Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The Ritual Places of the Past
8 September 2009
Opening Service for Faculty
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School
The readings tonight are the ones assigned for the theme of Ministry, and they are often read on occasions of important beginnings in the common life of the church. These readings have become something like ritual places in the faith, where the future is consecrated by remembering a time when God called humankind in the past. In the lesson from Samuel, a mere boy is called by God to the vocation of prophet, the very first prophet of the Jewish people. Samuel doesn’t understand exactly what is happening to him. But with the help of his teacher and mentor, Eli, Samuel comes to understand that it is God’s voice who is calling him directly. By the end of the reading, Samuel is ready for his future with God, for his true vocation. His response to God’s calling is just as direct: ”Speak, for your servant is listening.” The gospel from Matthew is also a moment of calling, from Jesus to his disciples and followers: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” These readings for the Ministry are sacred invitations: to remember how you got where you are, and the lives you will touch in your vocation as an educator, as we say “yes” again to beginning this year.
There is so much that is ahead of us just this week, and next, but my preference tonight is to look in the rear view mirror instead, at what is just behind us in the summertime. There are so many rituals of summer: the places we go, the people we see, the books we read for pleasure (what a wonderful concept that is—reading for pleasure, I can’t get enough of it). Time seems to slow down, and almost stop, in these ritual moments of summer.
The places we go in the summer renew us; they remake us as human beings. We get recharged. For many of us, the summer vacation spots also represent our past, and the many years your family has gone there. These are often places where the goodness of God, and the beauty of nature, are overwhelming. Returning to these ritual places is a way that we measure our lives; and the memories of the past can be very deep. I thought about my own endless summers past as I read the new novel That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo. As you might guess, the old magic refers to Cape Cod as the sublime experience--as the regular summer destination for the protagonist Jack Griffin in his childhood. Griffin is a former Hollywood screenwriter who now teaches at an unnamed college in Connecticut. The Connecticut-Cape Cod dynamic is familiar to many of you, and the way everything, your fundamental state of mind, can change in the moment when you drive across the Bourne or Sagamore Bridges. The moment you land on the Cape, everything is somehow different. It’s like magic. The wedding of a daughter’s friend is the occasion for Jack Griffin to return to Cape Cod after a long absence. But the Cape was the summertime mecca of his youth, the place of yearly summer pilgrimage with his English professor parents. For those of you who like to go to Maine instead, that’s the second half of the book, and I won’t give anything away tonight.
If you are familiar with Richard Russo novels, you know you will always find exasperating parents stalking the main character, usually an impossible father figure, haunting his children well into adulthood. The parents in Russo novels are always stubborn, intelligent, illogical, opinionated, unfiltered, childish, dominating, profane, ridiculous, and somehow—impossibly--still lovable. The parents of Jack Griffin are all of the above, and his parents divorced years before. But Cape Cod was the place, the calm in the storm, when everything seemed alright—or as close as his parents could manage. The Cape was the golden time of Griffin’s childhood, before the divorce. The novel is about Griffin’s struggle with the past, and especially his parents. His highly intelligent and acerbic mother is now in a rest home, and his father has been dead for about a year. Griffin is still driving around with his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car, a fact which becomes more than symbolic of his inability to find closure with his father. He never knew what to do with his father when he was alive. Death is no different. He is tentatively planning to spread his father’s ashes somewhere on the Cape. Because the Cape is where his family was happiest together. Griffin also fears that he is becoming his father, his worst nightmare. He is doing strange things, like having car accidents—fender benders, just like his father used to. His father in the trunk seems to be doing the driving. Griffin reflects on his past as he returns to Cape Cod. The journey backward is somehow necessary for Griffin to go forward, but it doesn’t seem like progress much of the time. But eventually Griffin makes his way to the present by visiting the ritual places of his past. That old cape magic brings him back to life. He begins to live again, with reverence and intentionality. In the middle of his life, as a parent himself, Griffin comes of age again, in the place of his childhood memories.
We don’t come of age just once; it happens again and again. That’s what it means to be fully alive. Christians call this ongoing process conversion. We come of age even when we die. Even then, we learn something new about how to live; how to be childlike before God. To feel wonder at this world, and at this life we share. This ending summer is just as important as the summers of your past. This autumn is just as important as any other before it. You can live this year just as fully, as completely, as any year in your life. The wonder of doing something for the first time can come back to you, in that old cape magic here in Kent.
This past summer my own rituals of place and pastime were seriously disrupted—by my 25th high school reunion out in California. For some reason, I said yes to going, yes to a trip to California to see the people of my past. A friend who was on the reunion committee even asked me to do the Benediction. For some inexplicable reason, I said yes to that too. I was on a roll of bad ideas, like Griffin with his dad in the trunk. I was so confused I started exercising. Remember a prophet has no power in his hometown; it was Jesus who said that. He was so right. I’ve being doing Benedictions for years now, but somehow I was drawing a big old blank about what would be appropriate for a reunion of my large public high school class in Turlock, California. But then I discovered a poem that set me right; or rather, it grabbed my heart and still hasn’t let go, even weeks later. I’d like to share it with you tonight, as we begin our new year together. The poem immediately made sense about why I was travelling 3000 miles with my seven year old Beatrice to the haunts of my past. The poem is part of a play called Sonnets for an Old Century, by the Latino playwright Jose Rivera who wrote the play References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot—great title. He also did the screenplay for the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which some of you may have seen. The motif of the poem, which is so simple and yet mysterious, is the first time that you do something. The first times you do something in your life, a coming of age. Like Samuel, these are the moments that call each of us by name. The poem is both holy and ordinary, sacred and profane (so be prepared, it can be a little… earthy).
From Jose Rivera:
The first time someone else’s tongue enters your mouth.
The first time a child trusts you to carry them to the next room.
The first time you drive from Westfield, Massachusetts, to San Diego, with someone you’re in love with.
The first time you watch birth.
The first lines of Paradise Lost.
The first time you make a decisive three point shot in a game that really counts.
The first time you get the dog to shit outside.
The first time you can read “I love you” in a lover’s eyes.
The first family reunion without homicidal fantasies.
The first love letter.
The first serious talk about love with your child.
The first time you contemplate suicide and change your mind.
The first hangover.
The first arrest.
The first acquittal.
The first epiphany.
The first time you hear Lorca in Spanish.
The first real friendship with a person of another race.
The first gray hair.
The first time you see Picasso’s Guernica.
The first time you visit your birthplace.
The first time you hear Lightning Hopkins.
The first visible comet.
The first time you feel attractive and someone calls you “angel.”
The first experience with something remotely like a god.
The first recovery after a serious illness.
The first beer with your father.
The first time therapy makes sense.
The first birthday of your first born.
The first time you can’t walk and your lover carries you to the next room.
The first foul ball you catch in Fenway Park.
The first time you stand alone and you’re scared to death and you don’t change your position.
The first time you’re convinced of your mortality and you laugh.
The first sunrise after the first death of a parent.
The first time you forgive the unforgivable.
The first time you see the Earth from space.
The first time it is truly obvious that it was better that you had lived, at this time, in this world.
The first time you decide every moment of your life should be a work of art.
The first time you die and you breathe again and you speak to the living.
The first time you realize that it all just might have been okay.
(The people in the space look up at the silent sky around them. They wait. No revelations come to them. No answers. No giant bolts of lightning. Just a slow fade to black.)
These first times in life were the moments of great significance, where we became who we are as children of God. But it is in the present, right now, that we are called to live out those promises of our beginnings. The first moments point towards the future now, this year. We get to come of age again. How wonderful. These moments, this beginning tonight, and this year are the places where we will meet God again, or perhaps for the very first time. And, of course, we will soon meet our students, our advisees, our athletes, the ones who will fill our hearts with hope, worry, joy, dread, terror, and beauty this year, in the ordinary days and the extraordinary moments, the first times in their lives. In these students, your presence, wisdom, knowledge, love and life lessons will live on the rest of their days. May God bless all of you in your ministry this year.