Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Warning to Young Artists

There will always be those
Who envy you
Your life, your talents,
Your gifts.

They will see you
And define you by these,
None of which you define
Yourself by.

They will not see
The pain, the loss,
The grief
That attend such things.

And, because they see
The richness of your life
They will demand
That you apologize

For these riches
They covet.
And in their pain
They will add to your own.

Our First Summer by Marie Harris

At a deepening
of the Isinglass River
I lie down in stones and tea-colored water,
I think: be careful, do not say
The bones of that word mend slowly.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

My Katebird (To Emily)

Of all the birds
That fill the skies
With their color,
Their antics,
Their song,

My Katebird is
The brightest hue,
The jolliest flier,
The sweetest singer,
Of them all.

She flits across my eye,
She dives throughout my mind,
She fills my ear with joy.
She hovers to calm my heart.

Jim and Velda, 1949

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Daddy" Part V: "It's going to be alright."

Now, I am keenly aware of the fact that all of this can be explained from a purely psychological model. I have read William James and his followers. I have also seen plenty of religious conversions, good and bad. Moreover, I have examined my own religious conversion to paleness, trying to understand it and myself. People of faith will accept as valid what happened to my daddy, people who have no particular religious faith will explain it how they will. There is no reason for the believer to doubt both aspects of religious conversion, the spiritual and the psychological. Orthodox Christianity has always maintained that God meets us as human beings and addresses us in the complex of mind, emotion, and will that makes us uniquely human.

In his case, however, I must say this of my daddy: From that August day in 1974 he was never the same again. His life was turned around to a new and healthy direction. This would be true until he died in 2000.

Nor is any of this to say that the rest of his life was one long consistent trajectory. Far from it. It was marked by the same circuitous inconsistencies that characterize most lives. But, one thing is certain to everyone who knew him: From the mid-70's to the end, Daddy reordered his life in a new and overwhelmingly constructive way. He reinvented himself.

A large part of the credit of this goes to his new wife, Ann. Daddy and Ann married in the mid-70s- 1975? I don't remember the date, but I do remember the circumstances because I married them in a private ceremony in the living room of the Baptist parsonage Kathy and I were then living in just out of Tulsa. I also remember the Dragon managed to get our number and phone at two or three in the morning the following day. She was drunk and savage and she managed to push all the old buttons of fear and hate in my mind. It would be years before I was beyond that. When I finally learned of her death in 2007 I would be beyond that and would find nothing in my heart but sadness and pity for her.

Shortly after their marriage, Daddy and Ann moved to East Texas where they engaged in a semi-homesteader existence. They lived in a variety of settings, the most demanding being a utility shed bought from Wal-Mart and turned into a homesteader's cabin. The only running water they had was from a sole hydrant a few yards from the front door. By working and saving, the two of them were able to buy a few acres where they placed a very used trailer. While living in the trailer, Daddy build a sizable log house from the native pine trees on and around the place. The floors ran in every direction, but it was snug and comfortable, having a bathroom and plenty of running water. Daddy had been born in a log house and always said he wanted to die in his own log house. When the trailer burnt to the ground, Daddy was able to run into the burning structure to retrieve his arrowheads, but everything else was lost. He and Ann were great ones for starting over. They finally were able to purchase an old frame house and have it moved to the acreage.

During these years Daddy accumulated a large group of friends. He was always serving people, looking after them, especially the aged. He continued to collect their stories as he visited with them.

After settling in the area Daddy and Ann joined the local Baptist church where they were to remain members for many years. With work, church, and community, Daddy lived an exemplary life. He was liked, loved, and respected. Most of the darkness that had long plagued him was dispelled.

But, it is always a mistake to view people through tinted glass and it would be such a mistake to view Daddy in this way. One of his famous introductions to what he was about to say was, "I ain't going to lie to you..." His honesty about his personal demons was one of his most attractive (and disturbing) traits. Times of darkness would periodically fall upon him and when they did he had a ritual. He would buy a bottle or two of bourbon, give the pickup keys to Ann to hide, and go on a weekend "toot" as he called it. In the early stages he was a happy drunk. Ann once looked out the window to see him him stark naked, standing upright over the seat, driving the tractor round and round the yard- singing. Toward the end of such forays, he grew dour and maudlin. He would sometimes call me toward the end of his toots and talk about early days, pour out his grief over real and imagined failures, and declare his love for me over and over again. These were distressing conversations, but as I grow older and more self aware, I find it harder and harder to judge him for these times. On Monday mornings, he would be up early, bathed and shaved and smelling of Old Spice. He would be the earliest to work and covered his hangover and guilt with a flood of songs and teases. Months would pass before such a thing was repeated.

Our times together during these years were good, though too often few and far between. When we did visit, it was a time of unmixed happiness. We never had an argument or quarrel for twenty plus years. And while the visits were too few, the phone conversations were regular. He has been gone for ten years and I still occasionally think, "I need to talk to Daddy about this."

His love for me, for Kathy, and for his three grandchildren was devout. And it was returned. In his last illness, I came into the living room of his house to find his then lax, six-foot frame cradled in the lap and arms of his oldest grandson, Martyn.

During the last decade of his life, he and I made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. that I mentioned earlier. I have never seen him happier and more alive. It is a joy to be with a man who delights in everything he sees. And delight he did- in everything, from the new threshing barn at Mount Vernon, to the buffalo hide teepee at the Natural History Museum, to Jefferson's "little mountain," it was all a dream come true to him.

One morning, while there, we finally found parking near the Viet Nam Memorial. We walked past it to the Lincoln. He was very quiet and deeply moved as he stood on the steps looking at the great Emancipator.

When we returned to the car, someone had parked close to us and I had a tough time getting the car out. Finally, Daddy got out and began to direct me. I kept touching the bumper of a new Volvo behind us. A young well-dressed man came over and began to protest that I was damaging his vehicle while Daddy assured him to the contrary. As the exchange grew more animated, I rolled the passenger window down and quietly said, "Daddy, get in the car." After I had repeated this several times, he acquiesced and took his seat. But, the young man was persistent. He leaned over and began to tap on Daddy's window. Daddy began to roll his left shoulder and roll down the window at the same time with his right hand. Placing my hand on his agitated left arm, I said quietly, "Don't hit him." With a similar quietness, he replied, "I'm going to draw the son-of-a-bitch's picture in the sand!" "If you do," I countered, "we may be here in jail for a year." I finally managed to get the car out and away. After a pause, Daddy said, "You could tell he was a Yankee by the way he talked. They're all arrogant bastards like that." But, within seconds, he was back on the sunny side enjoying the marvels of our nation's Capitol. He was sixty-six or seven at the time. But the old embers glowed beneath the gray ash.

In the next years, the embers would continue to glow. He would read and study his arrowhead collection; he would serve others and drive his pickup through the community with his faithful Bassett hound, Magoo. He would become more relaxed, more at peace with himself and with everyone else. He would maintain his simple Christian faith and his devotion to hard work. All with the passion that had always marked his life. Things would go on as usual on that little patch of ground in the Piney Woods of East Texas until his last great trial came upon him.

And when it came he would learn to die. be continued

"Daddy" Part IV: Back to the Light

It would be a mistake to conclude from all this that my daddy's personality regularly reflected the darkness I have been writing about. To the contrary, he was usually bright, chipper, and full of laughter. He was a great one to sing. An early riser, he would meet the day with a song, often one whose words he made up as he went along. I was not an early riser and could be quite surly in the mornings when he got me up for school. He loved this; it sharpened his musicality and his versifying. Here are some of his songs I remember:

Get up, Tom!
Get out of bed!
Or I'll pour cold water
All over your head!

or, again,

Little Tommy Tucker
He ain't no good,
He won't haul water
And he won't chop wood.

He was always teasing, always pestering, and (almost) always with good humor. It was the same at work. He would sing, he would nick-name his colleagues, he would shout and laugh. Sometimes he pushed it too far and surly, grown men would grow exasperated and threaten him. He was big and fit and he could be violent, so they were pushed beyond their limits when this happened.

I have often thought of this bright, sunny side of his with wonder. Maybe it was his generation. Maybe it was his genes. Maybe it was just his way to assuage his pain. Whatever it was, it was what it was. Too be sure, if he had enough to drink, he could descend into a maudlin self-pity, but I only witnessed this a few times in all the years I knew him. And he could get into towering rages. These were terrifying in the extreme. But, for the most part, he was his sunny self. This is why so many people never knew him as "the Hurt Man."

After moving back to my grandparent's home, I lived a charmed life. I hunted, trapped, and tramped the woods and fields along the western bank of the Red River where they lived. I lived out-of-doors almost as much as at home. I camped alone in the woods and hunted coons with hounds with a band of friends my age, as well as with older hunters. I learned to play the guitar and began to play with various country bands. I was an above average student and popular with my peers. Life was good.

From time to time Daddy would visit or I would visit him, but gradually we grew apart. My resentments peaked with my adolescent hormones. I nursed my grudges and hurts; those around me sometimes aided this. He knew this and it saddened him. His life was more and more coming apart at the seams. He moved his family back and forth from Texas to California where he worked off-shore on oil wells. These were the darkest days of all and the two daughters from that marriage suffered most. When we were together in his last days, one of them casually remarked, "Was that when Daddy threw the Christmas tree into the front yard?"

Little by little his marriage to the Dragon was wearing out, was wearing him out. They had divorced once and then remarried. I asked him once why he finally left. "Well, son, you don't remember this, but I bought a 1951 Ford roadster in '67-'68 and fixed it up. It was like the one I had when your mother was still alive. Well, she got drunk and went out in it and totaled it. I beat her up so bad that I knew if I stayed with her any longer, I might kill her some day. That's when I left-for good." He was coming apart and he knew it. The darkness was destroying him and he knew it.

I became a Christian in the late summer of 1967 and began almost immediately to "preach." I was full of zeal and aptness to speak, but I was as ignorant as a sack of hammers- ignorant of the Bible and of life. Daddy was not ignorant of either, but I made up my mind to convert him from his evil ways. He was very patient with me, but he was not ready to listen to a child, his child, talk to him from a position of moral superiority. We grew farther apart.

And then, he met my wife-to-be, Kathy. He was dazzled by her. And, I think he was transported by her to his life with my mother twenty years before. (He would sometimes, years later, say of her, "Oh, son, but she is a fine woman, fine like your mother was!") On the day he met her he told me for the first time the story of my mother and him, their happiness and tragedy. Daddy came all the way from Texas to Tulsa for our wedding. We were returning to one another.

I was preaching a revival meeting in Thackerville during the last days of August 1974. Kathy and I were staying with my grandparents. My grandfather's health was failing and he had to be hospitalized late in that same week. I took him to the doctor and then to the hospital. He would never come home again.

On the last day of the revival meeting, a hot Sunday morning, I preached from Genesis 25:8, "And Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life" NASB. I don't remember much about the sermon, except that I stressed that the only way to die "satisfied with life" is to die in faith in Abraham's God. The reason I stressed this particular point is that Daddy had come into the service after it began, dressed in his best suit, shirt, and tie and looking like a million bucks. He was not sunny that morning, he was grieving. I knew he was grieving over his dying father, but he was also grieving over his life, our lives.

When the pastor of the church gave he altar call, Daddy already weeping, came forward. The old women of the church were almost shouting and the old men were weeping and muttering loud "Amens." When I met him at the front he said, "I'm coming back, son, I'm coming back!"

As people prayed, we went into a little side room in the back of the church. When I closed the door and turned around Daddy was on his hands and knees, crying out to God and weeping. "O Mighty God..." he kept repeating, "O Mighty God..." And then, as his sobs racked his big frame, he began to cry out in grief and penitence, "I have been angry with you, Lord. I have hated you, Lord! I repent! I am sorry! I ask for your help to start over, to come back!" On and on he went like this for some time. I said nothing, but wept and agreed with everything he said. By the time he finished, there was a pool of tears beneath his bowed head the size of a dinner plate. Then he embraced me, squeezing the breath out of me. We held each other for a long time. "It's going to be alright, son," he kept reassuring me.

I had little doubt that it would. be continued

"Daddy" Part III: Darkness Visible

The years to come would be years of darkness.

A great part of this is because my daddy had no real foundation under his life. While my mother had been building a personal character that dated back to her young years, daddy had been playing at life. My mother had become his foundation, but he had only just begun to build a personal, moral character. And remember, too, how young he was: only twenty-four at my mother's death.

Moreover, my daddy had embraced a Christian faith that coincided with the happiest brief years of his young life. It would be impossible for anyone not to erect the argument that he did. "I have lived a sinful life. I turned from that life to a life of faith in God and obedience toward God. That changed coincided with my marriage, my child, my family, the respect of others, bright hopes for the future, etc. Ergo, a life of faith and obedience produces happiness-in this life and in the life to come." I know from countless conversations with him that my daddy reasoned in this way, and that he struggled his whole life not to reason this way, even when he had come to know better.

To put in succinctly (and daddy would not have put it quite this way) my daddy's darkness was exacerbated by a theological conundrum, a theological conundrum at least as old as the story of Job.

Once in the 1980s we were walking together in the dark on the Young Place near Thackerville where we were both brought up. The sky was wondrous that night and, despite the glow of Dallas-Fort Worth seventy miles to the South, the Milky Way was luminous, overpowering. It was a numinous, mystic moment and we were both breathless beneath the immensity and splendor of it all. In the quiet daddy said, "I have tried to be happy in all the wrong know this. But, all I ever really wanted was to have a family...which I did for a while. And, then...then...God took it all away from me? Can you tell me why? You're the preacher, son, tell me why!" It was a unique, uncharacteristic outburst on his part.

And there was little I could say. There are, ultimately, no rationalistic answers to questions like these- at least, there are none that will finally rest the restless mind. The answer of faith, that can give rest to the mind, at least for periods of time, is that God has his purposes in all things, and that these purposes have a good and gracious end. Or, as one has said, "When we cannot trace God's hand, we can trust his heart." This will never satisfy those without faith, but it does bring peace to believers.

So the dark years that my daddy lived from 1952 to about 1972 were aggravated in part because of his own personal warfare with God, the God who had betrayed his trust, the God who "took it all away."

He waged this war by throwing away almost every moral principle he had embraced under my mother's influence. There were the girl friends, and the drink, and the language, all of which she would have found repellent. There were the marriages (four? five? six?) and the child out of wedlock that he would not claim as his own until she was twelve. There were the two other children that, finally, he left in despair with their wreck of a mother. And, there was the worst of the marriages to a woman who was the dark, abused addict, the depraved moral opposite of Velda.

And there was "Tommy."

After a year of traveling the country with Tommy in the front seat of a 1951 Ford roadster, daddy finally took me to his parents to care for me. There I would live until he entered the marriage with the one I would come to think of as "the Dragon." I would live with her and my daddy for the next eight years, years marked by her slappings and kickings, by her savage verbal abuse, by her drunken binges and countless infidelities, by her crude manners and exposures of herself, by their violent fights that sent me running home from school on Fridays to hide the shotgun shells and knives before the week-end drinking began. And on, and on...

But, enough.

It all became so bad in the end that my grandparents pleaded with daddy to let me return to them. And in time, I did. I have no doubt that I teetered on the edge of sanity in those days. My salvation was found in books, in weekends at my grandparent's, and by my personal space that I kept with the meticulous tidiness of a child whose other life is out of control.

All of which ate away at him. "Take care of my baby, Jim. Take care of Tommy!" It was daddy who later told me of this exchange. He had failed utterly and he could not forgive himself. Yet he could not help himself. Such guilt in such an over-heated conscience leads some men to suicide. In daddy's case, he just plunged deeper into the darkness.

But, it was during these days that we spent the time together that I spoke of earlier. He was always there. And he was always doing things for me, buying things for me. He bought me a Remington .22 rifle on my twelfth birthday that cost him the better part of a week's wages. He was his whole life the master of the grand gesture.

When he was dying and we were talking about some of these dark days, he began to sob and said, "I should have left you with Mama and Papa, but I wanted a little bit of you, too!" That moved me deeply, but the fact is, like many parents in broken marriages, he wanted it both ways. He wanted the child, but he also wanted a life detrimental to the child. I speak without bitterness, even if I speak bluntly.

Not that there wasn't bitterness aplenty during those dark years. He was a god to me, but a fallen god. There is no bitterness like a violated child's. The is no spring of bitterness like disappointment in a fallen god. Daddy knew this. I know this.

So I went back to Thackerville. It was heaven on earth to me. It was salvation.

And daddy plunged deeper and deeper into the dark. Even the light that I was to him was gone. be continued

"Daddy" Part II: "Velda"

Her name was Velda which is Germanic and means "power." She had been born and raised in Love's Valley in Love county, Oklahoma, not ten miles away as a crow flies from where my daddy had been born and raised. They grew up not knowing one another existed and a score of years would pass before they first met.

She had moved with her family to California as a teen and would bloom there like one of the ubiquitous orange blossoms of her adopted state. The image is appropriate because every one who knew her remarked on her beauty and the sweet fragrance her life emitted.

In the late '40s Daddy was stationed at March Air Force Base in Riverside. He and Velda were introduced through his uncle and her aunt. Daddy at the time was young and handsome, and wild.

On one occasion, waiting to visit with her, he and his buddies were killing time in Ontario, sharing a bottle of Bourbon. When the time came to go to her home, Daddy told them, "Don''t bring that bottle to the Brown home." Dismissing this, the custodian of the whiskey carried it to the house and, sitting in Mr. Brown's favorite chair, stashed the half-pint bottle of Bourbon on one side of the cushion of the chair and a bottle of Coke on the other. When Mr. Brown arrived home from work, he took his paper to his favorite chair and began to read. Shifting in his seat, he noticed something strange and fished both bottles from inside the cushion. With a glare, he strode with the bottles to the front porch. Pitching the whiskey into the air, he threw the Coke bottle at it. Both exploded. Returning to his chagrined and embarrassed guests, his pulled up all of his one hundred and twenty-five pounds and said with a voice husky with anger, "Jim, don't you ever bring that stuff into my house again!" He would never have to say this again.

The romance grew, while Daddy's wild ways continued. Once, laughing, he told Velda of a night he spent in the jail in Big Bear for drunk and disorderly conduct. Velda did not laugh and sternly told him, "Jim, if you are going to continue to have anything to do with me, you are going to have to change your way of living." He did.

Shortly, thereafter, he professed faith and was baptized in the Ontario Church of Christ. And, soon after that, while the family was making plans for their wedding, the two of them traveled to Quartzite, Arizona, where they were married by a justice of the peace. I think this reflects a certain wildness, or, at least, nonconformity, in both of them.

They were unspeakably happy and they spread that happiness wherever they went. Velda, like Jim, was a happy, garrulous, gregarious person. Everyone remembers them as a couple who spread joy wherever they went. "There was always so much laughter wherever they were," my aunt remembers. That is how they are remembered: Two beautiful, happy people.

On October 25, 1951, their only child was born. Daddy always called me on my birthday, and he always began the conversation with these words, "It was snowing on Mt. Baldy the day you were born. It was the happiest day of my life." The happiness continued and the dozens of Kodak photographs from the period attest to this. There was only one shadow; Velda suffered from acute indigestion and it seemed to get worse and worse. Other than this, their life was full: Velda keeping their little house, loving her child; Jim working and occasionally preaching at the Church of Christ. It was a good life. It was a charmed life.

But Velda's suffering increased. After her doctor tried everything to relieve her symptoms, he finally referred them to a specialist in Pasadena. They made he trip to Pasadena together. They had been there before to enjoy the famous Rose Bowl Parade. After he had examined her, the doctor came to Jim in the waiting room and said, "I want to operate in the morning."

Jim was with Velda's parents in the hospital waiting room where the surgeon joined them after the operation. "Mr. Smith," he said, "I am so sorry, but your wife is suffering from advanced colon cancer. There is nothing we can do for her but make her as comfortable as possible in the coming months." Jim managed to croak out the inevitable question, "How long?" "Six months," the doctor replied. And six months later- to the day, Velda died.

The next six months were hell. Velda wasted away from her normal one-hundred-forty pounds to barely seventy-five. She was given more and larger doses of morphine for the pain, but toward the end, she was screaming with pain fifteen minutes after the last dose. Her grieving mother cared for her and for Tommy while Jim continued to work. At times, she would weep and say to Jim. "Take care of my baby, Jim. Take care of Tommy!"

On her last day, she was taken to the hospital in a white ambulance with Jim sitting, chatting with the driver. Thoughtlessly, making small talk, he said, "I remember the last time I rode in this thing..." Velda, with tears, uncharacteristically cried out, "Jim, Shut up!" They together had been bringing Tommy home.

She died in the night. She had turned twenty-four her last birthday. The funeral that followed, the friends, the family, the expressions of grief and love and sympathy were all a blurr. There are colored slides of the grave, covered with flowers. There were memories of how he grieved, how he keened out his pain at the grave and finally had to be pulled away, all of which trickled my way over the years.

But, for twenty years he would say nothing, would tell me nothing of my beautiful, engaging mother, apart from snippets like, "She was fine." "She was good." "She was better than I ever deserved." "She was beautiful."

On a March day in 1973, on the day when he first met my own beautiful wife-to-be, the floodgates of memory were opened, and as Kathy and I sat and listened and wept, he, also weeping, told us the beautiful and tragic story. I was twenty-one and for the rest of his life we would be best friends. be continued

What is the Christian Gospel?

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Creator has become a creature in order to recover a creation in rebellion against himself.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the eternal God has become man in order to recover, restore and reorder fallen mankind.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Holy One has become so identified with human sinfulness as to cancel sin as guilt and evacuate it of its power.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Life of the world has died in order to render death powerless over mortal men.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Righteous One has through his obedience secured a righteousness that God's righteousness can accept.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the God of grace has chosen to receive and accept those who deserved his wrath and cannot achieve his favor.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that those who receive the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper in faith in Jesus are assured of life everlasting, the life of the age to come- now- and then.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that God accepts for Jesus' sake those who believe in him, with no regard for the best thing about them and despite the worst thing about them.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the True Man by his Spirit is engaged in restoring our true humanity to wholeness, justice, and beauty.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the Communal God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is calling and cultivating a community of human sons and daughters who love him and one another, as well as their fellow humans.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that nations are being and will be brought to this transformative reality through the preaching of the good news.

The Christian Gospel is the good news that the present creation will be renewed in a transformation that will finally realize and participate in God's original purpose in creation, in glory, holiness, justice, and beauty.