Sunday, February 08, 2015

Pieces

The idea of a family tree is a funny, unfitting metaphor. Trees grow up, each branch forking off independently from one trunk, a single source. More appropriately, we are the flowers peeking from the ground; we are the beautiful things poking from the ground, hiding the tangle of roots underneath the surface, each contributing to the one final product.

It's always difficult to piece together the story of a life when so many parts would rather be left forgotten. Some families have complete histories, but often those are the ones that are least interesting. The parts of our family stories with the most meaning, the "juicy" parts, the really formative experiences that made our relatives who they are, remain buried and tangled and hidden by those who had to live them. You have to listen and remember and piece together the stories, the throwaway comments, the incomplete anecdotes in a way that makes sense to figure out who a person was. Sometimes these fragments are anachronistic; sometimes they are true without being factual, an amalgamation of two or three stories already peeved together; sometimes they are projections of others' memories, fabricated based on their own constructions from the artifacts they have uncovered themselves.

When you know that my Grandma Jeanette was the oldest of four sisters in a single-parent household before anyone had thought to invent the term, you understand why she fussed over everybody and felt so responsible for each and every person she knew. It wasn't a distraction or a hobby that she kept such a big garden; I've heard stories that she left brown-paper grocery bags of vegetables in the garage for people to come and take as they needed. When a young pastor and his wife took a job at a church in a small, middle-of-nowhere town far from their families, it wasn't a nicety that she would take them in and feed them: it was a necessity, her responsibility.

When you know that her own father was an absent drunk or when you find out that she spent the night with her children at the station because the police feared that her father-in-law was on an alcohol-fueled rampage, that he'd already shot two of his sons and might be coming after another, you understand why she never took even a sip of alcohol. You understand why she felt so strongly about it and worried so over her family members who did.

Then you have to piece these artifacts together: when you have a good idea of that sense of responsibility she felt and the anger she must've felt towards her father for running out on them, you have to think she had to be wary when dad showed back up. And when she saw him being so abusive to her sister, it makes complete sense that she threw all his clothes in the fire after he fell asleep. And even though you don't know what she said to him that night, her knife at his throat, you've seen that look of determination before, that fire in her eyes and behind her words, and you can't blame him for leaving and never coming back, because you know it wasn't just a threat. It was a promise, and she always kept her word.

When you realize that she never had a man in her house, that her husband had to teach her how to iron a shirt, you understand why she would think that she'd need to teach her son's wife how to iron (even though she had a present father and three brothers and had been doing it for years).

When you think about the lack of opportunity she had herself, with all that responsibly for others, you know the pride she felt when her daughter won the Atlanta Journal Cup for "Best All-Around Senior" and why she still has that trophy displayed in the hallway.

When you think about the financial struggles she must've lived through in a house with three sisters and a working mother in an age when wage inequity was even more of a problem than it is today, it makes sense that her basement had more canned vegetables than an episode of Doomsday Hoarders; why she fed her two grandchildren (who she kept for her working son and his wife) off of saved tin pie pans rather than plates and bowls; why, towards the end of her life, she gave so extravagantly at Christmas to her family.

When you know the onus, the burden that was placed on her as the mother of the only boy child from a painful and disjointed family name, you understand the pride she felt in his two sons, two more Gordon boys, to take the family name forward at least one more generation.

And you know her joy and doting over a great-grandson and great-granddaughter, an assurance of two more flowers, African violets to tend and feed and shelter from the elements, because the tangle of roots are a testament to her perseverance.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

This has been one of the most surreal weeks of my life.  For those unaware, Tanya was admitted into Piedmont Hospital one week ago after her blood pressure was elevated at her doctor's appointment.  The perinatologist (it's a baby doctor while your babies are in the womb) felt that Tanya needed to be put on bedrest for at least one week to try and keep the babies in for as long as possible, so for the last week Tanya has lived in Room 290.

She's pretty sure that the outside world still exists, thanks to some visits from friends and the television.  There's a window in the room with a great view of a large HVAC evaporator.  Tanya can get up whenever she wants to as long as whenever she wants to means when she has to use the bathroom.  She has kept her spirits up much better than I have, even though I can leave (and have left for a time) every day.  I am going nuts.

We have developed a mindset that something is going to happen tomorrow when Tanya visits her doctor, but we could just be told that we get to wait another week.  Tanya's blood pressure and blood sugar and vitals have looked just fine ever since she's been admitted.  We really have no idea what is going on right now.  We sit here and we sleep here and Tanya eats cafeteria food while I eat out of my lap out of paper wrappers and we feel like we may never leave here.  We know that each day that the babies stay in is better for them, but some of the mystery of what is about to happen has been dulled by Tanya's incarceration in the Antepartum Unit.

I know that this may sound like we're impatient but that's because  at this point we're impatient.  If we were sitting at home and able to do what we normally do and I was sleeping in a bed rather than a vinyl chair that's 8 inches too short for me then we would be quite alright with waiting, but the thought of another week at the hospital is enough to make us both a little crazy.

On the other hand, I've encountered many people here at the hospital that are having it far worse than us.  I talked to women who have spent 10 weeks on this floor.  I met a man who came in with foot pain only to find out that he has a cancerous tumor in his sinus cavity.  Talking to these people makes me feel ashamed at my frustration in our predicament, but at the same time we can't help but be frustrated.  When Tanya had her surgery 2 years ago there was a definitive time when the surgery was going to happen, and after it was over we knew that Tanya was recovering and then we would be going home.  In this instance we know nothing; maybe Tanya will have the babies tomorrow or maybe she'll have the babies 3 weeks from now, maybe the babies will be ready to go straight home or have to go to the NICU for a week or a month.  The uncertainty is overwhelming at this point.

So here we sit.  Tanya's in the bed sweating and I'm in the chair freezing.  Tomorrow morning I'll wake up and go to school and Tanya will still be in the bed and then she'll go to the doctor and maybe then we'll know something for sure.  As for now, just a whole lot of nothing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, originally Decoration Day, was first celebrated in 1868 to honor  fallen Union soldiers in the Civil War.  The date was picked to fall near the date of reunification of our country.  After World War I the holiday was expanded to include all fallen soldiers who lost their lives in service to our country.  Almost 1.5 million American soldiers have died during wars our country has participated in, dating back to the Revolutionary War.  There are so many more soldiers not in that number that have lost their lives without dying as a result of these wars.  Wilbur is one of them.

From his own account, Wilbur is 75 years old.  Or 66.  Or 59.  Or 22.  He was born in Alabama, about 50 miles south of Birmingham and grew up picking cotton and strawberries.  He volunteered for the Vietnam War, “because they would have drafted a black man anyway”.  When he returned from the war he moved to Hackensack, New Jersey.  He started a band, Wilbur and the Invaders, who got the chance to open for Patti LaBelle once on Seventh Avenue in New York.

Wilbur has lived on Forrest Avenue for more than 10 years now.  He sits on his porch four or five days a week singing along with his radio, his “box”.  The neighborhood is serenaded with Sam Cooke, The Drifters, James Brown, Fats Domino.  Wilbur sings and drinks, and drinks and sings, until he passes out on the porch.  He suffers from dementia, arthritis, alcoholism.  His (second, or maybe fourth) wife Elizabeth hides in the house, ashamed of her husband.

Yesterday Wilbur’s box was broken.  I went to his porch to fix it, but it was finished, just like the other 3 boxes on the porch.  I let him borrow our box until he could get a new one.  I could hear Wilbur singing as we ate and drank and enjoyed ourselves yesterday.  He seemed to be enjoying himself as well.  Only a handful of people were left at our party last night when the improbable happened.

I’ve lived in this neighborhood since January, 2 doors down from Wilbur, and I’ve never seen him outside his yard.  The gate is padlocked shut, and he roams the yard like an old, toothless lion in a cage at the circus, on display for the thirtysomethings pushing strollers and walking their dogs down our street.  But here he was, standing on our porch, box in hand.  He had decided he should bring our radio back before he broke it like he had his own.  We invited him in and hit play on our Motown playlist.  Wilbur sang along.  He danced in our dining room.  We sat on the front porch and he dispensed wisdom that only his life would allow.

“You was born a man, you gone die a man.  Live like a man.”

“There is no next war.  Don’t run off on this one.”

“Never say bye.  You say bye in Vietnam, you don’t come back.”

About eleven we had to send everyone home.  Tanya had to be up early for work, so we needed to cut the party off.  Wilbur hugged everyone left on the porch and we walked to the end of the driveway together. 

“You know, I thought I pissed you off, now I think you might like me.”

“I don’t just like you Wilbur, I respect you.  You deserve respect.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I love you, but not like a faggot.”

We hugged, and he walked home.  I hope Wilbur can come to our Memorial Day party next year.  He’s a man who deserves to be honored for his service to our country.  If he’s not with us next year or is too frail to come over, I know he’ll be in my mind every Memorial Day for the rest of my life.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

negative=positive

2 weeks ago a guy named Jason approached me at church. He recognized me from a church that we went to together around 10 years ago. I asked how he ended up at trinity, we talked about how I ended up at trinity, then I asked him what he thought of the place. He told me that he's trying to hand off his responsibilities at another church to start attending trinity regularly. Jason said that what he liked about trinity was that our services were so "simple" and "bare bones".

Last weekend some of us were hanging out at Octane (surprise) and Shaunna was talking about a church that she and Chris had attended with a friend of hers. She said that it felt like a rock concert, with fog machines and laser shows and songs that you couldn't sing along with. Someone said that they liked the fact that trinity sang songs that were "familiar".

Simple, bare bones, familiar. These words would give most pastors night terrors because popular wisdom says that your service has to be a big, unpredictable production to get people my age to come to church. But it seems that this wisdom of how to get 20-30 year olds to get involved is based on what 40-50 year olds think 20-30 year olds want. Given the fact that we are doing well in what is typically the most unchurched demographic, it seems that maybe simple, bare bones, and familiar might be the way to go if you want people like me to come to your church.

i'm proud of trinity.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Addiction pays off

While looking over my church's website bulletin board a couple of months ago I noticed a post about shoes. Our church sponsors a village in Kenya called Joska and in the village there's an orphanage for boys. We send a group over twice a year to help with things like digging wells and building walls and the group brings things like school supplies. The guy who runs the orphanage emailed the church 3 days before our group was leaving with a request for shoes. Finally my addiction would be put to good use!

Jonathan Stancel and I were able to cover the largest sizes from our personal collections and Linda, Lauren and Pam from Wish donated the rest. In all we sent 40 pair of new or barely worn shoes to Kenya. Not just walmart specials, either. These were all exclusive, limited edition Nikes, Reeboks, adidas, you name it.

So out of all my shoes, I'm proudest of these:


My dog is real cute.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Where do we go? Where do we go now, sweet child?

As I was driving home from work yesterday, I heard the news of Sen. Charles Grassley's investigation of 6 major "prosperity gospel" pastors' financial records, including two pastors from the Atlanta area. I couldn't help but smile, because I believe that teaching people that faith in Christ leads to owning a mansion seems pretty strange, considering that Jesus himself said that he didn't have anywhere to lay his head. Currently the best selling book in the country is Become a Better You: 7 Keys To Improving Your Life Every Day by Joel Osteen, a pastor from Houston of a 47,000 member church who, every time I've heard him speak, references his million dollar home, beautiful wife, and how problem-free his life is.

It seems to me that popular Christian culture has adopted the idea of selling people what they think they want rather than inviting people to give up their lives in an effort to become what we were created to be. In John's gospel you can read the story of Jesus feeding at least 5,000 people through a miracle that multiplied a bit of food into a feast. That night the disciples got into a boat and headed across the lake to a different city, and Jesus joined them during the night by walking on the water out to the boat. The next morning when people realized that Jesus wasn't there anymore, they got in some boats and followed him across the lake. When they arrived, Jesus told them that they didn't follow him because he could offer them a different life but because he gave them fish sandwiches. He then told them that to really follow him that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood, a metaphor for acceptance of the sacrifice of his life that he would shortly be offering.

The crowds followed Jesus because he had met their "felt needs" - things that they knew they were lacking, mainly because of their growling stomachs - but when he offered them eternal life, a restored relationship with God, and redemption, the response was "this is a hard teaching, who can accept it?"

Jesus gave further explanation to his mandate, explaining that he was speaking of spiritual things and not physical things but many people, upon hearing that there wasn't going to be any more free food, left and decided not to follow Jesus any further.

It seems to me that much of the "prosperity gospel" feeds on peoples felt needs (and even felt wants) by offering bigger houses, nicer cars and fatter wallets in exchange for faith in Jesus. That sounds pretty easy to me, but Christ taught that although his teaching wasn't difficult to understand, it was difficult to accept. Jesus said that the people who followed him would be few, but that doesn't make sense with the message of prosperity. If following Christ meant that you got a new car, who wouldn't take that offer?

G.K. Chesterton said that "the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, but has been found difficult and left untried." In Jesus' orders to his disciples on sending them out, he warned that the job would be thankless, sleepless and dangerous, but the disciples decided that the reward - fulfillment, purpose, a personal relationship with God - was worth the risk.
When the majority of the crowd left with empty stomachs and Jesus was left with his closest friends he asked them, "Do you want to leave to?"

Peter's response to the question shows the resolve of the disciples and the true crux of the Christian faith: "Where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

the fight for no rights

In Jesus' time, his people were under oppression by the Roman government. The Israelites were expectant of a prophesied coming Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government with violence and restore the sovereignty of Israel. Apparently, God didn't believe that using political or military power was the right way of doing things. For some reason, Christian leaders now believe that they might know better.

The current bombardment of media by our next presidential candidates has gotten me thinking lately about what Jesus' political stance was. According to the late Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 80's and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the 90's it is the duty of the American believer to use the church's influence to push political parties into power that agree with general moral principles and to create laws that favor the rights of Christians. Christian rights have been a pretty big issue in past elections and entire organizations have been created to effort the enforcement of them. These rights are only those applicable to Evangelicals (like prayer in school), however, and don't include things such as Mormons' right to polygamy.

As far as I'm concerned, "Christian Rights" are actually a semantic term for "Christian Political Power". I don't think that anyone can argue that those in power at the Christian Coalition seek political power, especially since the founder of the organization ran for president and their national director (Ralph Reed) ran for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. These people are politicians who are using their connection with a set of people that believe the same way to achieve their own political goals.

Within the Roman Empire, a law was created that if a Roman soldier approached you and ordered you to assist him, you were obligated to carry his equipment for one mile. In Jesus' most famous sermon he said, according to Matthew, that when asked you should not only assist the soldier for one mile, but to carry it for two miles instead. If someone was to slap you, turn the other cheek. If someone asks you for your shirt, give them your coat as well. Essentially within Christ's overall message throughout his ministry of changing your natural, human self-focus into a central focus on others through your faith, he orders us to give up all of our rights. Again, CHRIST TELLS US THAT WHEN WE ACCEPT HIS CHALLENGE TO LIVE A LIFE OUTSIDE OF OURSELVES, WE GIVE UP ANY PERSONAL RIGHTS THAT WE MAY HAVE. Doesn't that seem a little contrary to the idea of Christians fighting for their rights?

This isn't to say that Christians shouldn't flex their muscles politically, but I believe that Jesus would prefer for us to push for the rights of others rather than ourselves. I'm sure that most Evangelicals are familiar with their favorite presidential candidate's stance on abortion and school prayer, but what about their plan to help the homeless? How are they going to deal with poverty across the globe?

Beyond that, if the church (globally, not necessarily the one that you go to) would accept their role of assisting these people in order to demonstrate Christ's love we wouldn't have to depend on the government to do these things. Much of the American church's desire to gain political power stems from the fact that many churches are focusing inward (how to make your life better) rather than outward (how to improve the lives of others).

And in our own lives, let's stop complaining about what we're owed, or our rights, or any of that. There are people at arms' length of all of us that could use our help, so let's give it to them.