Harbinger

This year March wants us
to think it’s still February.
Tonight neighborhood chimneys
exhale wispy columns of smoke
straight up into a chilly black sky.
But then I see Arcturus climbing
above the northeastern rooftops
and remember what that means.
The cycle of seasons is turning
again right before my eyes,
with every tick on the clock.
But the progression seems slow.

Stars are like old friends to me,
faithful and familiar.
The brightest have proper names,
and even the dimmer ones
bear a Greek alphabetical tag.
I was 37 years younger when
the light I see this quiet evening
headed my way from that
first magnitude twinkling
orange speck in the Herdsman.
That time went by fast for me,
with light speed.

Winter will not surrender
just because the calendar
says it’s time to do so.
Here we are then, waiting for
the dawning of spring,
looking for our cue from nature
like tight little tulip buds
yearning to bloom, to gradually
let go, risking the threat of a
late frost, to finally unclench
supple petals and reach upwards
to our very own star.

More than an expensive perfume: Obsession

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Hamlet (Act II, Scene II).

Last week I ran across some notes I made after viewing a 2008 cable TV documentary, Beyond Ordinary: Twin Savants, originally aired as an episode of the UK’s television series Extraordinary People. It featured the lives of Flo and Kay Lyman, born in New Jersey in 1956, who remain today the world’s only female autistic savant twins. Indeed I found the pair both well beyond ordinary and quite exceptional. And now eight years later, I still do.

Savantism is a rare condition in which those affected with a developmental disorder, often presenting as a form of autism, are typically capable of acts of genius that far exceed normal levels of human cognitive ability. On the autism scale, Flo and Kay can be found right about where you would pinpoint Raymond Babbit, Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film Rainman. In the movie, Hoffman portrays the archetypal autistic savant, showing incredible mental recall but little pragmatic understanding of the basic aspects of life most of us take for granted every day. Technically geniuses, autistic savants like the fictional Raymond and the very real Flo and Kay have problems socializing, understanding emotions, and for the sake of personal comfort and security must adhere to a strict regimen.

In their particular case, for any given day of their lives Flo and Kay can describe in detail what the weather was like and even what they had for breakfast. They display an amazingly complex memory that enables them to catalog historical dates, details about their favorite pop music, and especially everything involving their beloved entertainment celebrity, Dick Clark. bandstandAnyone over 60 will remember Clark as the charismatic bee-bop host of American Bandstand, counting down the hits during the infancy of rock ‘n roll; anyone over 20 has probably seen him preside over the annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve television special broadcast from New York’s Times Square, until ceding official emcee duties to Ryan Seacrest in 2006.

Flo and Kay’s unique obsession with Dick Clark and his dominating influence in their lives began in 1974 with Clark hosting the popular daytime game show, $100,000 Pyramid. They watched the program religiously, cataloging every question and answer, even writing down the number of times buzzers and bells sounded during the show.

Their fascination with Clark was intense and personal. Over the years, Flo and Kay collected anything and everything they could get their hands on pertaining to Clark. They filled their bedroom with thousands of photos and souvenirs about their TV hero. Commenting on their irrational compulsion, a brother-in-law remarked that “It was pretty much like a shrine in there.” A nephew, characterizing their idolization of Clark, said “It’s as important as air to them. They need food, water and air, and Dick Clark.” In 1996 when Pyramid was cancelled without warning, the two went through a dark personal crisis, but nothing like the one they experienced in 2004 when they heard that Clark had suffered a severe stroke. It was almost the end for them.Flo and Kay 2

Several times the twins actually got to meet their TV hero, whom they often referred to as their “personal savior.” Until his death of a heart attack in 2012, they received birthday wishes annually from Clark and his wife and had maintained an ongoing friendship with him. They said they want to be buried with all their Dick Clark memorabilia, adding that he was like the father figure they never had.

Reflecting on all this makes me wonder to what degree many of us may bear some sort of an obsession, with someone or something. Maybe it’s not as obvious as with the twins. Maybe it’s secret or repressed. But I am guessing that at some point it eventually comes out and shows it’s true face. Proverbs 23:7 says “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Whatever I strive for, whatever I am driven by, what “turns me on” (to use a phrase from the ‘70s), that’s what will flow out of my life. It could be a phobia, a fantasy, or disturbing, even destructive behavior. Unless . . .

Avoiding that shipwreck by dropping anchor in both faith and reason, I often find counsel by thinking back to my earliest experience in parochial school, to my first grade class, and to my introduction to the Baltimore Catechism, the standard Catholic school religious teaching text used in the United States from 1885 to the late 1960s. It was a little blue booklet full of questions and answers, all about sin, sacraments and the dire consequences of straying from the faith. For what it’s worth, I can only remember the first two questions: “Who made me?” and “Why did God make me?” Are these not the timeless concerns of every spiritually curious child and adult?

The answer to the second question has remained constant, from the time of Adam’s forming from the dust of the earth to this very day: “To know, love and serve Him, and to be with Him forever in heaven.” Period. That’s it. My ultimate goal, my purpose is expressed even more simply in the Church of England’s venerable Westminster Catechism of 1646: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Solomon, a wise man, says that anything else is “vanity and striving after the wind.” (Eccl. 1:14) He should know because he had it all and tried it all.

So then, what about my obsession, my striving, my consuming preoccupation? What shall be the appropriate focus of my attention and the object of my devotion? David wrote “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) If I choose to imitate the psalmist’s ambitious craving for intimacy with the God Who is my personal savior and is actually focused on me a million times more so, then maybe it might be said about me that “his heart is like a shrine to the Lord,” and “all he needs is food, water and air, and Him.” Sounds like a rather rational obsession to me.

Frozen Art

My mother introduced me to Jack Frost
one early evening in a long ago December
as we huddled together in the dark
next to a front room window,
the cold from outside finding its way inside,
chilling our almost cheek-to-cheek faces.
Those were the days way before our
obsession with R-factors and insulation.
(I mean, we had lead and asbestos everywhere.)

Smiling, she pointed to Jack’s artful depiction of
a bouquet of frozen ferns etched with such
delicate grace on the thin pane of glass.
The frost was silvery white until the headlamps
from passing cars momentarily drenched the
designs with rainbow rich purples and
magentas and sparkling yellows.

Frost_patterns_2

Inside my impressionable four-year-old head
the magic made perfect sense, enchanting
a tender imagination before reason and
education would cruelly dispel sprites and
faeries and innocence and assumptions that
anything might be possible.

And so we gazed through that brittle canvass,
silently waiting for Pops to come home from work.
The corner streetlight seemed so alone out there,
a mysterious glowing globe of amber straining
with every possible watt to penetrate the long
hours of yet another bitter winter’s night.

Making sense out of a senseless universe

Truth is, some folks can’t. Hopeless victims of desperate circumstance become statistics on suicide, taking themselves out of the game rather than endure another day of mental and emotional anguish. Like funny man Robin Williams. Hangs himself with his own belt. Show’s over folks. Nuthin’ more to see here. One would presume that a guy like him had it all. Family, fame, fortune. Ironically, as is the case with so many comedians like Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, happiness was a commodity all the money in the world couldn’t buy. Addictions, depression, broken marriages. It’s what the Smokey Robinson 1971 song is all about. “Just like Pagliacci did/I try to keep my sadness hid/Smiling in the public eye/But in my lonely room I cry/The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” It makes me wonder how many people actually “lead lives of quiet desperation . . .” as Thoreau wrote, wondering Why am I here and does it even matter? “. . . and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

The struggle to find and embrace significance is a prominent theme in religion, art, music, literature and everything human because it’s common to us all. It’s what we need in order to fall asleep at night, and to have a reason to get back out of bed every morning. It’s what we need to make it all worthwhile, to keep us out of the closet with a belt.

In our civilization’s ongoing quest for the meaning of life, history shows that we’ve postulated just about every theory possible, from plausible to absurd. Of course the most common efforts for explaining human existence can be found in your basic Religion 101 class along with an elective course in Introductory Philosophy thrown in. Every culture has come up with some kind of rationale to keep us from teetering into the abyss of nihilism, some sort of system with a god or gods or a higher power out there somewhere. Most ancient legends and epic narratives portray mythological deities as more human-like than divine – capricious, contriving, scandalous, fated by their faults and failures. Not much help there.

Today’s most popular options on the Religions of the World Chart have billions of followers. The self-discipline of The Buddha teaches us to meditate our way to enlightenment. Apparently many have not yet located their happy place. Or there’s the ethical politeness of Confucianism, with yin and yang, energy in constant balance, in perfect harmony, separate but equal. Which side of the taijitu are you on? Let’s crack open a couple fortune cookies and find out.

Hinduism keeps us trapped under the law of karma on a continual treadmill cycle of reincarnation. Please, just show me the way out. Remember John Lennon’s lyrics? “Instant Karma’s gonna get you/Gonna knock you right on the head/You better get yourself together/Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.” Aren’t we all.

Even the Judaeo-Christian God of the Bible doesn’t find it necessary to explain everything. So much is hidden, mysterious, full of paradox and subjective interpretation. Not bashful about voicing complaints to the Lord about the problem of evil and suffering, psalmist King David lamented about the apparent injustices of life, that the wicked seemed to prosper while the righteous endured adversity without cause. Eventually, says the Lord, everyone will get what’s due. But for now, just wait. Have faith. Trust. Believe. I’m in control.

I think science, with all of its benefits to society and advances to be enjoyed, has coincidentally made it harder to exercise that kind of faith. Microscopes and telescopes allow us to see through that curtain of curiosity, inward and outward to worlds unimaginable. Actually, splitting the atom raises more questions than answers. Billions of galaxies spinning in an incredibly vast expanse of space reveal an intelligent designer with an extravagant sense of creativity. But why? What does it matter to me? I have a mortgage to pay and a car that needs a new muffler. By the way, what’s for dinner?

The premise of order and meaning in what we see and cannot see becomes strained, however, when our most well-intentioned spiritual convictions begin to evaporate under intense pressure. Holding on to or defending a belief system becomes especially trying when our most fervent, faith-filled, selfless prayers go unanswered. Or when we hear that a drunk driver crossed the median and plowed into a school bus full of kids returning from church camp. Several dead, dozens injured and scarred for life.

Or when an honest, hard-working man gets fired for something that wasn’t even remotely his fault. The company goes on to post record profits. Keep your resumés updated, people. Or when the poster child for perfect health and fitness drops dead while jogging. I can see the obituary now: Age 32, faithful husband, provider, father of three, gone in a whisper.

What we need is an operator’s manual, a guideline for troubleshooting through all the possible scenarios that interrupt our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t you wish that there could be an easy way to get explanations for the jack-in-the-box surprises that explode in our faces? Maybe like an Ask Abby column in the newspaper. Just write out a description of your problem. Drop it in the cosmic mailbox, and then wait for the morning news to get your answer. “Dear Desperate and Confused Planet Earth Dweller. Thanks for your letter. Here’s my advice: Leave your spouse. Move to a new town. Reconcile with your mother-in-law. Then all will be well.” Or how about a 1-800 number. “Hello, um, yes. I’d like to order a better life. Yeah, one for my four-year-old girl, the one with leukemia. And could you express ship that, please? We’re running out of time.”

There seems to be enough weeping and gnashing of teeth here in this world even before the doors of heaven close for good. So what’s left? Shaking a fist at the sky? Languishing like Job, a mere pawn in a spiritual game of chess, waiting for the final checkmate to see who wins the tournament?

Isn’t it true that often we find it so much easier to “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow” when the colonoscopy test results are negative, when the bonus shows up on the paycheck, when the college scholarship is a full four-year free ride? For me it becomes a bit more challenging when I’m calling to schedule a root canal, or when I hear about my dear friends’ baby’s death, or when someone I love is struggling to deal with impossible odds against them and I can’t help fix it. Sometimes I want to write a letter back to the New Testament’s James and say, “You know that count it all joy through trials thing? Wow, that’s a tough teaching, brother!” In reality, it’s probably an impossible perspective to learn and live without a proper spiritual frame of mind, without a strong conviction in the goodness of a God Who knows me personally and desires the best for me. Unconditionally.

Last week I faced head-on an inexplicable tragedy that once again leaves me empty for answers to the ever-nagging question of “Why?”

Tyler, a good buddy of mine, came to an untimely, sudden, violent accidental death. When someone we know is diagnosed as terminal, or is old and feeble, we know the end is eventually coming; death is stalking at the door, and we are somewhat emotionally prepared when the plug is pulled. But when a vibrant, active, happy 24-year-old combat vet full of passion for life is gone in seconds, it becomes harder to wrap our heads around. Maybe we can’t. That’s why it’s so vexing. So troubling, so disturbing, and especially so much more painful now during a time reserved for the expression of peace, joy and holiday cheer.

I am deeply grieved at his passing, but I heard something during the funeral eulogy that might help me get through this. Encouraging the bereaved to stay strong through the heartache of this calamity, his pastor quoted from Chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I like The Message version:

“We [those who are true followers of Christ] continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”

Several key ideas here to ponder out of many: “ . . . for whatever God will do next.” Reality check: This is God’s universe, and so far He hasn’t consulted with me for my opinion of His agenda. Maybe I need to reread the final five chapters of the Book of Job. “Then the Lord said to Job, ‘Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.’” (Job 40:1-2) KJV

I may never know all the reasons why life seems at times to unravel into a helpless heap, like a laundry basket full of soiled clothes. Hard to admit it sometimes but I will find myself in a better place when I acknowledge Who is really in control. That being said, as I develop passionate patience I suspect that God and I will continue to have serious conversations regarding my perplexities, my pain and my frustration when I’m hemmed in with troubles. I need to learn how to bear up better in the fiery forge tempering my soul. Instead of shortchanged, I need to see myself abundantly blessed, my containers ready to overflow with enough hope to spill over onto those who are desperate for a reason to carry on through their own heap of troubles.

I’m going to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year because, in spite of my time of grief and loss concurring hand-in-hand with this season of Comfort and Joy, I choose to hope that all things will ultimately work together for good (Rom. 8:28), and to see that from God’s perspective, nothing in this universe is ever senseless.

A Christmas Carol

Today we say “Happy Birthday” to Charles Wesley, born in Epworth, England, 1707. Often eclipsed historically by his better known brother – Methodist co-founder and fiery preacher, John – Charles has nonetheless left a significant mark on the Protestant persuasion, composing literally thousands of church hymns during his lifetime of 81 years.

Preaching in the open air to tens of thousands, John did most of the preaching, while Charles led the faithful in hymns at revival meetings. They were not always welcomed, however, sometimes met by raucous mobs who threw stones, dirt and eggs in their faces. Charles WesleyTraveling by horseback from one town to the next, if Charles thought of a hymn, he would detour to the house of the nearest acquaintance, demand a pen and ink and write it down.

Personally I have heard only a few of those inspiring melodies, but during the Christmas season I have frequent opportunities to hear my favorite, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Usually sung robustly by a festive choir surrounded by sparkling candle lights and streams of ornamental holly, it’s an almost must-do song for traditional Christmas Eve services. A thundering pipe organ accompaniment always adds an element of soul-stirring intensity to the performance.

My favorite lyric in the entire piece is simply “God and sinners reconciled,” a short but dynamic phrase that to me expresses the whole idea of why we actually celebrate a day called Christmas. It’s John 3:16 and all the rest of the Bible presented in a way that anyone, anywhere, of any age can understand. No doctorate in theology needed. Adam broke the relationship with God through disobedience. Jesus, the last Adam and the Second Man, made it possible to get back to the original plan: eternal life with the Creator, on a personal relationship level.

Reconcile is a word often used as a legal and accounting term. It can mean to win over to friendliness; to cause to become amicable; to settle a quarrel or dispute; to bring into agreement or harmony, make compatible; to restore. These definitions also make perfect sense describing what salvation is basically all about. So when I hear this blessed carol during the next few days, my heart will pound a little bit stronger knowing that the animosity between God and myself is gone because of a baby born in Bethlehem. “Mild he lays his glory by, Born that we no more shall die, Born to raise us from the earth, Born to give us second birth.”

Bravo, Charles Wesley! The herald angels are still singing.

11/22/63

Seems as though most of my memories
of John F. Kennedy are archived in
grainy black and white.

The televised campaign debates with a
sweaty Dick Nixon, who looked like
a stiff cardboard prop in the shadow
of the bigger than LIFE magazine
war hero bred for achievement by
Massachusetts’ premier political family.JFK speech

The bright but bitterly cold inaugural
on the steps of the Capitol, frozen under
a nor’easter snowstorm’s fresh blanket
of dazzling white, a distinctive
backdrop for a fledgling president’s epic
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not”
speech, challenging us in a valiant
call to arms against tyranny, poverty,
disease and even war itself.

The televised series of White House
tours graciously hosted by a sophisticated,
shyly soft-spoken Jackie who assured us
that it was just as much “our house.”

The candid photos of handsome toddler
John John playing hide-and-seek
under the desk of the most powerful
man on earth.

The who’s-going-to-flinch-first live TV broadcast
to an on-the-edge-of-our-seats audience by a
stern and deadly serious JFK demanding that a
raging Russian remove his nuclear missiles
from Cuba – or else. We held our national breath,
praying, all eyes fixed on the doomsday clock.

And then came that day in Dallas.
It started out with smiles and waves
– and color.

22 Nov 1963, Dallas, Texas, USA --- President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy smile at the crowds lining their motorcade route in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Minutes later the President was assassinated as his car passed through Dealey Plaza. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Like heaven’s giant spotlight suspended
in a flawless azure big-as-Texas sky,
a beaming golden noontime sun illuminates
a cheering crowd at Love Field,
all reaching out for a once in a lifetime
touch from the chief executive’s hand.
The First Lady, wearing that now iconic
strawberry pink and navy trim
Chanel wool suit and matching hat,
cradles so tenderly an ill-fated bouquet
of red roses, too soon abandoned on a
blood spattered seat of the presidential
Lincoln Continental where the life of
Camelot’s king was lost and everything
suddenly faded back to black and white
again. For a very long time.

Is Paris burning?

The question was asked by Adolph Hitler in August of 1944 after ordering his military governor/general Dietrich von Choltitz to destroy the City of Lights rather than have it fall into the hands of General George Patton’s Third Army, just miles away from liberating the heart and soul of France.

After the horrific attacks of last night on specifically targeted groups of an innocent civilian population –– couples and families at a restaurant casually enjoying a meal, exuberant young people at a rock concert, spirited soccer fans –– again Paris, and France and Europe and indeed all of western civilization are in the cross hairs of madness. Jihad is in the early stages of metastasizing from the traditional borders of the Middle East and is headed to a town near you and me.

A force to be reckoned with from the mid-thirteenth century until World War I, the Ottoman Empire with Islam as the official and only religion left a permanent bloody fingerprint on the West. The conquering Turks absorbed, adapted and modified the economics and sociology of the lands they occupied and the cultures of the peoples they dominated. Yes, the corollary effects on literature, architecture, language and art can still be seen today from Spain to Constantinople. And yes, there was an aspect of genteel sophistication to the ways of the Sultan that may have to some degree balanced out prejudicial brutality against Christians and Jews.

Not so with ISIS. We’ve seen news reports and videos documenting these barbaric henchmen in action, destroying irreplaceable religious and cultural artifacts in ancient sites throughout Syria and Afghanistan, archaeological relics that survived for millennia, now broken into rubble. They want to erase every trace of our history and replace our future with a worldwide Islamic Caliphate, one that excludes everything that we love and hold dear: our faith, our family life, our freedom. Now becoming increasingly frequent and ambitious, these terrorist acts show the unmasked, lethal side of modern radical Islam and its agenda. What is it that we don’t understand about “Death to Infidels?”Paris

The Eiffel Tower went dark last night, maybe saving it from being an easy target, maybe just to show that the spirit represented by one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world was severely wounded: the joie de vivre that has made Paris the exciting, romantic magnet it has been for centuries. Perhaps today we need to acknowledge our fraternité with the shocked and mourning citizens of our nation’s oldest ally, France. Maybe now more than ever we all need to recognize and declare loud and clear, “Je suis Paris.”

October’s End

The neighbor’s orchard is empty now,
bushels full of apples pressed into cider and jam.
Pumpkins and gourds have succeeded summer’s
bumper crop of watermelons, long gone off
to Fourth of July picnics and family reunions.

By sunset our last pile of leaves had been raked
and heaped onto a lazy bonfire glowing orange,
expiring with a wispy shaft of smoke upwards
into the chilly twilight.

Autumn’s lackluster constellations can’t compete
with this evening’s gibbous moon, rising
like a spotlight just over the eastern horizon,
silhouetting a lonely grove of bare-limbed
maple trees.

This year’s festive All Hallows’ Eve begins
to wane into sleepy solemnity as packs of
costumed children retreat indoors to inspect
their cache of candies while jack-o-lantern faces
gradually go dark. Excited laughter dissipates,
leaving the night to echo only the rhythmic
chirping of crickets and an occasional hoot
from a hidden barn owl. My midnight hike
through crumpled beds of zinnias and
marigolds withered dry by frost gradually
turns pensive and melancholic.

Such a metaphor, these changing seasons,
to the passage of time and life. Almost
instinctively drawn to muse upon a sad
stanza or two penned by Shelley, I wonder
how a poet so enchanted with beauty and
romance could be just as well obsessed
with graveyards and doom. Can love and
loss be hopelessly connected?

And so we say Goodbye again
to yet another autumn season.
I’m walking briskly now, my shoulders
hunched and coat collar turned up turtle-like,
trying to protect my tingling ears from the
pre-dawn’s sudden drop below the freezing
mark, while from a distant church’s steeple
the matins bell of All Saints Day, like an
old man’s lethargic heartbeat, begins to
toll a doleful lament: Death is coming.
Death to all.

Healing Now In Checkout Lane Number 4

Ever been pushing your cart around the grocery store when suddenly the canned background music abruptly stops with a crackle and a voice comes over the speaker saying something like, “Uh, cleanup in aisle seven. Um, Joe, you’re gunna need a wet mop.” A few minutes later a reluctant teenage boy shows up dragging a mop and bucket to deal with the accidental consequences of a 20-ounce jar of kosher dill pickles hitting the floor.

Recently I heard an account about a very unusual and unexpected announcement over a grocery store PA system relating a message we just don’t hear every day, but maybe we should. My friend Jerry told me about a young man he knows who without reservation lives his Christian life out in the open, ready for opportunities to share his convictions with anyone who might cross his path. One evening this fellow, let’s call him Mark, was on his way home from working late and needed to pick up a couple items from the store along the way. While standing in line to check out he noticed an obvious expression of discomfort on the face of an elderly lady right in front of him. She gingerly pressed a trembling hand up against her left ear while slowly unloading items from her cart. Without hesitating, Mark asked her if she was okay. “What?” she said, looking up, a little startled, probably wondering why a complete stranger would even be speaking to her. He repeated the question. “I’m sorry,” she said, in a feeble voice, “but I can’t hear very good. I have hearing loss and right now I have an ear infection.” Mark’s next response was automatic. “Well, would you mind if I prayed for you?”

She stared blankly at him for what seemed like minutes, then with a shallow sigh said, “I guess so.” Mark closed his eyes, put his hand on her shoulder and prayed a simple, brief but powerful prayer for her ears to open and for complete healing, in the authority of Jesus’ mighty name. Startled, she looked back at his face, now gleaming with delight that yet another opportunity had presented itself to express his faith in a mighty God, for His glory. “Hey, hey,” she blurted out, stammering for the right words. “I can hear you. I can actually hear everything, real clear. And I don’t feel any pain.” The checkout girl at the register who had been observing the entire encounter with one eye on the groceries and one ear into the conversation was now weeping, overwhelmed by what she had just witnessed.

Then Mark had a wild idea, prompting a bold move inspired deep in his spirit. “Ma’am, would you mind if I used that microphone and made an announcement over the store speakers?” The clerk still dumbfounded and in a kind of robot-like manner hands it over. Mark clears his throat and clicks on the mic. “Attention shoppers!” What’s next? A five-minute special in Frozen Foods? Not tonight. “God has just healed a lady right here in Check Out Lane Number Four. And He’s not done.” He pauses, ignoring a little audio feedback squawking noise. “Someone here has hip problems and He wants to heal you. Someone else has a crippling disease in their hands, and He wants to heal you, too!” Immediately the atmosphere throughout the store changes. It’s like electricity charging the air, like an invisible force blowing around stacks of canned soup canada-safewayand right through boxes of breakfast cereal.

At this point, wary shoppers begin sheepishly peering around end caps at the front of the store, curious to find out if they actually heard what they thought they heard. Out of nowhere a large woman on a motorized cart aims headlong toward Mark. She’s steering with one hand and waving the other. “Mister. Mister, it’s me. I have hip problems.” He motions her on towards him through the little group that has started to gather, waiting to see what happens next. He prays. She has a hard time catching her breath, almost delirious. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she gasps. She begins to feel heat wrapping around her hips where intense pain had been endured without help for so many years. Healing starts to flow, like a fire through bone and muscle and sinew. Now she is standing, without pain, sobbing like a baby, hugging Mark.

Suddenly, a thin, tired-looking man in his mid-fifties pushes past the crowd surrounding Mark. “Wait. I’m who you’re looking for,” he calls out, twice. He has abandoned his cart in the produce section, walking briskly with both forearms out in front of his chest, hands upright. Teary-eyed, he explains to Mark and the growing number of stunned onlookers that he is a high school music teacher, a composer, but arthritis and carpel tunnel have gnarled his hands to the point of being useless. “I can’t work. I can’t play the piano anymore. Help me. Please.” Another prayer. Another miracle. The man grasps his hands together tight, in prayer-like fashion, completely whole and healed, on the spot. He’s giddy, shaking. Mark smiles.

And then it was all over –– in less than five minutes. Bar code scanners began beeping again. Shoppers returned to their lists. Mark checked out and headed for his car, some of the folks staring through the storefront windows, watching him disappear from view into the darkness of the parking lot. For him, this evening was not exceptional. It’s the norm. It’s walking out a simple life of faith where the natural and the spiritual coexist, where the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said, is at hand. The reality of the unseen world was made manifest that night, when faith brought the presence of God to the Safeway on 6th Avenue and Spencer Street. By the way, Mark does not have the gift of healing. He has no religious agenda. No evangelism tracts tucked into his back pocket, looking for converts. But no matter where he goes or what he does, he just believes. That’s what true discipleship is all about.

Worth a thousand words

aylan-kurdi

We all know the expression. A picture is worth a thousand words. But this particular photo needs no words. I will, however, attempt to give you some background.

It’s one of several photographs that went viral earlier this week, hopefully shocking the world from complacency and ignorance concerning the plight of millions of refugees trying to escape the seemingly endless horrors of war in the Middle East. The photos and the dreadful circumstances they portray are a “stark testimony of an unfolding human tragedy that is playing out in Syria, Turkey, and Europe, often unwitnessed,” wrote Kim Murphy, a news editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Well, now we are witnessing, and we see more than a distant, inconsequential-to-me humanitarian crisis out of control. Now it has a name, and a face. It’s personal.

What we see is the appalling outcome of a fiberglass boat packed with 12 desperate people aboard capsizing off the coast of Turkey, after just minutes into their journey. Their destination – the Greek island of Kos, just 2.5 miles away. An estimated 2,000 people are making the same short but dangerously rough sea crossing every day. But these folks, including three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother and their mother, perished in an effort to escape the hell on earth that is now Syria, drowning instead in the Mediterranean, ironically their hoped for passageway to freedom and a new life in the West.

What we see is little Aylan, washed ashore on the beach, like debris cast off by a careless humanity. When power hungry men time and time again rationalize the insane depravity of bludgeoning the life out of each other, either with clubs or swords as in centuries past, or with the far more sophisticated and effective modern weaponry of our age, we all suffer. The bitter vintage of warfare is also drunk far beyond the blood soaked battlefield. The grim harvest of brutality spares neither mothers nor their children, and in this case, the iron scythe of death too soon struck down an innocent Kurdish family hoping for a new life beyond the grip of an insatiable monster known as terrorism.

What we see again is another senseless tragedy. We feel again that deep, anguishing heartache, and ask again the unanswerable question, “Why?” We will find no adequate consolation in this world for suffering and loss, especially of this magnitude, the death of a beautiful toddler, just like one of those little boys we see playing ball in our own neighborhood. Yet there is light, even in what may appear as utter darkness. “I have told you [about the realities of this life] so that you may have peace in me,” Jesus said. “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

Rest in peace, Aylan. You are free.