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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stumbling on Holy Ground

On a day of many tears, a day in which I found it hard to leave my bed, a day when time passed ploddingly, two friends shared poems to greet me as I retired for rest and respite.

Energy to greet the day was slow to come.  I awoke at a reasonable hour, but listening to the rain beat on the roof and thinking of the tasks I ought to get started on, I stayed put through the morning.  Apparently it was a condition that had struck the whole household, for I ventured forth to find Mom and Dad eating a very late brunch of eggs and bacon.  We slowly stirred ourselves toward the day.  Mom made her project the addressing and stuffing of Christmas letters to friends and family.  She put Dad to writing personal notes on some of the letters.  I decided to make my task keeping Mom settled rather than restless as she deals with the slow healing of her foot.

Nevertheless, I was grappling with restlessness, too.  Today, four days from Christmas Day, a season that for thirty-three years I have spent with Everly, and for all the years since their births, with three children, I am spending with none of them.  I'm not begrudging the children's absence, having agreed that they should do what they are doing.  Still, the absence of all four is palpable.  So I bugged the kids to text me a report on their days, which they lovingly and faithfully did, warming my heart.

I made a couple of laps, at different times of day, walking around in the yard, inspecting the results of the rain that is watering my seeds and bulbs.  The mail came.  It included a Christmas card from the Relay for Life organization that raises money for cancer research.  Last April, Naomi led the organizing of a Relay for Life Team, and our whole family, along with Ruth and Emily, walked, danced, and sat vigil for most of the evening, with a few staying the entire night, raising lots of money and supporting Everly in the fight against cancer.  Of course, the organization did not know of Everly's death, and yet opening the card addressed to her, a card intended to offer her encouragement in her struggle, was tough to bear.  It follows on a couple of Christmas cards from friends, arriving at the end of the week addressed to Mike and Everly, because they had not heard the news of her death.  Just the thought of telling them the news was an emotional challenge.

So it was a moping kind of day.  I got up with some energy and made a tasty and nutritious dinner which we all enjoyed.  Then it was back to biding time with the television on.  So when I found these poems this evening, they surprised me by casting a new perspective on the day.  I found new thoughts arising to frame the season.  Philip Thompson posted a poem by W.H. Auden.

If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say "I," it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.

For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.

Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking:
The Inevitable is what will seem to happen to you purely by chance;
The Real is what will strike you as really absurd;
Unless you are certain you are dreaming, it is certainly a dream of your own;
Unless you exclaim -- "There must be some mistake" -- you must be mistaken.

W.H. Auden, For the Time Being
I found myself in that looking everywhere for the garden and finding only desert, yet clinging to the assurance that "the garden is the only place there is."  Studying the events of a life, the fragments remembered, the wishing for what was--all these dovetail into not being able to imagine tomorrow.  To what have I consented?  Certainly not her death and not today as destiny!  That I might live without her is of all things most absurd, a dream, one from which I cannot escape, feeling it must be mistaken.  And why not rebel, doubting that the garden can exist? 

It was a day of being between things, when nothing seemed quite present:  living as though it were 39 years ago, my sister having moved away from our household, and Mom, Dad, and I sharing a house.  A dream of lost time, of a reversal, of passage that dissolves at the edge of being, of a memory banging away at that edge, more real than what is seen, yet itself invisible. 

Well, so much for gobbledygook language that comes of trying to analyze my inwardness.  Auden had much more to say here than what I have drawn out of it.  He speaks of alienation of the human condition from many angles.  I'll stop there for now.  Thanks to Philip Thompson for posting the poem.

The disorientation that is at the heart of Auden's poem is a theme of the other verse, by Wendell Berry, shared by LeDayne Polaski.
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
It is a Christmas poem, focused on Christmas eve's birth of Jesus in a barn.  Berry frames it as a working farmer on a working farm, making a regular trek to check out something in the barn.  As he sees the story unfold in Luke 2, he realizes that it could have been his barn.  He could have had the same surprise as the shepherds, finding the Holy Family where no one would expect, in an animal stall.  Looking into another world, yet this same world.  Seeing in a brand new way, challenged by the moment even to breathe, he, and now we, stand on holy ground that we thought until now was just plain ground.

What a realization, a decentering and recentering, a disorientation and reorientation, a demoralization and remoralization!  Seeing what I have seen over and over again, but seeing something completely new in it.  What a gift to be able to see that in my own old barn!  What a gift to see it in my house, in my yard, on my street, in my beaten-down 55-year-old body, my cataract-growing eyes!

And what it brought to mind was the holiness of Everly's last morning.  On July 18, I awoke to a day that I knew must come, but did not want to come.  I started out to try and keep the routines going as they had been.  Eventually, I sat beside the bed and watched as Everly persevered a holy struggle.  She clung to her life, breathing heavily and rapidly, each rhythm of oxygen and carbon dioxide a word of love for her children, for her loved ones, for me.  She lay on the bed, eyes closed, seeing what was, and perhaps what was to be, her thoughts and feelings somewhere between holding on to us and being set free.  She knew, and she had told us many times, it was time to go.  She was ready.  And now, no longer able to speak, only to breathe, to suffer a beating heart full of love, she was being transformed from one glory to a greater degree of glory.

It was the same room as every day before.  The guest bedroom in Salado that had become our interim home, our very home.  Everly's things arrayed in all their organizational glory surrounded us.  A rented hospital bed and recliner arranged for her comfort were the prominent fixtures.  I have walked into this same room hundreds or thousands of times.  Wearing clothes I wear every week, seeing clocks showing time as they do every day, touching objects as I do at any time, I was with Everly in the room.

And on that day it was holy ground.

So today, reading Wendell Berry, I realize that I "cannot turn away the thought . . . that we / Ourselves are living in the world / It happened in when it first happened."  Shepherds stumbled on a baby in a manger in a stable.  Berry had second sight one late night in his barn.  I get it, too.  It was "a night like any other night," and Darrell Adams's poem now comes to mind.

A night like any other night,
The census time at hand,
A weary couple, a child near born,
A place called Bethlehem,
A wooden stable where cattle sleep,
A bed of straw for the lamb…

Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo-low-lan.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo-low-lan.
Sing hush-a-bye loo-low-loo.

A time like any other time,
The rulers called it peace.
A subject nation groaning for
Someone to set them free,
A leader, a soldier, a mighty king--
A star or a stable they see.


A child like any other child
Of poor and humble birth,
Lowly shepherds see where the great are blind:
The humble savior’s worth.
May we see with their eyes this low-born babe,
A sign of peace to earth.


A night like any other night,
But a hush is on the land.
A weary couple, a child just born,
A place called Bethlehem,
A wooden stable where cattle sleep,
A bed of straw for the lamb…

A night in which the unexpected lurks amid the expected, when glory astounds the humble while the rulers and teachers can't see "light / That lights them from no source we see," was a night like any other.  Some lady had a baby in a barn.  Heaven and earth met in a cow stall.  Dirt, straw, manure--all that seared-bleared-smeared-smudged-smelly place is charged with God's grandeur.  It's holy ground.

And by the analogy of being, on a street corner in Salado, in a bedroom where a family gathered, earth and heaven met.  Everly held our hands and her Faithful Friend's hand.  An old piece of carpet, a mechanical bed, cotton sheets--all these jammed-in, jumbled, familiar artifacts of our lives became holy ground.  And if we can see like shepherds, with gratitude for the grace of God that in Everly showed forth in all its glory, we can grasp that on that day we glimpsed two worlds, finding that our own place was also holy, "although we knew it not."  And continuing with Gerard Manley Hopkins, our doubled vision, our holy-in-ordinary day, invaded that room
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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