Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Photographs


The word “photograph” literally means a picture drawn with light. I think that’s how life is: the lights and darks of our days burning the surface of a film that becomes our story. I want to share my story with you by telling you about several of my favorite photographs.

There was once a Polish Jewess named Philamina Musman who married a Sicilian Catholic named Michael Julian and they had a little girl named Teresa born in the first year of the twentieth century just outside of Pittsburgh. There’s a picture I have of Teresa, standing on a rocky beach somewhere, probably around the outbreak of the Great War. Her hair is bobbed short and she’s wearing a pretty daring bathing suit for those modest days, the days before flappers even. Her hands are on her hips and there is a faint, Mona Lisa-like smile playing at the corners of her lips. There are other girls in the background, but they’re too far away and the picture is too old and faded to make them out. They, like her, are just American teenagers on a summer beach. It is a time before radios, when wagons were as likely to careen down the city streets of Erie, Pennsylvania as horseless carriages. There is another picture, which may have been taken a few years later. She is standing outside a house, with lapped siding, beside an open door, just in side of which sits a baby, straining forward to reach something just beyond his or her tiny grasp. It may have been her little sister Marge, who died a couple years ago, in the senile quiet of a Florida nursing home. She’s wearing that enigmatic smile again, the one that never quite shows teeth, that never quite says, “I’m happy,” that never quite gets past whatever pain she hides so well from the world. She’s wearing a jacket over her blouse so it might be autumn. But it couldn’t have been too cool or that door would not have sat open in front of the baby.

There is another one, probably about 1932 or so, on another beach, this time with husband and three children and friends or cousins all around. Just as the lens clicks something has caught the eyes of several of them and they look away, down the sand, not into the camera. She is still young and beautiful, dressed in summer white-not-quite-beach clothes. She’s not smiling there either, just looking off to see the scene hidden just to the left of the picture’s edge.

There is the one from 1952. It’s a couple years before I was born, but she is standing outside the house where she lived until she died in 1981. She has her hand on the mosquito net stretched over a baby carriage. I assume it’s one of my cousins nestled safely from the summer bugs of Buffalo. She looks like the GrandmotherI knew and loved and feared to displease. She looks like she did for the rest of her life: no longer slim, she’s now the matron with grown up kids and grandchildren popping up like pansies everywhere.

Inside that house is where I learned to cook, to chop onions and mash garlic. I learned how green peppers smell when you fry them at 6:30 in the morning. I learned how forks and knives and napkins are placed on a long, Sunday table. I learned that you need day old bread and a dozen eggs to make meatballs and that sauce had to cook for at least six hours before it could pass her demanding taste buds.

“Be a good boy, now” she’d say and give me some chore to do. That must be where I learned that goodness meant doing something, not just staying out of trouble. Being good is not just behaving; it is an active outreach to serve somebody else. That’s what she taught me.

She and my grandfather had a strange love. He lived in a little room just inside the front door of the house. Something had caused them to live separate lives together, but whatever the scandal was, I never could find out. My father hated his father, and as I grew up I tried to unravel the mystery, but never could.

Late in his life, during the early 1970’s, my grandfather, who had never accepted my grandmother’s conversion in the 1940’s to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, decided to trump her. He became a Mormon. That’s what she called him, “the Mormon.” Once, trying to be clever, I called him “the moron.” The look of pain and hurt she sent me made me pretend it was just a mistake, that I had really meant to say “Mormon.” At least the Mormons got him to give up cigars and beer. No one else could do that.

My mother and grandmother never got along. My mother never could cook, keep house or rule the roost like my grandmother did. So she would start arguments with her, not so much to win, as to make my father take her home. Then, she could fight with my father, but at least it was in her house, on her turf, where she was always stronger.

I don’t know if she ever really believed her second religion, since at its heart it had no place for strong women. And my grandmother was strong. Always busy, always cooking or canning or cleaning. My summers with her were a whirlwind of activity until the afternoon soaps came on the television. Then it was two hours of The Secret Storm and As the World Turns and General Hospital. She called them “her stories,” and followed the lives of the actors as if they were her neighbors or her siblings. I think she knew it was all pretend, but I’m not sure. After her stories were over, it was time for dinner, because dinner was served at precisely five o’ clock. She said that was how my grandfather wanted it, but I think it was what she wanted, since she never seemed to do anything she didn’t want to do.

She would come to Florida once a year, and our house was transformed into her house, much to my mother’s annoyance. My grandmother would putter about, ordering everyone to their places, in charge of the menu, the laundry, the television. Then she would leave and we would go back to a slower pace, a later morning, but dinner was still served at five.

M y father said that was the time that decent people ate supper. He learned that I guess, as a handsome tough Italian from the westside of Buffalo; skinny, street-wise, and cocky. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of a wayward sect of Second Adventists, our theological roots deep in the ferment of Industrial Revolution and the late nineteenth century American frontier. Of course we didn’t think of ourselves that way.

We were Jehovah’s Organization, the One True Religion, called out of bondage to the Babylonish sects of Christendom by Jehovah himself in 1919. That was when “Judge” Joseph Rutherford, the Witness leader, and seven of his friends were released from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where they had spent the end of the Great War doing time on a trumped-up sedition charge. Rutherford was a lawyer and one-time county magistrate who had gained control of the Watchtower organization following the death of its founder, Charles Taze Russell. The release and exoneration of Rutherford and his friends provided proof positive that we were the chosen people of God Himself, sent two by two to proclaim the Good News of Jehovah’s Kingdom. Or that was how the story went.

My parents, of solid immigrant Catholic stock (well, except for Minnie being Jewish), were perhaps unlikely recruits for the Witnesses who heaped their bitterest denunciations on the Pope of Rome and his Mary-worshiping hordes. But sometime in the late 1930’s, my father’s favorite uncle abandoned the Church for Joe Rutherford’s promise of paradise on earth and my father was not far behind. He loved to tell the story of his ninth grade teacher demanding that he salute the flag. My father sat still at his desk, his eyes boring into the teacher’s face. The teacher, losing patience, grabbed his shirt-his only white shirt-and ripped it. What happened next entered into the family mythology like Hercules slaying the Cyclops. My father broke his nose. That was Dad’s last day of formal public education.

Not long after his eighteenth birthday, he was called up before the draft board and declared himself an ordained minister. With Europe and Asia at war, and FDR’s finger on the American trigger, draft boards were not inclined to give deferrals to anyone, much less to a smart-ass Italian hood who claimed to be a minister. So Dad spent the war behind bars, hardening his belief that Jehovah’s Witnesses were right and the rest of the world, led by Papal Rome, was under the rule of the Devil. After the war, he bummed around Buffalo, finally landing a job selling appliances for a large discount store. The post-war boom was on, and he spent several years making a lot of money and drifting away from his religion.

One day, in a search for another expensive Italian suit, he went into Sadler’s Department store and met a beautiful Irish Catholic girl, eight years his junior. She was raven-haired, with eyes as green as the Irish countryside. Ann Dorothy McCarthy Osborne was the product of twelve years of parochial school, an untouchable virgin carved from the same slab of marble as the Madonna herself.

Their romance, like their forty-year marriage, was a tempest of love and hate and religion, swirling with forbidden sexuality. Somehow, he wore down her resistance, persuading her to leave the Church, her family and her suburban life and follow him to Rutherford’s paradise. In 1951, after being married in the Erie county courthouse, they left New York for the South, a region populated by a people intent on keeping down black folks and keeping out fast-talking Yankees selling religious snake-oil door-to-door.

There’s a picture of the two of them from that summer, right after they moved to Kinston, North Carolina. My father, his shock of wavy black hair, his proud, Italian-stud grin, has his arm around my mother’s waist. She is wearing a white print dress above white heels with criss-crossed straps. The summer breeze seems to tug at the hem of her dress, lifting it just enough to give a hint of the sexy, shapely calves beneath.

They traveled around the south over the next decade or so, Dad drifting from one job to another: insect exterminator, ambulance driver, insurance salesman. Finally, in the 1960’s they came to Plant City, Florida, the Winter Strawberry Capitol of the World. After fifteen years of marriage, they had four children and Dad was in his mid-forties. It was time to settle down. He built a manufacturer’s representative firm, peddling appliances, kitchen cabinets and other home improvement products to wholesalers throughout Florida. We moved into a red brick, four bedroom ranch house, with two white columns outside the front door. We became comfortably middle-class.

That made us something of an anomaly among the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the 1960’s. Most of them were trailer park people, white trash in white shirts, long ago having given up on any hope of worldly success. Instead, they worked in small businesses like janitorial or lawn services during the week and spent their weekends selling Witness literature door-to-door.

Growing up with Armageddon just around the corner and a mind inquisitive about the doomed world around me, I developed a permanent condition of cognitive dissonance. I drank heavily from poisoned wells: Brautigan and Bradbury, the Stones and the Hollies, politics and revolution. I had taken to wearing a black armband at school, always careful to remove it before I stepped out to the car ramp where my mother’s station wagon idled. I was a revolutionary in search of a revolution that could be hidden from my parents.

My father, who had become prominent in the Witness hierarchy, grew increasingly upset with my “worldliness,” my “disrespectful attitude,” my fascination with science fiction, rock’n’roll and politics. He figured, I guess, that beating the hell out of me was the surest expression of love he knew. He took pleasure in reminding me that the Israelites would handle a son like me by dragging him outside the city gates, and stone him sending him body and soul into the abyss. He always added, “And the parents would throw the first stone.”

But somehow, over the years, my anger and his faded. My mother’s health grew worse and she succumbed to cancer on Easter Sunday 1991. My father and I had become business partners, and more importantly, friends. By the time he died in May 2000, he was truly the most important influence in my life, at once mother and father, nurturer and pruner, guide and mentor. I still carry his driver’s license with his picture on it, hoping perhaps that he’ll drive up at any minute and ask me for it back.

And so the question remains, how did I get from there to here? It is, as Jerry Garcia sang, a long, strange trip.

It was particularly strange for me. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, a group outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity, but which considers itself the only example of true Christianity in the world. I spent all of my youth and early adulthood convinced that the rest of humanity was doomed to soon be destroyed in a cosmic war called Armageddon. I expected, quite literally, to live forever on a paradise earth.

I remember looking at the autumn sky, shining brightly with ten thousand stars. My wife and I had just finished a quiet dinner with close friends in the small trailer we shared with our five-month-old son. As the gravel crunched under our friends’ car, backing down the driveway, she looked at me, waiting for me to speak the unspeakable. The words hung between us, bridging all we had known. “I guess Armageddon isn’t coming tonight after all.” It was October 4, 1975.

We were “pioneers,” domestic missionaries of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In my case, I was a third generation Witness, and like countless others of our co-religionists, we had staked everything on a foolish interpretation of scripture that the end of the world would arrive early that autumn. For the next few weeks, we watched world events with hope, then despair. The Witness hierarchy made no immediate comments, but then, in a Time magazine article, the Witness president was quoted as saying that neither he nor other leaders ever predicted the end of the world. Somehow, though, two million Witnesses around the world ended up believing it. I believed it so much that I finally gave up my counter-culture ways, turned down a college scholarship, got married and went into the “pioneer” ministry, which demanded full-time door-to-door evangelism.

About a year later, I was a dad. I remained as a “pioneer” for another six months or so, but I could see that my son was growing and I would soon have a lot more family expenses. As the months turned into years, I followed my father’s steps upward in the Witness hierarchy, eventually becoming the youngest presbyter in Florida, serving congregations in Southwest and Central Florida.

Of course, Armageddon never quite came. One morning, as I was tying my shoes, a strange thought came to me. “I am going to die someday.” Now perhaps that is not such a radical thought to you, but for someone who lived and breathed in a hermetically sealed religious and philosophical environment it was really quite radical. It struck at the very heart of who I was. Nothing in my life could ever be the same.

During the early 1980’s, the Witnesses’ Governing Body began a series of purges of any leaders suspected of being disloyal. This meant virtually anything the star chamber judicial committees defined it to mean. In 1985, I was excommunicated after being accused of heresy. Excommunication (“disfellowshipping” in Witness parlance) meant a total loss of interaction with friends and family. In the hermetically sealed environment of a group like this, that meant virtually everyone with whom I had any substantial social contact. I will never forget the shock of having my best friend from childhood look through me as though I were made of glass, while I stood next to him in a grocery store. My wife was completely devastated by the experience, and began to drink heavily. Eventually, her addiction and my codependency destroyed our marriage.

By the late 1980’s, after graduating from a small Christian college with a degree in theology, I was serving as a youth minister in the Christian Church/Church of Christ, a small, conservative evangelical body. But, there were too many similarities with my previous religious experience, and I soon found myself drawn to a deeper, more ancient Christian practice as found in the catholic tradition. I began attending an Episcopal church, where I was confirmed and encouraged to begin in a process that would lead eventually to ordination.

Another photo I have was made with a Polaroid. It’s a funny shade of blue green now, and shows a beautiful young woman, sitting in the shade under a canopy of oaks, on the sloping hood of a blue-green Saturn coupe (of course everything in the picture is blue-green, so that’s not remarkable). I had met a her a few weeks before that at Kanuga Conference Center. I fell head over heels for her when she started singing:
Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car
Through all my trials and tribulations,
We will travel every nation,
With my plastic Jesus I'll go far.

Suzanne had three beautiful children, a heart begin enough to hold my pain, a laugh that could cheer the most committed melancholic and a ragged Toyota Corolla. What more could a man want? We were married a year later and Suzanne began her career as a full-time youth minister.

After our marriage, I continued my theological training at a Lutheran Seminary that offered a modular graduate program. However, neither it nor my undergraduate work did much to prepare me to really listen to the Word of God, which spoke not only through the scriptures, but in and through the community of Christ’s body–which was, it would turn out, forming me for ministry.

I entered the ordination process with a spiritual chip on my shoulder. I could read rudimentary Greek, I could use the proper tools to slog through the Hebrew, and I thought I had forgotten more about the Bible than those people who were in charge of “the process” ever knew. I cried, I swore, I quit a hundred times; but God kept nudging me along through the kind words and encouragement of those divinely placed along the way. My problem was that I could not articulate just what type of ministry I had been called to. That I was called to Holy Orders was never an issue: the why and how of my ministry was.

What I perceived as a secondary struggle was to serve as the key definer of my ministry. I had, for several years, been unsatisfied in my career. I was making a good living, but I was empty, even resentful of my job: it seemed to only interfere with my passion for ministry. When I found a position at local United Way, it was originally for a two-year commitment at a salary one third of that I had been making.

I was testing out whether or not I could trust God to provide my needs, and whether or not I was called to ministry in the world, rather than to the church. The two years flew by before I even knew it, and I never even considered leaving when my commitment was over. I had found the place God wanted me to serve. The United Way created a new position for me in which I could not only oversee United Way’s Information and Referral service (which served as a direct link between people in need and the sources of help), but told me I could develop new areas of United Way community involvement. As the years went by, this grew to include new grant-making processes, ecumenical action, volunteer training and strategic planning.

As my job became ministry, my ministry bore fruit. I understood why I had always been in love with the world (even estranged as it is from God) and in struggle with the Church (especially where it reacted to the world in an un-Christ-like way): I was not being called to be a presbyter (priest), I was being formed to be a deacon. I was learning to interpret the world to the Church and the Church to the world. I found that I could stand between the two institutions and speak in language that each could understand.

I finally understood why I had a desire for theological education. I had to be a preacher and teacher, so that I could begin the interpretive process. I needed theological formation to understand the church’s language thoroughly. I needed pastoral training so that I could have Jesus’ own compassion for a world whose people who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

To be a deacon means first to acknowledge the absolute sovereignty of God, a difficult task for those who, like me, yearn to have control. Giving up control, first of my ministry and then of the ordination process itself, taught me at long last to begin to trust that God really does run the universe, and that God’s will is being done, even as my own is constantly being subsumed into it. It means learning to be an icon, through whom people can see Jesus at work in their lives. And that’s the last picture I want to talk about tonight, though it’s not really a photograph: the deacon as an icon.

In the theology of the eastern Church, icons are used as windows into the Gospel. Pictures of saints are used in the east to remind us of the fact that all are called to be servants. Seeing an icon of the Blessed Mother, Francis, Patrick, David or Therese, we are reminded of their holy deeds done in Jesus’ name. The deacon serves the church as an icon of Jesus: the one who saw drunks, whores and the demon-possessed not as lost, but as worthy of love. Deacons act in Jesus’ name to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His Love. That’s why we work as prison chaplains, as AIDS workers, as homeless shelter directors, or in a thousand other ministries amid the pain and suffering of the world. We do not do this because we love misery and suffering, but because we are convinced that doing this makes the Kingdom of Christ a reality.

The deacon stands in the holy place between world and church, between redemption won and redemption realized. There, on a cross-shaped ledge, the deacon reaches out to comfort and console those who do not yet know their infinite value and pull them to the safety of God’s loving arms. The deacon reaches out to his or her fellow believers to remind them that Jesus died not for our sins only, but for the whole world.

That’s my story, or at least a few faded photographs that help show it.