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, March 08, 2017

The crimson tide

Metaphors and other descriptors, like men's ties and women's scarves, move in and out of style. No respectable preacher can say much about the church these days without dropping the word flourish. I'm not sure who introduced it, but if she'd patented it, she'd be well-heeled. And these days we face a ton of existential problems don't you think? More, at least, than five years ago.

UnTrumpians, like me, find it difficult not to go all old-testament prophet on our POTUS without using the word normalize to describe behavior we dassn't do (as grandma would say). English 101 texts warn against such vapid nominalization, but not "normalizing Trump" is just too important a job to have to listen to schoolmarm propriety.

Nothing really changes much in the little old church we attend quite regularly just up the road. Most of the hymns have that late-19th century rollicking gait that makes the aesthete in me roll my eyes--like this one from last week's liturgy:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.

Diction comes straight from a sawdust museum: "Yonder on Calvary's mount outpoured" is a modifying phrase that doesn't seem so much un-singable as untenable. 

But all of this sounds so clinical without the music. So, go ahead, play through.

But last week that first stanza, all about "the blood of the Lamb," got me thinking how infrequently we press those old metaphors into service these days. The image of Christ's blood "outpoured" seemed so old that it isn't--blood, a river of it, from Christ's side. That kind of description, cliched as it may be, somehow courts the unimaginable, doesn't it? Try it--see if you can imagine all that blood.

The third stanza has even more:

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide;
What can we do to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.

When I got to "crimson tide," I stopped to remind myself that this has nothing to do with Alabama football. It's not just a spillway of blood here, it's an entire sea--not a bucket or a bathtub, which would be loathsome enough--but an entire ocean. The "crimson tide" stopped me cold, really. Who can even see that? who wants to?

And then all that blood showed up once again in the final hymn, the one after the sermon:

For Jesus shed His precious blood
Rich blessings to bestow
Plunge now into the crimson flood
That washes white as snow.

This time it's a flood, not the "crimson tide"; but the images are equally frightening--a flood of blood. Nasty, isn't it? Gives me the shivers. I stood there in the pew, book in hand, and told myself what I was singing was so old it was new: fountains of blood, rivers of it, 
the scarlet Nile, whole lakes and mighty oceans of scarlet. It's actually hard to imagine. 

Years ago, a little girl on a bike got hit by a car right outside our front door. The old woman driving couldn't have been going twenty miles an hour, so it wasn't the impact that made us call 911; we did because the girl had hit her head when she fell. Some first-aid manual taught me not to move a victim like that, so I stayed there beside her. She wasn't exactly with the program, but when she lifted her head, I couldn't help notice the pool of blood from her ear. That looked scary.

She's fine today, probably a mom somewhere, worried about her own kids on bikes.

But that afternoon, maybe an hour after the accident, two old men--my age today probably--met right there out front, just the two of them, both our neighbors. No one asked them to come by, but they did. The neighbor south brought a bucket, the neighbor north a broom.

They were there to clean up that little girl's blood. I'd never thought of it.

I wondered then whether it wasn't some kind of ritual, those old bucks having determined it was unseemly for that little girl's blood, maybe six inches across, to pool up out there so public-like. They didn't ask me if they could clean it up, but then I wasn't the one to make the call. Theirr attention had nothing to do with property; it was principle. It was blood, after all, human blood, 
and somehow the two of them must have determined that it deserved what honor they could give it by washing it away.

It just seemed to me that their act out there in front of our house was sacred. They weren't trying to teach their younger neighbor anything; they were simply taking care of what needs to be taken care of because we aren't just a concoction of minerals. We're something else. We bleed life. And when it happens, you just don't let it be.

That's the story I remembered by way of words in old hymns I'd never really noticed a hundred times before. There I stood in a 140-year old church that's dying, singing sawdust hymns that put me midstream in--seriously!--a crimson flood that washes white as snow.

Think of it, if you can. Preposterous descriptors in that old music and those old words. Unimaginable, really. 

But I guess that's the point. Unimaginable. That's it. Miracle. Mystery.

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