Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


He sat in the back, way in the back, left side. Didn’t say much either, but it was clear to me that he wasn’t dumb. He had this problem with getting work in on time—that I remember well. He was the kind of student who gives you headaches because you’ve got to bug him (or her) to stay tuned. But then, that was not an unfamiliar way of life to me.

Somehow, I got roped into sponsoring the soccer club that year, my very first year of college teaching. I don’t know how, because I knew nothing about soccer except that it was a game with astonishingly little scoring. It seemed to me an exercise in futility sometimes, but I’d been a coach before and I enjoyed the camaraderie cruising along in the van with the team.

This tall kid was one of them, quite talented too, a freshman who played a ton of soccer that year, even though he was one of the new kids on the block.

I don’t know if I had him as a student after that, but some kids you don’t lose sight of—probably because they don’t lose sight of you. This one I remembered, too.

He became a teacher, and an artist, a kid with exceptional talent with a brush and in other media as well, I suppose; and when I’d visit the place he and his wife had chosen to live, I’d run into him. He looked the artist, a pony tail shaped like an artist's brush halfway down his back from thick dark hair, hair to die for. He’d put on weight—never too much, but enough to square him up, so much so that he was an impressive physical specimen, a man with a presence. Even in a crowded room, you didn’t look past him.

And he did well as an artist, well enough to be noticed, well enough to have his work purchased and on display at a number of places and in collections, including here at his alma mater. That’s one, above—a woman somewhere in the middle of a tragedy at Chernobyl--that one is his.

I saw him last weekend and couldn’t help but notice the half-dollar-sized spaces in that thick head of hair. He has brain cancer, and his chances are not at all good.

Twice, his singing group assembled in the front of big crowds, and all eight of them held forth beautifully; but he had obvious trouble holding up his share of the bass line. At times, he was behind a step or two—or just not with the program. But he stood there—sometimes sat—with his gang, and just seeing him up there was, to me and others, the kind of rich testimony that makes people wipe their eyes.

Twice, I saw his wife reach for hers, even though she tried stubbornly to fight the tears. And that's the picture I'm left with, his wife alone in a chair or pew, losing a battle with tears.

In little more than 12 hours I gave two talks, two speeches that had me scared spitless for more than a week. I wanted those speeches to go well, spent more than my share of worry wondering whether what I had prepared would move anyone.

What I didn’t imagine is that the story of the weekend was the story of a tall, skinny kid I had in class almost 35 years ago, a man who is now a 50-year-old man, in the prime of creative life, a pony-tailed painter and husband and father being taken slowly, painfully, from those he loves as nothing less than evil eats away at those very acute perceptions that made him an artist.

We’re not talking about a saint here. We’re not talking about someone whose life didn’t occasionally rush off in directions he hadn’t planned or later wished he’d not taken. He was as human as the rest of us.

As human as the rest of us. And now he’s facing death.

I wish I could write a thoughtful homily I could put in an inside pocket, close to my heart, something that would stanch the bleeding from my own soul.

I don’t like death.

Later today I face another class full of students. I’d like to tell them, if I could, that, quite honestly, nobody knows what life holds for them. I’d like to say a ton of things, but I won’t. Maybe one of those kids will be an artist too—who knows?

We’ll just go on. We’ll read a story about a father’s loves for his daughter, a father who talks to God. That’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll go on. As we always do.

Last night at a committee meeting, the chair extended sympathy to two members who, in the last while, lost two family members. Tonight I’ll go to a wake. Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. This country has only one doughboy left—107 years old—from the First World War. All the rest are in the earth, “one mighty sepulcher,” William Cullen Bryant once called it in a poem he wrote, as unlikely as it seems, when he 19.

It’s all around us, really, this mess. But we go on. Grab a Kleenex maybe, howl some.

But the human story—our need for love, God’s love—just keeps playing. Just keeps playing.

Not unlike soccer maybe, a game—or so it seems this morning—with not much scoring.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I give thanks for your compassionate observations and your willingness to share them with us.

When faced with pain and suffering, even death, one of my favorite Bible passages is that of Lamentations 3:21–33: "For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willing bring affliction or grief to t he children of men."

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

It would be terribly painful to rip the skin from my body. It's even painful to pinch my skin let alone remove it...I am one body. My body parts have their parts to play within my body. And in whatever way I am able, in whatever ways my future looks to me and whatever ways it will look like when it's history, I hope that I've played my part...But I hope most that people have seen that I played it not as an individual, but as a part of the body. Death never looks good and it's always traumatic. But I desire that as the body upholds itself, we who always see death, will also see the body, will experience the body, will never try to remove it from itself, and will always strive to uphold it. And, as we pass from one side of eternal life to the next, those we have upheld will have known such a fulfilled hope.

Real Live Preacher said...

Imagine the effect you've had on students over the years. Most of them will never tell you. But seeing them as individuals, even when they are too many to treat as individuals makes all the difference.

Jihad Hernandez said...

I have this great, sobering joy that comes out whenever I read thoughtful, compassionate meditations by fellow square-inch reformers. Thank you Professor Schaap.