Harmony

The first time I heard “Blue Moon” it was sung, not by Frank Sinatra, but by the two Zulu men I was sitting between on a makeshift seat in the front of an old van. Okay, so it was probably not the first time I had heard that song, since I was familiar with the tune, but I did not know the words any better than they did. “Blue Moon… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da dah.” They kept singing it over and over.

My friends in New York had been afraid I’d encounter Zulus ever since they’d seen the newspaper headline: “African National Congress and Zulus Clash in Downtown Johannesburg.” The story had been dreadful enough, but the accompanying photo had shocked everyone, even me, although I did not want to admit it. Yet who could ignore a picture of dead bodies on a sidewalk in what looked like an upscale shopping area, especially since one of them had a spear sticking out of him? “Don’t go to South Africa,” was the consensus expressed as my phone rang off the hook the day before I was to leave. But despite my friends’ guidance and my own unspoken fears, I went anyway.

The unrest leading up to the first fully democratic election in April 1994 made it necessary for the multi-ethnic clergy group with whom I was traveling to pay extra attention to security issues. We were especially cognizant of this when we arrived at the Methodist Church in the center of Johannesburg and found policemen removing concertina wire near the front door where the ANC/Zulu clash that had made those headlines had taken place. We were there to attend voter registration training and a peace rally.

That this had already been the site of extreme violence was unnerving, but I tried to be brave as prospective voters came in to learn how to cast their ballot for the first time. It must have been even scarier for them, knowing that there were those willing to do bodily harm to disrupt their right to vote.

Between the training and the peace rally, we paused for dinner from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant down the street. Over the shared meal, a few representatives of local factions joined us for more intimate conversations about the upcoming election. Afterwards, we moved to a spacious auditorium on the church grounds for the rally, which took the form of a concert, featuring a musical group from each political faction or tribal entity. Although the participants were deeply committed to conflicting visions for the future of their country, in music, they found commonality, and for a moment, a sense of much needed peace.  

Then an announcement was made that the next group, the largest of the evening, represented the Zulus. I squirmed in my seat as flashes of that spear photo coupled with clips from the old movie Shaka Zulu raced through my brain. Were we about to be attacked by wild men whose accomplices had, just a few days ago, killed their political opponents outside this very building? That’s how the media had portrayed the Zulus in their vivid and shocking headline news article that had made it all the way to New York. So what else could I expect?

I hunkered down, hoping to become invisible, and braced myself for what might happen. Simultaneously, the doors at the rear of the auditorium opened, and the Zulus entered… singing.

What? That was not the war cry of a primitive people about to wreak havoc upon their audience. It was… it was… barbershop music. As the chorus of almost one hundred tuxedo clad barbershop singers made their way down the aisles to the stage, the melodious tones of complex harmony began to fill all the empty places, both in the room and in all of us. It was enchanting.

So, when a few of the Zulu crooners, who we met over coffee after the rally, offered to give a bunch of us a ride back to the retreat center in their van, we were delighted to accept their kindness.

“Blue Moon…” Even though none of us knew the rest of the words, the harmony was unforgettable.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

How to Prepare for Reassignment

* Dedicated to military members, clergy and anyone else who gets moved around for work… whether they like it or not.

Pretend it is not coming. Continue to think of yourself in this place with these people forever. Whine over the same daily annoyances as if they are permanent problems.  Tell no one you are leaving.

Receive email from your relief.  Treat it like an intruder. Wait three days before replying and blame your lateness on “network problems.” Make ominous remark to him about how he’ll have to learn to put up with that, too.

Read and reread his email. Be sure they will like him more. Get depressed. Remember past difficulties with colleagues. Present these to yourself as evidence that it is really time to leave. Completely ignore all information that does not support this thesis.

Pick a fight with a staff member or policy. Get worked up over it. It is easier to deal with anger than sadness.

Do something that you know will be “the last time in this place.” Feel melancholic. Tell no one.

Announce that it is Spring. Clean the junk out of your office. Pretend not to hear someone whisper, “Isn’t she leaving soon?”

Mention matter-of-factly over lunch that you have heard from your relief. Be glad when surprised colleagues ask, “You’re leaving soon?” Brag about new assignment.  Keep fingers crossed under the table.

Refuse to call person you are relieving.  Fear that “something will go wrong” and you won’t get this assignment if you call. Google new job and gather outdated information.

Tell colleagues nice things about your relief. Begin to pave the road for his success because you care about these people. Once you have convinced yourself about the goodness of your relief by the recitation of his attributes, call him and begin a proper turn over.  Laugh a lot during the conversation. Look forward to meeting him. Really. Hope things will go this well when you contact the person you are relieving.

At staff meeting, listen to litany of upcoming challenging work requirements. Remember you are leaving soon. Smile.

Remember you are leaving soon. Panic! Force yourself to call the person you are relieving. Pray he does not answer the phone. He does. Know that he is as conflicted over leaving his assignment as you are over leaving yours. Be nice. Ask lots of questions. Take copious notes. Thank him for his good work. Congratulate him on his new assignment.

Get excited! Make plans. Change plans. Hurry. Wait. Panic. Get frustrated. Be sad. Say goodbye… cry, but don’t let anyone see.

Say hello! Be brave… keep breathing … find your way… business as usual.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

At the American Cemetery in Normandy

On Memorial Day 2014, the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment visited the American Cemetery in Normandy and with a student group from an American college provided evening colors. As we remember the 76th Anniversary of D-Day this year, here are some photos from that visit and the prayer I offered during the ceremony.

Almighty and Merciful God, we are gathered on this hallowed ground made sacred by the presence of our forebears-in-arms who gave the last full measure of devotion on the shoreline below us.

Standing among so many graves, we are reminded of the cost of war and the sacrifices that have been made throughout our nation’s history by those who have answered the call to protect and defend. Some are known to us as father, grandfather, distant ancestor, close relative, neighbor or friend. Others have stood beside us on the field of battle. Most we know only by their devotion to duty and their physical and moral courage which has preserved for us a just and free nation.  With honor and fortitude, they made their stand against all enemies to alleviate tyranny and oppression, build up civil society, provide humanitarian assistance, defend the constitution, uphold human rights and dignity and work toward that glorious day when at last there shall be peace.

And so, O God, in their honor and memory we pause to offer to you a prayer of thanksgiving as we remember them silently in our hearts:

Let us pray for those who fought and died…

Let us pray for those who fought and lived…

Let us pray for those who, through their support, care and love for those who fought, have faced their own battles…

Let us pray for ourselves, that we continue to do all in our power to stand against those who oppose freedom, democracy and the establishment of a just and lasting peace…

O God, may we always remember the patriots upon whose shoulders we stand and may we as a nation always be worthy of those who defend us.

In your most holy name, we pray. AMEN.

Interfaith Chapel

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I Remember You

Names carved in granite,

Neatly, in rows,

Ordered by date of death.

“I remember you,” I mutter, as my fingers read a section.

For a short moment my mind races back to body bags, opened in search of dog tags listing religious preference. A bullet hole in the spine, just below the skull. Searching through a journal for a name, when other ID was missing. Deep screams filling the tent as death came painfully. The sound of my own voice singing hymns to a Baptist as he silently moved closer to heaven, his brain death preceding his last breath by hours. A Buddhist? Did I say the right prayer? God, I hope so.

Enough.                                            Enough.

“I remember,” I say again, my voice hoarse from cheering for the team.

Across the parking lot athletes are leaving the gym,

Two hours of seated volleyball and wheel chair basketball only invigorating them.

They move quickly on prosthetic legs worn proudly with shorts.

A few, with scars on their heads, search for the bus.

These warriors wear their memorials, tattooed on existing limbs, telling the story of how they came to be wounded, who they lost and why it matters.

My tattoos are in stone.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

A Word for Those Who Need It

It’s Mother’s Day again. I know because my Facebook page has been filling up with sweet photos of friends’ moms and heart-felt memes encouraging everyone to appreciate theirs while they still have them. Seeing those sentiments makes me happy for those whose mothers deserve recognition, but it also reminds me that not everyone is as fortunate. So, I’d like to offer a word for those who could never honestly make these posts; who feel the need to fall silent so others may enjoy the day.

Here’s the dilemma:

The ideal mother is a joyful, caring, self-sacrificing, loving being whose greatest desire is to nurture and protect her offspring. In reality, a mother is someone who does her best to manage a household of cranky children, endless meal prep, piles of dirty everything and still try to have a personal life and likely also a job. But on Mother’s Day, and many other days as well, her child still views her as closer to the ideal. Why? Because the child’s love for her bridges the gap.

But then there are those “mothers” whose gap is so wide the Chesapeake Bay Bridge couldn’t connect them to the ideal. As a Navy chaplain, I’ve had a steady diet of their stories, since one of the quickest ways to escape a brutal childhood is to join the military. Some accounts were so awful that it would make me wonder how their now adult child lived long enough to be sitting across from me. Yet even that person would likely hedge on saying their mother was completely to blame. Why? Because something inside told them it was their job to close the gap. Even if their mother cooked meth in the bathtub, shot their sister, was perpetually under the influence, beat, abused, and neglected her children, brought home a continuous line of unstable men, abandoned the family, maxed the credit cards she took out in their name or put Satanic spells on them. Somehow, it was partially their fault.

“If only I were a better daughter, things would be different.”

“I know I am supposed to honor my mother, but how do I do that when she is so neglectful and mean?”

“I hate holidays. All they are is another opportunity to be abused. But my mom says she wants me to come home. Do I have to go?”

“My mother doesn’t work because she can’t pass a drug test. She says if I don’t continue to send my paycheck to her, my siblings will starve. I need to keep some money to live on, but I don’t want to hurt my brothers.”

“What do I owe my mother despite how she’s treated me?”

These painful laments were difficult to hear and often I would drive home telling my windshield what level of harm I wanted to inflict on said “mother” just to get it out of my system. So imagine what the annual arrival of a day to celebrate mothers does to those who’ve suffered through childhood with them. Since rage is not a fit sentiment for a greeting card, silence is all that’s left. But that loud silence also deserves guidance. So, here are a few of my responses that have passed the scrutiny of those who have endured these kinds of mothers, in case one or two might be helpful to someone you know:

  • You don’t get a free pass in life because you had a crappy childhood. You are still responsible for who you become. Even if your mother was raised in a tough situation, that does not mean she is justified passing it on to you. The same goes for you.  Fix what’s broken. Let her be the end of the line for negative and addictive behavior.
  • In a parent-child relationship, the parent is the responsible party. Even if your mother wants to “identify as a child” and acts like one, that doesn’t make it so. You are not to blame for being too young to be the adult you both needed.
  • A child’s love is not enough to turn a woman with criminal tendencies into something she is not.
  • You don’t get extra points in life for suffering or making those around you suffer. If you are psychologically unwell because of your experiences, see a counselor and take meds, if necessary.
  • Take stock of what you learned: Practical household skills out of necessity? How to be self-sufficient at an early age? The perspective that comes from really seeing where addiction or untreated mental illness leads? You are stronger in many ways because of your difficulties.
  • You can still believe in the Hallmark card ideal of motherhood, even if your mother didn’t fulfill it. Just know that an ideal is a concept of perfection, a guide toward becoming more excellent, not an achievable end state.
  • People are not all one thing. Your mother could have been the vilest creature imaginable and still have done a few good things worth remembering.
  • All adult relationships are voluntary, even the one we have with our mother. If yours is toxic, stay away. If there’s any chance for a future relationship, it will be more possible if it has not been poisoned by continual negative interactions.
  • The best way to honor your mother is to become the best version of yourself, the one she would have wanted for you if she had been able to do so. This is not something you owe your mother. This is what you owe yourself and the world around you.

As Mother’s Day approaches this year, if your own mother is more worthy of a “pink slip” than a greeting card, let her go. It’s just another day on the calendar. But if you are brave, try to find a way to “rejoice with those who rejoice”. Honoring those who do their best to nurture the family, who cherish children and see that role as essential, is good for us all.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

The Third Death

I couldn’t see the words. There was a story there, but the tree was in the way. Who would have planted an elm on a boys’ grave: A grieving mother burying two children forty-five days apart? A father, wanting to honor the lives of his boys with something that would grow stronger each year, as they should have, passing seed and essence to generations to come? Or was it the wind howling over ground which years before had witnessed the Battle of Washington Heights, a great loss for the roughly clad, fledgling Continental Army, who, in their retreat across the Hudson to Fort Lee, left behind nearly 3,000 troops, some of whom died on this land but most who would die that year at the hands of their British and Hessian captors? Perhaps it was not so much the wind as the birds that soared and dipped on its currents, attracted to the adjacent farm once known as “Minniesland,” as if they knew it had been home to artist and ornithologist John James Audubon who had devoted his life to the careful rendering of the natural world.

Was it the intention of those who loved these boys, or just a whim of nature, using breeze or creature to plant a tree that would put its enormous roots literally through the bodies of my ancestors, entwining them and me forever with this place, rich in history, which the original inhabitants called “Manahata,” and we call Manhattan? But there it stood, my DNA rising upwards among the tombs, extending its limbs skyward and casting a large shadow across the path so that those seeking respite from city life could find shade on an afternoon stroll, or tourists wanting to see the final resting places of the famous and the infamous might pause beneath its branches to check the map.

This place, Trinity Cemetery, had few “residents” when Hamilton and Clifford Flock were buried in late autumn of 1850, but over time the population of these four-square blocks has grown to more than 75,000.  It is located in an Upper West Side neighborhood known as Hamilton Heights, named not for my ancestor, but for one famous resident remembered, less for being the first Secretary of the Treasury, with his image gracing today’s version of a ten-dollar bill, and more for having died in a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton, who my ancestors admired enough to name a son after, is interred not at this Trinity Cemetery, located at 155th Street but at Trinity Cemetery at Wall Street, the closure of which, in 1822, caused the church to look for this second site uptown. Opened twenty years later, these Victorian grounds, bisected north and south by Broadway, were laid out by James Renwick, who when he wasn’t landscaping graveyards, was busy designing Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, one hundred and five blocks south, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC.

The Flock plot is in the westerly section, with a view of the Hudson River. Bounded by granite posts and linked by wrought iron rails with a large obelisk just north of center, it is inscribed with the names of the boy’s parents, Alfred and Maria, my third great grandparents.   

Through the years several noted residents have joined them on the gently sloping hillside:

Alfred Tennyson Dickens, the oldest surviving son of Charles Dickens, and godson of the poet Lord Tennyson, was buried nearby in 1912, having died of acute indigestion while staying at the Waldorf Astoria. He was only five when Hamilton and Clifford died, having been born two years after his father finished writing A Christmas Carol. Had the Flock boys heard of Ebenezer Scrooge and his midnight transformation? Had they felt a kinship for Tiny Tim: frail and weak, but strong of spirit? It only took a year after it was written for that story to jump the pond, be set to music and performed in 1845 at the Chatham Theater, not too far from their father’s poultry shop on Broadway and 12th Street. Even if they had not heard of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, perhaps Hamilton and Clifford had overheard their father relate a tale gleaned from his customers of how hundreds of newsboys had been brought in to see a performance and had behaved so badly the police had to haul a bunch of them off to the ominous Tombs, the House of Detention named such because it looked like an ancient Egyptian Mausoleum. I could imagine that conversation becoming an “instructive” moment between parent and child starting with the phrase “If I ever hear of my boys acting that way…”

Or perhaps Ham and Cliff had had the chance to see acrobat and clown Richard Sands perform his backwards somersaults off his horse May Fly two years later when he also performed at the Chatham during a slump in the theater’s history that allowed for circus acts. The boys would be several years embraced by elm roots by the time Sands invented the act for which he was most remembered–walking on a ceiling using suction cups attached to his feet. Legend had it he died in Massachusetts, plunging from the inside of a dome when the plaster gave way, but he actually lost his life with much less fanfare, succumbing to yellow fever in Havana, Cuba.  Buried in 1861 just down the hill from the Flock plot, a tall monument, reminiscent of a Corinthian temple was erected over his grave. In the center a platform sits empty, where once the bust of this circus showman sat encased. Apparently, someone years earlier made the statue disappear and never returned to finish the act.

If a link to Ebenezer Scrooge and a star circus performer are not enough company for two young boys, down the hill nearer the mausoleums is a low, gray granite grave with the word Moore cut in large letters below a list of names. Close by is a small marker, also made of dull gray stone with the letters C.C.M. and nothing else. This marks the last resting place of a dour theologian, professor of Greek literature and Bible and writer of A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, likely used as a 19th century cure for insomnia. One wintry day in 1822, while traveling by sleigh from his home in Chelsea to Greenwich Village to buy a turkey, he penned a few verses to read to his own six children on Christmas Eve. The following December a friend had those verses published anonymously in a Troy NY newspaper. It was reprinted many times over the next fifteen years until Clement Clarke Moore finally admitted that this frivolous, unscholarly verse was his own. By that time his “jolly old elf” and sleigh with “eight tiny reindeer” were already reshaping the culture and defining how children like Ham and Cliff might experience Christmas. Of course, their deaths just before the holidays in 1850 likely did much to shape their family’s observance, at least for that year.

There are some other permanent residents of Trinity that would not be so interesting to two young lads: Four New York mayors including the more recently deceased Ed Koch, at least that many congressmen, any number of socialites, including Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of the gilded age and self-proclaimed arbiter of the elite four hundred. There are physicians like David Hosack, whose unusual family practice included trying in vain to save Alexander Hamilton after his 1804 duel in Weehawken, New Jersey where, three years earlier, Hosack also could not save Alexander’s son Phillip after his own duel. One of the most infamous residents is one who excelled in business endeavors and was, at the time of her death, the richest woman in America. Born Eliza Bowen, she married French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and after his death increased her fortune through wise investments. An unwise investment, though, was marrying 78-year-old widower Aaron Burr who promptly began losing her money. So she put him out of her house and, for emphasis, divorced him on the day he died. A strong, independent woman, she was known derogatorily throughout the city as “Madam Jumel,” because as any 19th century citizen would be certain, a successful woman must have some level of connection with the second oldest profession.

Not far from the Flock plot is a vault containing a body recovered at sea a week after a British liner making its maiden voyage sank after colliding with an iceberg. According to the Encyclopedia Titanica the following description helped to identify the floater:

“NO. 124 – MALE – ESTIMATED AGE 50 – LIGHT HAIR & MOUSTACHE. CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with “A.V.”; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; “J.J.A.” on back of collar. EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten-franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook. FIRST CLASS. NAME- J.J. ASTOR”

At the time of his death, John Jacob Astor IV was likely the richest man in the world, traveling on the largest ship afloat, reported to be unsinkable. Here at Trinity Cemetery, he is just another resident.

A few steps from the Astor vault is a monument in memory and honor of United States Marine Stephen Higginson Tyng, Jr., also lost at sea, but unlike his famous neighbor, never found. He was on his way to Parris Island, South Carolina when his transport ship City of Athens was rammed in the fog by a French warship on May 1, 1918. Married on the day the ship set sail, his wife Elizabeth never remarried and is buried close by. She died May 2, 1964.

The loved, the cherished. The lost, the found. The youthful, the infirmed, the scoundrel, the fascinating and the dull. The busy, the brutish, the fop and the fanatic. First lives, then stories, then just names carved on stone. Passersby read them aloud. Perhaps. Or go by, gazing at the foliage, the marble angels, their timepiece, trying not to imagine themselves here, on the other side of the sod.

Genealogists say we die three deaths. The first is when our body dies. The second when the last person who knew us dies. And the third? The third death is the last time our name is spoken.

Here in Trinity Cemetery, under the shade of my family tree, I, the last of my line, read these names:

Hamilton Flock. Age 10. Clifford Arms Flock. Age 6 years, 5 months, 20 days. Nothing else under Hamilton’s name is legible. I only know the date of his death from the City Hall records: 29 October 1850, and even there his name is misspelled “Flack.” About his younger brother Clifford, I know a little more. He died of “water on the brain”–hydro encephalitis. Whether this was a problem from birth or the result of an illness or accident is unknown. All the obituary in the New York Herald said was that family and friends would gather on the Friday following his death in his parent’s home “in Fiftieth Street three doors west of Third Avenue” at two in the afternoon and that his remains would be taken to Trinity Cemetery. There all would gather, two weeks before Christmas, to help Alfred and Maria do the one thing parents never want to do–bury their child.

Hamilton and Clifford. They had not lived long enough for time to assign them fame or anonymity. Likely they had played on cobblestone streets, heard stories told to them by firelight, slept in a crowded bed with several other siblings and grew up to the rhythm of the marketplace where their father dealt in poultry and pumpkins. But they were loved. Fifteen lines of illegible carving on a granite slab whose face is wedged up against the bark of that great ancient elm tree attest to that. But there was a sixteenth. Embracing the tree, I leaned in for a closer look:

“… tear is shed.” Wait. A bit of maneuvering. A squint or two. “… farewell tear is shed.” Then above it “… greet them

On a hunch, I typed the words into a search engine on my android phone. It was the last line of a hymn written in 1833 by Lowell Mason to eulogize Martha Jane Crockett, a sixteen-year-old, well-loved student at the Mount Vernon School in Boston where he worked. He’d composed both tune and words on his way to school the morning after her funeral service. Not as inspiring as “Antioch”, the tune of “Joy to the World” he wrote six years later, nor as useful for mass casualty situations as his tune “Bethany” to which “Nearer My God to Thee” is sung, but heartfelt nonetheless. When the still grieving students arrived in his classroom that warm July day, Dr. Mason put them through their vocal exercises using individual lines of plain music. Toward the end of the session he instructed them to sing those lines in harmony. Then he wrote these words on the chalkboard to be sung with the tune:

“Sister, thou wast mild and lovely, gentle as the summer breeze,
Pleasant as the air of evening as it floats among the trees.
Peaceful be thy silent slumber, peaceful in the grave so low;
Thou no more wilt join our number, thou no more our songs shall know.
Dearest sister, thou hast left us, here thy loss we deeply feel,
But ’tis God that hath bereft us, He can all our sorrows heal.
Yet again we hope to meet thee, when the day of life is fled;
Then in heaven with joy to greet thee, where no farewell tear is shed.”

From what I could read on the stone marking Hamilton and Cliff’s grave, these were the verses written there – his parents only creating plurals where the original called for a singular. If the words I could not see were indeed the rest of the hymn, likely they changed gender, too, but the sentiment remained.

“Yet again we hope to meet them, when the day of life is fled;
Then in heaven with joy to greet them, where no farewell tear is shed.”

A few more touches to the screen on my cell phone and I was listening to the melody.

I’d come to Trinity Cemetery to see the burial place of my ancestors and save them from the third death, at least for my lifetime. Instead, I walked away, as Clifford and Hamilton’s immediate family may have when the headstone was erected 170 years ago–singing a hymn of promise, peace and belonging.

MY FAMILY TREE

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

Glimpses

I love photographs.  What I love most about them is how they capture a moment.  Moments go by so quickly, children grow up, people move away, places change.  It’s nice to have the chance to revisit them without having to depend on memory, which can be so unreliable.  Photos also allow us to share reminiscences with folks who weren’t there when they were taken, and can do that even across the generations, which is a real gift.  And sometimes photos allow us to see something out of our view, like a bald spot or a photo-bomber, or maybe even something more important. 

Over the years I’ve not only taken thousands of photos, I’ve also repaired many of the old ones I inherited from my family. I like doing that, because it allows me to see back to a time before my time.  Is that handsome young man with his suit coat slung over his shoulder my father? Did my mother really make that face? Wow, my grandmother is wearing round framed “John Lennon” glasses! Every picture is a discovery–a glimpse of someone I never had the chance to meet, or a vision of somebody’s younger self.

Of the many photos I’ve restored, one small snapshot in sepia tones and cracked with age is particularly meaningful to me. I chose to work on it because of the subject – my mother at age two.  In the picture she is holding her favorite doll, Evelyn, and leaning out the window of a parked 1932 Chevrolet.

Before I began the repair work, I scanned the photo, and enlarged it so I could get a better view.  As the photo appeared on the screen, details emerged that had not been visible earlier.  The first thing I noticed was that the lighter marks in the background, which were not discernible in the smaller version, were actually tombstones. The car was parked in a cemetery.

Then, as I perused its enlarged surface, something else appeared that I had not seen – my grandmother and my aunt! Nana was in the passenger seat with her hands around my mother’s waist, raising her up and out the window, and my rather tall aunt was looking from behind and smiling.  In the smaller image, they just looked like shading in the car’s interior.  But there they were!

Inspired by that discovery, I continued to work, removing scratches on the surface and restoring several cracks. Then I zoomed out to get a better perspective on the repair. I was not expecting to see anything new, but there was another surprise! In the now restored surface of the photo was a reflection of my grandfather on the side of the car, camera raised to take the picture.  Apparently, they had gone together as a family to pay their respects to loved ones at Canarsie Cemetery in Brooklyn where several of my ancestors are buried. In the smaller photo, all I could see was my mom playing in a really cool antique car.  It was not until I was able to see the larger picture, remove the impediments and get some perspective that the story began to unfold.  Which makes me wonder, if we did that with other pictures, what might become apparent which we otherwise would have missed?

Having recently celebrated Easter, albeit in a strange stay-at-home DIY way this year, one picture that comes to mind is another that, if they had had the technology to take it back then, would have also been taken in a graveyard–a picture of Jesus’ tomb.  In its small snapshot form, it likely would tell the story we would expect:

Behind this enormous stone is the final resting place of a man many had hoped was the Messiah. In the end, he turned out to be just another man whose death was lonely and gruesome.

But if we actually had such a picture and could do with it what I did with my family photo, what might we have seen? What would have become visible as it was enlarged?  In that place of death, would we have then been able to discern those unseen hands that were present raising Jesus up to newness of life?  Would we have been able to see the reflection of his heavenly Father, who even through death, never took his eyes off his child?  I wonder what we might have appeared had we been able to see the bigger picture.       

Well, we can, sort of… The gospels tell us about that bigger picture, allowing us to stand back and see how the events of Good Friday unfolded into Easter – how in that graveyard there was more of a story than first met the eye. Surprise! This is not a place of death; it is a place where death will be no more. Put away that too small image in your mind’s eye and come face to face with the IMAX film of the ages!       

Now I know that, because of the pandemic, many of us are feeling like we, too, are standing in a place of death. We are cut off from friends and extended family. We are fearful for our livelihood and our future. We unnaturally shrink back from those with whom we must come in contact, as if our life depends on it, and likely it does. Being separated from those we love, the work that is so familiar and the normalcy of the life to which we were accustomed is painful. For others who are struggling to cope with the illness itself and the loss of those they hold most dear, it is an even crueler reality. It is like we are living a perpetual Good Friday with no vision of Easter to help us make sense of it.

This is a tough place, and no one is exempt. So, perhaps, in this moment, the best we can do is keep an eye out for what appeared unexpectedly in my family photo:  Those who, out of love, continue to lift us up, and reflections of the Father who is constantly watching over us. Even a glimpse of these will help us know we are not alone, and that my friends, in this uncertain moment, is precious.

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The Living Last Supper Follies

For those who observe it, Lent is a serious season. It is a time for reflection, self-denial, penitence and renewal of faith. Modeled on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, and culminating with an annual recounting of the events leading to the crucifixion, it prepares us to embrace the glorious dawn of Easter and the promise of eternal life with Christ.

Because the Gospel Passion stories read almost like a script, congregations will often use dramatic performance to bring them to life for the faithful. This may take the form of a multi-voiced reading, the use of sounds such as a rooster crowing or a nail being hammered, changes in lighting, the use of candles, or even a costumed play. It is important to note, however, that as the complexity of the dramatic elements increases, so too does the chance for something to go wrong. How do I know? The Living Last Supper tells me so.

Hyde Park United Methodist Church

This Lenten drama is a production involving thirteen performers in full costume reenacting Leonardo DaVinci’s interpretation of the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested. The curtain opens on the Upper Room come to life. The table is set exactly as in the famous painting and each actor is dressed, coiffed and posed to match the disciple he is portraying. If you are familiar with the painting, you will remember that it depicts a moment of action in the story, as the disciples respond  to Jesus’ statement “One of you will betray me.”

Here are the words of the narrator as the play begins:

“The disciples are startled, each in a different way by the tragic pronouncement made by Christ. One registers horror. Another cries, ‘This is preposterous.’ Another disbelieves what he has heard and reaches for a companion to confirm that his ears have not tricked him. Still another begs Christ to reveal the name of the betrayer while yet another stoutly proclaims his own innocence. Judas draws back from Christ, overturning a salt shaker as he clutches tightly in his fist the bag containing his pitiful reward for betraying his master. Jesus alone is calm in the wake of the turmoil his six words have created.  It is at this point that we share what each of the disciples remembered of how he came to Christ and how he felt about him.”

I must admit, I am rather fond of this play. I have to be, to have produced it so many times. And what’s not to love? It’s a great evangelistic tool, since the actors always invite friends and neighbors to watch them perform. It’s educational, as the actors’ monologues introduce the congregation to likely unfamiliar aspects of the disciples’ lives. It’s inspirational for the participants because it makes them feel like “they were there” in that Upper Room. And for me, as a female pastor, it always gave me a chance to get to know the men in the congregation better while providing them with a chance for fellowship and mutual support.

Those are great reasons. But looking back over the many years of Living Last Supper productions, what stands out to me most is how they highlighted just how human the first followers of Jesus were. In the scripture, the disciples can take on an iconic stature. In the body of someone you know, anxious about his pending performance, it is easier to see how like us they were. And that helps us to see how like them we can be. Too often, people are paralyzed by the mistaken belief that God only calls the perfect. Watching his “followers” flub a line, pause for too long trying to recall, lose a piece of beard, knock over a goblet or accidently elbow the guy next to him and still have a place at Jesus’ table is empowering.

United Methodist Church of Wappingers Falls

One year, at the request of a particularly insistent mother, Jesus was played by a 15-year-old. Everyone was nervous about that, since you can never be certain what a teenager might say. Before the worship service I had a literal “come to Jesus” talk with the kid and was satisfied that he was ready. Everything went as planned during the performance. He said his lines perfectly and with appropriate emotion. After the twelve disciples presented their monologues, it was time for him to break the bread. He picked up the loaf from the plate in front of him and recited the Passover blessing flawlessly:

“Praised is He of whose bounty we have partaken, and through whose goodness we live.  Praised art Thou, O Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who nourishes the whole world in goodness, grace, loving kindness, and compassion.  He gives food to all flesh, for His mercy is everlasting.  Because of His enduring goodness, we have not lacked sustenance for all living things of His creation.  Praised are Thou, O Eternal, who provides food for all.”

As instructed, he then put his thumbs under the loaf to break it where it was supposed to be cut. But it wasn’t. The altar guild always remembered to do it, but the stage hands obviously didn’t get the memo. Sweat began to roll down Jesus’ forehead as he struggled with the stubborn loaf. Then his hands started to shake. Frustrated and seeing no relief, he mumbled, loud enough to be picked up by the microphone, “Who made this bread?”

There was an awkward pause, then one disciple responded, “I don’t know, but Caesar made the salad!”

While the congregation was reeling with laughter, someone cut the bottom of the loaf and when their attention was again focused on the table, Jesus took bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, broken for you,” and we believed Him.

Great Hill United Methodist Church

Communion is a sacrament and should be served reverently. How it is received is another matter. Usually that issue is only observed by the pastor and her/his lay assistant. Since DaVinci told the disciples that if they wanted to be in the picture, they should crowd together on the far side of the table, that makes it easy to allow the congregation to come forward to receive on the empty side. It also gives the actors something they rarely see –  a close-up view of their fellow parishioners ingesting the bread and “wine”. So when a woman put “the body of Christ” in her mouth, then retrieved the sopping mass with her thumb and forefinger and dipped it into the chalice, I guess I should not have been surprised by the loud, collective “Eeewww…” emanating from Jesus and His followers.

The Village Church of Bayville

The first time I directed the Living Last Supper, I was 27-years-old and the associate pastor of a larger congregation. Thinking that wrangling a bunch of amateurs into wearing fake beards, long dresses and speaking in public wouldn’t be too difficult, I passed the word for volunteers. Not getting them in a timely fashion, I asked the secretary to put a note in the church bulletin.  On Sunday morning, this is what was listed on the announcement page:

By the end of the worship service I had twelve “yeses” and one “maybe”.  The maybe’s name was Les.  He’d said that if I really needed him, he would do it.

The next day I set about assigning parts to people by body type, age and facial hair, trying to match folks as closely as possible with the DaVinci painting.  I had still one disciple too few.  I needed Les to play the part of John.

Knowing that that same evening I would see Les’s wife, Doris, at a Sign Language class, I figured I could send a message to Les through her. I sent a message, all right, but not the one I expected. Seeing Doris down the hall at the school, I shouted, “Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband, Les.  I need a John.” It took me a full thirty seconds before I realized what I had said. It took no time for Doris and everyone else within earshot to figure it out, and they were in full guffaw long before I had any clue why. When my verbal stupidity finally hit me, so did the crimson in my cheeks. We all had a delightful laugh, and then the embarrassment was over, or so I thought.

Two nights later, the men got together for their first rehearsal. They were nervous about doing speaking parts and had a hard time getting started. Someone asked, “Does anyone know a joke they could tell to ease the tension?”  

“I think Rev. Laura should tell what happened the other night after the Sign Language class,” Les suggested. “My wife said it was hilarious.”

Now remember, I am the only woman in the room with thirteen nervous men, and I am their 27-year-old pastor.  The fact that I even thought it was okay to tell this story is proof that yet again, I had not engaged my brain before opening my mouth.

I began: “The other night I was at Sign Language class.  I knew I needed to talk with Doris and ask her to give a message to her husband for me because I needed him to play a disciple…  So without thinking, when I saw her, I yelled down the hall, ‘Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband, Les. I need a John.’ Can you believe it? With twelve the disciples to choose from, I have to pick that one. I mean, why couldn’t I have said, ‘Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband Les. I need a Peter.’

There was a moment of awkward silence as it occurred to me what I had just said. Embarrassed, I hung my head. When I looked up, thirteen men were rolling off their seats, shaking with laughter, and one of them was trying to stuff a script in his mouth. Realizing there was no way to survive this without a moment to compose myself, I headed toward the door. Just as I opened it, I heard a voice call out behind me, “Thank God there wasn’t a disciple named Richard.”

Chapel, Naval Base Guantanamo Bay

My love of the Living Last Supper knew no bounds. We performed it in full costume in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay Chapel. We even gave a recitation of it on Maundy Thursday in Iraq with the enemy not far away. Of course, in the camp, everyone was in uniform and armed, and we didn’t bother posing like the painting, but thirteen people (including women) read the parts before we shared in Holy Communion. One would think simplifying it in this way would make it less memorable. One would be wrong. Enthusiastic to the nth degree, the Senior Psychiatrist with our unit asked me for his part the day before so he could memorize it. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he was insistent.  When it was his turn to present his monologue he stood up, placed his hands firmly on his hips and looked around, just as the script instructed him.

“I am Simon Peter,” he began. “I was a fisherman when my brother Andrew brought me to Jesus. Jesus looked at me and said ‘Your name shall be Cephas, meaning Rock or Stone‘.  Maybe he saw already in me the faith and steadfastness that I would yearn for and which would take so long to grow. I was so headstrong and my impulsive spirit caused me to do and say many things for which I am now sorry. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the mob came after Jesus, I drew my sword to protect him and cut off the ear of a slave.”

Now at this point in the script, the stage direction told him to draw his sword for emphasis, but he didn’t have a sword. So instead he drew his nine-millimeter pistol and waved it furiously in the air. With that, the congregation hit the deck, afraid that at any minute they might be taken out by a shrink. I winced and shook my head at him, and sheepishly, he holstered his weapon. Then he continued to speak, without missing a line.

The Desert, Iraq

When amateurs perform a liturgical drama, it should be no surprise that things could go wrong, stupid or crazy. But that doesn’t make their offering any less valuable or inspirational. The word “amateur” comes from the Latin “amator” which means “lover.” So those guys in silly beards and oversized dresses anxiously reciting lines that took weeks to memorize are doing it so the people they love can hear the word of God they love and draw ever closer to the God who is love. Perhaps in all our human frailty, that is our best.

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When It Really Matters

The middle of a desert in Kuwait, 2003. After 0200. (2 am)

I am awakened by the sound of someone knocking on the pole holding up the front of the dust-laden tent in which I am sleeping. It is a young woman, one of those responsible for driving our ambulances in convoy, across the border into Iraq, to where we will soon set up our field hospital. This is dangerous work.

“We are leaving in two hours,” she says when I stumble through the tent-flaps. “We need communion. Can you do that now?”

I tell her I’ll be there in 10 minutes, just long enough to put on the rest of my uniform and dig out the field communion kit from our connex box. I reach for my flashlight to see what I am doing. Suddenly the bare overhead lightbulb begins to glow. One of the nurses with whom I am sharing our temporary shelter is by the switch. 

“I’m sorry to wake you,” I say. I look and another is gathering my flak jacket and helmet.

“This is important,” she replies. “We’ll help.”

Five minutes later, I head for one of the larger tents. All the ambulance drivers and their security team are inside, standing in a circle, quietly waiting. Knowing I have Sailors and Marines of various Christian traditions gathered there, as I prepare the communion elements I ask, “What’s everyone’s faith group?”

“We are crossing into the combat zone, chaplain,” one of them replied.

I served everyone.

If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “Give me thine hand.”

From Catholic Spirit: A Sermon by John Wesley, published in 1831.

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