When it hits, I fear it may be a stroke such as traumatized an uncle. I break the airport security I’ve just cleared enroute to working from the road with my wife Joan, who is on assignment in Montana.
On to doctor, who looks in eyes and ears, manipulates body, then cheerfully pronounces just BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo), see lots as people get older, inner-ear crystals and whatnot, just need medicine and vertigo exercises.
“Well, I was headed to Montana. Can I fly?”
“Sure, people may think you’re having a stroke, they may think you’re going to vomit, you might even actually vomit, but you won’t be having a stroke.”
So I fly though forced to look only at the floor when walking.
As Joan picks me up in Bozeman, the vertigo fades. After her next work day I’m happy to drive us to her Kalispell assignment. But as interstate speed limits rise crazily by Eastern standards, we hit curvy mountains. Vertigo returns.
So my poor exhausted wife is driving. GPS says shorter this way. We’d stopped for a snack while I was driving and agreed gas later. Joan obeys GPS. But it doesn’t occur to either of us that GPS will take us through wilderness for oh, 2,822 miles. We have nice chats in between my covering my eyes.
Suddenly Joan stops talking. No matter what I say she just drives. What? Marriage over? What? Ah, she can’t handle my aging process now that she sees how it’s going to go. Okay, Joan: Why aren’t you saying anything?
“I was hoping not to have to tell you before I fixed it.”
“We’re running out of gas.”
“WHAT? HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?! Why didn’t we (YOU) get gas? Where are we?”
“I don’t know.”
“How far to civilization?”
“I don’t know.”
I ask Joan’s phone (mine has no signal) where gas is. It won’t say. Because now her phone has no signal.
“How far down is the gas?”
“It’s been in the red a long time,” reports Joan, not quite her usual inspirational self.
“Joan, we’re in big trouble.”
“I know. I know I know.
We get to a sign promising gas/lodging that way. We go that way. Nothing.
A man in a dusty pickup comes toward us. I open my door, I wave wave wave. He looks at the lunatic. Hard look. But he stops. He lowers his window.
I stagger over and cling to his truck. “Sorry to bother you but we’re those crazy Easterners who come to Montana and then run out of gas. Do you know where we can get some?”
“How much do you have left?”
“Can you make it 15 miles?”
“Maybe. Not sure. Maybe.”
“Okay, if you keep going that way you’ll get to this intersection with a Sinclair.”
Okay. Ipod off. Can’t stand it. No talking. Except a strangled occasional query from Joan: How many more miles? 12, says GPS. 11.9. 6.25. At times Joan’s speed drops. Why? Gas gone? No, slowing down from 80.
5.7. Get us at least within 3. Then we can walk or stagger. 2.5 miles. 1.5. Green and red glimmer. Oasis! Heaven! Nirvana! The Meaning of Life in Car Crazy America! Who cares about climate change and fossil fuels and the collapse of civilization. The SINCLAIR!
I pull out the rental car manual. Gas tank capacity: 18.75.
“How much did you put in?”
“18.6. I was praying,” she said.
“People pray and bad things still happen,” I said.
“But we made it.”
I don’t know how to theologize about this. But I am grateful.
I want more time with Jason. . . . with my children. . . . at the Green Mill Jazz Club. . . . But . . . . I probably have only . . . days left. . . . So why I am doing this?
I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.
Days later, Anne dies.
Barbecuing as torture. Climate change, wars, oppressions razing homes of millions, including the flying and swimming and crawling creatures God pronounced good. Death stalking as it always has, the Annes forced to release loved ones, the Jasons required to rebuild.
As sometimes it seemed all things must be made new, I remembered years ago teasingly comparing a seminary student to a biblical character whose name she shares. That stung, she courageously reported: she faced a void which in the biblical story is miraculously filled.
Recently, as she gave permission to share, Sarah Payne completed an EMS capstone on that very void. I told her of being sensitized to it when she confronted my teasing and of now being touched because a loved one feared the same void. She gave me prayer beads to pass on. Without meeting, student and loved one prayed, with tears, for each other.
Another student. A painter. Linking seminary studies and art, gospel and today’s realities. Meanwhile I spend over a year discerning: continue at EMS or try new adventures? After choosing the new, I receive a gift during my final EMS chapel: a painting by that student, Rebekah Nolt. The blacks and grays, whites and purples remind me of hair-rising thunderstorm and beautiful day merging.
The artist note says the painting is from a series reacting to “the many tragedies or injustices of 2016,” each “just that, a reaction of emotional energy, without purpose, without vision.” As Rebekah hurled paint, she “realized how glad I was it was just paint . . . and not angry words or stones, because I was really not happy how this was turning out.” The paint wasn’t fully dry so she “got to work, not certain . . . I could even make something out of the mess. . . .” Yet what she made is a cherished memento.
Teasing linking to a void to prayer beads to a Holy Spirit throbbing through all. Anger yielding a mess transformed. Or this: My father dies. A student tells me of having been in jail. My dad, prison chaplain, had inspired him to enroll at EMS.
As so much unravels, many turn to novels of dystopia more for guidance than escape. And so many, collaborating with unseen hands, weave the new.
—Michael A. King is dean, seminary and graduate programs, Eastern Mennonite University. This is posted on his last day in that role as he transitions to running Cascadia Publishing House LLC and to other activities as writer, speaker, and consultant in communications, administration, and pastoral leadership. King writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review, which first published this post.
In distress, my daughter who loves the music of Leonard Cohen phoned us parents just after the November U.S. elections. Cohen, she said, was dead. I was reminded of the prior Sunday when Cohen’s just-released “Treaty” came on the radio and we heard it, rapt, for the first time.
Now Cohen is dead at 82. An election has been held. A presidential transition has been completed. Shock and awe is underway. We yearn for safe passage across unmapped terrain. I wonder if in “Treaty” Cohen gives clues. In lyrics that, as so often with Cohen, echo the Bible, he evokes turning water into wine, Jubilee, the snake baffled by sin. Wishing “there was a treaty we could sign,” Cohen sings of being angry and tired and not caring “who takes this bloody hill.” He wishes for a treaty “Between your love and mine.”
“Treaty” also reminds me of Will Campbell’s journey during dynamics so different yet so connected with today’s. A Baptist minister who sharply challenged his own denomination’s racism, Campbell was a fiery civil rights fighter in the 1960s. In Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum, 1977, pp. 245-247), a heartrending memoir of brokenness and justice and grace, Campbell tells of putting his life on the line for civil rights—while gradually realizing that even the “enemy,” the KKK, deserved some understanding.
Campbell tells of President Johnson’s nationally televised warning to the Klan, in which Johnson says, “Get out of the Klan, and back into decent society while there is still time.” Then he says this:
The closing five words must certainly have been heard by those in the Klan as a threat from an impending police state. And the President did not tell them just how they could get into the decent society of which he spoke, how they could break out of the cycle of milltown squalor, generations of poverty, a racist society presided over, not by a pitiful and powerless few people marching around a burning cross in a Carolina cow pasture, not by a Georgia farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right, but by those in the “decent society” to which the President referred, the mammas and the daddies of the young radicals who would soon go home to run the mills, the factories, the courthouses and legislative halls, the universities and churches and prisons they were then threatening to burn to the ground.
Campbell is not interested in justifying the Klan. But he is realizing that the Klan is not only a fount of evil, though it is that, but also a product of the “same social forces” that have produced national structures of violence and violation, including the then-raging Vietnam War.
As he grapples with tragedies of race and class and cruelty shredding 1960s America, Campbell remains a fierce prophet. Listening to leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Campbell also concludes that “to do something in race relations maybe we should go work with our own people“ and that in relation to the Klan he was “learner more than I was teacher.”
Offering a striking echo in The New York Times, Trevor Noah insists that “We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.”
Presidents, governors, politicians scorn opponents. Executive edicts are issued and political “nuclear options” are launched. The wheel of power turns; the flamethrowers rotate; the prior regime’s goals burst into flame. The next regime, somehow always sure its era will forever endure, happily starts piling the tinder for its (and maybe our) own demise.
There are stunningly problematic trends strengthening in the U.S. as brothers and sisters belonging to vulnerable populations are reviled or barred, scriptural commands to take special care of the strangers and sojourners are violated, money talks louder than ever, a fragile earth is trampled. Prophetic naming of travesties is called for. Yet if we can do no better than vilify, will the turning of the wheel ever stop?
the spirit of solidarity that infused Saturday’s marches worldwide was hopeful and invigorating. But solidarity can be channeled over and against enemies, or it can be channeled toward a vision of ever-widening inclusivity that rejects the concept of enmity altogether. Such a vision is fueled by fierce love that doesn’t let injustice stand, but honors the truth that even perpetrators of injustice can be redeemed. It acknowledges that we have come and are coming together through reconciliation and mercy, and it offers to extend the same mercy and reconciliation to the people behind the oppressive systems that must be torn down. May such a fierce love guide the movement birthed in these women’s marches around the nation and around the world.
“I wish . . .” sings Leonard Cohen, as his life fades toward its end while a country divides, “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.”
During a long, often frightening 2016 whose results only intensify the dynamics, a nation argues over whether to name its presidential candidates crooks, fascists, or worse.
At a lunch with a denomination’s representatives, talk turns to ways the polities of two denominations to which many seminary students belong are shifting. Just in pondering almost idly the effects, we find the conversation eddying across the many seminaries we personally know to be in crisis.
Terror strikes. Walls are breached or threatened. Police shoot away lives that matter and sometimes are shot. Temperatures hit constant global records while floods ravage Louisiana, fires burn across California’s Interstate 15, and Zillow.com projects nearly a trillion dollars worth of real estate possibly under coastal waters in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.
Fear stalks the land. Will we survive? I believe yes; here we are after millennia of catastrophes. But will our lives, communities, institutions, structures, countries, planet be recognizable?
Amid such questions my mother-in-law Mildred died of surgery complications after breaking a femur. The intensities, sorrows, and sometimes grace-filled moments of her final days unfolded as four family units scattered across the country had been scheduled to arrive for vacation in Maine by plane and car. Instead we kept vigil as she died. Now to get from her funeral in western New York to our remaining time in Maine we added a rented SUV to family cars.
After lunch that three-car, three-generational caravan of lacerated souls headed across 600 miles through hauntingly pastoral New York and New England landscapes as the sun faded hour by hour into the west and into late-afternoon sweet light. At a chaotic, crowded truck stop a rumpled man pestered us. So many disrupted days and nights and feelings had left us all shot. We didn’t want to talk. He wouldn’t stop.
Finally out of no sense of mission but hoping he’d then shut up, I engaged him. He launched into his story. He was a trucker from Las Vegas—where his wife with stage-4 cancer might, he’d just learned, be in her final hours. From the truck stop he’d try to drive straight to Vegas without pausing except for catnaps. Soon he left.
Then, enroute to his truck, he was back: with gifts of stuffed animals and candy for the children in our caravan. Weeks later came a photo of one reading books with her new giraffe snuggled beside her.
Across the under-maintained infrastructure of interstates, across an America at risk of apocalypse if we define it as the unraveling of stabilities and communal compassions as we’ve known them, an ordinary man, even a wearisomely intrusive man, races to say good-bye to his dying wife.
But in that liminal space between earth and Beyond, souls reach for each other. And amid all the anguishes of the era, as 2016 turns toward 2017, the images leap from the photo: A girl sitting on a rocker has swaddled a stuffed giraffe then tucked it in beside her. She sits with her picture books. The pages she’s focused on include an apple, a sippy cup, sneakers, a tractor, a boy on a toy car, an orange, a teddy bear, and much more. Her gaze shows that she is learning—even in these times—about the magic of the world she has been both cursed and blessed to be born into.
This morning, kneeling beside my mother on the deck, I was gripped by the fleeting treasure of her fragile resilient life. The process of dying, I believe, is a holy space, just as is birth.
This morning, like every morning, I went over to ask her how her night was. Dad had her out on the deck surrounded by bird song and five flowering baskets from mother’s day.
She sat quietly, a little queen in her corner. I asked her how she slept and she got a mischievous smile. She had a dream, she said, that she was pregnant. She was a little worried that people might think, “Crazy old lady, what is she doing pregnant?”
But in her dream she was happy to be pregnant. She said, “It was my baby.”
I thought of the days my mother was young. There is a photo of Mom at about 31, holding my oldest brother Nelson while pregnant with her next child. No one can doubt how full of new life she is, standing quietly holding it all.
I told her, “Maybe it is a sign that even in this season of things breaking down, you are full of new life.”
We talked about how she is experiencing great joy, peace and love each day. She said she liked my interpretation of her dream; that it fit. Mom is more expressive of her love for everyone than she has ever been. She seems at relative peace with her losses in this season of endings. “Everyone has to die,” she has said, with a little smile. She laughs often. Her body so frail is spilling over with beauty.
I know others might not see it as I do, and I don’t always see it this way either. But I am bending over her being each day and am taking in each moment with new eyes, knowing more than ever that each day with her is a gift. Like parents who can’t stop talking about their little child, and can’t get over the miracle growing in their arms, I can’t get over her growing beauty.
Others may see her listing to one side of the wheelchair, stuttering over a word, drooling, or looking distantly across the room and wonder at my delight in this season. I don’t deny the sadness. It is there, and I take my turn with tears. Her tiny body seems to be shriveling up and disappearing. She is so small now in her recliner; it seems to fold in and hide her away. She sleeps more, eats less, forgets more, and words are harder to say.
But as her body fades and fails, her essence soars. Her spirit flames. She shakes with the fullness of her life and the rich stories of love layered within. She can’t get over the flowers and the blue sky. To her they are a new wonder every morning. She is full of new life. She is quietly holding it all.
–Miriam Blank, Gap, Pennsylvania, is a professional counselor, spiritual director, and certified life coach. In the past Miriam worked 15 years as a registered nurse and certified nurse-midwife.
This is the story of how Cockatiel Max and Shih Tzu Madison enhanced the well-being of the church. My oversight caused it, but I later wondered if a larger Oversight was also in play.
For months Manuel, as I’ll call him, and I had been trying to coordinate our schedules. Finally calendars said hallelujah, try this. When I told my wife Joan she thought great, but what about the animals?
Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten. The animals and I live an interesting life. For various reasons, including where Joan’s mother is and because Joan travels constantly providing behavioral health consulting wherever she’s called to, we actually live in two states. Also in the mix are Max and Madison. Six years ago we decided to test whether they’d flourish as commuter animals.
They did. So now they know the routines and are eager to hit the road whenever it’s time to shift states. I’d scheduled the meeting with Manuel. But I’d forgotten Commuter Cockatiel and Shih Tzu. At first all looked fine–weather supposed to be cloudy and cool during the key period; they’d be okay in the car. Then the forecast shifted–sunny and 80s; death trap.
What to do? I wouldn’t return for weeks; trying for a petsitter made no sense. I e-mailed Manuel. Any picnic areas nearby? Could he stand a picnic with my animals if I brought food? He was flexible and understanding and gracious indeed. Absolutely!
At the appointed hour, Manuel told me where to park. There it was, a welcoming picnic table. I placed Max’s cage by the edge of the picnic area and tied Madison’s leash to a table leg.
Manuel broke into a wide grin. “I believe this is historic!”
Our broader context was also historic amid daily shifts in how individuals, congregations, conferences, and organizations linked to it are relating to our denomination.
Our agenda was simple: What might we learn from each other’s journeys? It was a good meeting. Sometimes heartrending as we learned of so much pain in so many places. Sometimes inspiring, as we pondered initiatives for hearing the Spirit within or beyond what is unraveling.
But this isn’t finally about that. It’s about how different it felt to sit in the sun and breezes with Max busily eating food in his cage and Madison exploring or dozing beside us. It didn’t feel like one more heavy meeting, heavy though the topics often were. It felt like a skylight had appeared in the ceiling of the sky and let in the universe. It felt like extra light and sweetness were shining on our picnic.
Time to go. Manuel networked a bit with Max and Madison before returning to his office and whatever cares awaited there. I put Max in his back seat spot and Madison in her dog bed beside me. We headed out this route and that one and finally on to the interstate with sunroof open, light streaming, wind ruffling.
Max preened before sticking his head under a wing and blissfully napping. Madison turned around and around to smooth out her bed for the six-thousandth time then with nose on paws fell into what seemed an unusually relaxed sleep. This thought arose: Max and Madison must have liked their picnic with Manuel and maybe being angels we entertained unaware.
The writer of Psalm 104 had an appreciation for wild things. I have a somewhat limited appreciation for wild things. If they threaten my garden, as do woodchucks and raccoons, I go after them. If they are only passing through as wild turkeys, I enjoy them.
As our environment unravels and the wild things are threatened, Psalm 104 catches my attention. The psalm is one of what William P Brown calls “the seven pillars of creation.” The other six are Genesis 1 and 2, Job 38-40, Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes and Isaiah 55. Verses 24-35 of Psalm 104 provide the essence and deserve reflection.
The second creation account in Genesis tells of a man and a woman in a garden. They had what they needed but were expected to take care of it. The story tells us that they blew it. The history of humankind follows this pattern.
Whenever people get organized they seem to do one or both of two things: 1) beat up on somebody or 2) trash the environment and the wild things. The psalm writer observes that the wild things look to God “to give them their food in due season.” But evidently the food they needed was not always available.
At the end the writer puts his finger on the human problem and hopes “that sinners be consumed from the earth and that the wicked be no more.” That’s too much to hope for. Somehow we need to acknowledge our own sinfulness and recognize that having “the wicked be no more” is too broad a prayer request.
But more than the psalmist could recognize, we know we depend on the environment and that we may be in the process of destroying it. Indeed it could happen that not only the wicked but everyone and all creatures could be no more if present trends continue.
Our psalmist lived in the time of the Fertile Crescent. There was power at each end of the crescent—Egypt at one end and Babylon at the other end. Palestine was said to be a land of milk and honey. It was also to be a land of political instability because the power people would go through it to get at each other. They would go through the crescent since they could not cross the desert.
But the psalmist is not concerned with politics. It is the wild things that get his attention. The earth is full of them and they are sustained by the hand of God. It is amazing to see what niches some of the wild things have found.
Take the monarch butterflies. These butterflies overwinter in Mexico or California. When Mary and I were in California in 1980 we saw a cluster of them wintering in California. In the spring these butterflies start north. They take three generations going north. They lay eggs and soon die. The next generation hatches, grows up, and continues the journey. These larvae feed on milkweed. Milkweed is poisonous, but the monarchs can handle it, which is good because then birds hesitate to eat them.
The fourth generation makes the trip south in one generation. I saw several monarchs on my flowers one year. I suppose they were on their way south. But now monarchs have a problem. They feed on milkweed and farmers especially in the Midwest use Roundup to kill the weeds. Then monarch larvae have nothing to eat. I noticed three milkweed plants along the edge of my lot last summer and left them there. Whether or not any monarch larvae had fed on them I don’t know, but I left them there.
As I say, a typical human tendency is to cut and slash But once in a while we find an example of someone who works at restoration. I used to get a magazine called Westsylvania. In autumn 2004, it carried an article on how the wild turkeys were brought back. According to the article, wild turkeys had just about died out through overhunting, but in the 1950s a program was devised to try to bring them back.
There were still some remnants in the Bedford County mountains and the program devised was to clip the wings of some turkey hens and put them in an eight-foot-high fence. Wild gobblers came in and mated with them, the eggs were collected, and then the hens were put in the pens again. “The breeding program proved so successful that it ended in 1955. By then, even the game-farm raised turkeys—who by then carried just one-sixteenth tame genes—had become too uncontrollable.” By 1968, Pennsylvania began the spring gobbler hunting season.
Recently I saw a flock of 20 turkeys in the field across the road. The best thing about turkeys is that I can’t see that they cause problems in my garden.
We have gotten caught in what is coming to be an environmental disaster. After Edwin Drake drilled an oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, oil became plentiful and as time went on more and more uses were found for it. Especially in transportation. Today we are trapped in our cars.
In his book Terra Nova, Eric W Sanderson says that we will need to get away from oil, cars, and suburbs. He says we need to live more closely together and go back to trolley cars and trains along with walking and bicycles.
When Mary and I built a house three miles from town we didn’t think about the implications of all the driving we would do. Also, Scottdale was a marketing center with grocery stores, clothing stores, and a good shoe store. Today with Walmartization all of those have gone away and Scottdale is basically a bedroom community of the big box stores at its edges. Yet those who live in town are less dependent on oil than we in the country. I have noticed that all of my grandchildren live in town.
Whether the changes can be made in time to save the environment from disaster remains to be seen. In his fantasy, Sanderson sees basic transportation changes as early as 2028. That does strike me as fantasy. However, I was interested to see in the September 29, 2015, issue of the Connellsville Daily Courier that a “Transportation alliance” is forming to represent all of our local counties. What this means I’m not clear.
In the meantime it is possible to do something about the problem of electricity generated by fossil fuel. I have signed up with a company called Ethical Electric which uses environmentally friendly generation. I noticed that the first bill based on this new system cost two cents more per kilowatt hour. I think I can handle that.
As an old farmer, I still like a place in the country, but I see that without recognizing it I have become dependent on a system that needs to be changed. I do not look forward to giving up my place in the country. But to maintain it I have an automobile, a pickup truck, a tractor, a garden tiller, and two lawn mowers. If I were to move to town I would need only the car and maybe a lawn mower.
The writer of Psalm 104 had no idea what would come to pass in the era of oil, suburbs, and automobile transportation. I can only believe he would support efforts to save the earth for the wild things as well as for our descendants.
—Daniel Hertzler, Scottdale, Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, book reviewer and occasional preacher. He retired in 2015 as an instructor for the correspondence course, Pastoral Studies Distance Education. He is author of the memoir On My Way: The View from the Ninth Decade.
Their very different personalities crossed my path just as the annual divide between dandelions as beauty or bane was in full bloom— and unbidden came a mental image associating one of them with dandelion wine.
Next day as I walked to work paying particular attention, I noted just how stark are the differences in treatment of dandelions. First came a line of lawns radiating deep emerald green perfection. Then just as the eye got used to this as the norm came a ragged blanket of dandelions gone to seed, the line between barbaric chaos and the treated lawn beside it razor sharp.
After that came an unpredictable jumble. Sometimes back to emerald. Sometimes lawns whose owners clearly tolerated dandelions yet had recently mowed them into submission. Sometimes profusions of untidy stalks, heads gone old and gray and wild, gold mostly missing, mixed with unkempt grass and weeds. I haven’t done the demographic studies yet, but I do suspect they would show correlations between dandelion vistas and socio-economic variables.
Then to the personalities. One is more driven, restlessly surveying the horizon for the next opportunity, focused on achieving results, assessing outcomes, revising methods whenever the feedback loop calls for it. Here Big Data is today’s exciting new tool. The numbers are crunched, they point in promising directions, and in fact there is proof in the pudding: often amazing feats are indeed achieved and call for admiration.
The other is more laid back, not exactly somnolent but not driven, either. There may be hints, in more of a heart-softening than problematic form, of brushes with depression. Here data and numbers aren’t irrelevant but are one or two, maybe even three, levels down. First come people. People in all their beyond-statistics quirks, in their sufferings, their ragged edges, their lives sometimes golden but often in dandelion-esque fashion, beautiful today, gone to seed tomorrow.
Next came the progression toward dandelion wine. After spending time with the first personality, I did feel admiration. I also felt unsettled; does the grass really need to be that flawless? Might it be okay to let a few dandelions sneak into even well-manicured lawns— and personalities—to give us their annual saffron carpets, evanescent yet so lovely during their brief flowering? We’re learning that apples or tomatoes modified for beauty and long shelf-life lose their taste; the ones that bless your tongue are the heirloom varieties, blemished, spots and lumps and oddities dancing with their tastes. Are people maybe sometimes like that too?
After being with the second personality, I realized life felt slower, gentler, calmer. The frenzy had faded. Outcomes mattered less and the tenderness of each passing minute mattered more.
Later that evening, in the afterglow, arrived the image of dandelion wine, which comes from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel of that title set in Green Town, Illinois, and of the summer in which Douglas Spaulding, age 12, experiences through dandelions and all that goes with them the very wine of life.
As Bradbury put it in a 1975 introduction, “Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.”
And as part of telling of that boy growing up and old, Bradbury reports in one chapter, “The Lawns of Summer,” on this special grass, which I imagine creating perfect emerald lawns like the ones I walked by except for one more miracle: it grows to just the right height, then stops. Bill, Grandpa’s boarder, excitedly reports that he’ll plant the new grass and soon enough mowing will be done forever.
But Grandpa has this crazed notion that mowing grass and even pulling weeds can nurture the soul, can be, as he puts it, “a way of life.” The sound of lawn mowers and the smell of cut grass are gifts of being alive he wants never to lose. Not to mention that “a mess of dandelion greens is good eating once in a while” and that the bees will vanish as the high-tech grass kills off dandelions and clover.
He gets through to Bill. When Grandpa wakes from that afternoon’s nap, he hears the mower going again even though Bill had just cut the lawn that morning while anticipating the day the magic grass would put an end to all that. When Grandpa questions Bill, wondering if the sun has addled him, Bill just joyfully grins through a spray of green.
As I headed for retreat in Arizona’s Verde Valley, words of Eastern Mennonite Seminary colleague Linda Alley, insights honed as spiritual director, still rang: “I imagine it as a pilgrimage—the journey itself will teach you and not necessarily the destination. And . . . as every pilgrim comes back changed and brings gifts . . . , you will also. . . . I wish for you many holy moments.”
What happened? Three factors stand out:
First, during retreat, around when the Washington Post (Paul Schwartzman, March 6, 2016) said psychologists and massage therapists report client panic over apocalyptic election scenarios, a loved one called to process such anxiety. What, we pondered, is our hope if this really happens?
Montezuma Well provided one complex response. A spring has long fed this near-lake. Its waters probably originally fell on the Mogollon Ridge far above and miles away 10,000 years ago. Eventually the Well drew people, their cliff houses dating back a thousand years still visible in the rim. The water exits into a channel built perhaps by the Hohokam, who irrigated 60 acres of crops. The National Forest Service says that “For many cultures, Montezuma Well is . . . sacred. . . . a place of power, not to be visited lightly. . . .”
Almost forever, as known human history goes, that spring has fed that well. Now there I was, drawing hope from being alive in this moment, grateful to learn from prior journeyers. Complicating hope was that the cliff houses are empty. The Europeans who eventually arrived didn’t totally destroy the beauty and bounty, but local mesquite trees adapted to almost no rain are threatened as humans lower the water table.
Any hope for our own future will need to thread through the possibility that our culture is already shaping the ruins future civilizations will visit.
From Arizona I traveled into a second factor, politics juxtaposed with the convention of the National Council for Behavioral Health, Joan’s employer. I attended awards evening just as primary election results arrived. Often winning: being biggest, baddest, boldest; urging torture, war crimes, racism, xenophobia.
Although Christian language wasn’t explicit, awards in contrast celebrated serving, in effect, “the least of these,” those facing mental and behavioral challenges.
The climactic award went to a sheriff who talked down from suicide persons preparing to leap from the bridge he monitored. Though that was heroic enough, a standing ovation supported his naming his own depression and his walk with a suicide-tempted son.
Then in a few final Verde Valley hours, I showed Joan my places of pilgrimage. At Sycamore Community Park, she reacted as I had. Through a sometimes worn and dusty town (near tourist-ridden Sedona but entirely different) runs Beaver Creek, lined by ordinary houses, running under an ordinary bridge. Yet it carries the outflow of Montezuma Well. So in its ordinariness Beaver Creek bears millennia of hopes dashed and raised, cultures vanishing and rising.
“But it’s like the Branch,” Joan said.
Precisely. Creeks transposed and viewed from certain angles, only details would have told us which was which. Two-fold holiness: first, this site offered our souls a path into the holy. Second, it reminded that in our own ordinary lives there is, a quick walk from home, holiness as well.
The world does seem to teeter near apocalypse. We don’t know how much will die before resurrection. But I’m grateful for what Linda helped me see along the way.
The heavy fog this morning reminded me that discernment as a way of seeking and seeing truth is an integration of both mystery and journey. Mystery in that we can not expect to really see clearly because truth is multifaceted, complex, and diverse and is seen through journey:
This morning as I was leaving home, I knew the truth that the bank of the river behind my house is lined with willow trees. The hints of verdant life to come had begun to emerge as the sounds of spring peepers, the warming of the air, the early spring flowers blooming, the lengthening of day and the texture of awareness gave it shape.
So, drawn to the sound of Shoemaker River, I focused on the trees, their familiar shape through the thick fog. As in the multiple senses of the word I “journeyed” nearer, I noted that the whiteness of fog gave way to the wonder of mystery, not clarified until I was more fully present to the trees.
Then I noticed the white caterpillar-like blossoms, as thick as the fog now shimmering on the branches, a truth given by creation whose timing is complex and could only be experienced in a multifaceted, multi-sensory way.
It is then, in the journey we are invited to explore (“seek, knock, ask”) that the movement of our being to engage in life around us unfolds. We are drawn to or given to “see” mystery before us and in us. In other words, mystery and movement of life in season (“for everything the is a season”) must be journeyed toward and through as we discern truth.
—Kevin A. Clark is Campus Pastor and Assistant Professor of Spiritual Formation and Direction, Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Ordained by the Virginia Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA in 1996, he was pastor of Big Spring Mennonite Church, Luray, Virginia, 1996-2004. Clark is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and board member of Blue Ridge Ministries, Inc., an interdenominational retreat ministry located in the Shenandoah Valley.