On feeling sound and being prepared
Just north of Springfield, Illinois sits a sprawling cemetery called Oak Ridge which boasts acres and acres of immaculately kept graves, which – in the American fashion – are ordered as tidily as the rows of shoes in an obsessive-compulsive’s closet. Nearly every child who has grown up in Illinois has been there at one time or another, because the cemetery hosts the massive tomb and monument of the man whom I think most would agree was the greatest American president of all time, Abraham Lincoln, who with great sacrifice took a country in which brother was against brother and united it, united them, eventually giving his own life in sacrifice as well. It’s an impressive tomb, as one would expect, although perhaps a bit out of odds with the image of the simple, poor rail-splitter who somehow managed to make it to the White House from his humble beginnings in a one-room log cabin. One suspects the good president would have been quite content with a small, simple stone in the shade of a tree somewhere, but we would have monuments to our heroes – we need monuments to our heroes, I suppose.
But in another part of that cemetery, marked by a small, simple stone in the shade of a tree, rests the grave of another Springfieldian who, had Mr. Lincoln settled elsewhere, perhaps could have become the capitol city’s most famous resident: Nicholas Vachel Lindsay.
Now if some of you are wondering “Who is Vachel Lindsay?” don’t worry, he wasn’t that famous. He was a poet who lived in Springfield, had some modest success in an age when the world still recognised a need for poets; but – in a precursor to the musings of the idiot who now occupies the White House – died unhappily at his own hand by drinking Lysol in 1931, when that same world seemed to think that poetry no longer had much to contribute to life marred by financial collapse and the spectre of war. (I, of course, think that it is precisely when life is marred by financial collapse and the spectre of war that poets become even more essential, but I shall leave that for another sermon.)
Now Lindsay was a favourite of my family because in 1967 my father bought a book entitled A Treasury of the Familiar for my mother's 30th birthday. A 750-page book with a gold-embossed, dark green cover, it is exactly what its title suggests: a collection of poetry and passages of prose from Shakespeare to Longfellow, from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address of Mr. Lincoln himself. And on page 558 (after more than half a century, the book automatically falls open to that spot) is Vachel Lindsay's poem The Congo.
Published in 1914 the poem is very much a product of its time, and thus therefore troubling to modern readers in it attitudes towards race. Lindsay considered himself an ally of the black community (was proud to have given Langston Hughes his leg-up in literary society) but it is true that he draws on stereotypes and imagery that suggest an “otherness” to Africans and African-Americans that has subsequently made the poem a bit of an embarrassment. I remember seeing the film The Dead Poet's Society in 1989 – in which the poem is recited as a kind of war-cry of the boys in that film – and already it sat a little uneasy, but we somehow overlooked it because the film was set in 1959 and things were obviously different then. Many now think that it is a poem that no longer ought to be taught.
Now I'm not going to enter into this debate – after Maya Angelou on Friday and this on Sunday you might be saying, “Enough with the poetry stuff!” – but for my mother, The Congo was approached from the point of view of language as sound. It imitates the pounding of the drums in the rhythms and in nonsense words of onomatopoeia. At parts, the poem ceases to use conventional words when representing the chants of Congo's indigenous people, relying just on sound alone. And some of my earliest memories revolve around sitting with my mother with that book of the familiar open in front of us. As a small child, I was completely transfixed by its dark imagery, of tattooed cannibals, blood-lust songs, skull-faced lean witch doctors, deadly voo-doo rattles, chuckling demons cutting off Leopold’s hands in hell. And, of course, Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo and all the other Gods of the Congo: Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you, Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you, Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you. I didn’t know who Mumbo-Jumbo was and I wasn’t sure what hoo-dooing meant, but I knew it couldn’t be pleasant, and my heart always beat a little faster, and I always snuggled a little closer to my mother when that name came up. As we read, my mother would lightly pound her fist on my chest so that I could feel the rhythm, meaning every boomlay-boomlay-boomlay-boom was not only spoken, but felt as well. (“Can you feel the rhythm? Can you feel it?” she’d ask me.) Then, afterwards, she would ask me to close my eyes and tell her what images were swirling through my young mind, what colours and thoughts and scents and sounds and connections I could vocalise based on what we had just read. (“Can you see them, Mommy? Can you see them?” I would ask.) And a world opened up in front of us filled with such possibility and hope that it could transport us into something timeless, something eternal.
None of us on earth, of course, is eternal, a jarring reality I discovered just a couple of months after my seventh birthday. The day after my mother's funeral, in my attempt to escape the sad-faced, overly-solicitous but well meaning adults who continued to clutter our house like uneaten casseroles, I went to the bookshelf and grabbed that familiar green book and went outside to the peace and quiet of my favourite climbing tree in our back yard. Up and up I climbed until I stopped on a solid branch and opened the book, which – of course – fell open to page 558. I began reading and an extraordinary thing happened. As the words left my lips and went forth into the humid July air, I could feel my mother’s fist pounding lightly on my chest. “Can you feel the rhythm?” I could almost hear her ask. And I looked out over a world filled with the very real presence of suffering and death but could nevertheless see colours and thoughts and scents and sounds and connections as clearly as if I were in that blood-soaked Congo itself. “Can you see them, Mommy?” I asked to the air. And I was certain that she could, because I think I partially understood something at that moment that I would only fully come to understand later in life: We had been prepared for that moment, my mother and I. And being prepared made all the difference. You see, it always does.
We have in this morning's Gospel words of inestimable comfort, words, which, in the Christian liturgical tradition, have long been proclaimed at funerals. Although these words do not take away sadness, they can offer some solace to our troubled hearts, to know that those who have gone before us have a place prepared for them. It can temper tears somewhat for us to imagine our loved ones resting in a place just perfect for them, where the struggles of life have been lifted, and where the joy and happiness we all seek surrounds them like the arms of a loving mother.
But as comforting as it may be to reflect on some beautiful place which awaits us all, there is a danger in relegating these words of Jesus to that sentiment alone. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” Jesus says earlier in John's Gospel, reminding us that it is life which is his focus. All too often, in promoting a “just put up with it until you get to heaven” attitude, the Church has been guilty of not paying close enough attention to life itself, not doing enough to make sure that the abundant life Jesus offers is shared in equity and love by all of God's people. No, this Gospel passage is not just about some future happiness which hopefully awaits us all.
What then, are we to think on, if this passage is not only about some future heaven? The key comes in the word prepare. Now, although I once swore to my long-suffering Greek professor that I would never use Greek in preaching, I'm afraid I'm doing it once again and I owe Dr. Tredway (long since departed) an apology. Because the word that is used in John's Gospel ἑτοιμάζω – translated prepare – is rich in metaphorical meaning, and you know me – I've never metaphor I didn't like. One of the nuances of the word has to deal with the oriental custom of sending people out before kings were to travel, to level roads and make them passable for the royal party. So when Jesus tells us that he has prepared a place for us, he's not just talking about the final destination, but about the road as well. We hear in the First Letter of Peter that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and so – as befitting someone of our royal stature – Jesus, though our King, is nevertheless reversing roles with us; he is making the road more passable for us. We know as we follow him that we will face anxiety, fear, uncertainty. There are things on this road that we don't want to face, but having that road prepared for us can make them seem less daunting, somehow, as the forethought that went into this preparation surrounds us, covering us with a unique sense of love. If we truly have faith in the preparations undertaken on our behalf, we know we are ready to go out and face any unpleasantness that awaits. We have been prepared for it. And being prepared makes all the difference. You see, it always does.
And so this Gospel passage challenges us to open our eyes to the wonders which have been prepared for us – not in some distant time and place – but right here, right now. We have words on a page which are also written in our hearts, divinely given to shine in our midst so as to combat the darkness of a suffering world. We have people, who, though we ache to see and be with them, nevertheless remind us that together we are a part of something which is strong and glorious, whether we are physically together or not. We have beautiful temples, built centuries ago to the glory of God, which – though closed – are given to us as powerful symbols of our response to being prepared for the road on which we journey together. We have simple bread and wine, transformed before us, and, though most of us must now fast from this bread of life and cup of salvation, we know that even our aching desire to receive them can fill us with such grace that we are spiritually communing with God Himself. These things – and many, many more – have been prepared for us by a loving God who so wished to level the craggy roads of humanity and make them passable that he walked on those roads Himself, to prepare our way back to Him.
And that way brings us here, today, to this church, to sitting rooms and kitchens and dining rooms and studies, where – if at first glance it seems that we are immobile – we know that not to be the case. This virus and its restrictions have not stopped our journey together – our journey to God – because the one who prepares a place for us is far too powerful, for the stone which the builders rejected has become the very cornerstone. No, the presence of the significant suffering and confusion swirling about at this time does not mean that our journey has stalled; perhaps it means that we are now being asked to make more of the journey in our hearts, in prayer .
It can be daunting, this part of the journey, this feeling that we're all alone and desperately trying to figure out where God fits into it all. But I think prayer really is the answer. It’s the best way to be prepared for what comes, to feel the insistent rhythm of God’s life pulsing through us. It’s the best way to look out over a world filled with the very real presence of suffering and death but nevertheless see colours and thoughts and scents and sounds and connections. Boomlay boomlay boomlay boom! Can you feel it? Can you see it? I think you can. I think we all can. Because we've been prepared for this. And being prepared makes all the difference. You see, it always does. Amen.