Monday, February 26, 2007

February 26: Shiny

There was an e-mail waiting for me when I got to work this morning. It announced the presence of visitors on campus. Signs were posted on doors to conferences rooms and offices. They announced the names of students and committees of three ministers underneath each name.

Students traded their casual clothes for new dresses and suits. One man stood outside my door, tie pulled tightly around his neck. He tugged at his collar several times as he paced the floor outside my door. His hair was freshly cut, each one neatly brushed back and in place. He's shy. We've only spoken in the halls. Today he looks shiny, and handsome, and uncomfortable. After 10 or 15 minutes that lasted a year, he was called into the conference room. When he emerged a few minutes later, he ripped his tie loose as he walked out the door. A smile graced his face, he breathed easy for the first time all day.

It's called in-care, but students dread it. How can the process be caring, they wonder. "Will they ask me about my christology?," I hear a new student ask a veteran. "I'm not sure what to say if they ask me about my christology. I mean, I believe Jesus' teachings point us to the truth, but do they care if I'm skeptical about the miracles?" The older student assures her.

Another woman walked in, dark hair concealing the grey that was peaking through last week. She's lost weight and it shows. I'm accustomed to seeing her in khakis. Today she is wearing a jumper that stops just above her knees. She stands tall and proud. I have to look twice to recognize her and only when she speaks am I sure. I wonder if the confidence she's found in the way she looks comes through in how she presents to the committee.

I met my boss as I left the building. He was in charge of the day's interviews. He wearily mumbled goodbye, and said something about another day of interviews, and loosened his tie as he stepped into the warm sunshine, turning his face to the sky letting it refresh him as we walked to his truck.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

February 13: Context

They sat in the section of chairs to the far right in the "Celebration Center." Ten women dressed in brightly colored dresses with beads and beautiful embroidery spread out in a section that holds forty or fifty people. Some sat in silence, others nervously pulled at their clothes and paced around the front. One looked for a safety pin, calling out to all who gathered early, worried that her apron was hanging too loosely. Another checks to make sure all of them had their song books. One left hers in the hotel room. Her roommate laughs and asks, "What did I tell you this morning? Huh? What did I tell you?"

They are from different tribes, located in a region that spans three states. All of them are pastors, students, mothers, and employees in jobs outside the church and home. They were invited to lead worship for the second day of a conference of clergywomen for their region of the denomination to which they belong.

It snowed five or six inches the night before, so the conference participants were slowly trickling in. I arrived early to tear down my display and load it up to leave as soon as the opening worship is over. One of our students belongs to the group leading worship. I wanted to hear her prayer, to be a supportive presence. She shared with me the night before that she was nervous, that they were all nervous.

They opened with music, nine of them standing like a choir, each dressed in the traditional style for women of her tribe. Another stood in front of them to lead them. They sang several hymns in the different languages of the tribes from which they come. They are Methodist, so they have made a commitment to itineracy. For them, that means learning the languages of new tribes each time they move to a new church. All of them are multi-lingual.

I sat and listened, aware of a growing discomfort. I watched as they stood representing cultures that have been overtaken by western ways and felt sadness for the losses they've experienced. I heard the tunes of hymns so familiar to me that I could sing them in my own language without looking at a hymnal. They are part of my culture, many of them passed down through many generations, and the best way I know to describe the feeling in my gut hearing them sung in the languages of Native American people is disonance.

I wonder what they would sing if Christianity, the faith of a foreign people trying to escape persecution in another world, hadn't been imposed on their ancestors. The host pastor for the conference thanked them as we transitioned from worship to the plenary session. She told them what a blessing it was to have them share their culture with us.

I slipped out and got into my car to begin the long drive home, and as I drove, I was haunted by the questions, "Why does it make us westerners feel so good to hear our story sung in another's language?"

Saturday, February 10, 2007

February 10: Crimson

I stared out the window watching the scene unfold before me like an episode of CSI. Two police cars blocked the path in the park on either side of a concrete barrier. A shiny plastic yellow boundary encircled the space, swaying and stretching in the stiff wind. I saw an officer rub his hands together and stuff them deep into his pockets. It was a cold morning.

Another man walked away from a plain white van. He ducked under the tape, a measuring device with a long handle in his hand. He walked around to the other side of the barrier. My eyes followed him and for the first time I saw the object of their concern. The top of a grey, balding head encircled by a crimson halo that spread from one ear around the top of his head to the other side was barely visible behind the white concrete. A man lay motionless. The officer joined the man who was preparing to take measurements. Pages from a legal pad blew up in the wind. He laid it down on the barrier, just above the carefully stenciled words: "Honor," "Dependability." I watched as one of Tulsa's finest placed a coffee cup on top of the notepad to keep the pages from blowing.

I took in the scene like I did the countless hours of crime shows that blared on hour after hour when I lived with my ex. A man's life became an object, a curiosity. I felt ashamed, yet deeply aware of my disconnection from what was just yards from my window. I stepped away, poured some coffee, and tried to go about my morning like I do any other morning. I picked up my journal, and stared at the blank page. The cat jumped in my lap and rubbed her head against my stomach. I pulled her in close, clung to her. With her in my arms, I got up and walked to the window again. Two men dressed in black suits, ties blowing in the wind, black gloves covering their hands, stood outside the boundary, waiting, their heads turned toward the river. They paced around nervously. A black hearse had replaced one of the police cars on the path. The back door was open, waiting.

Was it suicide? Was he murdered? I squinted to see the words on another side of the barrier: "Decisiveness," "Faith." The two men in suits turned quickly and slid under the boundary. I walked away.

I turned on the water for my shower, and slowly undressed. I wondered about his life. Was he one of the homeless men I see everyday in the park? Did he stop there after driving around in the middle of the night? Did he have a family? Friends? Tears streamed down my cheeks. He was no longer an object to me. He was a person, a man who lost his life, whether at his own hands or the hands of another, a man who spent his last moments in anguish. I thought of my own days of anguish and torment, days not so far gone, days when all it would have taken for me to be that man was one small decisive step around a dark corner of despair. I shivered and stepped into the shower.

I poured the last cup of coffee into a travel mug and grabbed my car keys. I walked to the window to look again, one last distant glance. A fire truck was parked on the street near the path. Three firefighters busied themselves with a rake and a shovel and a bright red plastic bag. The life force of a man that once pulsed through his veins is now hazardous waste. I watched as they spread a grey powdery substance. They walked back to the truck and climbed in. I put on my coat and gathered my things.

I walked down the stairs and out the door. When I got to my car, I looked up. The scene was like any other morning. The emergency vehicles were all gone. The yellow boundary was removed. The crimson halo no longer glistened in the bright sunlight. A group of runners breezed by the barrier, their conversation light, their eyes fixed on the path in front of them. The space is sacred now; their actions seemed blasphemous. I walked across the street and stood on the path. I stared quietly at the place where the crimson halo encircled the man's head. Just above it was the word "Enthusiasm."

Rest in peace, my brother.