God, my birthday and e. e. cummings
It’s my birthday, and the nation mourns. In 2001, some friends actually suggested that I “change” my birthday and celebrate it, say, on the 12th instead. Huh? My birthday is my birthday. Changing it means the terrorists win, or something. Anyway, I’ve arrived at that mid-life point when birthdays just don’t seem like a big deal anymore. I remember hearing older people talk about this syndrome, and even in my thirties I’d think – that’ll never happen to me. I want some presents, man! But today I kind of wish it wasn’t my birthday. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty sure I’ve crossed that unknowable line, and I’m now closer to my death than to my birth.
So this morning, I sit in bed while my wife and children bring me sticky buns and presents, and I still feel the weight of having caused someone I love great pain, feeling the pain she had caused me, feeling the pain that comes when someone disturbs the peace by telling the truth, feeling how connected all of it is to the Quaker testimonies I am living, and wishing it would all go away. In recovery-speak, I am moving towards a drink this morning, not away from it, and in recovery, you only have those two options.
But my children and my wife delight me, and their love and excitement over my birthday lifts the gloom for a bit. We eat sticky buns in bed and unwrap presents. Sooz has got me the complete Monty Python T.V. shows on DVD, and my mood lifts a little more. Though how will I squeeze it in around all the sports I have to watch? My Mom has sent me two novels by Anne Lamott, the author whose prayers I have mentioned earlier. Anne’s novel Traveling Mercies affected me greatly. She is my spirit sister, being both a recovering person as well as a political liberal of deep Christian faith, who’s not afraid to write about God and does so with enormous humor and insight. Mom has sent me her novels All New People and Hard Laughter. Sooz and I are startled and delighted to find that the latter begins with an e.e. cummings poem Sooz recited as part of our wedding:
i thank you God for this most amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Typing this now, my eyes well up, seeing the birthday message that I missed then, covered as I was by sugary breakfast and my noisy little family. But God has a way of getting the message to you when it’s an important one, as you will see, friends.
My birthday is on a Sunday today, so we head off to meeting for worship. I go ahead with Ella to do some copying I need for meeting for business after worship. Today is the day I hope the meeting will agree to let me use the meeting house for Revival. I have put together a handout for Friends to read when I make a brief presentation on it at meeting for business.
Ella and I arrive in the meeting room 15 minutes early an sit in the “quiet room” as it known to my children. Haverford Meeting has been historically connected to Haverford College for years, and so the meeting room was built to contain the Haverford students when attending meeting for worship was compulsory. It is a big room by Quaker standards, and it seems bigger these days, since it is never full when we gather for worship there. Our Society is in decline, and Revival is as much an attempt at reviving it as it is an attempt at reviving something in the theatre.
My children have both taken to meeting for worship, and are fairly good and hanging out with us there and not being too noisy. Ella sits contentedly leaning against me, playing with the small brochure that greets newcomers who seek some basic understanding of what is happening in the mysterious quiet of Quaker worship. I try to center, and I imagine each of the people I have written about before – Dad, and my three half-sibs – wrapped in a glorious cocoon of light, being healed by Divine comfort. Help us get from the hurting place to the healing place, I think.
Sooz arrives and takes Ella to the play room, where she spends the rest of the morning playing with other little Friends under the care of our informal First Day School staff. Griffen decides to spend the entirety of meeting for worship with Sooz and I, something he has done before. It is unusual for a six year old who loves climbing trees and playing outside as much as the next kid. But I believe two things are work in his staying with us: one is, he loves just being with his Mom and Dad in the deep stillness of worship. The other is that I think God is working on him, in that deep, inscrutable way God does, and that it feels good, and Griff likes it.
Meetings for worship can be maddening or inspiring, Occasionally, they reach such a level of deep ministry that they confirm all the things you wonder about, as you sit in the quiet struggling with your faith. Today’s meeting was such a meeting for me. I must tell you friends, this is just what happened. This is how God speaks to us through others. This is why I believe we are all ministers.
A woman rises to speak who I don’t recognize. She says she’s an artist, and has been thinking about the contrasts of colors, and how it relates to her conception of God. She says that some feel that darkness is the absence of God, but, she says, she has come to believe that it is the darkness that makes God happen. She sits. Thank you, thank you , thank you, I think. I’m looking for the inner movement that may lead me to ministry, but as full as I am of feeling, and as much as I have to say, I feel no need to speak. An older member rises and sings the praises of the simple joy of gathering together for worship. He sits. A deep stillness settles over us all. About a half an hour into meeting for worship, another woman rises who I’ve never seen before. She says her son is getting married soon, and she has been looking for something to read at the wedding. She hasn’t landed on anything yet, but she feels moved to share a poem with us today. No, I think, it can’t be.
She begins, “i thank you God for this most amazing day . . . “
I gasp, something like an electric shock shoots through me, Sooz reaches and we grasp hands over Griffen’s lap. The women continues reciting the poem, she really has memorized it, and the tears are pouring down my cheeks. Griff leans against Sooz and watches me, concerned. She whispers something to him. Later in meeting, he puts his arm around me and says “I love you, Dad”. I hold him and try not cry any more, for fear of upsetting him.
I say it was God speaking to me, saying, it’s your birthday, this beautiful day, and I that will never die am by your side if you will open the ears of your ears and the eyes of your eyes. The atheist will call me a delusional fool, and this is certainly a possibility. The psychologist will say we have a deep need to make sense out of the seemingly random events in our lives, and so we identify patterns, sequences, relationships that bind these events in a more meaningful whole, attaching significance to them that they don’t actually deserve. Okay. But faith is a choice, not a certainty. This is where I part ways with so many evangelists. I don’t claim to know that God exists, or that a man named Jesus was His son. I don’t claim to know that God spoke to me through a woman I had never met, who recited a poem of great significance to me. But I choose to believe so. That’s faith: choosing meaning over randomness, turning the events of ones life into a sacrament.