Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
(Note: I wrote this post as a devotional for the Sanctuary Choir at Manassas Baptist Church. The choir doesn’t rehearse or sing in services during the month of July.)1 Thessalonians 4:13: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
I don’t know if you have run across the word “valediction” lately. It’s not used a lot: in fact, I can think of only one occasion in John Donne’s famous poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” If you haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it means, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It doesn’t come up in casual conversation a lot. And while I have a general idea of its meaning, I had to look up a precise definition. Basically, it consists of words of farewell, but here’s the complete definition:
A valediction (derived from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell”) or complimentary close in American English as an expression used to say farewell, especially a word or phrase used to end a letter or message, or the act of saying parting words whether brief or extensive.
Alternatively, valediction can refer to the final prayers and remarks at the graveside before burial given by the presiding priest, after the Mass and the rite of Final Commendation, during a Roman Catholic Funeral Service.
John Donne’s poem is on the “extensive” side. I won’t read it in the interests of time, but I’ve made copies for you to have if you’d like. It’s a so-called “metaphysical” poem, and one of the characteristics of this poetry is that it is very dense. It would take us half and hour to go over it. In my graduate seminar in seventeenth century poetry, we spent three hours talking about the poem and its meaning. But then, graduate students in English are different from you and me. Well, maybe I have a lot in common with them since I was one once. But I haven’t forgotten what I learned about the poem, largely because I inflicted it on thousands of seniors in my English class. Most of them are none the worse for the experience.
Anyhow, briefly, Donne wrote them poem when he was about to undertake a trip to France and would be separated from his wife Anne for several months. In the poem, he reminds her that they are not only one physically as husband and wife, but also spiritually. In a famous metaphor, he compares this spiritual connection to gold, which is almost infinitely malleable, meaning it can be beaten to the thickness of an atom. Now, that’s thin! So, when they are apart, their souls not only are not separated, they cannot be parted. Hence, the title: he is telling his wife in a poem of parting that she should not mourn because of this spiritual reality.
And so it is with us. We endure all kinds of separations all our lives: separations of distance, of time, of diseases such as Alzheimers which affect memory and recognition, and we are called on not only by John Donne, but also be Paul in his passage about the importance of hope and faith at the death of a loved one. It’s a short step to extend that idea to any kind of separation.
And so, as we take a break from choir during the month of July, we needn’t be sad or depressed. We will miss each other, but we know we will see each other again, in this life or the next. When we sing the old hymn, ”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” we are reminded that
When we asunder part
It gives us inward pain.
But we shall still be joined in heart
And seek to meet again.
It’s interesting that the version sung in England includes the line When for a while we part, while a more modern revision of the verse changes the line to When we are called to part. You can put me down for “asunder,” please. We don’t hear it much any more, but it’s a word I like.
English clergyman John Fawcett who wrote this hymn in 1740 was clearly echoing Donne’s poem composed in 1611 or 1612. He would have been familiar with it as an educated person.
And so, I wish you a safe and refreshing July, ever mindful that God holds all of us, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we are never separated from each other as well.
John 14:6: Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”
I don’t know how you feel about facts. Maybe you are a Sergeant Joe Friday type and want “just the facts. M’am.” Perhaps you’re more a theoretical person. I believe this world needs both kinds of people, and you can put me down as theoretical or moonstruck or absent-minded or whatever you wish.
The most dramatic example of this collision of two worlds came when I was student teaching with Helen Leach at Oakton High School in 1970. Helen is an editor now for The Manassas Observer. You may hum “It’s A Small World After All” at this point if you wish. Anyhow, as a graduate student, I was full of theories (and other things). Whenever Helen and I were talking about some issue, I’d say something like, “Well, there’s a theory that applies here.”
And Helen would say, “I’m sure there is.”
“What’s the matter, Helen? Don’t you believe in theories?”
“No, I don’t. I believe in facts.”
We never did resolve our differences, but we both survived student teaching and went on to long careers in which we didn’t traumatize too many students, in spite of many of them deserving it richly.
Anyhow, this pertains to the present situation in that I still like theories and testing them out no matter how crackpot and benighted they may seem or be. Take the idea (that I read on the internet so I knew that it was true) that turning off your car engine at stoplights and at other times when you’re idling saves gas. I tried this method on both my cars for a tankful of gas and found my mileage was worse, probably because of the gas used by restarting the engine. So facts overcame theory in that case. It should have worked, but it didn’t.
And so, you’d think that would discourage me from trying to prove any more theories correct. You’d be wrong if you thought so, because I started thinking that if I drove at or below the speed limit and not like a banshee late for a goat sacrifice and coasted whenever possible or prudent, I’d save gas. And money. And the environment. It could be a trifecta of theorizing.
And I’m here to tell you that it worked! My Impala, which normal gets 17.6 mpg, got 20.1 using this method. I haven’t quite rule out a tank on the Mazda, but I’ll tell you about it when I do.
I was telling our Children’s Ministry Coordinator, Joanne Hazlett this, and she commented that that’s the way they learn to drive in England, where gas (or petrol) costs four times what it does here. So, I now call this method of driving the Hazlett Method. Be sure to tell Joanna when you see her.
And so, in this case, facts proved the theory. I’m glad they did, because the bigger kids are starting to make fun of me and beat me up at recess. Being beaten up is a fact I can’t handle.
Theologically, I think that this pertains because Jesus was not just a theory or an idea or a sprit or a concept. His presence here on Earth was a fact, as was his death on the cross, his resurrection, his teachings, the love of God, the provision for each of us at God’s hand and the community of brother and sisterhood under the benevolent care of the Creator. Let us praise the God who created all tings for facts—and for theories.
I’m pleased to introduce Maria Yeager to all you Biscuit readers out there. Maria came to one of our Writers Cafe meetings about a week ago and want to start maintaining a blog. Here’s an entry from her blog, Inspiring through Experience, “Angels Among the Homeless.” I think you’ll be as moved and impressed as I was.
About 8 years ago, I was blessed to be part of a group in Texas who went out and fed the homeless. Over the months that I was involved with this church group, we helped many people who were on the streets – alcoholics, drug addicts, those with mental disorders, and those who were just plain down on their luck. Although we were sad about their living conditions, it was such a rewarding experience to know that we helped these people in our own small way. I remember looking at them and wondering what horrible thing happened in their life that put them in such a terrible position. I usually prayed for them on the way back to the church.
One day as we were handing out food, an older man came up to us carrying a bunch of palm branches. We asked him what he needed, and he said “Nothing. I just wanted to share something with you.” His tattered clothing and unshaven face made it clear that he was indeed homeless. He went on to say that he felt God had called him to take palm branches and twist them into crosses to give to others as a sign of hope. He then took his branches and twisted them into the shape of a cross – a beautiful one at that. He made a cross for each of us, and we thanked him for such a wonderful gift. He was a very sweet man, very quiet and polite. After he was done, he made sure to thank us for coming down and helping the homeless. He then turned and walked away without taking and food or drink from our truck. I kept that cross for several months until it dried out and started to crumble. I didn’t want to let it go because the whole experience had such a major impact on me.
About 3 years ago, my ex-husband and I went out to eat at a steakhouse in Washington, D.C. As we walked down the street in the city, a homeless man suddenly approached us and told us we looked like newlyweds. We thanked him and told him we had been married 20 years. He smiled and said “Well, you look like newlyweds. You are definitely meant for each other.” Again, this homeless man did not ask for a thing from us. We thanked him and continued on our way. Little did I know that would be the last meal that I would enjoy with my ex-husband. About a week later, I found out that he had been having an affair.
So, was that homeless man in Texas, who didn’t ask for any help from us, really an angel among us who was thanking us for helping out those who are less fortunate? Did he give us those crosses as a way to show us that God sees our good works? What about the man in Washington? Was that an angel who was trying to send a message to my ex-husband? Was this a divine way to let him know that what he was doing was wrong? I believe both of these were in fact angels among the homeless. I believe that things like this happen all the time, but we are too busy to notice. A lesson that I have learned from these two experiences are that we should never, ever judge others. We never know who and where we will experience divine intervention.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” Luke 6:37
“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans). Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” John 4:9-10
Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.
I don’t know if you remember a book from the early 1970’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It was a freakish best-seller that caught on with everyone from hippies to philosophy professors. It recounted a motorcycle trip by the author and his son, narrated by an alternative persona named Phaedrus. Phaedrus attempts to reconcile the classic view of life and reality with the romantic side, or the rational with the spiritual, emotional and intuitive parts These lofty considerations aside, one comment I would make about the book is that Phaedrus is totally crazy about maintaining his machine. Now, I’ve never even been on a motorcycle, much less ridden one, but I do know that bicycles take some maintenance. And maintaining one wasn’t what I would call a high point in my life, and I certainly didn’t burst with joy when I had to do it. Call me insensitive, but that’s how it is. (A bit of free advice here: never, never, never, I repeat, never attempt to adjust the spokes on a bicycle. You’ll end up with a wheel whose shape might charitably be described as resembling that of a hippodrome. Oval wheels don’t make for a smooth ride, so just bite the bullet and pay someone to do it who knows how.)
The book sometimes ended up in the car/truck/train/airplane motorcycle section of some bookstores, and I’ll tell you why. This is a well-kept secret, so don’t tell anyone, but people who buy for bookstores don’t read every book they put on the shelf. Neither do librarians. They read reviews, and this practices sometime got school librarians in trouble when a book contained material unsuited for students. We English teachers didn’t have that problem because we were required to read every book we taught. This didn’t cause much strain on us since English teachers like to read. We also understood the importance of becoming familiar with everything we taught. One teacher didn’t preview a film called The Golden Fleece and ordered it, thinking it was about Jason and the Argonauts. It wasn’t: it was about sheep ranching in Australia. If I had done this, I wouldn’t have told anyone about it, but she told everyone.
All this is a prelude to my latest attempt to save money and gas (but not time). I have taken to driving at the speed limit (not five miles over, which seems to be the norm around here) and coasting as much as possible. I have found I am able to coast most of the way from Caton Merchant House where my Dad lives to my house. I have learned several things from this experiment:
I have not run through a tank of gas yet doing this, but I’ll let you know if it works. If it doesn’t I can always go back to driving like I’m in a stock car race. Old habits are hard to break.
All this does have a spiritual side. I believe God honors us when we are still, when we take our time, when we are more aware of God’s creation all around us. I hope whatever method you choose to achieve these states of mind, it works for you and that it works well and allows you to let God work in and through you to the glory of God and the coming of the heavenly kingdom.
I don’t know if you follow what passes for pop music these days. I don’t bother, largely because I consider most of what comes out to be a waste of time, demonstrating neither literary merit nor musical talent. Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. I think I’ve officially gone into curmudgeonhood.
I remember in the days of AM radio dominating the airwaves the various countdown shows, counting down (oddly enough) the records that had sold the most or made the most money or caused the stock market to soar or whatever. There was a version for black-and-white television transplanted from the radio called Your Hit Parade. This featured covers of popular songs with really bad singing, uncoordinated dancing and cheesy sets. Yeah, and we loved it. I would get so excited when it was time to reveal number one, I would hop around our living room like a frog. There are a lot of ways to show anticipation, and that’s one of them, although, I grant you, not too popular or widespread. My excitement was decidedly misplaced, because the number one song was generally the same as the week before, or the number two song from the week before. Still, this occurrence didn’t lessen my thrill at finding out number one.
The people who ran Your Hit Parade had what we might call peculiar sensibilities. I remember one year around Christmas time when “Tom Dooley,” that carol of comfort and joy, was number one. The host (or one of the hosts—they all looked pretty much alike) apologized for singing a murder ballad at such a joyful season, as if listening to it might ruin Christmas for millions of loyal fans. Apparently doing the song didn’t cause a groundswell of demands for the producers’ resignations, because the cast was back in place the next week, looking undistinguishable from each other, dancing like a herd of wounded buffalo and also singing like one. Not a pretty sight.
Anyhow, what I was saying a while ago about popular music is not true of all such music. There are some good songs, about every thousand releases or so. One such song is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” released in 1984 and used in a number of movies and televisions shows. If you haven’t heard the song, it basically uses Biblical allusions to King David, Sampson, the Holy Spirit and God to make a point about the difficulty of praise for us in times of difficulty. Several lines go:
(Hallelujah) is not a cry you can hear at night.
It’s not somebody who has seen the light.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.
Cohen makes a valid point, I think, that sometimes our hallelujahs are cold and broken, but of course they are not at other points.
Our younger Alyssa had “Hallelujah” sung at her wedding last October, at which point in the ceremony I forget. I thought it an appropriate, meaningful selection.
The point of all this is that sometimes our hallelujahs are cold and broken; at other times they are warm and healed. I pray that this may be so for each of us, as we praise God for all God has done and work to make every child of God’s song such an expression of praise.