Sunday, August 27, 2006

loss, grief, and legacy

Someone very dear to me died last Sunday. It was expected because we knew she had cancer, yet still rather shocking, because the diagnosis was only six weeks old. One day you get a call that so-and-so has been diagnosed with cancer, you spend weeks trying to stay on top of the updates, and all of a sudden you are sitting at a funeral wondering how everything changed so fast.

It’s strange, the things that trigger grief. The memorial service was full of pictures and stories, a chance to sing her favorite song and to hear a recording of her own voice singing another. Strangely, none of this brought more than a few tears to me. I wondered, “Is this going to be like so many other deaths for me, where I just never find the tears?” Another friend of mine died rather tragically about seven years ago, and I have still never really cried about that.

This time, all it took was a letter for me to absolutely lose it- the handwriting, some funny words. I’m in the middle of moving, so it is natural that I came across a letter from Jeannie, folded in an envelope along with the letter of recommendation she wrote when I was applying for seminary last year. And that is when it hit me: I have lost one of the people that I knew, without a doubt, really, really believed in me. One of my biggest cheerleaders. (Not to mention someone who could make laugh so hard I could hardly breathe.) I walked around that day of the funeral, hearing, “She talked about you all the time,” or, “You sure meant a lot to her,” and it left me feeling like the luckiest person around to have had her presence in my life.

Shortly after Jeannie got sick, her family started a website to serve the huge number of people asking for updates. In the six weeks before she died, the site received over 10,000 hits. A huge amount of those who left messages for her were former students (she was a high school music teacher). What is such a testament to her is that the range of students was so broad, bridging every gap of clique and achievement and temperament. Why such a mixed group? It’s because she believed in kids indiscriminately, and they knew it. She was their cheerleader.

Jeannie not only taught half of my hometown to sing, she helped actualize the potential of hundreds of high school students who may not have seen much in themselves. I am just one of many who became more because of what she chose to see when she looked at me. Now that’s a legacy.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

a life that says he's better

A huge portion of the book of Hebrews is all about Jesus being "better". He is better than Moses- surpassing his law and covenant. He is better than the angels, because he is not just a high being but the very SON of God. We read this and say, "Amen, o writer of Hebrews! Jesus is so much better!" But what do we know about it? To consider him better than Moses doesn't mean much to us, but it meant an entire change of paradigm for the Jews of the day, whose lives were built around Mosaic law and covenant. To consider him better than angels in our culture means he surpasses a chubby cherub- not a huge compliment. Such was not the case for the letter's original audience. So as much as I'd like to pat myself on the back for "amening" these words of Scripture, I really can't. The deeper issue is, am I amening the heart of it?

The rubber meets the road when we have to say that Jesus is better than what our lives say is best. Jesus is better than the affection of another person. Jesus is better than the American dream, than money or success or sex. Jesus is better than a well-known ministry. Jesus is better than the praises of man. Jesus is better than our middle-class way of life.

Easy to say. But what happens when we are asked to give those things up? Give up that special someone. Give up that dream job with its amazing salary. Give up the praise of man. Give up all our American luxuries. What happens? We hesitate, rationalize, procrastinate. We say with our lives, "I know you're good and all, but I'm not quite sure you're better than______"

How that must hurt the heart of a God who loves to bless his children, to lavish them with love and good things! How little credit we give him! If we are really taking him at his word, we've got to act like we really believe he means it. So do it. Find the thing that your life says is best, look it in the eye, and say with faith, "Jesus is better."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

it begins with a name

It begins with a name
the first (Rick) is a step
the last (Bennet) is a leap.
Did he go by Ricky as a boy?
The Bennet family, the Bennet children…
[uh oh, here we go]
A brick falls when we hear him laugh,
an entire wall when he admits that he might cry.
He has a daughter (age 11)
Last week he tried to buy her a skateboard.
It got stolen.
[No turning back now]
He drinks because of a broken heart.

Another crashing sound
comes behind the stories of his father:
how they owned a Harley museum,
how he died of cancer.
His mother went not long after.
[we’re goners for sure]
It gets old, he says, living on the streets,
curling up in alleys for a decade’s worth of cold nights.
[suddenly I am imagining the chill of the concrete]
He gives advice on panhandling,
shows us a card trick, a coin trick, a smile.

It’s a risky business, letting it begin with a name;
a step, a leap, a crumbling wall.
Two days later, when I walk past him asleep in the sidewalk,
and I pause to watch them carry him away to detox (again),
I find that I have given up the right to say
“Look at that homeless man sleeping there.”
Yes, look at that unknown, unclean, inhuman
crumpled man in front of the Starbucks
where I study for my middle-class master’s degree.
I gave up that right
when I asked for his name.

Now all I can see is Rick Bennet,
who lost his father
and misses his daughter
and is curled up drunk on the sidewalk
because of a broken heart.