Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Little Soul Food, you won't need a fork.

“If thou of fortune be bereft,
and in thy larder be but left
two loaves, sell one, and with the dole
buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

I was in the presence of a medical professional this week who had recently been the patient herself. She had received flowers during her stay in the hospital. She had them in her office, they were bright and colorful and cheerful. Though, has anyone seen flowers that weren't cheerful, providing that they weren't near the point of self made potpourri ? There were a few blossoms on their way to that very end, but still it was a reminder of well wishes and the intent to be comforting. Sending flowers isn't an obligation.

She knows that I've spent my career, nearly 28 years as a floral designer. I believe in the power of flowers. What's more, I told her so. I believe she was taken aback when I said to her, “So you have no soul, or is your soul so well fed that you don't need food for it?” Her eyebrows tilted in the direction that tells you that you have pushed a button and now she wondered where I was headed.
I told her that even if I weren't a floral designer, if I had never been one of those people standing on concrete day in and day out creating joy and comfort on behalf of others, I believe that I would still be one to rush to the local flower shop when I knew that someone was hurting and that they needed the comfort of not just a close friend but the comfort of the gift that would linger as evidence of that care. I couldn't stop there in my, “sermon”, or rather, my lesson.

She did look at me and say, “I've never thought of flowers as soul food, they are aren't they? I've always thought of them as wasteful and unnecessary.”

I told her that flowers aren't usually considered food for our bodies, though you can eat some of them, but at some point in time, a great many veggies will bloom, hence the source of seed. Some varieties can produce fiber that can be made into clothing, but even they bloom, and chances are the blossom is the part that we use. But the real purpose of flowers is to feed that part within us that we cannot reach by hand, cannot spoon feed, nor can we wrap it in warm clothes. So often in our pain, sorrow and disappointment the only thing that we can feed is our soul, flowers are one of the basic food groups.

I recited the poem above, (I wish I knew who wrote it,) the color drained from her face, but was quickly restored as her smile brought it back. “Repeat that for me and let me write it down, “ she said. I did. “You have taught me a lesson that I have never given consideration to, you are absolutely right.”

“There's another consideration too, “ I added, “if you are a person of faith and I believe that you are, then you have to consider the model that is presented in the very seed, we put it in the ground, it 'descends into hell,' if you will, and it rises again in glory.” By this time I had touched a place deep within her.

“You are right, it is a reminder.”

We went on with my appointment, and afterward as we were walking from her office she said to me, “Thank you, you have taught me a great lesson and I will never think of flowers as a waste again, in fact, I hope that I get more soon.”

“Buy them for someone else, even a single bloom, the least expensive there is will not only feed the soul of another, but yours as well.”

It's easy right now for me to get to the point of tears, a lot has happened this year that justifies them they aren't all the tears of sadness, but at every turn for me there are flowers, flowers that remind me of these very lessons, the lesson of the poem and the lesson that comes from a reminder that flowers are a symbol of the resurrection. Sometimes the lesson of the flowers has to stick me in the finger when a rose bites me I always smell it, but I take the pain without thinking of it as any more than the reminder that I should look more closely, breath in the beauty of them. There are other soul foods too, (like I said, flowers are just one of the basic food groups), music, art, friendship and the arts that are not made of stone, metal, paper or paint. “ hyacinths to feed they soul.” It's good advice really, trust me on this. This isn't an advertisement, but how I really feel about what the “hippies” of the 1960's called Flower Power.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Wrestling With the New Normal...Oh great something else new.

I have to admit that one of the most interesting things said to me when my father passed away in May is that now the search begins for the, “new normal.” The statement caused me to scratch my bald spot; okay, head, when it was said to me. Later when there was really time to think about it I thought it was sound information for filing and possibly for using on someone else, but the information would probably stay there in the file because things would never be normal in my life again.

Suffice it to say, two people were right in their thinking on the idea of normal. Sure we can dig through Webster's for some definition of normal, it would be a well thought out description, but everyone's baseline for normal is different. One person's normal temperature may be 98.6, my normal runs closer to 97. some think that it's normal to want vanilla ice cream while others think it's normal to want chocolate. Personally, neither seem normal to me. But I'm a man who likes the less normal flavors.

Thanksgiving was the holiday that became my holiday with my parents. Each of my three sisters began their own traditions as they established their families, when all of us were at home, Thanksgiving wasn't a big day, we were just all at home. Me, being single, my Thanksgiving was most often spent with the folks. There were years where I spent the holiday at the table of friends, included as family of choice. I've always been grateful for those moments. Yet I enjoyed the idea of being with my father and mother because it felt normal.

With Dad gone since May, there are things that in the last seven months have come to feel far less normal. Father's day didn't feel normal, walking past the Father's Day cards in the grocery caused me to cry. I know the meat manager felt embarrassed about the ground chuck prices when he saw me standing there wiping away tears. There was no birthday card to buy this year the middle of September. I bought the others that I needed, but felt like I was forgetting someone, knowing full well that I wasn't. All of it just didn't feel normal.

Thanksgiving I sat at the table with my mother, sizzling steaks in front of us, the only, “normal” holiday dish on the table was green bean casserole. It was hard to look to my right at the table because that's where Pop sits...sat. I made it through the noon meal okay, it was the evening meal that oddly didn't feel normal. I missed him and I missed him dreadfully, I came to tears while at the table, ready to push away and go to another room, my mom took my wrist and kept me there, patting the back of my hand and simply said, “Dad moment?” I nodded my head knowing that she completely understood. She is being introduced to the idea of a new normal too.

I admit now that there is a search for a new normal. The introduction to the idea comes slowly and quietly. There is a new normal, it just takes some getting used to. I suppose that it's easy to want to fight it because it feels like a virus, something that your body knows isn't right and doesn't want there, so it makes war against it. Time must be the antibiotic that comes along to take the fight out of the normal and give the new normal a chance to take over.

All of this isn't just about death of a loved one or death period. It's about those major life moments when things change and the world is rocked. It could be natural disaster, it could be moving from one house to another, simply changing homes, (that one threw me for a loop also several years ago.) It can be about a job or the break of a friendship, it can be about an accident that leaves someone unable to find their old normal. It can be about having to break old habits or even an indiscretion that breaks a marriage or puts someone in trouble with the law. It can be about something really silly like the the change in the formula of your favorite bread...don't get me started on that one.

So, I bow to the experience of another, there is a new normal, it just takes some getting used to, just like the old normal did, I guess.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Isn't That My Place Card? Having a place at the table.

A tune from my teen years in a church youth group has been running through my mind lately, it was a catchy little ditty, the words from Song of Solomon 2:4, “He leads me into the banquet eating table , his banner over me is love.”
I recognize that one of the reasons for the tune to be dashing through my head, it's because one of the texts read at church for All Saint's Sunday on November 5th. The passage spoke of a day when all God's people would be invited to a seven course meal and there would be fabulous food, wonderful wines and a tremendous desert cart. (Isaiah 25:6-9)

The notion that God has dinner parties in heaven intrigues me. Not just because I appreciate good food, the part that I look forward to is the idea and promise that there will be fellowship at the table, good company, it will be a feast like no other. I suppose it would be safe to say that this dinner party will be heaven.

The 23rd Psalm recited by nearly every kid drug through a Sunday School classroom tells that God is going to set a table and serve a meal while the enemy watches, the part we forget is that everyone is somone's enemy if we are honest about it and no matter how hard we try not to be an enemy we probably are..
The notion of fellowship at the table is very inviting to me. Being single, I eat dinner alone most of the time. The glory of eating with the host at this dinner party makes the meal secondary. Being with the host and other dinner guests is really the part that I'm looking forward to.

I started out in the independent Christian church, that means there was communion every Sunday. Because it happened so fast it couldn't have meant much to anyone, after the first one, the meaning became lost on me, it was a dinner party served in six minutes or less, now I think of it as the microwave Eucharist. The only thing that seemed special was the lacy paper doilies in the bottom of the bread plate.

From there I was off to an American Baptist Church where the dinner party with Jesus was four times a year for sure and a possible bonus on Maundy Thursday. More meaningful certainly. I was a deacon and allowed to serve the table until a new minister informed me that because I didn't meet the criteria to be a deacon as set forth in 1st Timothy 3:1, he was forcing me out. The criteria? I, being a single man was not the husband of one wife. Apparently, I had to have at least one, but no more than one, children were important too, but he would have let that slide he said.. (Later the good reverend cornered me and informed me that he was seeing to my dismissal because he suspected me to be homosexual. I told him that he needn't suspect any longer, but it wasn't his news to spread.) I was my first official coming out experience. I didn't go back to the church and didn't miss him, though there were others there I longed to be with on Sunday mornings.

I left the American Baptists behind after leaving the tennis shoes that I was wearing at the door of the parsonage and walked away barefooted, I didn't want to take anything away from there. I began to attend the First Presbyterian Church in town, PCUSA. While there I was deeply moved by the liturgy the pastor used during the Eucharist, it spoke of God's love being showered on everyone. Communion was observed the first Sunday of each month and was announced publicly the Sunday before. I looked forward to the dignity of the “high churchness” of the gathering at the table. For a few years I was just a guy at the table, fork in hand, ready for a dinner party with Jesus. It was great until I was tapped to be a ruling elder. In the PCUSA this position in the church required ordination and the denomination as a whole made it clear that, “self avowed, non repentant” homosexuals were not acceptable for ordination. Be it to the pastorate or positions of elder or deacon, the big guys at the home office didn't approve. I refused politely when asked but when pressed for the reason I simply replied that there were rules in the church that I couldn't adhere to, so I couldn't break them as a matter of conscience. The lady who had approached me simply responded without hesitation, (though I gave her no indication of why I was not accepting or what rules I couldn't play by,) “it doesn't keep the other elders who are queer from doing it.” I smiled and said, “That's for them to deal with.”

I hung around for a while, but began to feel a discomfort after a change of pastors. The final decision to leave was spurred when I realized on a particular Sunday that in the bulletin there was a notice that communion would be observed the next Sunday. I finally figured out what was missing from not just this dinner party, while the ones prior were moving they were exclusive. Everyone was allowed to watch, but not fully participate. The person in the pew was an observer at the feast. Some where simply playing the part of waiters, not even giving consideration that some of the cafes in town had rules for the servers, the rules here didn't include hair nets, paper hats or name tags.
When I ended up in the church that I'm a part of now, Broadway UMC, I visited the pastor the first Sunday after I had been there for communion. The week before it was announced that the congregation would CELEBRATE communion. My first thought on hearing this news was, “observer no more, we're going to celebrate!”

During a visit with the reverend a simple question surprised her, “If I join this church, and the church recognizes me as a gay man, may I receive communion?” Her response was, “Absolutely, our table is spread for everyone, even if you don't join the church.” “Okay,” I said, “everyone is welcome at the table, but may I serve the table?” With great enthusiasm she exclaimed, “Of course, you want to serve next month? You're on the list.” I took her up on it. The reason for my acceptance to serve the table came so quickly ? Because I had not served in about 10 years because I didn't fit the, “criteria” the other churches held sacred.

I'm sure for many they think, “so, big deal.” But for me I kept seeing an odd thing happening. Not one of the churches refused to serve me. In fact, they all made special effort to make people understand that all were welcome at the table, just not as a server. So the lesson being taught me seemed so silly. The lesson is this: Christ's sacrifice of his life, after a model dinner party mind you, made me worthy to be served at his table, but it didn't make me worthy to serve. If the notion of , “it's better to give than receive applies here, shouldn't it be, “You many not receive, but we will force you to serve until you learn better where you're place at the table is.”?

Being gay and being a Christian is a lot like the examples given in these stories. If we as God's children are welcome at the table then we are welcome to serve it. My spirituality and my sexuality are all a part of who I am. They are brought together by a loving God who made me, just like the old Gospel song says, “Just as I am.”. I don't ask God why he made me the way that he did, any more than I ask why he made others the way they are.

I've come to appreciate the scripture that reminds us, “...let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God.” (I John 4) I simply want to love and to have a place at the table. I do have a place at the table and I love it, especially when I get to, “pass the bread” and when I get to turn to the one next to me and say, “have a glass of wine, I'm pouring.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

My Happy Place, as corny as that may sound

Several years ago I was given a gift, some cash to use to buy something special for my work space. I found the perfect thing, an art print, the matting and the frame. The print was a landscape/seascape. A place very familiar to me, it was a beach scene of sorts, but not the usual spread of sand with ocean waves. Instead it's a scene of the terrain that's usually more toward the higher shore, but not quite the dunes. The focal point is a mound of grass with long blades that stand above the more razor type grass. The long blades gone to seed and blond, blown by the wind but no longer flexible rise above the green grass. Above the familiar chunck of dunes there are gulls, but only a couple. Behind it all, the lake. It could be ocean, but for me it's Lake Michigan and the stretch of sand is Oval Beach near Saugatuck, Michigan.
I have seen at least a small stretch of the Atlantic while in Florida the year I turned 13, that would be 33 years ago. I saw the Gulf of Mexico that summer too. I've seen the Pacific near San Francisco, in fact, I've seen the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge. I've seen the Mississippi, Ohio, Chicago, Kalamazoo and who knows how many other rivers, not to mention both the east and west forks of the White River here in Indianapolis. I've seen Cumberland Lake, Lake Lemon, Gull Lake, Lake Erie, Lake Monroe, Lake Freeman, Strack Lake and a laundry list of others. Creeks too many to mention and probably enough puddles to fill a hole big enough to ski on.
The paddle wheeler on the Ohio River was nice, the ferry on San Francisco Bay was better and try as I might I'll never forget the canoe on Sugar Creek. They pale in comparison though to the place that I see in the picture on the office wall.
For fifteen consecutive summers I spent at least four days on Oval Beach, all but one of those alone. Each evening watching sunsets that could be rated from fabulous to fizzle. I really didn't care. They were all beautiful to me. People flying colorful kites on the beach still come to memory when I think of that place. I often think of the tanned, beautiful young man, white linen shirt unbuttoned and being blown about by a gentle breeze, barefooted with his chinos rolled up at the ankle, dark shoulder length hair, the entire tableau looked like something from a travel poster or the cover art on a bodice ripper novel. As beautiful as he was alone the scene was even more beautiful to me because he held hands with a couple who were most likely his parents who appeared to be near their late 60's. The three of them and the love that radiated from them was more beautiful than the sunset they were walking under and it made me happy to see it.
Oval Beach is a place that is dear to me, I have walked it in the early morning hours and as the moon rose from behind the dunes at my back as I watched the top edge of the sun slip quickly into the lake. I've seen it rain on the lake, usually while I stood in the midst of a rise of grass like the one in the print. Never minding that it was raining because I was entranced by the raindrops on such an expanse of water. I don't usually think about it raining on a huge lake, but I know that it does, it makes me happy to see it.
There are times when I get especially low, when I have to make an effort to find something even slightly beautiful in the world around me. I try to find a place near me where I can find a peaceful place, a happy place, to regroup. I can always look at that piece of art work and see a beautiful place, feel the breeze on my face, the wet sand between my toes, the warmth of an August night when the moon rises blue and full over my shoulder reflecting on the brisk waves, all while the sun takes a bow at the horizon. I never have trouble traveling there in my mind, especially when I can't travel any where else. I usually think of the trio in love and I feel peaceful and happy, a family sharing love. It makes me feel peaceful and happy, I repeat the thought, “peaceful and happy” over and over in order to bring me the calm that I need. As trite as the phrase may be, it really is one of my, “happy places.”

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Blue Butterfly

This morning the tune, "For All the Saints" is running through my mind. Today at church we will observe the Methodist version of the Feast of All Souls, traditionally the day after the Feast of All Saints in the Catholic Church. This year I have a loss to mark in that service since my father passed away in May. I never dreamed that I would be doing this today. I planned on it being in about 20 or so years. Sixty-seven is too young to die, but my father couldn't fight the infection any longer and he was weary plus the best reason to give up in his condition was the most important to him, he longed for his mother who is one of the saints/souls that I think of on this important day in the church, though I don't need this day to remember the saints in glory.

I spent two hours with Pop just before he died. Very meaningful hours where we sat knee to knee, he on the side of the bed and me in a chair directly in front of him. In so many words you could say that he confessed his sins, as if I was wearing the purple stole of a priest and could grant absolution, though I anointed him after his death, a priestly duty. But I'm not a priest, only my father's son and with all the wisdom that God gave me in those moments I told my father that he needn't think on those things from the past any longer, since "God puts our sins as far as the east is from the west and forgets them completely," why did anyone have a right to hold them against him still. In less than a half an hour after I left at one in the morning the hospital called me to return, he had taken a turn for the worse, in a matter for four minutes I was back at his bedside, it pays to live within sprinting distance of the hospital, sometimes. I had to make the decision to cease heroic measures, I said stop, 1:57AM.

My father was a giant of a man, physically. Six foot and nearly 385 pounds, (down from 410) he literally was a big big man. Since his mid fifties he became for me a cheerleader. Imagine a four hundred pound man jumping up and down! And please, he was a male cheerleader the tiny skirt was never a thought. He continually expressed his pride in me and the way that I faced situations. He understood my loneliness and came to embrace my homosexuality. He told me that he prayed each day that I would be happy, that he did that for each of his children, grandchildren and for Mom, and that by happiness he meant that we would have a loving and caring companion with whom to share our lives, in a way a prayer for himself as well. I live in faith that now that my father is one of the saints, he asks God for that still each day of our lives. My father became for me a Gentle Giant a big man with an even bigger heart.

Today at church, in a service that in the past was more elaborate, that spoke more richly to me, I will light a candle to mark my father's death. I know that my dad is, "watching from the rafters", not just on days marked on the church calendar, but each day.

The day that my family interred my fathers ashes we had a big, and by big I mean big, dinner. About sixty members of his family were present to say a last good bye and in true Bryant fashion, pitch a table or two and start cooking. The Gentle Giant didn't get that size by watching Slim Fast ads. While food was being carried to the tables, chairs put in place, coolers opened, a bright blue butterfly appeared and lit on each of the children, some in their hair, on some it lit on their shoulders. The butterfly circled around all three of my sisters and their friends, my cousins and my aunts and uncles. It lit on my mom's hat it danced around my head and then it made a, if you will, a bee-line for the dinner table. The butterfly landed on nearly every dish and circled the pies twice. Then as my aunts and uncles began to leave the butterfly flew away. My father? Who knows really, I don't believe in, "do overs" when it comes to the body, but I do believe in signs of God's grace and comfort and that he uses the common for uncommon purposes.

My aunt's brother passed away recently. I sent her a card and had given a gift in his memory to my favorite charity. I received a thank you note from her this week, a note inside, I laid the card down to read the note and when I looked on the back of it, there was a tiny blue butterfly. Sent from the higher rafters, I'm going to say....yes.