“All the leaves have gone,” sang The Mamas and the Papas in their short but brilliant musical career.
Their words come to mind as I look out my office window. Joan and I planted a Japanese red maple out there, 20 years ago. All its leaves have gone.
Except for two lonely twigs that still have bright red leaves clinging to their tips. The twigs lash about in winter winds. But those last leaves won’t let go.
An internet ministry circulated a story about a woman expecting to die in a hospital ward. She could see, out the hospital window, one lonely leaf clinging to a vine on a plastered wall. “When that leaf falls off,” she told her wardmates, “I will die.”
But the leaf didn’t fall off. When spring came, new leaves grew. And the woman recovered, and went home.
But the man in another bed in her ward died of the pneumonia he contracted the winter night that he sneaked outside and painted a leaf onto the plastered wall.
I don’t know how to respond to that story.
Should I admire the sacrifice made by the man, to keep another patient’s hopes alive?
Should I protest that surely his life was worth just as much as hers?
Should I pontificate about the placebo effect that beliefs can have, even when mistaken?
Should I compare the story to Jesus on the Cross, and use it to justify theological theories of Substitutionary Atonement?
In our rural community, Anne Land died recently at the age of 104. Pat McCoubrey, 100, another dearly loved member of the community, rests in a hospice. Only a few leaves still cling to the twigs on Pat’s tree of life.
The greatest miracle
Life is an amazing thing, when I take time to think about it.
A dog, fatally crushed by a passing car, still wags its tail for the weeping boy it belongs to.
A tiny sparrow drags its injured mate off the road, even though there’s no hope.
Even a primitive amoeba will avoid things that imperil it. Biologists have pretty much agreed that all life started with a single cell like an amoeba, from which every living creature has descended.
Sometimes the struggle for life leads us to be nasty, brutish, and ruthless. Sometimes the struggle for life leads us to sacrifice ourselves, for the sake of others.
And sometimes people hang on, and hang on… because life itself will not give up, will not let go.
I’ve been with only two people in their final hours. As I’ve noted before, I felt impelled to say a short prayer – in a sense, giving them permission to die. It was spontaneous, unscripted, but it went something like this: “Dear God, this is (name). You’ve known him all his life. We don’t want to lose him, but we can’t do anything more for him. So now we hand him over to you. Take care of him. For his sake, and for ours. Amen.”
Whether or not the prayer had anything to do with it, both died not long after. Apparently in peace.
Perhaps I should go outside and say a prayer for the last leaves on my maple tree. So that they can let go too.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Lots of letters about choirs as a model for community. Enuff ado, let’s get on with them.
James Henderschedt called the column, “truly inspired and inspiring. Betty and I live in a continuing care ‘community’ in which I see [your thesis] being played out regularly. There are times when we do come together as a community (Fellowship Community is the name). Other times, however we are a group of people merely living in close proximity. And there are times when we force the issue. An example of that would be trying to set up a ‘buddy’ system in which neighbors check on neighbors to see if all is well. Not an easy task at all. I am going to find a way to share today's Soft Edges. It sure speaks to our situation.”
Tom Watson agreed with me: “The choir that sings well together is a good example of community. It requires that all would-be soloists put their personal abilities, egos, and capabilities aside for the good of the whole. I have sung in numerous choral groups over the years and found that some formed a community while others didn't. Where it happens most frequently is in barbershop singing groups -- they sing a capella so, having no lead instrument to guide them, they have to listen to each other. Listening to each other is a key to the formation of good community in any sense.”
Bob Rollwagen made a fine point: “A community does not need to have every member participating. I have been on a team, in a choir, lived on a crescent in a small town, and had work experiences that felt like community. In each instance, I chose my level of commitment as did others. It was obvious who was in the deepest and who liked being on the fringe. This is the nature of community. Some impact others and some barely survive. [Community] was once only when people gathered together physically. Technology now allows it to happen electronically.”
Wayne Irwin quoted the children’s song, “All God’s critters got a place in the choir...”
Eduard Hiebert mused on Marg Kyle’s invitation to me, “Fascinating how one small encounter can be the spark such a long-term community involvement.”
Ruth Shaver celebrated music: “As a pastor, my time of worship each Sunday morning -- guaranteed, that is, around whatever else the liturgy and sermon provides -- is singing in the choir. Or, when the bell choir plays, ringing my bells with joy. I've never pastored a church that didn't sing well as a congregation and I don't think I would be happy in one that was lackluster in its singing. There's just so much that happens when we make a joyful noise together!”
Capitalizing on Ruth’s last line, may I recommend Linnea Good’s lively musical rendering of Psalm 100, “Make a Joyful Noise” in The Good Book I. You can order it through her website, https://www.linneagood.com/copy-of--music-c1ozs
Frank Martens, my resident atheist, has not found community in the church – neither in the Mennonite church he grew up in, nor in other denominations. “My relation with church members (you are an exception 😊) has nearly always been negative,” he wrote. “They seem to be self-absorbed, cocooned in their own tight little world of self-righteousness. And, it really doesn’t seem to matter what their denomination is. I must confess, however, that I don’t really go out of my way to get to know them either, although we are acquaintances with some church-going couples. Ah, well…”
And finally, Steve Roney challenged my thesis that we seek to transcend the loneliness of individuality by becoming community: “In this column you have hit upon the essential difference between the modern North American left and right. To a leftist, this sense of losing the individual in community sounds like a self-evident good. After all, it transcends ‘selfishness.’ So it partakes of the divine. The group is divine.
“But any rightist reads that sentence with horror, and thinks of the Nazi Nuremberg rallies or the North Korean mass choreographed displays in sports stadia. Community is the danger; individualism is what partakes of the divine.”
Steve then wrote extensively on his view. Because I disagree with everything he said, I’m not printing the whole letter, but his theme seems to me to be summarized in this sentence: “Individualism means taking personal responsibility. If you surrender that moral responsibility to a community, and defer to their judgement, you are waiving any ability to act morally.”
Several of you had technical problems reading last week’s column, it seems. Jim Vickers wrote, “It doesn’t matter how I expand the window, the text always goes beyond the borders requiring me to scroll left and right.”
Hugh Pett had run across this in other circumstances, and suggested an alternative way of pasting your comments into this space. Let’s see if it works.
The psalm reading for this coming Sunday isn’t a psalm, but Zechariah’s song of praise at a) having a son in his old age, who would become John the Baptist, and b) regaining his speech. When I check my files, I find I have never written a paraphrase of this passage, and today I don’t feel like writing one.
So no paraphrase this week.
But… For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet