Monday, November 23, 2015

When Death Tries to Defeat Love, Death Loses

My circle of friends and family have been mourning the premature and altogether tragic death of a good and honorable man. Terry Read, just 57 years old, was struck and killed by an automobile while walking his dog near his home in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Linda, serve as full-time ministers in the Community of Christ, a small denomination with international headquarters in Independence, Missouri. Together with their daughter, Andrea, they are a remarkable family committed to their faith, to community service, and to each other.

Terry was a giant of a man, hovering over almost anyone he encountered, but carrying the most humble and gentle spirit imaginable. He spoke softly, listened intently, and touched tenderly. He was tenacious and yet considerate on a basketball court, quickly lending a hand to those he knocked over, couldn't help himself, graciously apologizing. He is one of those people about whom one never hears a bad word. Truly.

This reflection is not intended as a tribute to Terry or his family, although I could write into the night about their lives and accomplishments. There are already many hundreds of those on their Facebook pages, soon rippling into the thousands, demonstrating the constellation of relationships that grace their lives. There one will also find the remarkable words of his beloved wife, Linda, and their wonderful daughter, Andrea. They are each embodying what Henri Nouwen called the "wounded healer," distilling from their grief words of hope and redemption that comfort others.

Terry, Andrea, and Linda Read
I have found my own response to be more tears than words, unusual for me. I tend to look to language as my way of working through difficult times, but instead I found myself inconsolable for a while--disbelieving, unaccepting, angry, denying, pounding my fist and erupting with "No, no, no!" I cried out for justice: "This is as good a human being as I know. Why Terry? Why this family that gives so much of themselves? It's not right! It's not fair!"

When I write it down like that it sounds like a petulant third-grader with a lower lip curled out declaring the world to be unfair because their little brother got a bigger scoop of ice cream. And I suppose in the grand scheme of things, my cry for justice is about as shallow as that, although it didn't seem so at the time the telephone call pierced the night with the horrible news.

Terry is not letting go of me. I am haunted by the fact we share the same birthday, although not the same birth year. Photographs of him are popping up everywhere and they speak to me  of his life, not his death. I hear his voice, I remember conversations we had at camps and retreats, walks in a nearby neighborhood when he came to town, projects we worked on together, some going back decades. The other day while I was looking up some things about Terry, I came across a letter he and Linda wrote me several years ago at a particularly needful time. It touched my heart then, and now, over a decade later, it touched me again as if he was beside me, arm over my shoulder, speaking those words of love and support.

It may sound like we were the closest of friends, inseparable. But that is not so. I'm sure there are hundreds of people who would speak this way. Terry had only friends; there were no enemies.

That's where love comes in. When you give it out, it comes back. It is not just that it survives, it thrives. Given my initial soul-sobbing, fist-pounding, death-denying, love-ignoring response to this tragedy, you can imagine my surprise at reading the hundreds and hundreds of responses from family and friends who saw only love, who looked at it the way Terry would have seen it, not with anger or questions or despair, but with gratitude for this gentle man and with love for the community that embraces him. It was as he had been taught and as he had taught.

I should have known. I do know. I guess I just forgot for a while. None of this is to take away the profound sadness, the terrible hurt, the numbing sense of loss. But already, those are being overcome by a family choosing to be healers, knowing that the healer will also be healed.

"Oh death, where is thy sting?" That question is posed in I Corinthians 15:55, and is answered by Terry Read and by those who love him. And here is the answer: "Death, you came up against love, and you lose."

Love wins. Every time.

Rest in peace, Terry Read, awash in the love of those who have been loved by you, and assured that your wonderful family will be enveloped in the love you saved up for them. Stay with us awhile and you will see.

Monday, November 02, 2015

"Oh the Losses I've Seen. Glory Hallelujah": The Spiritual Significance of the World Series

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Glory, Hallelujah

Sometimes I'm up, sometimes
I'm down, oh yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost
To the ground, oh yes, Lord

The old Negro spiritual describes a horrific kind of suffering, but in the process it also manages to define the human condition itself, both in its sorrow and its redemption. The spirituals sing of life in its lowest moments, in its deepest despair, but within the same verses embody faith ("Glory, Hallelujah") and hope ("oh yes, Lord"). These powerful lyrics have been sung around the world, applied to all manner of trouble and all forms of salvation.

I certainly wouldn't want to equate baseball to the conditions that birthed the spirituals, but it does offer an analogy that helps explain what is going on today, especially in Kansas City, but many other places as well. Last night, as the clock ticked past midnight on the east coast, a band of lads in blue erased three decades of baseball futility, bringing a World Championship to Kansas City for the first time since 1985. A significant number of those players were not even born when the pain began.

I'll be quick to acknowledge that sports is an imperfect metaphor for ruminations about life, marked as it is with greed, cheating, mistaken priorities, and moral ambiguity. But since life suffers similar shortcomings in virtually all its expressions, we can probably let it serve without undue apology.

I am a lifelong fan of the grand game of baseball. I truly believe that the kind of game it is, the multitude of human stories that are played out in every contest, and its respect for its own heritage and tradition, infuse it with meanings beyond itself. Some say "baseball imitates life." Others go further, claiming that "baseball is life"--a tad pretentious, perhaps, but I respect the sentiment. At the very least, the game offers parallels to life that are useful and worth pondering. I think that is evident on the streets and airwaves of Kansas City today. What happened isn't just silly playfulness. It is about people allowing a game to speak to the hole in their souls.

Today there are scores of writers and pundits pounding out elegant descriptions of the World Series and its meanings. The game lends itself to literary endeavors; there are dozens of anthologies that collect thoughtful prose about America's Pasttime. It's just that kind of game.

A year ago I wrote several pieces about that enchanted season that foreshadowed last night's triumph. The 2014 Wild Card Game, still the greatest game I've ever seen and arguably the best ever played, prompted some musings about "baseball and the soul." And the excruciating loss in the seventh game of the World Series led me to a "joyful lament" about what had been gained and what had been lost. I was clearly captured by the quixotic journey out of the wilderness. It had provided a salve to year after year of 100-loss-seasons, embarrassing video lowlights that reminded one of the Katzenjammer Kids, and where baseball's classic promise to "wait till next year" became a cruel hoax. Such angst triggered reflection, hence the blog posts.

I was a little surprised therefore to discover that during this historic season of winning--seven straight victories out of the box, sole possession of first place in the division for virtually the entire season, and the best record in the American League--I had hardly written anything about baseball, and then only tangentially. It's as if defeat was worthy of attention, but I had nothing much to say about winning.

My initial thought of a title for this post was "When Losers Win." But somehow it felt kind of like a junior high kid in a schoolyard spat calling another kid "Loser!" It didn't capture the intent.

But the truth is that this baseball season, with its Houdini-like escapes, its personal drama (three Royals players lost parents in the last few months), and its embodiment of what national commentators came to call Royals-style baseball, has been about losers becoming winners. In doing so, legions of fans, many of them newly-minted fans, have sensed something personal--that amidst disappointment comes hope, within despair there is nested joy, and "the trouble I've seen" is not my trouble alone.

Eric Hosmer dives headlong to score the tying run in the ninth
inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, an 
improbable dash
 that led to the first KC Royals World Championship in 30 years.
Last night with one out in the ninth, a loss was imminent. The opposing pitcher had dazzled the boys of virtue and truth throughout the entire game. The crowd was roaring, mocking, waving flags, urging the scoundrels on.

Then came the convergence of every moment into one moment.

A kid who was born to play baseball stood at third base, down by one run, remembering in a nanosecond everything his dad, his coaches, his baseball heroes, had ever told him, buoyed by scouting reports about the range of the shortstop and the arm strength of the first baseman, aware not consciously but instinctually of the speed of his feet and the length of his stride.

A slow ground ball on the infield was handled routinely. The defender checked him, looked him back to third, then threw to first. The kid’s body coiled, his instincts prickling, his timing impeccable. He broke down the line at warp speed, launching his body headfirst toward the plate, his arm stretching, stretching, the ball threatening to beat him there. And failing.

And then his hand found home. The game was tied, and soon to be won. The dugout erupted as he lay face down on the ground.

I'm down, oh yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost
To the ground, oh yes, Lord

And then Eric Hosmer was up again. Human again. A winner again. For the first time again.

And so are we.

Glory, Hallelujah!