Of late, I find myself engaging in the practice of self-reflective advocacy. It started a week ago when I wrote a letter to an advisory group at my place of employment advocating for educational programming and a specific educator. Though there was some degree of anxiety in sharing this self-reflective plea with a group of strangers, the positive response I received from them was deeply heartening.
Then, this week, I was leading chapel service. I had intended to write my homily yesterday, but I got home from work and accidentally drank too much tequila to allow for quality homily writing. Instead, I headed to work this morning and spent an hour pulling together my thoughts. A little after noon today, I produced a very simple worship service - opening prayer, homily, benediction and passing of the peace (which always gives me the willies, but expectations.... Damn it!).
Self-reflective advocacy from behind the pulpit proved to be as enjoyable and richly rewarding as anonymous letter-writing advocacy had been last week. Hurray!
God who created the
mighty and meek,
strong and fragile,
powerful and weak,
Who calls us to care for the
Who instructs us to welcome the
be with us now. In our meekness, be mighty; in our fragility, be strong; in our weakness, be powerful. Show us that in caring for the widow, orphan, and poor, we care for you. Help us to see your face in the face of the stranger, the alien, the foreigner. We welcome all who enter our midst just as we extend extravagant welcome to you this day. Amen.
I think rather often these days of the literature I read in the eighth grade. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Some of the lessons to be found in these works of literature seem more salient in this phase of life for me - in this line of work.
As the cold of winter melts to the temperamental, and times long and bright, days of Spring, the muck of rain showers brings forth flowers from the early bulbs and buds on the trees. This time of year also evokes within me the hope of occasionally spying a great blue heron. Though common, with a conservation status of "Least Concern," and found in the Midwest year round, I seem only to see their awkward looking bodies move with infinite grace during the late spring and summer months.
One thing I did not inherit from my parents was their mutual love of bird watching. Though my mother can identify an oriole from 100 yards, I can scarcely remember the differences between a European starling and a common grackle. The great blue heron, however, has held a place in my imagination as a thing of wonder and rare beauty since I first read the short story The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst.
The description of the scarlet ibis as having long legs, a precarious perch, and a long, graceful neck curved into an "S" with a long beak delighted my imagination. Having never seen in life, I found myself comparing it to the great blue heron whose awkward body, long legs, seemingly precarious perch, long graceful neck, and long beak left me imagining them with bright red plumage instead of the dishwater gray and blue of their species.
The Scarlet Ibis opens with a description of summer's end and the "rotting brown magnolia petals" and the "purple phlox." It is the story of a boy and his brother. Though narrated in the first person, every person in the story is named or designated except for the narrator. It is a beautiful and terrible story, the anonymity of its narration allowing one to easily slip within the skin of the man reminiscing about his own beautiful and terrible childhood follies.
At the age of six, the narrator becomes the older brother of a boy who "was, from the outset, a disappointment. [Who] seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's." It wasn't until he was three months old that this tiny baby was named, "William Armstrong, which was like tying a big tail on a small kite. Such a name sounds good only on tombstone." The narrator states, "I wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across the fields and swamps you could see the sea."
The narrator got none of these things in his young brother, William Armstrong, who was "a burden in many ways." As their relationship developed and the narrator resigned himself to the fact that his brother was "going to cling to me forever ... so I dragged him across the burning cotton field to share with the only beauty I knew, Old Woman Swamp." The also re-christened his brother, telling the reader, "Renaming my brother was perhaps the kindest thing I ever did for him, because nobody expects much from someone called Doodle."
The story The Scarlet Ibis reminds us of that "knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love" that is within us. As the age of eleven, when Doodle is only five, the narrator "embarrassed at having a brother of that age who could not walk" sets out to teach his brother. "....all of us must have something or someone to be proud of, and Doodle had become mine. I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." And so the narrator, over the course of several months, pushes and pushes and pushes Doodle to conform to the image of what he wants in a brother - "Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother."
Can you see yourself in this nameless, faceless, unidentified narrator? I can. Are there times in our life when you press others to succeed for your benefit rather than theirs? I know I fall prey to this temptation. Like the narrator, there are times when "I [begin] to believe in my own infallibility and I prepare[d] a terrific development plan" others, rooted in pride and the desire to see my own grand schemes come to fruition.
A year after Doodle begins to walk and several months into his brother's ill-fated scheme to make him run, swim, climb trees, and fight, a scarlet ibis is down into their front yard by a summer storm and it falls form their bleeding tree, dead. "Even death could not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its exotic beauty."
The narrator takes Doodle out to the swamp once more to continue the pursuit of their goals. But "Doodle was both tired and frightened.... he smiled at me ashamedly. He had failed and we both knew it.... The knowledge that Doodle's and my plans had come to naught was bitter, and that streak of cruelty within me awakened. I ran as fast as I could, leaving him far behind.... So I could hear his voice no more."
How often does the shame of both our failures and our motives cause us to flee from the things we once pursued? How often do we seek to separate ourselves from others when they no longer live up to our expectations of who they should be? When they no longer serve our needs?
The narrator tells us, "I hadn't run too far before I became tired, and the flood of childish spite evanesced as well.... I went back and found him huddled beneath a red nightshade bush.... Bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red.... I began to weep, and the tear-blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar. 'Doodle!' I screamed above the pounding storm and threw my body to the earth above his. For a long long time, it seemed like forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my scarlet ibis from the heresy of the rain."
Only in facing the death of his brother did the narrator come to realize the love he had for Doodle, the need to protect and care for those who cannot protect and care for themselves. The narrator finally comes to know intimately the twin vines brought forth from the seed of pride - life and death.
I believe we all have our own scarlet ibis - the thing we find pride in and which, if not carefully tended could be the seeds of our destruction. To care well for others, to love them, to encourage them in the pursuit of their dreams for their sake can be a wonderfully enriching experience. When we seek instead to mold others into our vision of who they should be, when we see relationships as being primarily about fulfilling our needs and objectifying others, accepting them only so far as they are what we want them to be, real and lasting harm can be done.
Today I invite you to consider who in your life is a little different, a little unknown, who you feel is a disappointment, who doesn't fit the bill of what you thought you were getting when you met them. How might those relationships move forward with mutual respect and caring, with consideration and acceptance? How can we remove the streak of cruelty from our hearts today and begin appreciating the gifts of otherness?
The commands of the God of the Christian Old Testament are summed up by Jesus quite simply: Love God; love others. In giving us these commands, God sets before us life and death and exhorts us to choose life. How are we choosing to live today?
Go forth to find God in all whom you meet today, that you might also find life. Go in peace.