Simon of Cyrene

(inspired by “Come, Healing Cross”
from J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion)

Why me?
In all this faceless wall of flesh
that marks His march of death
why must I bear the load of One
condemned to hang upon the Skull?

Why me?
Are not my clothes and skin the same
as many here who’ve come to view
His punishment for blasphemy?

Because I have no choice
I shoulder now the splintered weight
and focus on the stones beneath
as upward toward death’s hill we climb
(My strength has been a source of pride.)

I pause to wipe the sweat and spit of jeering mouths
and shore up timbers for the steeper stretch ahead.

Briefly, as this sweltering gauntlet
seems to close its tomb-like walls
oppressively upon my way,
imagination places me in His dark path.
But then the vapors of my mind’s mirage
burn off as noonday nears.

Though straining fast to look away
I feel compelled to turn toward Him
as if His glance has cast its net around my eyes
(as if His heart knew where to cast).

Surrendering, I turn His way
and indescribably am drawn
to depths I cannot now express;
I feel the farthest reaches of my soul
are hauled aboard a sturdy ship
and lain secure upon its deck.
Turning back toward the Skull
I sense the wooden weight becoming
more than I can bear.
The strength upon which I rely
is fading fast
and not a single soul
within this wailing wall of flesh
will stoop to help me on.

Unthinkably I somehow feel
inside my inner self compelled
to draw upon a greater might than I possess
which seems as though it lies within my reach.

I look again upon the One
whose surrogate I have become.
His broken, bruised and crumbling frame
has surely trudged its final steps
and leaves a wake of life’s blood
like a river through this fleshly gorge.

How can it be
that as my gaze meets His once more
within the bedrock of my soul
I sense a power more secure
than any ever known
and feel it offered me?
How does this One who now appears
to cling to life with thread-bare grip
save strength enough to somehow help
the man that’s helping Him?

I know not how or why,
only that in these final weary steps
I see in places deep within
a sturdy ship a-sail upon a crimson tide
which flows from out a barren hill
with me aboard,
at rest in Him.

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The Gift of an Authentic Life

(In memory of George Eugene Woodward, 1928 – 2016)

“But above all, in order to be, never try to seem.” ― Albert Camus

I suspect all good lives are good, in part, because they are authentically lived.

I first met George Woodward, the man who would become my father-in-law, in 1985. I had heard a bit about “Big George” as he was affectionately known, from his daughter, Ellen. But somehow, nothing had really prepared me for the impact this man was to have on my life.

Her certainly could have been intimidating. Standing just shy of 6 foot 4 (“shy” only being added with the settling of later years) and around 230 pounds, he was definitely a man of a man. Physically imposing though he was, the essence of his personal impact upon me that day 31 years ago can be summarized with words such as amicable, warm and gracious. I simply felt welcome in his presence, and at home around him from the very first time we met. And I think his personal authenticity had a lot to do with that.

As Ellen and family wrote in George’s obituary, “George will be remembered for his dedicated service to God, his family, his community and his country. He never failed to fight for what he believed in, or to apologize when he was wrong.” I certainly came to see and deeply believe this to be true in my 31 years of knowing him. George was a man who acted justly.

He was unapologetically George. True, he was quick to apologize when he realized he had made a mistake, or if he had exerted his opinion a bit too strongly. But he never apologized for being himself, and he never shied away from it, either. What you saw was what you got. And that never changed, no matter the season or situation.

I remember a time when we were traveling together as a family, and there had been a misunderstanding about a place and time of meeting. While George verbally expressed his frustration to the group, he later sought out each family member and offered an apology. He meant it, and that was obvious. One comes away from an experience like that not really caring who was right or wrong. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was, who was human and knew it.

Over many years of visiting in George and Mary’s (his wife) home, a departure ritual took shape, and I am sure if filmed, these occasions would have been almost indistinguishable. Nearly tearing up, he would tell us how much our visits were appreciated, and sincerely thanked us for taking the time to come and visit with him and Mary. Again, authenticity shown through, along with pure gratitude and humility for the gift of relationships.

George’s love for his family was palpable and so warm. It was never questioned, a bedrock truth for his wife, children and other family members. Equally obvious was his love of God and country.  George was not one who went around talking about how much he loved Jesus. But his witness was in his walk.  I am reminded of a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” George preached it daily.

The man was a defender of the truth as he saw it. He did not shrink back from this. He protected those whom he loved. He guided those who were less steady. He shepherded children and adults with wise counsel. He took care of the old people. He built for the future. He could be counted on. He gave back more than he got. He was forgiving. George was a man who loved mercy.

When my father died in 2007, George didn’t tell me he was going to try and become a father figure to me. He just did it, authentically, lovingly, innately. He just lived it.

George’s life was an anchor for many in his circle of influence.  The only way this could have been true is that George, himself, was anchored securely “in the haven of rest.” And the authentic life he lived until the end was rooted in the one true and only authentic life of a loving God and father of us all, God with us, who had walked our journey. God with George.

As health and balance declined, George remained strong in himself and in the strength of his God as he continued to provide, welcome and lead. At the end, this man’s man had the humility to accept the reality of his frailty, and the grace to let concerned others help him. He even let his adopted son help to feed him supper when we visited him in the hospital a few weeks prior to his death. That was another of his gifts which I will always cherish. George was a man who walked humbly with his God.

The prophet Micah leaves us these words: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Somewhere, sometime, in the wild wonder of the East Tennessee mountains of his childhood home, between Mother’s hearty cooking and Father’s sturdy building, between the ploughed rows and steep pastures of his youth, George had listened, and George had perceived what was required of him. And he spent the rest of his days authentically living out the truth of who he was, serving as a guide for all who knew him.

I thank God for the authentic life of a great man, George Eugene Woodward.

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If I Can Speak

If I can speak
If I can speak the words of common folk
gathered in a Sunday shade, leaning
shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand,
walling off the dark day wind to say goodbye,
having soaked up each other’s tears
with the warm unity of family bread –
if I can sing the tune they share
with the gravelly, gasping voice
of their one great spirit wailing upon itself
for you and for me and for Jesus and the poor children,
the old men and their widows,
and for those on the bottom side of luck
standing in a fox hole of bled out love –
if I can pray the prayer that sounds like no words
but the rolling flood of a dam that’s been breached
or the rushing pentecostal winds from nowhere
to everywhere blowing; the last exhalation
of a contrite heart or hands that snap clasped
when the bottle drops and the cell slams shut
and the trigger pulls –
if I can grasp the hand that draws like a claw
over some piece of death that it won’t let die,
shielding its face in rags of hand-me-down shame,
too weak to take the bread being offered
from the palm with a hole in the middle,
Holy, hurting, healing, held –
then I will have found the deepest diamond
of this and every last daybreak,
the rejoicing, upraised hands
of the little one called I am,
and I will be, and all of us will be,
encircled forever in a golden cord of song.