Events That Require Attention

My spiritual director told me, among many other precious things, that there are some events in life that require our attention.  She said that those events don’t necessarily care when they get attention just as long as they get what they deserve.  They interrupt us, sometimes an inconvenient times.  They vie for a spot in our field of vision.

We were discussing my father’s health and my recent visits to see him.  She had mentioned that her mother was ill for years before she died and that she too had some dementia.  Then, she said the most appropriate thing.  These things are in our peripheral vision.  They’re always present, though not always in front of us.  Whatever we do, they are present, waiting, and, often, off to the sides of our lives.

There are other things to pay attention to.  There is the work of ministry, work that seems to flow against common boundaries.  There is the immediate family, in my case a rambunctious two-year old and a wife who studies part-time in grad school.  There is the rest of me.

And the normal events trade places with the peripheral ones, and the pieces of my life dance around until I see what I need to see.  There are moments when what we’ve been changes because of who’s around us.  There are similar moments when we change because who isn’t.

And the event of my father’s health.  The series of moments I’m holding regarding what can only be seen as tentative progress and expected deterioration.  These moments are changing me.

I’ve never been the sporadic type.  I’ve never been impulsive.  I’m comfortable with slower rhythms, with taking care, with intention.  But the slow movement in front of me, and in front of my father, scratches at who I am.  And I’m left with a deepening knowing that, sometimes, attending to the needed things is dreadful.

My Son & Trayvon Martin

I posted this on my For Fathers blog, but the intersections between the mentioned events and my weak faith are undeniable.  I hope you can read where you should be prayerful for me and us…

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black child from Florida, was killed on February 26 by a 28-year old white man named George Zimmerman.  The killer has not been arrested, and a lot of people in and outside of Florida are calling for his arrest.  Many have spent days demanding, minimally, an investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death.  Almost as many are seeking some sensible understanding of the laws in Florida, and states like it, which allow for a gun-carrying questionable character like Zimmerman to follow a child with a pocket filled with skittles, harass him, and kill him.

At this point, the US Dept. of Justice has opened an investigation into the case.  The Martin family is struggling to find consolation and justice for their dead loved one.  Newspapers are reporting on how bright and cheerful and smart the young man was.

Bloggers and journalists are providing details about the killer’s background.  He likes calling the police to complain about black kids.  He said, the day he called 911 to complain about Trayvon Martin, that “they always get away.”  He was permitted to walk away after gunning down a child, with his 9 millimeter weapon.  He was not detained or arrested or charged.  Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman is free.

My wife asked me if I was planning to blog about the situation.  I immediately said no.  It didn’t take two seconds to respond.  I didn’t want to think, much less write, about another kid getting killed.  I had heard about the case, seen it on television.  I tried to close my eyes to it because it was too much.

I didn’t want to think about Trayvon Martin or his family and how many tears they were shedding because their child was murdered by a guy who had hardly been questioned by the police after he was the last person to hear their child’s voice.  That murderer heard the child screaming, yelling for help that never came.

I didn’t want to think or write about how that long destructive history that doesn’t release people with skin like mine but that creeps and creeps and creeps until it opens up its big mouth and screams out loud because nothing and no amount of “coverage” can hide how hard it is to be black, to be a man, to be a father, to be a son.

I didn’t want to think or write about that place in my inner soul that keeps memories locked away in my heart.  Like the time a woman crossed the street when she saw me approaching her and like the shame I felt when I turned around after passing her only to see her cross back to the same street after I’d gotten beyond her and how downcast I felt because I was headed to a class in seminary where the story of my faith would remind me that I was called to love and serve people just like that woman who clutched her bag while passing a preacher on his way to being better.  If I were in Florida studying theology at that time; if I were in Florida carrying my briefcase with a Bible and a text on salvation-history and pastoral ministry; if I were in Florida with an essay on the elements of pastoral case most effective for families in today’s time, I could have lost my life.

I didn’t want to think about how similar Trayvon Martin is to the vision I have for my son.  He was a boy, enjoying life, getting good grades, collecting admiration from teachers; he was loved by his family, who over and over called the extremely deceptive police department when he had been missing for three days because his body was cooling on a medical examiner’s table and left like his parents didn’t want him when all they wanted was him.  That young child was so much like my child, the child in my imagination’s future.  He had a girl who liked him.  He ate candy.  He was wise in discerning when trouble showed up.  He called for help.

I didn’t want to believe one more time that a young child, approaching early adulthood, could be treated so terribly and that hatred and evil—whether because of racism or bigotry or power or other foolish sins—could continue to be so bold.  I didn’t want to think one more time that we had another example of criminal justice in the United States where the criminal was the only one who saw justice and when he saw it in the face of that sweet kid, he had to laugh in his blood-covered face.

I look at my son everyday.  I say things to him, things that I know don’t make sense to most people if they’re listening to my words.  Even Dawn laughs at the things I say.  And if I’m honest, there’s a strong dose of this current reality behind my instructions to my son.  His brain doesn’t get it when I’m just a bit too firm.  His brain doesn’t get that there is no difference between his father and the last black man who was walking down a street and mistaken for some other black guy.  Bryce’s mind doesn’t conceive that his daddy, the man who loves him, could be mistreated to the point of death for no other reason than he looked suspicious.  But my son’s father knows these things.  I know these things.  And I don’t want to think them, talk of them, or admit them.  The topics, taken together, form a gross compromise of morality and justice just to discuss them.  And yet I have to raise my son with these words in his ears.

I don’t want to look at my child, who is not even able to stand up at the toilet yet, and witness the closeness between his lovely face and the loveliness of another parent’s son in Florida.  The proximity between those two children is as long as a breath.  And I am aching with a lot of people about the assassination of promise and hope and joy in Trayvon Martin and in every other black loved one he has now joined on the other side of death.

In a strange way, I knew Trayvon Martin’s future.  In a strange way, I know the next son’s future.  Whether or not he is the image of the child who lives in my house, he will be my child.  And the worst fear in me these days is that I won’t be so gracious as the day I continued on to seminary class, that I won’t be loving when my next child, son or daughter, Florida or some other place, meets death in such a horrendous way.  After all, there is no difference between my son and Trayvon Martin.  And I don’t know if there is that much love in any world.

My Adorable Son, An Idol

Because this fits with my themes on this blog as well as my other one, I’m posting it here too.

As a clergy person I lead people in worship.  That means that I spend time with people, and while I’m with them, I point them to God.  I facilitate people’s encounters with the Divine.  I don’t create the encounters.  I don’t create the people.  I sometimes simply nudge people in a direction, or turn them around, or push them to keep listening or seeing or waiting until they notice Who was there but was, somehow, unseen.  You might say that I do this for a living.  In other words, when I’m with a person, a pair, or a group I’m asking the unrelenting question, how can I help this person encounter God so they can live?

What often comes with this occupation is an abiding question: what enables me to encounter God?  The other day I was thinking about why I wasn’t sleeping.  I was turning over in bed, trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t envy my wife or my son.  I was listening to them slumber, Dawn right next to me, Bryce in the other room.  Both of them were whispering little dreams to themselves, hardly moving, content.  I was, as I said, turning and trying to flip away from the little anger in me that comes with occasional insomnia.

It’s not insomnia, I tell people.  I can actually sleep.  It’s just that I can’t sleep like abnormal people, on command.  I sleep in a different time zone.  I sleep later, but I do sleep.  I can’t sleep like my wife or my brother, both of whom will enter into sleep 13 seconds after pulling a sheet over themselves.  I look at them and I wonder why they aren’t more normal.  Why don’t they fall asleep?  Why must they jump into it?

When I am not asleep, my head dances.  It doesn’t throb or ache, but it dances to the music of a thousand thoughts.  I think about a congregant and it gives me reason, again, to pray.  I think about class and whether I should just get up and read in preparation.  I think about the novel I’m currently reading, Donna Freitas’s The Survival Kit, which I greatly enjoy, about the book of Maya Angelou’s poems I’m slowing reading and some snatch of words it left me.  I think about one of my heroes in ministry, how he’s aging.  I think about what I’ll cook tomorrow with that roasted chicken and whether I’ll cook the potatoes with onions and asparagus or just with the onions.

On the pre-dawn morning in question, I got to remembering when my son was crying a few days before.  He has a tactic—I’m convinced that’s what it is—where he’ll whine, which I despise because it is a pernicious method in undoing me, and while whining he calls for his mother.  He’ll do this in a tone that makes me contemplate how quickly I can climb down from our balcony and onto a neighbor’s despite our sixth floor setting.  His voice, which isn’t a voice as much as a dismal sound in the distance just like the fire truck that kept sounding all night long that night prior and that I counted screaming four times from 6:55 to 7:23AM, his voice drones as he calls.

That day, last week, he called her as was normal and then he started into my title.  Daddy.  Daddy.  And like a dripping drain it came until I turned looking for a clue because I had already started failing at my dogged resistance of the boy.  I am really good at keeping the rules of our parenting pact.  We don’t go into him after he’s in bed.  But that week was a strange week for a lot of reasons.  And we caved.  Dawn mostly did, but I did too.  I had come home late two evenings, rather than one, and he hadn’t seen me.  He missed me.  Dawn said this to me.  I said this to me.  Bryce’s whine said this to me.

After it all was done, days later, there I was listening to those damn birds that sang all night long because they, too, were confused about the weather outside and about whether birds should be awake and singing from 2:30 to 5:30AM.  I didn’t know they were keeping me company.  It took the congested sound of the delivery truck, gurgling below at 7:35AM, for me to remember that earlier, melodious birdsong.  I lay there thinking about the way my heart jumped when the boy called for me.  I didn’t move as quickly as I wanted to, but I did want to.

It got me thinking that my son was in a dangerous position, a position anyone loved by another can be placed in.  Bryce was a potential idol.  He was a potential reason for getting up and doing.  He could become, I thought while fighting for sleep, the reason why I did what I did.  That little toddler, full of nonsensical noise and play and fun, could turn me away from the One for whom I’m spending my life.  I know it’s a slip of movement.  It’s a crazed thought, one that I’d probably only come to when I hadn’t been taken my some real night dream instead.  But it stayed with me, that thought.  It was like all those birds and that heaving meat truck and those red blaring engines from the night and the morning.  It didn’t leave me.

Grace and Parenting Mistakes

One of the things we did to celebrate my son’s birthday was visit my father in Little Rock.  On the way back, I was tired.  I hadn’t eaten.  I had gotten up early, at the time I designated, so we could get on the road and return home in enough time to keep the bedtime ritual solid.  It’s funny how much happens around a baby’s bedtime routine. 

We got up early.  I slept enough hours to feel like I could actually drive while awake.  But I hadn’t gotten that much sleep, certainly not enough to deal with people, including a small one, expecting me to be social.  My wife understood this about me at the time.  She’s had enough experiences with me to know that I’m half sane before morning.  She knows that morning to me is post 10a.m., and that any time before morning is still night.  My son, well, he’s still learning about these things.

Somewhere, long after my real morning, and probably closer to the afternoon, I had been driving long enough to wish the trip was over.  The boy had his naps.   We stopped for lunch.  Things were fine.  But the kid started making noise.  My eyes had started doing the things they do when I’m tired.  I don’t exactly not see things in those moments, but I can tell that it takes more concentration and energy to focus.  I get quieter.  I pay more attention to how I’m holding the wheel. 

Bryce whined and cried.  I told him to stop.  Of course, he didn’t listen.  Well, he didn’t obey.  I told him that I was not in the mood to hear his noise.  He kept up the noise-making anyway.  I raised my voice to match him.  I turned up the music to drown him out.  When he was smaller, music would settle him.  He’d stop or moan or even bounce at the head.  Coming back from Little Rock he just screamed.  At some point he stopped fussing.  But it was after I’d gotten short with him.  It was after I made the mistake of losing patience, the thing I seem to lose so easily.  He stopped after I marked my little parenting path with another small failure. 

I thought about it that night.  I wondered if he were piling up my mistakes and my wrongs in his little head. the way I had been  I wondered, worse, if he wasn’t.  I wondered how it was that he could so quickly forget my shortcomings and run to me with stretched up arms after his bath or his meal, asking me to hold him.  I wondered if Bryce was secretly plotting in his crib to get even when he’s the one changing my diapers. 

It would probably make me feel better if the boy was able to keep count of my errors and wrongs.  It’d make me feel accomplished if I knew there was a correlation between good parenting moments and a good outcome with my son or bad moments and bad outcomes.  It would leave me with something to count and organize and expect.  From what I’m told by seasoned parents, though, that’s not the way it is. 

God, having something to do with children-making and parent-developing, probably smiles at little thoughts like mine.  Thoughts which hope that we could do the right things and get the right results.  If I am patient enough, then I’ll be a better parent.  If I am good enough at this parenting job, then the kid’ll come up bright and confident and handsome.  That’s the essential parenting mistake in my increasingly muddy and yet clear view.  It pushes grace out when we need it most.  That car ride was just another current example of how I’m in need of a grace-giver, and not just the boy.  This short spark of a fuse in my heart is an abiding reminder that the more my boy grows up, the more help I’ll need to raise him.  I couldn’t get through that ride, yes, without the forebearance of my wife and a little help from some random country song by Rascal Flatts that mysteriously came on three separate stations in Missouri.  But I couldn’t make it without God either.

Ten Things Different As Compared To This Time Last Year

I don’t know how to interpret the non-response to the book giveaway.  Maybe you’ll tell me.  So, even though I don’t have a winner to announce, I do hope you enjoyed the interview and I do have this post on a view things I’ve noticed from this time last year.

  1. I can tell you the number of times Dawn has sat across the table from me, just us, talking about something other than diapers, feeding schedules, formula, and other random things related mostly to the influence of sleep deprivation.
  2. I am still not a morning person.
  3. A schedule consisting mostly of driving a tender package around and doctor-visiting and note-taking, all while being afraid since nobody else seemed to know the rules of the road.  Actually I was doing this with my pregnant wife a year ago.
  4. The three pictures of me as a newborn, as a one-year old, and as a 7th grader on my refrigerator, placed there by my mother to show the similar features between me and the boy.
  5. My gym membership goes unused much more regularly.
  6. I only carve out one day per week to have evening meetings and my Sundays have become much longer because of it.
  7. I smile at other people’s kids because they make me think of my own.
  8. When I consider doing something I shouldn’t, I think about the boy’s face over my shoulder in the car, his eyes following mine as he peers through the gap in the seat shade, and it makes me remember responsibility again–to both God and the people who matter.
  9. I clean up.  All the time.  Even when other people are doing it too.  It never stops.
  10. People have literally forgotten my name, identity, and use, preferring 1) to label me “Bryce’s father,” 2) to ask me where he is first and where his mother is second, and 3) to compare me and my features to his as if I weren’t here first.