Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
The camp counselors, early in our lessons, had us deliberately tip over the canoe so we could learn how to lift it over our heads while treading water, empty it, flip it right side up, then crawl back aboard to continue our journey. Through much of life we’ve learned that it can be a transferable skill when relationships, or work, or finances have been capsized. That’s what naturally hopeful people do. But sometimes the capsized canoe, or life, will never really be righted, as when we feel “love or pond ice give way underfoot,” to borrow again from the poet.
Capsized. And no amount of clever, ingenious, persistent, courageous maneuvering will make it right. When fixes or solutions fail, we search for meaning, which I take to be the sign or the punctuation the poet seeks. “We who love precise language/need a finer way to convey/ disappointment and perplexity. . . .
My friend is capsized. Her husband of sixty some years has receded deep into the abyss of advancing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The familiar signs of love – voice, inflection, glance, recognition, expression, intimate touch – are all gone. She visits him in his medical facility, but finds it to be like trying to have a relationship with someone in the middle of a roller coaster ride who is preoccupied with the terror and uncertainty of it all, absent the exhilaration and excitement.
Ray and Jan have always been able to get the canoe emptied and upright again, usually laughing together as they climbed back aboard. Enduring faith, hope, and love have borne them across more than a few dangerous shoals. Come what may, every day began and ended at the dining room table holding hands and sharing words of gratitude to God and each other. No longer. Capsized!
She – we – try various punctuation marks to frame language for what is happening. Gratitude? Yes, much gratitude for long lives well lived and love lavishly shared. Grief? Of course. There is so much that has been lost and is being lost. Guilt? “Should I be visiting more often, or doing something I’m not doing? But what? And how?” Anger? This is harder. “I don’t want to be angry at him, or at God, or at others who seem so preoccupied with themselves they can’t focus on what’s happening to us. But sometimes. . . .” And then, “How can I make sense of this? What is the right sign, the right punctuation when I’m capsized, when even bitter endings never seem to come to an end and meaning eludes?”
“We, the naturally hopeful/Need a simple sign/For the myriad ways we’re capsized.” Perhaps if we can’t fix things, righting the capsized canoe, we can at least find meaning, signs. Yet what if there is no simple sign, either? And would knowing why or to what end really make anything better? The Lenten seasons in our lives may be times of great relinquishment when not just the trivial or the extraneous is given up but the precious is also taken away. The Wilderness is not a time to chart a course of action, to devise a clever plan, or even to make sense of it all, but to come to terms with our utter dependency. That, I’m sure, can feel more terrifying than comforting.
A wise theologian once wrote, “The vocation of ministry can best be described as helping people learn how to relax into the buoyancy of God’s grace.” This is not an easy lesson for those of us who have spent a lifetime accustomed to getting ourselves successfully back into the canoe. Lent’s demands are hard, asking us to give up the thing we cling to most closely – the notion that we can control, fix, or understand everything. Lent’s promise is also hard, but perhaps liberating as well: We don’t need to control, fix, or understand everything. Maybe that’s why before the exercise with the capsized canoe, our counselors made sure that each of us had learned the basic lesson: trust the water.
John H. Thomas
March 3, 2016
Paul Violi, “Appeal to Grammarians,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/249348