Tag Archives: mercy

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Paradise

We all have a lot of ideas about paradise.  For some it’s a trip to Las Vegas, where for them paradise may just be, homophonically, a pair of dice.

For others, it’s a beachy place with a sea breeze (instead of a powerful air conditioner) or wildflowers near a lake or being surrounded by loved ones or love itself, or music with love, or well, the list could go on.

Texas Bluebonnets and wildflowers along Lake Whitney, Texas

And then I got to thinking about love, and Paradise along with it and, well, given the season of the year, I was thinking, too, of the proverbial thief on the cross. Jesus says to one of them, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  In that very familiar verse, Jesus speaks not only the promise of Paradise but he speaks love, a very present love.  When one stops to think about it, one realizes that, for that suffering, dying man Love is right there, before him. 

Now we might think of Paradise as something like a beautiful beach or even the enjoyment of two luscious drinks at a far-away bar (or even a familiar one); yet Paradise for that thief on the cross and for the One who speaks him into that Paradise probably turned out, that first Good Friday so very long ago, to be a place rife with other unfortunate people, people whom you wouldn’t expect to find in any earthly paradise. After all, the people Jesus came to care for were, for the most part, impoverished, needy, psychologically screwed up.

Given that it’s Maundy Thursday, I will take the fitting example of Mary.  Not Mary, the Mary to whom many a cathedral is dedicated—and we here lament, yet again the extensive damage to the greatest cathedral to Jesus’ mother, Mary, Nôtre Dame de Paris—but the Mary whose life was screwed up so badly, the one whom Dan Brown novels have him married to: Mary Magdalene, for it is possible that it is her name that gives rise to the holy day known as Maundy Thursday.  Mary is believed to be the woman who perfumed Jesus’ feet with her hair preparing him, Jesus says prophetically, for burial. She is also believed to have been a prostitute or at least a woman who was rather free with herself sexually. Yet Jesus did not reject her as unclean and unworthy; rather, he reached out to her, brought him close to himself, forgave her for all her sins, not just her sexual ones, and loved her.  And she loved him for that, and for much more. And we can, too.

But back to Paradise. If there are in fact needy, unfortunate people there, chances are there’s service to be rendered them. Maybe some who show up in such a paradisiacal place should assume that they will have something to do when they arrive—serving the needy, caring for the poor, bandaging the wounds of those who are hurt in some way, whether physically or spiritually. And their own wounds, psychological, spiritual and physical, can be healed there, too. If that is the case, maybe heavenly Paradise, the place that Jesus is speaking about on the cross, isn’t so much a resort but really a place where we will have the privilege of serving. And maybe that’s what the psalmist means when he writes, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalm 84:10 NIV). I think Mary Magdalene understood that, for she had begun already serving before she ever entered Paradise.

The most comfortable paradises that we shall find on earth are wonderful, and can be a great opportunity to recover from the stress and strain of our daily lives. Good stuff. But the Paradise of Heaven, will be better by far, though possibly less comfortable; it will be far more filled with love, but undoubtedly less sexy; it will poorer, and yet I think it will be far richer and even, I think, more beautiful. For in it there will be the ebb and flow of real Love.

And, then again, there just might be delicious drinks there, as well. Who knows? In any case, I have a feeling that the Paradise that is on Jordan’s far bank is going to be both a bit different than anything we can imagine and even better that anyone on this side of Jordan could begin to describe.  However it may turn out to be, there can be little doubt but that it will be filled with mercy, for that is what Jesus speaks to the thief on the cross, and it is that very thing—mercy—which this season, more than any other, proclaims.

A Blessed Maundy (i.e. Magdalene) Thursday to you and, soon, a Happy Easter! May you both enjoy some temporary paradises on this earth and, more importantly, may you, like Mary, find true love, enduring mercy and the true paradoxical Paradise, hopefully sooner rather than later.

beautiful-sky“Different from what?” someone might legitimately ask about a title of this sort. “You need a ‘than’ or a ‘from’ if you’re going to say different.” You can’t just say different unless you’re talking philosophy, as if you were the famous twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida and you’re talking about la différance—the idea that words can only have meaning in terms of what they are not, in terms of the way they bump into and off other words to create meaning, or really the pursuit of meaning, meaning that is itself continually put off, endlessly differed. And that is la différence (note the change in spelling from la différance). So, if we look closely enough, we can see that even Derrida would admit—not only admit but welcome—a “than” or a “from.”

Yet unlike Derrida or just anyone who might object to this title, I would like to speak about something very different, so different that it defies being compared to anything too directly, however implicit a comparison is when the word different or difference is used. And what is that difference? Well, it happened to me on a street corner this morning, that of North 15th St. and Colcord Avenue. And there I stood at those crossroads, for I was trying to assist someone to find a place to park. Then a lull. Then an elderly woman was trying to cross the street and spoke to me. “What a beautiful day!” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“Anjubilee-marketd it’s a great day for the neighborhood. That Jubilee Food Market is going to make all the difference in this neighborhood,” she said. “I remember when there were just drug dealers here, and prostitutes. But Jimmy came in with his mission and cleaned it up, it all up. And now a grocery,” she said. “It is going to be so nice to be able to walk here to buy groceries.”

“And at a reasonable price,” I added, for I knew a bit about the grocery store that community leader and mission director Jimmy Dorrell had put so much effort into establishing, in particular how one of the goals was to provide the neighborhood with an opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a good price. I felt as if I were awkwardly offering an advertisement for the new market. Perhaps I was. And that was enough for the woman, and she began to go on her way.

“You’re a nice man,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t even know your name, but I know that you’re blessed.”

“What is your name?” I said, genuinely interested, hoping to garner at least that much before she departed.

“Bertha.”

“Bertha, may you be blessed, too.”

And then she paused, and drifted back toward me for more conversation. “What about yours?” she said, “What is your name?” The sun beamed down on her, on us both, warming us on that beautiful, if brisk, December morning.

I told her, before adding, “Do you live locally? Will you be able to walk to the store?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “It will be such a blessing. God is good,” she added, “so good! He has provided this store, provided so mercifully for me. When my husband died two years ago, I thought it was all over for me. But he is good! He loves me, and has shed his mercy upon me.”

“And has,” I added. “He surely does love you.”

To which she added, “Amen,” and then more. “He loves you, too.”

To which I added, “Amen.”

“And his mercy never ends,” she said.

“Amen,” I responded again.

amenAnd this kind of liturgical exchange went back and forth several times in a cadence that was something between preaching and conversation, something between one human talking to another, and two people at once talking to God. It was, to be sure, a kind of sidewalk liturgy. Here and there, too, there popped up, in the midst of it, another or two quotations from the psalms, or various citations of the words of Christ from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.

“Now that was,” I thought to myself five minutes later, as Bertha walked away, “something quite different.” It was not exactly praying, not exactly a conversation, not exactly singing; it was remarkably different. It was two people from vastly different backgrounds who might otherwise never have had occasion to speak, talking to each other (and to God) about the blessing and provision of God that they had differently—but not so differently—experienced in their own lives. Both of us had suffered losses, both knew pain, but, as Bertha pointed out just before she left, “We know Him; we know Him.”

And this was the close of the liturgy, a fitting one, I thought, a bold claim, one that defies logic. Perhaps it could even frighten someone, or, after having read what is above, even cause someone to say, “Those folks who blew up the twin towers were very religious, and look where it got them. Look what a terrible toll religious fervor wreaked that day upon humanity. My advice is to take your sidewalk liturgy and. . . .” Well, you can fill in the rest.

To that honest objection, I can only say this: on that street corner I was not experiencing any religious fervor, nor was I laying claim to any perception or misperception of divine revelation. Rather, I was only sharing a moment, a unique wrinkle in time in which an apparent gap was mystically bridged between an elderly African American woman who had grown up and lived much of her life in less than generous circumstances and a white dude (me), who, though he hailed from a background of less than prosperous Welsh coalminers, had himself never known poverty. Yet bathed in the warming sunlight of a December morning, we indulged in a sidewalk liturgy, the shared experience of a generous and prodigal God. That brief encounter, that unlikely experience washed away all external differences and blessed us both there on the corner of 15th and Colcord.

“King David wrote,” Bertha added, “His mercy endureth forever. Mercy never ends, love never ends.”

“Amen,” I said as I thought to myself, “And that makes all the difference.”

jubilee-food-market

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Pocahontas, Turtles, and Justice

Pocahontas statue
Statue of Pocahontas

It has been an interesting week in America. So I thought I would write a blog that reflected my perception of the past few days. I begin with Pocahontas, who has been in the news because one candidate has decided to call another politician—Elizabeth Warren, not a candidate per se, but perhaps surreptitiously campaigning for a vice presidential nod—by that noble name. Now I am not advocating the insouciant use of the names of historical figures to describe just anyone at any time; but I did find it rather droll that the leading republican candidate underscored Ms. Warren’s apparently tenuous claim to Native American ancestry by using a historical reference that is politically incorrect yet somehow amusing. What to my mind makes that so? I am not sure, and I am still pondering my love–hate relationship with both of the leading candidates for president in the upcoming American election. Or maybe I just have a love–hate relationship with the democratic society we live in, and it has been distilled into my views of both the leading candidates. I don’t know. But I like Pocahontas, at least what I know of her, which is in part legend (or is it history, since it largely comes from John Smith’s own account), of her having intervened with her own tribe when that captain was taken prisoner by the Tsenacommacah in 1607. At about the tender age of 11, she allegedly offered her own head for Smith’s when her father, the chief of the tribe, was about to execute him.[1]

Now I rehearse this tale because the Pocahontas remark would work much better were Elizabeth Warren to understand and empathize with the views of her political opponents, as Pocahontas empathized with John Smith; or if Elizabeth Warren did something really heroic (like offer her head for Donald Trump’s). But maybe in attacking the republican nominee on twitter (how divinely Hicthcockian) she could be viewed as taking the blame for the attacks of the Clinton camp—yet they seem to do their own attacking well enough. But enough politics, enough history, and on to something else: turtles.

turtles
Assembly of Turtles

I turn to turtles next because I like them, even though they have been blamed recently for spreading salmonella. It is the title of the article that reported this contagion that grabbed me: “Salmonella Outbreaks are Being Caused by Turtles.” I suppose, given that it is in the passive voice, I should have been more alarmed by that, as many expository writing professors and tips-for-writing websites these days, have blacklisted the passive voice. Now the title of the article sounds delightfully diabolical, doesn’t it? I can just imagine the Synod of Turtles gathering somewhere to discuss their sinister plans for the coming year—ways to get back at inattentive human beings for outrages such as turtle soup or “shell games,” which they misperceive as always referring to turtle shells, or the like. “Let’s spread salmonella,” one of the more aggressive turtles says! The stenographic turtle asks for clarification, “How is salmonella spelled?”

“Will you stop with that accursed passive voice?” the turtle leader retorts (not realizing that “accursed” is itself a passive participle). “We must retaliate for that new flavor of ice cream made out of the bodies and shells of our brothers and sisters around the world. Let us smite them with germ warfare!” (Elaine Jake’s favorite flavor [or really confection] of ice cream was turtle crunch. I will ever hold the memory of taking her to Katie’s Custard in Beverley Hills, Texas, for a turtle sundae as dear and cherished.)

Justice statue
Statue Representing Justice

Finally, and much more seriously, I come to justice. I close with this because I wanted to suggest that while it is perhaps not the most important value in life—charity, mercy and forgiveness have to rank up there with it—it is close. In fact, the three just mentioned can only make sense if there is such a thing as justice. Now sometimes, we forget about these three when we seek justice. Sometimes we are so fixated on obtaining justice that nothing but justice, even retribution—“making someone pay,” clouds our perception and obfuscates mercy. That may have happened this week when a major university president was relieved of his post because of the evil behavior of some students on his campus. These students did the unspeakable, they committed rape. Nothing good came or could ever come of their actions, nothing good was intended by it. They felt empowered because they were athletes. Should their coach have known about their attitudes toward women? Yes, I suppose in a sense he should have, and he should have shown them a better way. Or he should never have allowed them on his team in the first place. But the college president is not down in the trenches the way a coach is. I only ask whether mercy could have been shown. There is perhaps no obvious answer to those of us who only saw this story from afar. But there is the perception, specifically one of overcorrection, for it is hard to see how a college president can be held responsible for the actions of all of his

Mercy statue
Statue Representing Mercy

students. Could he have done more to prevent it? Well, the people around him probably could have; but unless he micromanaged, he could not have prevented it. And in any case, assuming that there is an easy fix for sins as egregious as rape is, to my mind, naïve.

 

But I should perhaps stick with sweet themes such as turtle ice cream or politically incorrect themes such as Pocahontas, to whom I return now, in closing. The point I think that Mr. Trump was trying to make is that, as another vice presidential candidate (Lloyd Bensten) once said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Change the words Jack Kennedy to Pocahontas and you get the gist, though it would date Mr. Trump a few years.

PC 94 not dated, ca. 1942 Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942. Photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.
Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day, my readers. Please remember those who, like John F. Kennedy, served our country nobly in the military, risking all, suffering harm, and in many cases fearlessly forfeiting their lives so we could enjoy this noble day.

Memorial day graves

[1] https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/pocahontas-her-life-and-legend.htm. Some six years later the Indian princess was herself captured by Captain Samuel Argall and used as a bargaining chip to secure prisoners and weapons that her father had taken in raids on the English. During her incarceration she encountered some who brought her to an understanding of Christianity and she eventually converted and the next year she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, though she would die by the age of twenty-two. The precise cause of her early demise is not known.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The View from Here

“Well, yes, thank you, I think I will,” Reverend Griffith responded to the invitation of Elaine Jakes’ mother, Blanche, to come in for some cool, almost iced, Black Current tea, served with homemade water biscuits, and Hen Sir cheese. So it was that after church, the devoted rector was making a few pastoral visitations on that warm, far too humid summer afternoon of the first of August in 1937, nigh upon eighty years ago now. Even though it was a bit outside of his regular rounds further down the Susquehanna River in Plymouth and Larksville, Reverend Griffith came to Kingston, mainly because Blanche and Harry lived there, quite a stretch from Plymouth’s Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church, a house of God with far too long a name.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

Nevertheless, the good cleric traversed that far distance, specifically to the house of Jemima Jones, where also dwelt Jemima’s niece, Blanche, and her husband, Harry. Jemima had taken in the recently wed couple a decade before, and they were in the process of raising a young family in that fine, but far from fancy duplex there near the intersection of Rutter Avenue and Pierce Street.

“There’s a lot of love in this house,” said the reverend. “You have a fine family, Blanche.”

“Pshaw,” followed by a pause; then she added, “But thank you. Harry is in the backyard. Why don’t you go out and chat with him and I’ll bring the tea and cheese out to you. It’s Black Current tea, Reverend.”

“How rare, hard to find these days. It sounds wonderful, Blanche,” he said making his way onto the narrow back porch.

There sat Harry in a ribbed tank-top tee shirt and shorts in the middle of the yard on a folding chair with his feet in a washbasin-sized bucket of cool water, which he was splashing up on his chest and head just as the reverend descended the back steps. After he welcomed Hugh Griffith with the proper august holy-ringing title he said, “It’s a tiny yard, but I love it. It’s cool here in the shade of the house and the trees, and I come out here to clear my head, to pray.”

As Harry tended to write down his prayers, it is likely that he actually went into the back yard to compose with pencil and paper. I won’t talk about that today, though, as I’m writing about something else, his yard. Harry loved that backyard, and though I suspect, in terms of its comeliness, Reverend Griffith might have failed to see why anyone might love it, no doubt he grasped its importance to Harry as a refuge from the troubles of life, a place where he could go and think—or rather be still—and, as he said, pray. No doubt Reverend Griffith admired the latter—he was, after all, a Presbyterian minister—and he likely knew that for Harry praying started with writing; he knew, too, that writing, reflecting and praying took place in Harry’s backyard on a regular basis. That much anyone who ever knew Harry would have known, for he was gentle and kind. And, as if on his behalf, the tiny yard seemed to divulge as much.

 

Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country

San Antonio
San Antonio

My Italian friends would call even such a postage-stamp-sized backyard as my grandfather had, a giardino. Now this is important not simply because Italians have the unique capacity to make all things sound more beautiful than they really are but because they also have the capacity of pointing out the beauty in something that you might otherwise have overlooked. For example, while most of my American friends from the eastern coast of the country are essentially allergic to Texas, my Italian friends are not. One and all, they love the state, and find great beauty in its prairies, shoreline, Hill Country and, among its cities, San Antonio in particular. Thus, I’m sure that Harry’s Italian friends referred to his tiny yard as his giardino. I’m sure they said, “Your giardino, it is beautiful!”—saying as much in a comely and robust Italian accent, of course.

And they likely said the same of the mimosa in the front yard, a small tree that Blanche adored. And then there were two or three rose bushes that Harry tended dutifully. These entwined a lattice that ran along the side of the house by the carport, next to the door that opened, after five ascending steps, into the kitchen. Next to that rose bush was a heavy, thick, oblong stone about a foot in length, into which Harry had faintly carved “Harry + Blanche,” a lover’s whisper, hand-engraved, time-defying. That rock marked the holy temenos that made their yard, small as it was, a place of beauty and wonder whose paltry amount of flora and fauna was more than enough. It was a giardino.

That’s where Reverend Griffith sat with my future grandparents—for Blanche had joined the men, as Jemima had taken the girls out for a stroll with her sister Elizabeth Ann—drinking iced tea and eating Hen Sir cheese, the Welsh cheese that oddly came to symbolize spiritual renewal in our family. But all of this is, of course, wryly chronicled in The Curious Autobiography. And so they chatted, speaking about topics that the cleric liked, such as God’s sovereignty, mercy and charity, and topics that Harry liked, such as his hope to get a job away from the coal mines, the threat of war in Europe, and how good Hen Sir was with a smidgen of strawberry jam (for Blanche had included that with the homemade biscuits). And how much he appreciated that the reverend now preached sermons in Welsh and English both, as Harry confessed that his Welsh was lacking.

Ocean Grove
Ocean Grove

They also spoke of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where there was another view altogether, not of a giardino, but of the majestic Atlantic, which will be the topic of another blog.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

So the conversation went. Now I myself have seen some pretty superb views, such as the Bay of Naples, as I peered out from behind a well-placed sphinx, to the view of Baltic Sea from Vogelfluglinie ferry that brings you to incomparable Copenhagen. I’ve walked upon Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, thrown a Frisbee in the Villa Doria Pamphilij, where far and wide one can see Respighi’s inspiration on display.

Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij
Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij

I’ve visited the amazing Abbey district of St. Gallen and gawked at the heaven-like interior of the abbey library—mirable visu—not to mention the Alps themselves, in which the town of St. Gallen is nestled. But I say Harry and Blanche’s giardino was a finer view than any of these.

St. Gallen library
St. Gallen library

 

Sappho
Portrait Bust of Sappho

In one of her most amazing poems, the Greek poet Sappho puts it this way, “some say an army of cavalry, or infantry, or sailors is the most beautiful thing across this coal-black earth, but I say it is whatever you love” (fgt. 16). A giardino is no army, but it springs from the coal-black earth and it is a place that one can love. It was a place of love for Harry and Blanche, whether that love be merely recorded upon a great round rock that I now have in my own giardino or it be seen in the occasional rose that Harry would harvest for Blanche from the rose bush, or it be simply the love they shared with the visiting Reverend Griffith over a cooling glass of tea, some homemade biscuits, and a bite of Hen Sir. That giardino framed their home the way a picture frames a painting. That home and its yard was the place where they created a family with their two daughters and with their aunt Jemima.

So the view was, for Blanche and Harry, Lee Ann and Elaine, pretty fine from that house on Rutter Avenue. As I see it, it surpassed the Baltic, the Bay of Naples and the Jersey Shore. Their view was more encompassing than just a giardino. It was what so many of us crave beyond anything else in this life, a family and a home, a place where Jemima, just before she died saw an angel. But I have spoken of angels in a previous blog; and I imagine I will again. For now, I shall simply look at my small backyard, which is perhaps two postage stamps in size—but the cost of mailing a letter has gone up over the years—and I shall think of Harry and Blanche’s view. Maybe my own is not that different after all. Yes, I like the view from here.