Personality without these destructive side-effects. I mention Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks, and on a different level, Wendell Berry. But what is immediately apparent in these people, and others like them is this: They have retained their personhood by solid relationships, connection with their own personal histories, faith (not necessarily religious faith) and family and friends.
I am especially concerned with and critical of the cult of personality in religious life, and within the Christian Church in particular. One does not have to go far- the television remote control will do just fine- to find the Personality Cult rife in American Evangelical Christianity.
The process is the same as that outlined above, but it is mixed with another, and more potent and toxic element. The cult of personality is fed in these circles by the motive of "the greater glory of God." We make and handle our Personalities in order to honor God and to impress the world with our talented and charismatic "stars." In this way, we hope to convert the duly impressed.
Little wonder that the result is often the same: scandal resulting from drugs, sex, financial fraud, etc. And why? Because we have created Personalities in conflict with their essential selves, their persons. I wonder how often it is the case that a famous Christian Personality who has destroyed himself and brought dishonor on the Name of Christ, really just wanted to have a little farm in the Ozarks and keep bees. But, the handlers had their way, and a life is lost and a person and his family are destroyed.
What is needed, perhaps, is "a lust for little things." The little things that make up our quotidian existence are replete with lush richness. The creation, family, honest work, friendships,the family dog... And for the Christian, the knowledge that, whether we are ever known outside the circle of these things, we have been known, are known, by the God who gave himself for us in a bloody death of love and ever lives to give our little lives meaning.
The Psalmist says it well: "O LORD,my heart is not lifted up;/ my eyes are not raised too high;/ I do not occupy myself with things/ too great and too marvelous for me./ But I have calmed and quieted my soul,/ like a weaned child with its mother;/ like a weaned child is my soul within me." Psalm 131: 1,2.
You see if you can tease out the Psalmist's meaning for yourself.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
It's Only a Name
My parents named me "Thomas Nathan Smith." The "Thomas" was from my mother's father, Alfred Thomas Brown. The "Nathan" was from my father's father, "Nat Jacob Smith." Until her death, thirteen months after my birth, my mother called me "Tommy," as did mostly everybody else for the next twenty years. The diminutive is a very Southern and Southwestern thing, so that Thomases in Texas and Oklahoma are "Tommys" till they die. To this day, if my phone rings, and the voice on the other end says, "Tommy?" I know I am talking to family in Texas or California. During my childhood, I was called "Tommy Nat" in the community as a way to connect me with my family of Smiths. Occasionally, I was called "Tomcat" or "Little Tommy Tucker" by members of my family. My daddy called me "Tbone" or, just "T."
After several years with my father, I entered an adolescence in which I was uncontrollable and, in many ways, on my own. I became a Christian at age fifteen and began preaching before I was sixteen. I drew away from my family then because of their lack of enthusiasm for my over-zealous and fundamentalist faith. People began to regard me as a boy without a family, without a past. Because of my talents and personality, these same people regarded me as a boy with a great future.
So, because I lacked a past and had a great future, people with the best of intentions began to make me their "Project." They taught me how to dress, how to eat in public, how not to extend my hand to a lady until she extended hers, how to talk- in particular they went after my English grammar and Southwest "twang," they persuaded me to leave my grandparent's home and the little "podunk" of a town where I went to school, and on and on...
They were grooming me for greatness and my family could only stand by and wonder what the hell was going on. Of course, all of this was "for the greater glory of God and His kingdom." I went along with it all, in part, because I was driven by an insatiable ambition and by dark insecurities. Oh, occasionally, I rebelled. I once hitchhiked from Okemah, Oklahoma to Boise, Idaho with a wad of cash that would choke a catfish and a very expensive Gibson guitar. But, I came back, rededicated my life to Christ, and bowed once again to the yoke of the handlers and improvers.
When I got among Yankee handlers and improvers, they did not approve of my name. "Tommy" was too Southern or too much like a hick, so I became "Tom." During a year at the Moody Bible Institute, I became friends with its President, George Sweeting. He also had great expectations for me. It was Dr. Sweeting who began spelling "Tom" as "Thom." "Thom" would give me more distinction on the preaching circuit. So it has been "Thom" for almost forty years.
(By the way, the naming of people and things in the Bible is replete with theological significance. To name something or someone is to exercise sovereignty or ownership over it. This is still true. Just imagine trying to "rename" a neighbor's dog or child!)
I think about all the forms of my name by which I have been called. I now realize that so many of them were the result of other people making me their "Project." Of course, being human, all of them hoped to gain from my anticipated glory. Many of them are dead now. All who remain alive are old. Old age has begun to gather around me. I am too old to be bitter, but old enough to now understand what was going on.
In my mature years, I have reconnected with my families all over the country. They call me "Tommy" and I have begun to sign off as "Tommy" in my written communications with them. But the name I am fondest of is my Daddy's nickname for me as a child: "Tbone."
Thus have I come full circle to Home again... and to myself.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Address to the Lord
Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,
thank you for such as it is my gift.
I have made up a morning prayer to you
containing with precision everything that most matters.
'According to Thy will' the thing begins.
It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.
You have come to my rescue again and again
in my impassible, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselves
and I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.
Unknowable, as I am unkown to my guinea pigs:
How can I 'love' you?
I only as far as gratitude and awe
confidently & absolutely go.
I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn't seem likely
from either the scientific or the philosophical point of view
but certainly all things are possible to you,
and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter
as I believe I sit in this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case
to establish their initiatory faith.
Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight and beauty.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
We love the day
The sun's embracing light.
But, often sleep evades us
And tormenting thoughts
molest our peace,
Forcing us to welcome the night.
The night may show us things
Hidden from sun's glare,
Known only in the dark.
across the Southern sky,
Owls answering one another
from hill to hill.
The cool light of the moon,
And the smell of the earth,
never so rich in the light of day.
And the mockingbird-
Singing through the night-
And making melody to the Lord.