May 2008

Let us now praise dull routine.* Quotidian tasks. Mundane chores. Repetitious rituals. In the midst of chaos, death, and insecurity they give us something to count on, a little sense of accomplishment when bigger successes elude our grasp. To do the same thing at basically the same time every day or to say some of the same words every Sunday in worship frees us from the anxious burden of fresh decisions every moment, the tyranny of extemporaneity.

But let us also celebrate great surprises which may come in the midst of going about our business, like walking to the mailbox. That’s what I was doing when I saw the duck. Not flying overhead but walking in my front yard. A big, white-crested drake which has so far confounded our efforts to identify his species in our bird books. Pretty soon his hen came out of the flower bed. They hung around long enough for my wife and her dad to see them, then headed for the yard sale down at the end of the cul-de-sac.

God has woven order and routine into the very fabric of creation. Day follows night, which follows day. Seasons turn. The sun rises and sets. Life goes on. But every now and again the ducks show up, the surprises come, and God gives us renewed energy and hope. Both routine and surprise are means of grace. Both are gifts in which to delight, for which to praise the bountiful Creator.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

*Apologies to the ancient sage, Sirach 44:1


The classic sci-fi movie Total Recall is about the manipulation of memory. In the future, a company offers to save you money on your vacations by implanting memories of a great trip to Mars or some other exotic destination without your ever having to leave home. As always seems to happen, the technology is co-opted by a sinister corporation led by a nefarious villain, in this case bent on acquiring the secrets of the ancient Martians for himself.

Of course, the abuse of memory, or perhaps memory’s abuse of us, is not merely the stuff of science fiction. It happens every day. A hateful mother, bent on embarrassing and belittling her adult son or daughter, reminds him or her of that incident when he or she was six or sixteen, which the mother has never forgiven nor forgotten. A song, a smell, a photo brings to mind some hurtful time, and the pain and anxiety are just as real and present as they were that day in the past. The bumper sticker featuring a Confederate flag and a crotchety old Rebel soldier bears the caption “Hell, no, I ain’t fergittin’,” and tells us implicitly that the driver is not likely to respect the black mayor of his town or to vote for Barack Obama.

Memory can enslave us, hold us hostage, to our own failings and regrets or to the way things used to be in a day long dead. And until we gain mastery over it, resolving to learn from yesterday instead of constantly reliving the pain or anger, we can’t move forward with our lives or make progress as a culture.

But if memory can be our enemy, so can it serve as our ally. Or to change the metaphor, it’s the engine at the head of at least three trains: continuity, capability, and caution.

Continuity. One of the reasons I consider the celebration of the Eucharist so vital is that the Great Thanksgiving said over the bread and cup connects worshippers with their spiritual ancestors. We in the 21st century are first-hand participants in the drama of salvation, if we take the text of the Thanksgiving seriously. It’s a countercultural act to pray that prayer and let its words get into our hearts. To affirm and remember that we are part of a great company of saints with twisted, tarnished haloes down through the ages sounds strange to anyone, including churchgoers, who have bought fully into the rampant individualism of our society. But the embrace of such continuity keeps us honest even as it imbues us with hope, energizes our faith and practice even as it eviscerates the presumption that we are better or more enlightened than any previous generations.

Capability. To realize the vital part memory plays in even the smallest aspect of our daily lives, we only have to watch or care for an Alzheimer’s patient struggling with basic tasks like chewing and swallowing food, taking care of personal hygiene or recognizing members of his or her family. When memory is obscured, life becomes more difficult to live on our own and finally impossible. Someone else must remember for us when our minds are in chaos, and every moment seems new. Favorite foods are forgotten. Stories of the past are no longer shared. Even what we had for lunch or the day of the week is lost in the fog.

I can’t help but wonder if we all to some extent don’t suffer from a kind of cultural dementia which has blocked out our memory of the basic qualities and actions which make us human. These could be stated in a number of ways. Tell the truth. Value what is excellent, lovely, and commendable. Live with honor and grace (see Philippians 4:8). “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” (see Micah 6:8). Since we have forgotten these basics, is it any wonder that our society, government and churches are so dysfunctional and apparently incapable of finding solutions to the great problems which plague us?

Caution. The philosopher George Santayana famously said “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our shared memory of heinous acts by dictators and self-righteous religionists of a former day is one of our greatest defenses against tyranny and extremism in our own time. Our individual remembrance of the consequences of stupid decisions and poor choices can keep us from making the same mistakes twice. So as a people we need to be interested in and find out what our nation, our churches, our corporations have done and are doing, embracing the good and not denying the oppressive and the shameful. And each of us might do well to keep a journal reminding us of what happened when we did thus and so; or better, have a close friend who will confront us with the truth about our actions and hold us accountable. Memory will keep us safe, alert us to danger encountered before, and suggest a way out before it’s too late.

This Memorial Day, we will recall those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. Let us by the power of memory become and be the kind of people who are worthy of such sacrifice.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

On my Sunday travels to various assignments, I’ve noticed that the carcasses I see most often on the side of the road belong to armadillos. In fact, there is so much armadillo road-kill that I wonder if the strange-looking little animals won’t soon be extinct in Mississippi.

I’ve seen only one living armadillo in the six years I’ve been in the state. One evening, my wife and I were coming home from eating out and had taken some back streets to avoid the crunch of traffic on the main highway. Suddenly, from the driver’s side window, we saw it: an armadillo walking slowly out of some bushes. Like Moses turning aside to see the wondrous sight of the burning bush, we took the next left and came back to look again. We sat and stared until the animal wandered away.

I’ve passed the spot many times since, but the armadillo has never shown up again. Still, knowing that I once saw the animal alive gives me hope there are others somewhere.

As I look at the world, I find that there are qualities and practices that are even scarcer than Mississippi armadillos. Like civility and courtesy. Joy. Kindness. Accountability. Graciousness. Imagination. Reconciliation. Openness. And most of all, truth.

John Brocato is one of the most extraordinary songwriters I have ever known. Almost twenty years ago, as a college student, he disputed that becoming an adult was growing up. No,
he sang, it’s growing down: “When I grow down/hate will abound/and peace will come to a truce/corruption and greed will transform into need/and nothing will be scarcer than truth” (“When I Grow Down,” © 1989 by John Brocato; used by permission). I fear that John’s prediction has come to pass.

Yet I keep hoping. I love the words of another poet of a much earlier generation: “Everything is far/and long gone by./I think that the star/glittering above me/has been dead for a million years…./I would like to step out of my heart/and go walking beneath the enormous sky./I would like to pray./And surely of all the stars that perished/long ago,/one still exists./I think that I know/which one it is–/which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,/stands like a white city…” (Rainer Maria Rilke, “Lament,” translated by Stephen Mitchell).

Somewhere there is a land full of armadillos, with no highways.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

“‘The peasantry prospered…because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel’” (Judges 5:7).

The spring after 9/11, I sat down with a group of young mothers in my congregation in Kentucky. I asked them one question: “What do you want most for your children?” Not surprisingly given the sense of insecurity following the horrific events of September, the women all wanted their kids to be protected and they themselves enabled to stand up for what’s right. They wanted their sons and daughters to be armed to face life and to know that even should they have no friends, they were not alone. These mothers were willing to defy other parents if the values and actions of those women and men were questionable or inappropriate.

The mothers whose kids were teens in 2002 are now the parents of young adults who may be in college dealing with daily pressures or facing mortal danger in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those whose children were in elementary school must now deal with the challenge of raising adolescents in what I believe is the hardest time ever in which to be a teenager. I suspect these women have become more, not less, concerned about protecting their children, letting them feel the close embrace of Jesus and of their own arms; more, not less, committed to doing what they see as right for the sake of their loved ones.

There are any number of models and mentors for mothers in Scripture and history. And most likely the greatest influence on any woman for her parenting is her own mother, for good or ill. But right now let’s consider the biblical character Deborah as a model for mothers who want to protect their children from dangers and hurts while standing up for the right. What did she do?

First, Deborah got involved in politics. She sat as a judge in Israel. In that day, her position meant that she was at the same time a military leader, an administrator, and a judge in our sense of deciding legal issues. God raised up these judges in Israel in response to crises, and Deborah answered the call.

Mothers today have followed Deborah by running for and holding office, lobbying for causes, joining the military, and becoming known as leaders in their communities through clubs and business networks. They speak, they organize, they petition, they learn, they educate, they seek solutions.

Deborah also initiated and entered into partnerships to accomplish her goals. She called on the military leader Barak to go out against an oppressor king. When Barak asked her to assume command with him, Deborah did so. Countless mothers today join with their mates in the joys and responsibilities of parenting and living life. Many of those same women participate in and/or found organizations devoted to causes they believe in.

Finally, Deborah made herself vulnerable for the sake of those she sought to protect. She went into actual combat to deliver her people from an evil king. Of course, like Deborah, a number of women today are in the military, facing danger in war, away from their children, but hoping their efforts will make their kids safer. The moms I interviewed in 2002 said they would stand up for what was right, even against other parents, risking social rejection and losing friends.

Life is not always fair, and sometimes despite efforts of mothers, their children are not protected from poor choices, hurtful words, sorrow, pain, accidents or the malicious acts of others. Even the model mother, Mary, touched deeply by God, could not keep her Son from crucifixion. But God is gracious, and good, and he will provide sustenance and care and hope for mothers whose hearts are broken, whose best efforts come to naught, who are disappointed that others will not join in the fight or who are hurt in the battle. God will turn even grief around, and a new day will dawn.

When mothers rise up, they deserve our thanks, our admiration, our honor for their courage, concern, and determination. Let us celebrate and be glad that such women give of themselves for those they love.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

“I said in my consternation, ‘Everyone is a liar’” (Psalm 116:11).

“….whatsoever things are true…whatsoever things are lovely,…if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8, KJV).

I have despaired more than usual recently of our ever knowing, hearing or facing the truth–small “t”–in society and church. This even as I remain completely confident in the One who is “faithful and true” (Revelation 3:14) and called himself “the Truth” (John 14:6).

How are we to know, for example, who is really responsible for the precipitous rise in gasoline prices? Is it the President? Congress? Greedy speculators? The oil companies with their excessive profits? Oil-producing countries that wield power through the cost of a barrel? Drivers themselves?

Or what are we to make of claim and counter-claim in the current political campaign? How about the charges and pronouncements of preachers and/or historians who present a deeply different, troubling view of America and Americans?

In the church, some say that we read Scripture through the lenses of our own prejudices and experiences, and we are not even aware of our bias. My reading is not inherently better or worse than your reading, so this line of reasoning goes; it’s simply different based on our backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation, race, and so on. Others, like a man I heard the other day, equate their words with those of God. “If you have a problem with what I say,” he insisted, “then you have a problem with God, because what I’m telling you is in the Bible.”

But even if I wonder where I can find truth, I know where to locate beauty. For starters, in my own backyard. There my wife and I were recently surprised by not one but three rose-breasted grosbeaks and an indigo bunting on our feeders, along with a brown thrasher running through the grass. Just today a downy woodpecker clung to a shepherd’s crook right in front of me while I was cleaning the birdbath. Plus, we delight in the silvery-winged cattle egrets flying in formation overhead late in the afternoon.

I find wondrous beauty in a clear night sky, as the stars shed their light on me and on everyone from thousands of parsecs away. From time to time, I notice one that “stands like a white city” (Rainer Maria Rilke), a bright beacon in the heavens. They never fail to inspire and thrill.

There is beauty in the care of people for each other, whether of wife and husband, caregiver and his or her elderly charge or friends who help each other through a crisis: one and all patiently giving, earnestly loving, insistently hoping, tirelessly being faithful. It’s the loveliness of committed souls and pure hearts that “will one thing” (Kierkegaard), namely, the good of the other.

So maybe I need to be a little more attentive to the possibility for truth in a world and church full of confusion, spin, and even lies. Because there is beauty all around. And is there in beauty no truth?

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham