Advent Post #24

“He has helped his servant…remembering…” (Luke 1:54)

One of the most pastoral words that frame my work is remember. I snatched it from John Patton to put it as a main anchor of my ministry (see Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide for an introduction). Professor Hogue told us about Dr. Patton’s work. Later, Sister Barbara told me how loving a man her friend, John Patton, was in real life. And his language about the pastoral power of memory just kept coming back to me.

Memory is powerful. And when we remember well, we’re doing very godly work. The scriptures tell us that God remembers those who are his, that God remembers to be gracious, that God remembers God’s covenant. Mary captures this part of God’s acts toward her and toward the people of God when she says that the help of God comes in the form of God’s remembering. I think we need memory, as a community, as people, as families. I heard once, or read I’m not sure, that people are their memories. What separates us from other species is memory.

When I think of what makes me unique, what teases my life from the rest of my friends’ lives, it’s memory. It’s my recalled experience of a situation that is unique and distinct from anyone else’s. God’s interaction with me (or you) is the same. How we’ve related to God is so unique, and what maintains we who are with God is memory. And mostly God’s memory. Imagine for a moment key events that frame your life with God. There will inevitably be painful experiences. Grief and suffering will mark some of those moments. Joy inexpressible will be there too.

I wonder if you can think about how God will recast those same moments. I think Mary guides us in learning how God recalls our moments with him. When God thinks of you, of us, God remembers mercifully. That means partly that God never remembers without mercy. Memory and mercy wed in God’s recollection. And this is who God is to every generation of his own. Memory and mercy always come together.

May we recall that God helps us. As Christmas comes and goes, may we be reminded that when others have forgotten us, God keeps us in mind. May we know that the ways God’s memory works all captured by the lovely word mercy.

A Recent Journey With A Friend

The initial question.

The reasons we participated.

The preparation for an interruption which wasn’t really.

The long ride, trading sentences and looking out and catching up.

The nervousness of being surrounded by people so different and so similar.

The mumbling that became words which turned into songs.

The string of cameras and the open streets.

The rhythmic stamping of our feet.

The commitment to stay.

The commitment to stay together.

The rumbles of thunder.

The hard-won meal in a hurry.

The symbols of darkness and light.

The gas masks, water bottles, and signs.

The jumping and chanting and watching and waiting.

The circles of prayer, the clusters of pain.

The playful way we wondered what in the world we were the doing.

The amplified voice of that one man commanding them, not us, to leave.

The joking.  The questions.  The long silence.  The disgust-filled prayers.

The heavyset, sweating leader we stood with and for.

The shock to our bodies from the weight of the evening.

The words of that one sister, the missionary, who checked us all.

The stark contrasting pictures of justice.

The greetings and the welcome words.

The shaking of our heads and the wringing of our hearts.

The long, aching journey home.

The stars, bright like flashes, overhead in the darkness.

Singing with Brother Tom

When we first met, he seemed to be a stiff, jovial man.  The stiffness was only in his movements and not his heart.  He kept a full, broad smile on his face, wore glasses and a gray beard, and I could tell early on that he had jokes I wouldn’t understand.  Jokes, perhaps, I’d laugh at later.

I was told to call him Brother Tom because that was his preference.  We would get along because I could relate to his Christian faith, to the songs he sang, to the scriptures he went on and on about.  All those markers would be little pieces of Brother Tom’s deep faith.  He had an abiding song for his God.

On several occasions when I was with him, he had me pull his CD player to his side so he could play Gaither gospel, music I didn’t enjoy but lyrics I could follow.  The tunes’ texts were so familiar that I could follow them, even if I had to close my ears to their sounds.  Looking at Brother Tom’s face as he sang–closed eyes, his deep throat open–I’d think back to rehearsals with the Soul Children of Chicago when we would sing with all our selves.  I’d think about my days at church singing in the choir.  And I would join Brother Tom.  Sometimes.

We talked about the Bible.  We spoke of theology.  He always asked about my ministry and my leadership.  He wanted to talk about his writings, and I wanted to hear about his life.  Sometimes it felt like our conversations were dull in the sense that they were aimless, almost lazy.  But there was something building, an intimacy I wouldn’t know until my internship and time with him was ending.  Still, with all those important words shared between us, it was his music that marked our time.

He would sing in the middle of a conversation, offering a public display of affection, even next to sleepy residents in St. Paul’s house.  I didn’t want to wake up his fellow residents.  But he didn’t mind it.  He would simply sing.  Loud and never quietly, he’d open his throat as if God was before him, waiting and encouraging him to sing louder.

Donny Hathaway, a singer I’m sure Brother Tom was unfamiliar with, sang that “for all we know tomorrow may never come.”  But the faith residing in the deep bottoms of my old friend, old because he’d seen so many days with God and with people, old because he’d experienced plain loneliness and gripping isolation, old because he was aged by grace and suffering and illness, that faith had a different lyric.  In some ways, Tom Lopresti sang because he believed he would see a tomorrow.

On the first day of the week, when he died, Brother Tom’s voice joined another melodious chorale.  He wouldn’t sing along.  He would join the sounds of the stars and the unseen vocalists from all eternity.  In death, he would start a new chorus, hardly ending his lovely baritone rendition of thankfulness.  He would keep singing, even if I’d never hear him again.  Perhaps this time he’d open his eyes, but Brother Tom would sing.  For sure he would.

Dear Dementia

I didn’t believe it was you when I first saw the signs.  The missed memories were small, so slight they were unnoticed.  I forget.  I get agitated.  I make mistakes, lose things, get mixed.  I was like everyone else who loved: I wanted more.

I began what is still the dismal existence of a loved one struggling with you and your fingers wrapping and stealing things from my father.  I started to look at all those yesterdays, fading in my own memory, and I grabbed for them.  I called them back the way a grandparent calls for their only child’s offspring when, because of intuition, they know that was the last visit.  The rides in my dad’s white van and then the brown van.  There was a  black van too, I think.  I sniffed for the smell of worms and dirt when we went fishing, when I was so small I felt nothing but incompetence because I couldn’t do what my father found so easy.  I listened to the sound of his laughter, not just his laughter, but the way it sang like a Delta blues man.  I looked at the crinkle that was his smile.  I wanted that grin to be mine.

You pulled me from my memories.  Reminded me that you hadn’t won yet.  That yours was a most sinister work because no one knew, and no one knows, when your job would be done with my dad’s brain and body.  You shouted in the tone that was once was my dad’s.  It was his voice, and it wasn’t.  And the reality of my life—the lives of my brothers, the lives of our aunts and our extended loved ones—is that you and dad are dancing.  And his feet are clipping and stumbling under what was once his best song.

You gave him pain and depression at what he can no longer command.  You made him mad at everybody and nobody.  You snatched his ability to attend to the mundane affairs of bills and greetings and polite conversations.  You made him unpredictable so that he couldn’t travel, so that he couldn’t go home and live on his own and be alone.

I hate you.  You’ve taken so much and you’re not even finished.  You have hardly done to me, to us, what I know you’ve done to others.  But know that I’m not alone in seeing your memory-soaked hand clenching and withdrawing from the collective worlds which have been ours.  I hear the prayers of my friends in my ears.

Roland and the way his hand pressed into my shoulder just yesterday, the words he prayed, the faith he had for me, even though today’s conversation with dad tried hard to erase my faith and my friend’s.  Libby and her careful way of saying just enough to express a deep understanding, a selective and prophetic care, and how she brings a prayerfulness whenever she approaches.  Lisa’s powerful prayers that the ground I’m on is sure and steady and the way she keeps praying, the mirror she is to people I see and don’t see.  Lauren’s steady gaze when she asks me respectfully and compassionately how I’m really doing and dealing with the junk you’ve thrown at us.  Byron and his admonition to take care of myself, to do what I need, to care for me so that I’m not surprised by my own breaks and broken places.  Lucy and the regular ways she brings me before the Presence, keeps me there, helps me see me and see truth and prepare to live from more than pain but love.  Winston, his faithfulness and his ability, through history, presentness, and vision for what’s to come, and how he keeps at the work of partnering with God to help make me good through the terror of unknown trials related to you.

Your hand is hard.  But I do not envy you.  Because you, partner of all that is sinful, will have a lot of giving to do.  Diseases like you must hold the things you take and you must return them.  So, my faith, sometimes thin as cracking leaves at autumn’s end, feels tiny.  And even if it disappears to an invisible quality, it will not leave.  It will not depart.  You cannot take it from me.  You cannot steal it the way you have my father’s best qualities.  You cannot leave in faith’s place depression and sadness the way my father struggles now, even without the words to give to his interiority.  I’m looking at the collective faith of an increasing cloud of witnesses, and while your reach is long, it cannot capture all my friend’s strengths.  There are some things you cannot do.

“…recollections at soft distance…”

Some would say memory brings life after death.  Perhaps there’s truth in that, but only if we’re content to enjoy our recollections at soft distance, as passing flickers or occasional sparks.  If we’re grasping and desperate, if we want it all too much, if we reach out and try to touch it, what happens then?  It fades so fast from view that we’re left wondering if it was ever there at all.  Perhaps the trick is to find a gentle use for memory.  Learn to cup the small and glorious moments in our hands and treasure them, finding some solace this way.  Otherwise, all they do is remind us that we are too late.  That what is lost is lost forever.

From Emylia Hall’s The Book of Summers (pg. 323)