Beauty and Violence

May 31, 2011

It’s odd that I remember what I was doing one year ago today. I was sitting in front of a Barnes and Noble, drinking an iced coffee and writing a letter. It was my nephew’s birthday.

Nearby, was a teenager, young, strumming her guitar and singing an original song. Her friends tapped in rhythm on the table and sang harmony on the chorus. I remember thinking how good she was and that I may hear of her one day.

Then, she switched to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

Cohen’s lyrics describe so much in this life that is beautiful and violent. A juxtaposition of passion which leads to death.

Take the painting on my wall. I bought it at the church’s yard sale. It is an original oil with warm colors that meld into abstract shapes. It looks Holy Spiritish, or like an angel. Orange and yellow light surrounds the object. You can’t quite make out the meaning but you are sure it is beautiful.

Then, the previous owners tell me about their trip to South America where they met the painter. About the passion and the feathers. It is a painting of a cock fight, they say.

Oh, I respond.

It still hangs on my wall. It still reminds me of the Holy Spirit. reminds me of how close beauty and violence are. How both can lead to death, spurred on by persons who seem aloof and removed, but in fact are perpetrators. They have set the stage.

Yesterday, I heard a sudden flap of wings and turned my head to the pine tree, not five feet away. A huge, beautiful hawk had flown to the branch, latching sharp talons into an innocent squirrel. I saw the small gray body grow limp in a second. I saw the blood.

You know how I love hawks, but I hated this one. It took advantage of one of God’s innocent creatures who was happy on a limb, chewing merrily.Vulnerable without its knowledge to the swift swoop of death.

I believe our lives are like that: One moment we are innocently sitting on limbs or crowing in a barnyard or writing letters. The next minute, we are prey.

Punching In

May 26, 2011

This morning, I begin my new job in earnest, following my training and orientation.

I will punch in.

I can’t remember the last time I “punched in”. I’ve been a professional for over thirty years. Professionals don’t punch in, at least, not formally.

I asked my boss when I interviewed, “What are you looking for in an employee?”  This was his response, Someone who will Suit up. Show up. Be on time.”

The first two are not a problem. The third, well, let’s just say, it’s not my strong suit.

I did manage to show up suited in a robe and stole at 11:00 each Sunday. I suited up and showed up beside hospital beds and gravesides when I was most needed, sometimes miraculously at a critical moment. I suited up and showed up for so many meetings I can’t count. But I didn’t punch a time card.

I think about that concept this morning as I plan the morning: Wash hair at 6. Eat breakfast. Pack a lunch. Put on the clothes I laid out last night. Wear my new earrings. Leave the house by 7:15.

Allow time for school buses, to stop and get a diet coke, to smoke my last cigarette, brush my teeth, and touch up my makeup.

It’s all so simple, really. I know I can do it. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, even being on time. Punching in. Showing up.

It’s a good metaphor for life.

Our Lady of the Waves

May 25, 2011

I love NPR. All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Fresh Air and Marketplace have gotten me through many a long commute. The voices of Garrison Keillor, Lois Reitzes, Robert Seigel are like old friends. And, you hear the most interesting stories..

Take one from last week:  Amy Isackson reported from California–where else?–a story on The Virgin of Guadalupe, referred to by a Catholic priest as “Our Lady of the Waves”, who has appeared as a mosaic. She is riding a surboard. Here’s an excerpt from the published story:

The Virgin of Guadalupe has been spotted on a piece of toast, a tortilla and a griddle in a U.S. border town. Now, she has shown up beneath a viaduct near the ocean in San Diego County.

It all started on the side of a busy road in Encinitas, Calif., underneath the train tracks. The story that’s made its way around town is that on the Friday before Easter, a construction crew showed up and a 10 foot by 10 foot brightly colored mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe riding a surfboard and catching a huge wave seemed to mysteriously appear. Along the side, it says, “Save the Ocean.”

“It definitely fits with the whole beach-city vibe down here,” says Kyle Smith.

The mosaic is intricate and beautiful. The stones and glass the artist chose give the Virgin’s face a sort of beatific look. Her hands even have stone knuckles.

The problem is that the piece just appeared. It’s illegal. ..

The story goes on to describe how pilgrims and tourists are congregating near the site and the city officials don’t know what to do. They don’t want to “set a precedence”.  They’re concerned that if they leave the mosaic, other graffiti  or “art crimes” will suddenly appear and spread like the widlfires that rage on California hills.

Oh, the old “precedence theory”. It seems to me it is a mighty convenient excuse, pulled out at will when the powers-that-be don’t like something. Don’t tell me that exceptions to rules aren’t made every single day in city council meetings and closed door board rooms.  

Our Lady rides a surfboard. Our Jesus walks on water.  Maybe the two have met out there on the sea, where Love has set a Precedence and Graffiti is written in the waves.


May 24, 2011

In Him there is no darkness at all,

The night and the day are both alike.

  Kathleen Thomerson, I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light

Last night, I fell asleep to the gentle blink of lightning bugs. I couldn’t tell where the lightning bugs left off and the stars began. From my perspective,  on my right side, they looked the same as I stared out the open window and was lulled into dreams. Such a beautiful way to fall asleep, on your side, unsure of what is earth and what is sky, knowing it doesn’t matter.

Sleep is a gradual decrescendo, a retreat of sound in hushed intervals. It is also a diminuendo of  sight. Eyelids give the mind a rest as they slowly blink like drunk lightning bugs and make their final descent. Sleep allows the senses to relax, sigh, and drift into space.

In sleep, dark matter and antimatter are caught in their own endeavor like a soulful space station. The day’s light retreats, the darkness advances, and from such ebb and flow, like the seasons of the sea, the universe teaches us about Mystery and Union, where the lines of the Yin and Yang disappear.

I don’t believe in polarization. Or if I do, I believe that poles come together in ways we cannot fathom. In a station of God where Light and Dark no longer matter, where night and day are as one.

Who cooks for you?

–the call of the Barred Owl

Every morning, I have the same conversation.

The Barred Owl asks, “Who, Who, Who cooks for you?” and I respond, “Nobody”.

I live alone. Like many people who live alone, I rarely cook. I eat yogurt and cereal standing up or have a bowl of lentil soup or a turkey sandwich while sitting on the couch and watching a movie.

It works.

For someone who prided herself on the meals my husband and I cooked as a family for twenty plus years–one of the few American families who still sat down to dinner with cloth napkins and candlelight, even if it was ten o’clock at night–my new practice of ingesting nutrition without turning on the stove or oven is a change.

Much has changed in my life in recent years. I am not complaining, for in many ways, it is the life I’ve imagined.

I miss my sons, my family, and a house full of young people and friends, but the solitude I enjoy now–as a sort of eremetic woman monk living in a hermitage– is like a long drink of water or a slow-cooked meal.

I’m a Lockheed brat and Baby Boomer who grew up in Marietta. I am old enough to remember the square in several different eras. Not all the way back to the black and white-turned-sepia photographic age of wagons filled with cotton and barefoot boys in overalls, but two distinct periods: the first–as equally a vibrant period as the one in the historic photographs–during the late 1950’s and 60’s. The second, during the square’s sad demise in the 70’s. 

Like many OM readers my age, I cut my permanent teeth on caramel corn from the Popcorn Palace, agonized over which gold charm to select at Fletcher’s, and bought ties for my daddy at Johnny Walker’s. I went to Shillings on an errand when it smelled of hardware, not alcohol.

Once a week, I walked with friends from Westside School to Atherton’s Drug Store where we filled up a booth and ordered plates of thick, hot fries and cokes in glasses. My first job was as a cashier there. 

I bought my first real watch on the square-a slender Bulova at Kay’s; my first bra at JoAnn’s where the saleswomen  had the habit of looking behind the curtain before you were ready, and always got my Levis at Goldsteins. 

The square in the 1960’s was where we shopped, went to the movies, and hung out. From a kid’s and preteen’s perspective, everything you needed was there—books, cute clothes at Saul’s, bolts of fabric and notions, shoes in double A widths, family portraits at Hardy’s, greasy food at a real Marietta diner, and anything else at McClellen’s, plus a few Flannery O’Connorish characters to keep it interesting. Do you recall the preacher who faithfully shouted at us from the park corner to “Repent” or the blind Pencil Man who scared us from the sidewalk?  This era was long before Eddie’s Trick Shop, now an institution, even existed or Tommy served subs. Some of us even remember driving up to a building right off the square where a man came out with a large block of ice, which we would use to churn homemade icecream.

But into this rosy little picture, the Town and Country Shopping Center opened up on Roswell Street and right on its heels, first Perimeter and then, Cumberland Malls. We are all familiar with the sad story of demise and decay that town centers across the South experienced during the 1970’s, as the lifeblood of any square–the people–went missing. Marietta was no exception.

 All that remained in my mind during this era was the rusty squeak of a metal merry-go-round that little boys pushed too fast. 

My dad chaired the Cobb Beautification Committee about this time, when they voted to put in a fountain in the center of the park. It was made of gray concrete and was all of two feet high and maybe five feet in diameter, but we were so proud of it. The fountain was a real improvement to the mostly dirt Glover Park. There were no fancy brick walks then or lush gardens. Leaders and entrepreneurs were trying hard to draw business but couldn’t stop the trend of consumer exodus. The square was hurting. 

In 1973, I left for college, began my family and professional career, and beside a short stint of employment by the City to plan and develop Wildwood Park in 1979, have been gone from Marietta for thirty years. I could sense the effort being made at that time to improve downtown. The seeds of a tender renewal were sown under the direction of Ron Ransom. An attractive small gazebo was constructed; contemporary wooden play equipment was erected; the square was starting to bud again. I helped members of the Marietta Garden Club plant Impatiens in whiskey barrels. The new and excellent Theatre-on-the-Square set up shop and a few antique dealers moved into empty stores. 

Whenever I came home for a visit, and especially in recent years, my parents spoke of the burgeoning renaissance of the square –of concerts and art shows and Fourth of July celebrations. I was happy for my hometown, but a bit skeptical. 

Last year, I returned to live close to family. I found a job at the Australian Bakery, located in the old Book Store. I smiled as I swept the long wooden floors and heard their familiar creak. Whoever thought that meatpies from Downunder would be sold on the square? Or authentic Colombian food? Or French crepes? Or wine, for that matter? Whoever imagined people would sit under umbrellas at sidewalk cafes in our little provincial town? 

I was instructed by my boss when hired in April that every employee would work during the Taste of Marietta. I thought to myself, “Really? Could it be as big as they described?” 

That Saturday morning, I arrived early and parked at First Presbyterian. As I walked the few blocks towards the square on Church Street, my eyes got wider. By the time I reached Mill Street, they were like a child’s seeing an elephant for the first time. I really couldn’t believe it was real. I just stood there for a while, taking it in. 

I love Marietta. I love being back here. Hangin’ out again on the square with friends, drinking excellent coffee from freshly-roasted beans or enjoying a Guinness in an Irish pub. I’ve bought local produce at the Farmer’s Market and a small original painting at the Art Walk.  I’ve enjoyed a musical at the Strand and relaxed on a bench in the handsome park beside the elegantly tiered fountain. 

But what I especially love to see are the people—the lifeblood of any town center. The square is vibrant with their energy and creativity: busy lawyers and professionals; mothers with multiple children in strollers; brides posing for photo shoots; international faces and intriguing accents; young people with tattoos and piercings; older couples; joggers with dogs on leashes; ladies laughing over lunch; the well-heeled and the homeless and everything in-between. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the joy I have experienced while reacquainting myself with the heart of Marietta, the square. I have gone from being stupefied that remarkable day last May, to feeling wonder at the stunning transformation.

Thank you to all who have created something so beautiful and good—who have helped to reclaim the sweet taste of Marietta and usher in a new and rich era on the Square.


Why stand ye there gazing?

  –Acts 1.11a

If I were homeless, I would hang out in a laundromat, especially in winter.

Here’s why: It’s warm. It smells good. It’s cozy.

Recently, I’ve made several trips to the laundromat with an overflowing basket, a baggie full of quarters, and an orange box of Tide. I haven’t minded at all.

It’s been over thirty years since I washed my clothes this way and I forgot how pleasurable it is.

There is something miraculous about the transformation which takes place in a laundromat–not just in the dirty laundry as it tumbles and spins and emerges in neatly folded stacks, still warm–but also in the customers. It is better than yoga to lower blood pressure and slow down breathing.

Plus, you can meet interesting people if you choose to chat, or get ideas for a story.

Yesterday, I met a young woman from Guatemala. The week before, a man who might have worked for the Mob. He was originally from Brooklyn and still had that tough way of talking, but lived most of his life in Nevada, where he was employed by the casinos to ‘convince’ people to pay up if they had written bad checks. He went to their homes. I didn’t want to hear the details as he might have had to kill me.

But mostly, the laundromat is good for sitting and gazing. The plastic chairs are comfortable enough, the rhythmic rotation of the dryers provides soothing background sound to keep thoughts private, and you can get lost in the cycles of the washing machine.

I’ll admit it, I like to look  periodically into the front of the washer, peek through the round window to see what’s happening.  The rise of sudsy water, the back and forth agitation, the centrifiugal spinning all fascinate me.  Whoever invented the washing machine was a genius. I’m sure many women–and now men–would agree.

After the spa-like experience of the laundromat yesterday, I stopped by my folks. My mother, true to her colors, was enthusiastic about my new job, and then pushed me. She really wants me to publish and has a more urgent sense of time than I do, due in part to personality, part age. She chastened me to submit something today and then gave me a verse from scripture, now taped to my desktop screen, Why stand ye there gazing?

You may remember the context of that verse from the first chapter in Acts: The Apostles stare as Jesus floats into heaven. I have only watched a helium balloon drift into space and can’t imagine how mesmerizing it must have been to see Jesus ascend, become a dot, and disappear. They stood with their necks still craned when two men in white arrived on the scene–always a sign that something is up. The men chastened them, Why stand ye there gazing? In other words, get going!

There is a time for gazing and a time to get going.

I believe both are necessary. If we sometimes didn’t stare into space or washing machines, daydream and ponder, we’d have nowhere to go, for dreams and direction begin in the imagination which needs relaxed time to work.  Let’s face it, the nativity narrative would be significantly shorter had the Shepherds and Wise Men not been doing their own fair share of gazing. Not to mention the fact that they would have missed out on the Messiah’s birth. Gazing is a noble verb.

But a time comes when one must get going, leave the laundromat behind and generate your own kind of transformation, do your own tumbling and spinning.

The Apostles would tumble alright and spin into their own cycles of history, of agitation, of giving birth to the Church. I like to think that along their way to visit new congregations, as they walked  to nearby villages or sat starboard in a ship, as they wrote letters, made speeches, went to prison, or to their own crosses, they might still have had some moments to gaze into the heavens, to remember their Lord rising like the dawn.

Time passes slowly, up here in the daylight

We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right.

  –Bob Dylan, Time Passes Slowly

Keep going.

  –Jin Kyung

When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone,
When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on.
Don’t let yourself go, everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes.

  —R.E.M., Everybody Hurts

I had a spend-the-night party last weekend. It was small but fun.

Two very good friends came to the Little House. We sat on the deck and drank a beer. I cooked them dinner of pasta, salad, and fish. We parted ways early the next morning. They were headed to Rome to ride in the bike century. I was headed to a funeral.

As we enjoyed the night air and the comfort of old friendships, we shared, offered up bits of sacred text–the sentences and paragraphs of our lives. We spoke of new chapters, of overarching themes.

I thought about the three of us, how each of us has suffered in unique and profound ways. I voiced it, this sense of pain and very difficult circumstance, lived through and survived, in our small circle.

There was a pause, then one of the women spoke in the softly strong voice of a cancer survivor, I think everyone suffers if you live long enough.

She is right, of course. 

I recall having a very clear sense of this universal pain when I looked out over the congregation from the pulpit. One person had lost a child. Another was going through divorce. Another was declaring bankruptcy. Another’s house had burned to the ground. A new widow looked back at me from the pew, her first time back to church since the funeral after sixty years of marriage; another woman wore long sleeves to cover purple bruises. There was a husband who had cried in my office over his wife’s infidelity; a lady who wore a knitted hat to cover a head, bald from chemotherapy. There was a woman keeping a secret about her husband’s sexual abuse of boys, another who was worried she would lose her job for being gay…the suffering was cumulative and vast. I can still recall each face, each story..

When I returned to Emory for the ThM degree, I made a good friend from South Korea. The program was rigorous and tough for everyone, but even tougher for us–I was fifty, her English was limited. We were both more reflective and contemplative than most in an academic tower–not so ivory or tall–more like the speedy, gray world of an interstate in winter. She used to say over and over, as if to herself, but also to me: Keep going.

R.E.M puts it this way: When you’re sure  you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on.

So, those are my words to you this morning: Keep going. Hang on.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me..

  –Matthew 7. 22, 23

I don’t know where we get the idea that Jesus is all warm and cuddly, like a Teddy Bear.

Jesus is often ferocious, more like a wolf or a bloodhound.

He attacks the parts of us that need to be destroyed. He stays on our trail. He trees us.

I like this part of Jesus. It is tough, but it is good. It is Love in all its terror and fierceness, where nothing escapes, nothing is excused, not until we see it, own it, face up to Truth.

Jesus has strong words for everybody, for each of us. If we think we are different from the Scribes and Pharisees, the workers of iniquity as addressed in the Matthew 7. 23 text, then we are worse than them. We are more hypocritical than the hypocrites, no matter how quietly we gnash our teeth.

And this is what He says: Depart from me, I never knew you.

There is not much in life about which I am dogmatic.

But when it comes to applauding in church, I have a very strong opinion.

In a word, applause is not appropriate. It is distraction.

The purpose of worship is to honor and glorify God. Our postures, our words, our hymns, the prayers and sermon, litanies and confessions and creeds, even passing of the peace, all point us to God.

And then, there’s the music–the language of the angels–sung from a choir loft or behind a microphone. The words are often like the Psalms, or are the Psalms, sacred texts which speak of human experience. The need and longing and struggles of the faithful, as well as the praise which passes from lips like incense, lifting glorias and holies and in excelsis deos to the heavens from hearts which are empty or full.

We listen to the gift that God has given, we meditate, we draw strength and comfort from ancient or contemporary texts, from familiar or new melodies, from magnificent complex compositions or simple choruses. Lyrics blend with harmonies to transport us to the heavens or closer to the person beside us on the pew. The notes nestle in our hearts to nurture and minister like mothers. We are touched at some deep level. We are moved and transformed. We find ourselves prone at Jesus’ feet, feasting at His banquet, drawing water from a living spring–all through the anthems and “special” music in church. We are worshiping.

And then, people applaud. The connection is broken as we spiral back down into the commodity we know best-the exchange of reward and performance. The holy hum and vibration of voices which could have lingered into infinity is cut short. Smothered by the clap of hands.

Music is transcendent. It is one of those thin places where God and humans touch, where union often occurs and God is near, as near as our own breath. Such splendor and sustenance  is the sole purpose of music in church. If there is any other motivation, it might as well be a clanging cymbal.

I believe most church musicians know this, practice this, offer their gifts as love towards creation and to honor the Creator of Song. They sing and play from their hearts and love for their Lord. They long to make a joyful noise.

And so, the problem is not within the musician, but the congregation. The focus of the gift is lost in the applause.

I have heard applause in church defended as a spontaneous outpouring of praise. As if the bells of faith must ring out in thanksgiving and hallelujahs and amens through palms.

And if this is the case, then I have a suggestion, a way of checking yourself:

Next time you feel moved to applaud in church, lift your arms way over your head, clap your hands to God, look into the heavens, and say, “Thank you. I praise you. I worship you. You are holy. You are great. I honor you. I love you.”

If you cannot do this, even in your imagination and in silence, then the applause is misdirected and what is meant for worship has become performance.