Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sherman's gift

The way Sherman told it, he was born before the first big war and grew up in the desert southwest. Home was on a piece of land that may have once been — or at some time wanted to be — a farm. But like most of the area it was dry, hard dirt and scraggly, if not dead, trees and brush. A house of rough, weather-beaten boards offered little protection from the sun, wind or rain.
As the oldest of four, Sherman knew his role. He watched out for the others — like the day they came home from school and found the note on the kitchen table. It was from their mom. It said she loved them but that she had to go away. She told them to watch out for each other and listen to their father. It said they would be okay. Years later, Sherman would learn she had run off with the preacher, causing a distancing from God that lasted most of his lifetime.
He herded his brother and sisters out of the house and they climbed into the lower branches of the barren tree in front of the porch. After questions he couldn’t answer and tears he couldn’t heal, he made up stories to fill the time until their dad got home from work.
Soon enough Sherman had quit school to care for the younger ones, never to return. As often happened in those days, he left home young, maybe to seek something better, maybe to escape, maybe both. Sherman wandered the west until he settled in Portland, Oregon. He kept working, when work could be found, in restaurants. Sherman never finished school, but he had learned to cook along the way.
As the depression lingered and the next big war approached, Sherman met a young widow who had left a small town to find work in the city. She was waiting tables where he was the cook. Friendship led to more and they were soon living together. It was a scandalous arrangement in the 40s, and even more so because the waitress had a daughter. Neighbors shunned them, as was expected.
The war came and went. They got married. Had a son. Saw their daughter get married and start a family of her own.
Sherman soon became a grandfather. And he was a good one. At family meals, he’d usually announce that the meat of the day was either squirrel or opossum.  He’d keep it going until about the time the grandkids were expected to take a bite and then break the tension with a more welcome truth. A few bites in, however, he’d repeat the bluff with enough sincerity that the tension would build again.
Sherman was known for gag gifts at Christmas. And he was known as a faithful scoutmaster who influenced numerous young boys over the years. He drove big, fast cars, usually black Chevrolets. He would joke of needing a new one as soon as it was time to rotate the tires.
In the early 70s, Sherman helped his oldest grandson get his first job as a high schooler, washing dishes at the restaurant where he was working.
However, in his mid-fifties cancer hit, and hit hard. Before long Sherman was eating through a tube and losing weight. He refused to give in. He’d plunge a syringe of pale mush through the tube in his side, smack his lips and announce, “Damn, that tastes good!”
Sherman told of sneaking out of his hospital room at night to go to the corner store for cigarettes. He asked if he could take naps in various caskets to find which was going to be most comfortable. He got a cemetery plot and wanted to have picnics on the spot to “get used to it.”
There was a time his oldest grandson and young wife visited the hospital. The weak-stomached grandson started to wobble after an unexpected medical procedure had taken place. Sherman hopped out of bed and said, “Here, lay down. Looks like you need it more than me.”
During another hospital stay a young chaplain was making rounds and saw Sherman’s name on the roster.  He stopped by the room and reminded Sherman that he had been a busboy at a restaurant with him some years back. A friendship grew and Sherman asked the priest if he would officiate his funeral. “Of course, but I am going to ask something of you in return. Are you willing to discuss some readings with me?” He agreed and they began to read and talk about stories from the gospels.  Before long, a small group gathered in June of 1979 for Sherman’s funeral and the priest, the one who had been a busboy, led them through the service.
Like most, Sherman was gone too soon. He was my grandfather and I was the one he helped get that first job. I was the one who got wobbly at the hospital. He left me with many great memories. And he left me with two recipes. One is for cornbread stuffing. We use it every year at Thanksgiving, and it is well-loved.
The second is for pumpkin pie. It is pumpkin pie as it was before the trends of locally-sourced, farm-to-table, gluten-free, natural and organic ingredients. And it is good. It, too, comes out at Thanksgiving. I make about six each year. Family and friends talk about it and look forward to its annual return. It has been known to show up at Christmas occasionally, but is generally reserved for Thanksgiving.
I enjoy anticipating the week of Thanksgiving, making sure all ingredients are on hand for the time of preparation. Anticipation is heightened as the smell fills our kitchen and drifts into the family room. While I enjoy the product, my deeper joy is in seeing others dig in.
People now talk about it as my pie, even calling it grandpa’s, because I am one. Actually, I’m closer to the age of my grandfather’s death than I’d like to admit. But I call it grandpa’s pie, because it is grandpa’s pie — Grandpa Goodson’s Pie.
Here’s the recipe, as he wrote it for us. I trust you’ll try it and I know that if you do, you’ll love it.
May God have mercy on us all.

catapult magazine VOL 12, NUM 17 :: 2013.09.20 — 2013.10.03 : 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Nurturing community

As a child, community was defined first by family, then my parents’ circle of friends. Over the years there was a strong sense of community in our post-WWII suburban neighborhood. Eventually, friends became my community of choice as school became the focus of my time. Church was layered in there somewhere.
The word and idea of community is having a trendy run these days. Trying to identify true community might be akin to clarifying the line between friends and acquaintances. We commonly call almost anyone we have an ongoing relationship with a friend. I think it would be more accurate to realize most of us have many acquaintances and some friends. In a similar way we can call any group of people we have connections with a community — or better yet “our” community. I think our definition of community may be weak or we may be fooling ourselves in evaluation. Simply put, I question how many of us actually experience community on a level that changes and sustains us.
The challenge becomes deciding what makes a connected group of people something more, a community. Following is an attempt to identify how I understand, relate to and hopefully nurture community for others and myself.
It takes time to become (a) community.
The old realtor’s jag is that the three most important things are: “location, location, location.” In the late 70s and early 80s, my wife and I worked at a conservative Christian camp. In that setting we connected with others in their teens and twenties. We were all trying to gain some sense of becoming adults. The intensity of shared work and living together in a ministry setting resulted in life connections that moved deeper, quicker than they might have in another context. We eventually went on full-time staff with the camp. Others stayed around town for school or work. Some went away and returned. We have walked together through the 70s, 80s, 90s, aughts and now teens. Time and experiences have strengthened and deepened commitments, connections and understanding.
Communities are a crucible of strength for times of crises.
Life is messy and survival cries out for help. Because of a shared sense of getting through together with those we consider community, we have walked through life transitions, loss, failure and trials. Almost everybody experiences the random confusion of health crises, despair and death. At times we have little to offer each other except the sense that we are committed and we are present.  A few years back my career went south. My communities (yes, I have more than one) rallied in the process and aftermath by offering active support and wisdom. Friends from the near opposite corner of the country kept touch each step of the way. It was full circle as I had helped them through a job crisis about five years before. Together with my local community I was supported to survive the mess and build a base for a new future.
Healthy communities are a strange mix of tight connections and openness to welcoming new people.
Back to the group that was shaped in the summer camp setting: even though our relationships began in a close, defined, shared experience, it is not a closed set. Friendships, growing families and marriage have brought others into the circle that did not share in the camp staff experience. What was originally a collection of young people with a small age span now includes three generations spanning more than eighty years. Community continues to be enriched by the ever-widening circle.  
No laughter? No thanks.
The ability to laugh at life and oneself in a safe place is food for the soul — the background stories and unspoken things, a look, phrase or memory that communicates beyond words. Laughter that is shared in love is one of the greatest gifts of community. I meet regularly with a group of men. Our shared roots go back almost twenty years. We began when we were young leaders in local ministries. No matter how much we hate to admit it, we are now elders in almost any setting. We meet weekly to share life, talking about work and ministry, family, books, faith, sports, what’s happening around home and in the broader ministry world, movies, belief, hopes, dreams and struggles — and we laugh. Our shared history and common life experiences give us the ability to let go and realize that we may not be quite as important as we’d like to think. I think laughter has been a part of every gathering over the years. What sparks the laughing is rarely important. The fact that we let go together is very important.
We all need a place that supports risk-taking.
Having a circle of friends to share the process of looking squarely at doubt and questions is gold. Honesty and acceptance are crucial. If community is about deeper connections, it needs to allow dangerous exploration into the raw edges of faith and belief. Not everybody wants to be a part for these conversations. I am thankful for safe people and safe places where I have them.
Communities are not static.
Change happens. Individuals change and groups change. There are times I do not like the shifts, but I understand that no group can be static. Friends have moved out of deeper circles over the years. Some have made a clean break and others have done a gradual drift. Location, employment and family configurations are common factors in shifts. The reality is that we rarely know the reality and are left with our own sense of acceptance and forward movement.
You’ve got to feel the pain.
A community isn’t a community until everybody has had his or her feelings hurt and decided to stick it out. Real people do real things, like hurting each other. Without digging up all the dirt I am sure I have been on both sides, causing and receiving pain. Hopefully I am able to forgive and seek forgiveness as needed to enable greater life and community on the other side.
In other times and places the choice of community was virtually predetermined: who was nearby, end of discussion. I realize I have the privilege of choice in determining my community. With privilege comes responsibility. I know I need the others’ support, even when I don’t know it. I hope I am living up to the privilege by fully participating in the life of the communities that I share in.
May God have mercy on us all.

catapult magazine VOL 12, NUM 16 :: 2013.09.06 — 2013.09.19 :