“In the religion of love, there are no believers and unbelievers for love embraces all” — Rumi
“What I am looking for, it is not out there. It is within me. — Helen Keller
“Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you? Are you breathing just a little and calling it life?” — Mary Oliver
I remember the first time I was awestruck by a sudden observation (or call it a question), that life, that living, was so much more than simply being entertained.
My grandfather on my mother’s side, Grandaddy Doc (pronounced “doke” after his ranch near Atoka, OK, which was named the D.O.K. Ranch), was a general surgeon. His office was high up in the Medical Arts Bldg (eventually replaced by Burnet Park here in FW). He was also our family doctor. So, visiting Grandaddy Dok at his office was an intimidating experience — going downtown, taking the elevator up to the 10th floor, sitting in the oak wood, ranch-style furniture, waiting… Dok had a nurse for many years whose name was Lucky. She’d served in the Army as a field nurse and wasn’t always the most affable of temperaments. Grandaddy Dok always came out to say “hi” when we arrived. And he’d shoot us a strange smile as he patted us on the back and said, “Who’s gonna get Lucky this time?”
It created a complicated relationship, I think, trusting the person who at one moment might be generous and embracing with hands outstretched to pick you up or hug or lend a hand with the lawn mowing, while at another moment approaching you and your illness with one hand that would hold your squirming body down to the examination table as the other hand advanced toward your bare buttocks wielding what looked like a needle meant to pierce an angry rhinoceros! Both, I’ve come to appreciate so many years later, were Grandaddy Dok’s way of loving the world. He communicated with his hands and his life.
One warmish winter afternoon, he was driving my uncle’s brownish ’68 Chevy pick up to our small ranch lease south of Everman. I say brownish pickup, because I don’t ever remember seeing it clean and so don’t really know what its original color was. Everman was “out in the country” back then, and I looked out the cab window and felt a desperate sense of isolation. We’d left the real world and were heading into the desert. Nothing to do, no one to see, no TV to watch — just me and the miles and miles of dry farmland, Hereford cattle, and my quiet grandfather (who at any moment might either pat me on the back or pull out a syringe!).
We arrived at the small ranch and Dok said, “We’re gonna replace some of the electric fencing I put up around the south pasture. The cattle tore it down.”
My first instinct was to ask my grandfather why would we replace an electric fence with more electric wiring if the cattle already tore it down, when he gave a look that immediately changed my impression about my indefatigable, immanently wise grandfather — he’d obviously forgotten to turn the fence back on!
And that was the first moment I began to realize life was more than my entertainment — the realization that Dok, like me in my early adolescence, made mistakes. Foolish, absent-minded, innocent enough mistakes — even ones that could be costly. But you get up and go out in the world and do it over as often as needed until you get it right (or until it gets you right.).
But the second, more enduring sense of awe came as we drove to the far side of one of the pastures where there was a small cabin. It was where his ranch hand lived. Pretty run down place, with a beat-up pickup in the dirt driveway. I never met him, but I knew about him from the way my uncle often spoke of him — lazy, unemployed, alcoholic most of his life. My grandfather picked up his medical bag, told me, in as gentle an expression as I’d ever seen his face, to wait in the truck. He walked up to the cabin and knocked on the door. I couldn’t see who’d opened it, but Dok went in and was gone for maybe 15 minutes.
When he came back out, he put the bag behind the seat and drove us to the downed fence line. For the next hour or so, we worked silently — except for the occasional, “Good job, Tommy”, when I’d drive the post into the ground or hook the wire to it.
It wasn’t until after we stopped by the barn to be sure and turn the fence line on that he stopped for a break and told me about the ranch hand.
“He’s an army vet, fought in Viet Nam in the mid-60’s and was discharged after being wounded. That healed up, but he still has a lot of pain, mostly in his mind. He can’t work in factories or with other people because he’ll suddenly remember something from the war and he falls apart. So, I come out to check on him once or twice a month and give him some meds and a shot to help with his pain. And he helps around the ranch. He’s been sober for a year or so. But it’s real hard for him and he doesn’t trust people very easily.”
“But he trusts you,” I countered. And my grandfather just smiled.
And that’s when I felt a sense of awe at one of the first moments I can remember experiencing something larger than myself, than what entertains me. And it’s something I felt deeply and mysteriously about my grandfather. The sense that I might be here for something more than just me, or even those closest to me.
This Sunday, March 1, singer/songwriter Elizabeth Wills will join us for a special start to our Lenten sermon series, “i am…” We’ll explore the unique “I am” statements of Jesus – unique because they are only found in John’s gospel and because many scholars think Jesus never actually said them. But somehow these sayings were important enough for the author of John to include them. They spoke to something about Jesus’ life and a transformed community of 2nd century mystics. We’ll explore this theme together as we think about the depth of our lives, our moments of joy and sorrow, and what holds it all together — what holds us all together.
I hope to see you Sunday at the Historic 512!
Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven