The Wretched

The Wretched

St Paul says that we are the most to be pitied among all men if our hope in Christ is only for this life, and if there is no victory over death, and no resurrection.

We don’t need Christ in order to enjoy the beauty of this world, nor do we need him in order to explain creation. We don’t even need Christ to enjoy this life, or find purpose and meaning in our lives.

In fact, morality, virtue and ethics are not exclusive to followers of Christ, and this fact is evident to everyone. Good living is not dependent on Christ.

The only thing that can come to us in no other way is a good eternal life; with Jesus alone we are promised victory over death, and an eternal life to anticipate with joy and thankfulness.

But where is our salvation? How can I know this promise is true, that I’m not being duped. We’ve heard the story, the eyewitness accounts to His resurrection, the hundreds of people who staked their reputations and their lives upon this account, even on what they witnessed first-hand with their own eyes.

But that was two thousand years ago. It starts to sound a little like a fairy tale. Is Jesus my imaginary friend? Even if the accounts are true, and it happened just like that, somehow the waiting is demoralizing and frustrating.

We wait upon God’s perfect timing and we trust in Him. We live by faith, and are justified by this. Perfect endurance will have its perfect reward and those who endure to the end will wear the crown—the crown of eternal life.

Meanwhile here I am, waiting in this valley of tears, under the shadow of death. I sit in my room trying to communicate with God, but without the apparatus to do so. I’m a radioman without a radio, an internet surfer without a computer (or smartphone). My prayers, like sonar, bounce off the walls and echo back inside my head.

Why is it so hard?

Well, I’m not ready to see him anyway, most likely. I’m filthy and shameful and need more time. But what do I really do with all this time? I watch television. I earn money and spend it. I eat far more than I need. And I struggle.

Oh wretched man that I am. One moment talking to an empty room inside my soul, the next running in circles trying to get somewhere; anywhere, just not here. What a way to spend the day.

I know I’m not alone

The Stranger

I feel that I must explain something to you, although you may not pay any attention; nevertheless, this is something that I feel must be told—for my own sake, and maybe for the sake of another.

 

Most days, not long after I wake up each morning, I no longer recognize myself. I used to see myself in the smile of another, after I’ve said something mildly humorous to them; and I recognized myself in the lighthearted replies of those I met throughout the day.  But I no longer see that, nor do I fully trust it when I do–

 

because my smile used to be genuine, born out of a joy of life and a trust in the wholesomeness and godliness of everything I encountered. I didn’t question this even though there was obviously plenty of empirical information to the contrary (just watch the news for a few minutes).

 

I feel I must apologize to the optimists, and those who still enjoy this beautiful world. I feel as if I’ve left your team, although I can’t say that I’ve left by choice; somehow I feel I was taken, or traded off the team through some cosmic deal.

 

Now my smile is generated by a visitor within me, at the direction of my heart, to save others from seeing the sorrow that exists behind my eyes. And I wonder now, if the smiles of those I meet, are also made by these same visitors, for the same purpose of saving others the pain of seeing the sorrow we each hold inside.

 

God sometimes puts us in a coma, when the pain is too painful to bear, to allow us to heal unconsciously over time. Perhaps I’m in an emotional coma, walking anaesthetized, so as not to explode, or implode along the way.

 

I’ve become a stranger to my life. It is the same world, I’m certain — it hasn’t changed — but I’ve changed, and somehow I don’t fit in my own life anymore. Isn’t that strange?

 

I said earlier that it takes some time after I wake up each day, to lose track of myself — so for a while I am still intact. And this is true, thank God; sleep resets my personhood each night, and I rise in the morning restored. Beautiful sleep, that time and place without anxiety, or the fear of loss. I know this is a blessing, as not everyone can say this; for some the anxiety and fear follows them into their dreams.

 

There is one other place and time where the strangeness of my life falls away, and I recognize myself again—in prayer. Isn’t that beautiful? That time when I seek God and call upon Him — is the same time when I find myself again.

 

I think we should all pray a lot more than we do: for the peace of mind, the joy of heart, and for the love of God.  When we do, we are no longer strangers to ourselves.

~FS

Exquisite Intimacy

None of us knew what we had, until it was gone; or if we did know in part, we didn’t fully understand, until it all became just a memory.

In his prime, my step-father had a regal bearing; he was tall, and stood even taller in my thoughts and feelings towards him. He wore turtlenecks which to me as a child, added to his stature and somehow gave his face and frame a look of royalty.

I also admired my father; more for his mind and helpful advice than for his appearance or actions. Also, he was kind, and aside from a certain disquiet in his soul, which led to a recurring dalliance in his life choices, he was otherwise trustworthy and a man of integrity.

My mother was all things to me and though we had our disagreements, we also had each other’s backs and we faced the world’s assaults together.

My brother was eleven years older than me and so we didn’t know each other very well. We were amicable but generally distant; this in part due to the difference in age, but more due to his reclusive nature. Over the years I came to accept this distance and that he preferred to live as a bit of a hermit, at least towards his family, and that we probably would never really be very close.

So I was surprised when he invited me one day to have lunch with him and spend the afternoon in the redwoods. He even went to the trouble of making cheese sandwiches for us and packing them, along with sodas, into brown lunch bags for our outing. After thirty-eight years we finally had lunch together. And we became friends.  This led to semi-regular phone calls to each other and discussions about sports cars, foreign and domestic, and other important life matters.

We enjoyed one more lunch together, about two years later. This time he treated my wife and I to a meal at his favorite Japanese restaurant; the kind where they cook the meal there at your table. There was an exquisite intimacy in that meal: the gift of his time, the quietness and the laughter shared between the three of us, the warmth and the affection, the glasses of red wine.

I will always remember the red wine, so pretty in the glass. My brother loved red wine. Sometimes he loved it too much. A month after this meal, on his way home from a dinner with a friend, he was pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated. Because of this he lost his license, and then his job as a bus driver, and a few weeks later he shot himself.

Our last phone conversation, a few days earlier had focused on God, death and the afterlife. I suppose he was mulling his options, though I only understood that, too late.

Several months later my step-father fell and broke his hip. He went to a rehab center but his health slowly began to decline. We hoped for a recovery however, week by week he lost strength. One day while my mom and I were visiting him he asked me to give his face a shave. He had an electric razor on the nightstand beside his bed.

Here it was again, that exquisite intimacy: the gift of his time, the quietness, the warmth and affection, just as it had been during that last meal with my brother. Here I was shaving the face of that man I always admired, that royal face. I did the best with my moment and the honor I was given in caring for him in this way; I’m sure it wasn’t the best shave he’d ever had but that wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.

There is something else to say about my step-father because it is so beautiful and so endearing. He loved life with a childlike enthusiasm. There are many numerous examples from his life of this fact but what remains with me now is from our final minutes together, the last ones I would spend with him alive. On this last visit, just before I left, he asked me to push him in his wheelchair around the corridors of the rehab center.

The main hallway outside his room made one large circuit, and lining the walls were paintings and large photographs. As I pushed him around this circuit he asked me to stop at most of these, and we admired them together. They were of trees, or landscapes mostly, while some were of sunsets or sunrises. Of each he had multiple comments as to their beauty and how much they meant to him, or how they reminded him of his childhood or some other time in his life. Each painting or photo was greeted with appreciation; and he approached each one, in the same way he lived each day, it seems, with gratefulness and benevolence. Just as one would expect of a royal and noble man such as he.

As my mom explained it to me over the phone, she was with him several weeks later, holding his hand as he was sleeping. While he peacefully slept, he graciously stepped into the next world, breathing one moment, and not the next.

Years later my mom would explain that he was the true love of her life. In the manner and tone with which she explained this however she also conveyed the truth that she never really understood this fact at the time, or expressed it to him fully while they were together, and she wished she had.

I hadn’t seen or spoken with my dad for several years. I had joined a spiritual community in my early twenties and had been living a nomadic life; traveling, living and working in various states, which precluded much contact with friends and family. To earn money I did landscaping work and sold this service door to door. One day I was out walking the streets, knocking on doors as I typically would do in the afternoon, when I felt certain I was about to see my dad.

It was one of those rare times in which I sensed that what was about to happen would be an important and seminal moment in my life.  A car came into view, approaching up the street and I knew it would be him so I stepped off the curb and flagged him down. In my childhood, he and I had been affectionate, he was not afraid to give me a hug, but I can’t remember a time that we ever held each other’s hands. I got into his car and we began to talk and to catch up on each other’s lives. And as we spoke we took each other’s hands. It was such an unnatural thing for us to do and yet it felt extremely natural. Our time was short as he was late for an appointment and had to get going. I felt the urgency to tell him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me, and my gratitude for his role in my life. He expressed similar feelings of love and affection, and all the while we kept holding hands. I will always remember how unusual, how strange, and also how wonderful that was.

Later that year I called my mom and she had the difficult task of telling me that my father had died several months earlier. They had tried to find me, to tell me, so I could go to the funeral but they had no way to contact me, and didn’t know where I was, or how to reach me. She was so sorry that I didn’t know about his death but I explained to her that I did know. I knew back then in his car, as we were holding hands, that I would never see him again, and that this would be the last time to hold him, and to express my true feelings for him.

Not long ago my mother also stepped into the next world, having taken her last breath for the journey, and leaving my sisters and I with a house full of memories. Our final months together were filled with tenderness and intimacy. She could hardly say a word and she spent most of her days and nights with her eyes shut and seemingly asleep, but she knew when we were near.

As she lay in her bed, we held wordless conversations, communicating love through the simplicity of touch. She had beautiful silver hair, and while it had thinned considerably, she still enjoyed occasionally having it combed, and it was a joy to have the opportunity to do that for her.

My heart is filled by the memory of her thinning hair, her sunken cheeks and deep eye sockets, her bruised papery skin and bony hands; all things which sound ugly and disturbing, and yet to me, as I see them on her, are symbols and representations of perfect beauty; because she could be nothing less than supremely beautiful in whatever appearance she presented.

Of course I have surrounded myself with photos of her in earlier times: smiling photos, full of life, joy and health. These also are beautiful, but the memories that now fill me most with love and gratitude are from these final months together, while death began to pull us apart, dwelling within that exquisite intimacy.