hearse thief

Medical schools starting two centuries ago faced a continuing need: corpses.  They needed recently healthy corpses.  They needed the pregnant, children, old or diseased and mostly: fresh corpses.

Dying as a pauper in London or New York made a fair wager — your corpse passed to a dissection class before a grave.  Medical schools harvested no corpses. Needing plausible deniability, there arose a trade providing corpses, and these men were bizarrely titled Resurrection Men, spitting on Christians’ hope of resurrection.

If caught, they faced grave robbing charges.  Or worse, if police suspected he hurried anyone from this life to help doctors-in-training learn surgery — he faced death — and of course, a final turn ‘through’ medical school.

Grave robbers.  Hearse thieves.  Everyone — murderers, thieves, prostitutes — looked down on them and feared, desperately feared passing through their hands.

Christians were offended at such a title for these men.  This ‘resurrection’ horrifically twisted hope in Christ.

But God has, if anything, a profound sense of humor, and a deep, deep sense of irony.

So Jesus hiked from the north country through valleys southward.  At evening, He climbed up from the road to tiny Nain.  Maybe Nain was built on Shunem’s ruins or nearby.  And in tiny Nain where birth and death were bookends for few surprises, everyone could recite a time when God let a town woman push the great Prophet Elisha to attempt, to ask the impossible.  All these centuries later, every child and agnostic knew the story.  Elisha promised her a son.  She bore him, and on a hot day in harvest he died.  She rode hellbent for leather straight to Mt. Carmel where prophets commune with God.

And she answered the Prophet’s servant pointedly asking, “Is all well with you?”

“Yes!”

“Is all well with your husband?”

“Yes.”

“Is all well with your child?”

And she lied, or she believed more than a cooling corpse waiting in the Prophet’s room she built for him.  “All is well!”

It shook him.  Such faith.  Such hope.  Elisha rushed from the mountain to spend an afternoon begging God to relent and resurrect the child.  God gave him back.

Centuries ago.  Where legends live.

So, Jesus walking into Shunem/Nain stopped a funeral for an only son: a widow’s final hope.  And disregarding all civility Jesus touched the hearse to talk to — the dead boy.

Who responded.  Jesus helped him from the hearse, gave him back to his mother, and everyone paraded back into town, leaving a bewildered hearse driver scratching his head.  The first victim of The Hearse Thief, doing a dress rehearsal for Himself soon enough, and all of us soon enough.

If Jesus wept at a later funeral, He surely smiled at this one, and God, as usual, had a laugh on any who call hearse thieves by such an exalted, holy title as Resurrection Man.

Half Rack, the Survivor

He stood in the backyard, his black nose flaring, sensing.  His eyes darted. He stood motionless, perfectly blendingly brown against the ravine falling away behind him.

His regal bearing halted me, held me.  He watched me, stand still in my kitchen watching this buck, who possessed . . . . it was odd trying to count his “points”.  He possessed five points, but no.  Not correct.

Maybe his camouflage worked well this early.  I again counted antler points from his side, knowing an odd number of horns isn’t impossible, but incorrect.  That was the word, incorrect.  Not five.

He turned.  Looked at me, assessed me and I stared back open-mouthed.  His left side rack was “correct”: five points, beautiful, elegant.

His right side was gone, unlike any deer, elk, or horned game I’ve ever seen.  All of them had two racks, one per side, or nothing.  Maybe I thought boys grow new antlers each year, and then drop by the Antler store to leave both sides with a valet.

Life does not come at them balanced, aesthetically perfect on both sides.  A buck can loose a side in a fight, fence, or blunt force.  I wondered if it was tricky to hold his head level, and then he ran to vanish.

Tony, doctors say, will be gone before morning, and he lost bits of himself toward the end in a fight, a fence, or an invisible force.  He, too, studied me for years while living next door, and I’ll miss him more than Half Rack.

And it’s not actually losing this capability, that speed, or these kinds of recall.  No, unlike Half Rack, I sense the end of my days here, and knowing separates me from Half Rack.  Enough like God to know my days are numbered, and yet lacking so much that I can’t dismiss all my glory at once in a place I choose, that’s right, or good.

It’s another reason I love that Baby in the manger, who identified with us, and then died to make us unlike Half Rack forever.

Which Pappaw?

I escaped from Walmart’s widened aisles awaiting a deluge of Black-Friday-on-Thursday night shoppers.  Sky: dazzling blue.  Wind: minimal.  Temperature: perfect for sweat shirt.

I parked close, a great benefit in coming before the storm.  I approached my truck, triggered the locks, opened the door, and had three bags in mid hoist when it caught my eye, sitting in the back seat, with a seat belt trailing across it.

A bright yellow card was addressed to “Pappaw” in Claire’s handwriting.  She’s great at birthdays, and who-wants-what-for-Christmas.

I first thought, “How could a card addressed to Pappaw, to the man who adopted my mom, to a WW1 vet returned to Texas to build an F.W. Woolworth in Temple TX, who was a chair of deacons for 20 years, who toured the west with Mammaw, my sister and I in a trailer, and whose funeral I conducted forty years ago leave a card addressed to him in my truck?”

Avalanches of thought tumble out quickly.

My daughter-in-law who never met my Pappaw, addressed my birthday card using the “grandparent” name I chose for me.  The envelope had fallen into the seat as I collected the fleece and card two nights ago.

And I missed him.  Ached.  And I thought I’ll never attain to his stature in my life in my grandkids’ eyes.

And in missing him, I saw my hope of heaven is far deeper than I admit.  From this year’s bumper crop of people dying to leave this world, few will be missed by their own family in a generation.  The memories of the remainder will recede in the future’s busy world.

If Pappaw’s story continues to affect anyone on my passing, his story must remain his to tell in heaven.  Think of it another way.  If many remember JFK, Luther, Newton, C.S. Lewis or Tolkien: that’s nothing to them, meaningless with no heaven.  Legacies do nothing for the deceased.

One of his hopes is certain.  He never wanted to burden Mammaw.  So, he wrote my sister a letter @ 5 a.m. that Saturday, dressed for work (at age 78!), sat in his rocker, and was gone.  No burden: granted.  His other hope? Was to sing in heaven.

Picking up the yellow envelope I prayed once more his hope is confirmed, so I’ll see him again and apologize for slip streaming into both his names: Thomas L. and Pappaw.

Thank you, George

George Whittenburg died yesterday.  His Amarillo memorial is Saturday and twenty churches can’t hold all who thank God for him.  Twenty prison cells can’t hold everyone who will rejoice at his passing.

A family that drowned a young man in an Agatha Christie-esque middle-of-a-huge-lake horror will rejoice in cells.  They fooled Texas Rangers and the F.B.I. but not George.  He spent years taking ’em down.

A lawyer who “won” a paltry verdict for his client and then abused her, will smile from his prison way-station on his way to Dante’s 7th Inferno level.  We can hope.  Again, George spent years, itching to conclude her horror, he strategized with Job’s patience and Machiavelli’s genius to bring her justice.

He loved finding crooked lawyers in his sights, and loved scorching them even more.

Offenders hurt, killed or maimed the wrong people, if victims or surviving kin found George.  It didn’t matter how hopeless survivors found George, he wrangled hope for the hopeless seemingly ex nihilo; spelling doom for those who smugly felt successfully incorrigible.

His full softball team of children, their umpteen grandchildren and great-grand-kids flourished in his and Ann’s high expectations.   Shoot, you’d learn to bear up under great expectations if father and grandfather played on the state’s and nation’s stages.

He read voraciously, pursued ideas assiduously, loved conversation, worshipped deeply, and doted on children while gently, firmly pushing each to some greatness.  The house’s washing machines and driers sat at opposite ends.  “Learn to take care of yourself” was in the blueprints.  The two sets of two hot water tanks were in series, so everyone played sports, showered, attacked evening schedules and studies to be fresh in an early morning.  The sheer scale of life at the home boggled outsiders’ minds.

It was simply Whittenburg if you lived there.

Twenty hours won’t contain half the stories left untold at Saturday’s memorial, but that was George.  He was always more than you could take in, more than you countered, and more than you appreciated in any conversation, kindness or advice.   Complex and nuanced, merciless in logic: sitting in his complete focus spelled hope for many and disaster for fools.

When I was younger and my grandfather died, I felt as if one layer of protection between me and death, between me and disaster had been removed.  I’ve not often felt that since, but George’s passing leaves a layer of protection to be replaced.  If you have ears to hear, fill the layer.

I’ll miss him now, but if his faith’s correctly placed, we’ll continue conversations on writers, actors on the world’s stage, and intriguing ideas on the other side of the River.  Notice I didn’t say “finish”.  George can’t finish his thoughts, again, he enjoyed wrestling with far more than twenty volumes of deep conversations might skim the surface of.

Words to Live By

I was listening to Craig Groeschel and he shared his exercise to write out his words to live by.  He shared his.  I have done this as a first draft for me.

What are yours?

 

Words to live by

I am a sinner, saved by the astonishing, unrelenting mercies of God extended to me in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: my Lord.

I am Jill’s husband, sharing all I have, all I dream, all of my shortcomings, and my resolute hope that Christ has entwined Himself in our vows and hopes to the end of this life as helpmate, and friend in the next. All I know about oneness with her is God’s kindness to introduce Himself to me and help me understand how astonishing is koinonia in this world and even more so – the next.

I am family: son, grandson, brother, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, great uncle, brother in Christ to the few I know, and the millions I have yet to meet. They are the basis of my understanding that a three stranded chord is not easily broken.

I am entrepreneurial in business, teaching, and ministry. Before I knew the term, I admired those who resonated with this, who embodied it.

I am a failer. I attempt much, succeed at some, hopefully more of what I am striving to bring into existence and impact others with.

I have a profound sense of otherness, thin places, friends across the centuries, sennsucht, and piercing beauty that moves me to tears. I have never met someone with a story God was not still writing.

I have not spent as much time thinking about me as others, ideas, Truth, notions, stories. But about me, I have Someone into whose hands I place my guilt, my frustrations with me, my mute horror at me.

I am succeeding, sometimes one crushing failure at a time..

I am immortal, and that takes faith, but at the same time it fuels my faith.

I am grateful to those who taught me to love learning and in that learning continually be reshaped and stretched. I give to my students in those teachers’ names, on their accounts.

I am an amalgam of all of this, all of these. Whether I am original or not is not as intriguing to me as whether I am building His uniqueness in those He puts in my way.

Decanting Souls

Jan asked, “Will we decant mom on Sunday, then?”

The week was full of boxes crammed with scrapbooks, photos, and correspondences — scattered through the house, the storage building, the pool house and workshop: detritus of Barbara K. Johnson’s life.

We laughed hard to hear little Jill write her mother in the hospital, that she neither believed her brother that mom was in the hospital, or worse, was having a baby and it was another boy.  It was funniest when Jan read, “And please do NOT call him Douglas” to the youngest, Doug.  So my dearest Jill held strong opinions at age nine and could articulately express them.

We each mutely read the neatly typed letter wherein Philip, their dad, said he had not had sexual relations with the woman he had run off with over the weekend, and he would return as pastor if all could be forgiven.

Steve quietly sorted the box with all of the bills that Phil returned unpaid to the hospital, pharmacy, and utility company after he left for good with the woman and emptied all of the accounts.

And I was struck by the probability that all great fiction, all award winning plays are barely recognizable shadows of authors’ families, or the shattered family of friends, or the shattering family at home.

And all these years later, the siblings taking cues from the astounding woman of God they had as mother, these siblings who had visited the man of unpaid bills in the nursing home as he wept and laughed with them, were choosing what will go to flame tonight in a bonfire of vanities, joys, and deep realities.  And they cho0se what to give to children and grandchildren.

Doug, who happens to be an award winning woodcarver has carried out one last wish from Nana, Barbara, and carved a final resting box for her ashes, kept safe in the plastic bag in which they were delivered over a year ago.  And on Sunday we will decant her ashes, as reverently as the siblings decanted the correspondences, savored them, laughed and wept over them.  We will decant them into Doug’s box preparing them for February when these four proud children of Barbara K Johnson will head to a windswept cemetery in South Dakot to send her ashes on a slow journey of becoming one with the dust of Alcester from whence she came.

And that will be the end of it, unless you know anything about Jesus and final banquets at the juncture of time and eternity, where we will decant life in the limited way we know it here, as an aperitif toward heaven.

Michael, you made us great.

When the Greatest Generation returned from defeating the Axis powers to build anew this country they had an unspoken “why?” or “how will we know” written on their collective consciousness.

They had liberated camps in Europe where Jews, Gypsies and problematic Christians were industrially disappeared.  They found mass graves of Poles of incomprehensible numbers.  They liberated our own men from Bataan, and Korean and Chinese girls and women from Imperial Army brothels.  They uncovered experiments on humans. They whispered and collected the memories.  They returned home.

“Home” was racially divided, patriarchal, and had a thousand challenges and somewhere, or in a thousand somewheres someone or a few hundred someones were sitting in churches and synagogues and university student unions in overwhelming numbers and they saw people like Michael, friends’ babies like Michael and knew that Michael represented a baseline for care.  Not only that, but people began to talk about, demonstrate, petition representatives and insurance agencies, schools, city governments on behalf of Michael and friends.

The question was, “What about Michael?” or “What about all of the Michaels?”  Those questions set us researching a hundred trails of cures, and that pushed watches, walks, runs, pink ribbons, pink JFL jerseys, food investigations, bad meds, pollution and so on.  Those answers made us a great country.  They are making of us a better country.

But it all began with that nagging question  Jesus put front and center, “What of the least of these?  What will you do with the least of these?”

And it wasn’t just governmental and research responses.  Basketball players got to come to Michael’s birthday parties.  Students knew when Michael was working and if they were mature, they talked to him and Teresa and others as they cleaned their tables.  Amy and Peter grew up taking it for granted they would care for you after mom and dad could no longer do so.  That made them taller and stronger, for you.  You reminded all of us at church that Jesus said you were thunderously important.  You reminded us that conversation is always important, on whatever level we can conduct it.  You advertised that people who argued for abortion if a baby might be problematic missed you.

You reminded us that a great nation, like any real church IS great when it answers well, “What do we do with the least of these?”

Have we written the final, best answer to that question?  No, Michael, we have not, but we promise to keep working on whatever the front page or back pages of the newspaper says is another place to answer, “How have I learned to appreciate and help the least of these?”

Do we miss you?  More than we could have known.

Thank you.  I was blessed to know you and your family.  Hey, if when we get to heaven you have a cool mansion, and I am sweeping streets, can we do sleep overs at your place?Michael Buchanan