I was walkin’ along, mindin’ my business, when I spied a man sitting on a park bench, staring out across the lake. I was going to pass by, but he said, “Hi, Jim.”
I recognized the voice, even if I hadn’t recognized the back of his head. It was a neighbour, Derek.
Some impulse led me to sit down beside him. I thought he might like some company to stare at the lake.
He wanted company, but not for that purpose. “I lost Charlie last week,” he blurted.
Charlie was the kind of dog I once thought of scornfully as a “small furry object suitable for punting.” A low-slung, yappy, bundle of hyperactivity. That was before I knew Charlie personally. Charlie was always up for a walk, a game, a cuddle.
And he had been Derek’s companion for ten years.
For half an hour, as we sat on that park bench, Derek poured out feelings about his relationship with Charlie. I think he needed to. Talking helped fill the hole that his furry friend had left.
Or at least it helped him map the edges of that hole.
Given a choice, I suspect that no one would choose the more difficult times of life. When a long-time employee is fired. When a marriage breaks up. When a child, a parent, a sibling, dies.
Or a dearly beloved dog.
One year, I filled in as a pastoral assistant at a congregation. I had barely started when a family lost their husband and father. He died during surgery to correct a chronic heart problem. His widow was devastated. But she coped. Remarkably well, we all thought. Until two months later, when her little white dog — also of puntable size — got run over by a car, right outside her front door in her condo complex.
Then, and only then, she told me, “I broke down totally. I just sat on my bottom stair and wept.”
People’s reactions don’t always correspond to the seriousness of the loss.
And the listener shouldn’t judge the seriousness of that loss. It doesn’t help to say, “It was only a dog.”
The important thing is being there. And being available – non-threatening, non-judgemental – at a time when someone feels particularly vulnerable.
Not a choice
Strange thing, vulnerability.
Some people fear vulnerability. They’ll do almost anything to preserve a façade of strength. Including denying their own pain.
Some see vulnerability as a weakness they can exploit for their own benefit.
And some even enjoy making other people vulnerable. Perhaps by belittling another’s abilities or achievements. Or worse, through torture, punitive rules, and physical intimidation.
And yet, in my experience, vulnerability can be a privilege. I get to share in someone’s life, or they to share in mine, at a time when the masks we wear come down. There’s no place for pretence. This is the bare me, the naked you – quivering, defenceless, lonely…
In the words of an old hymn, vulnerability leaves us “just as I am, without one plea.”
No one wants to be vulnerable. But it’s in times of utter vulnerability that we discover we can be wrapped in love.
That’s why it’s a privilege to be there.
Copyright © 2019 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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Okay, last week’s column was a little esoteric, or something. So I got few letters in response. Fortunately, two of my most dependable readers/writers didn’t let me down.
Tom Watson got the point, that it’s not what the rituals of other religions mean to US that matters, but what those rituals mean to THEM. Tom wrote, “Rather than looking askance at the rituals and beliefs of other people because they have no meaning to us, we should ask them what those rituals and beliefs mean to those who practice them. As you know, for a couple of years or more a controversy existed in the United Church of Canada over whether or not the Reverend Gretta Vosper believed the ‘correct things as a minister in a Christian church.’ Among other things, Gretta held that more important than what people believed was the way they lived their lives. Seems pretty appropriate to me. If making a trek to the Ganges River helps people in the way they live their lives, then so be it.”
Isabel Gibson commented, “From the unimaginable scale of the Kumbh Mela to the unknown purpose of the lingam ministrations, this piece is a window into a wonderfully wide world of spiritual practice and expression. What little lives we lead, eh?”
Bob Mason noted. “Today's column brought to mind the sheer number of people who live in India, compared to the population of many major centres and of Canada.”
Then Bob went on with a question: “Typically you name the Psalm you are paraphrasing, and that is omitted in today's column. Was that an oversight, or is it merely a generalization paraphrasing the thoughts of numerous of the authors?”
No, that was an oversight (to put it kindly) on my part. It was Psalm 71, and I should have said so.
The column I wrote about singing, several weeks ago, continues to get circulated. Adele Nisbet wrote to ask for permission to circulate it even more widely: “I am the Choral Director in Saint Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane, Australia. We have a healthy musical scene within our large city church. It is fed by encouragement and lots of singing. We have a beautiful pipe organ and a wonderful organist (who happens to be my husband) as well as a Sanctuary Choir that sings every Sunday and a Concert Choir that performs non-liturgical repertoire.
“I am retired from a University job where I was head of Vocal Studies and Vocal Pedagogy. So your article resonated loudly with me. Thank you for putting these thoughts into words.
“I am really writing to see if it would be possible to reproduce it in our monthly church newsletter SALT, with attribution of course. Our congregation would appreciate it and it would affirm what we try to do all the time.”
In biblical times, worshipers prostrated themselves on the ground before the Holy of Holies, while reciting Psalm 138. If we’re going to fling ourselves face down on the ground, I might hope it’s to a more universal holy of holies.
1 This is your turf, your home, your territory.
I am so glad to be here, God, that I kiss the earth you walk on.
2 I press myself into your soil,
I inhale the sweet moistness of humus,
I extend my arms to embrace your earth.
But you lift me up from my humble position. You take me in as your guest.
You have made me one of your family;
you have even given me your name!
3 You have taken me under your wing.
When I cry out, you cover me;
I benefit from your strength.
4 Foxes may lord it over the chicken coop,
and squirrels over the sparrow's nest,
But no creatures challenge the eagle's rule;
They cower before the eagle's eye and ruthless claws.
5 As the eagle soars above field mice,
so do you, God, rise above us mortals.
6 Daily duties keep us scurrying close to the earth.
But you keep watch over us;
you can see danger long before it draws near.
7 Troubles grow around us like tall grass
But in the shelter of your outspread wings, predators scatter
like leaves before an autumn wind.
8 There is a place for me in your plans.
You will never abandon me.
You will work out your purpose for me, no matter how long it takes.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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