Monday, September 26, 2011

if this paper is wet

most of my writing the past few days has been of little interest outside a very narrow audience. (really. locating proof of the jewishness of the author in the 1st 2 chapters of the book of luke.) but I have also been writing yesterday's sermon on the topic of forgiveness, particularly apt since rosh hashanah begins in a few days, after which is yom kippur. on my way into the hub to deliver the sermon I realized the congregation, like most uus conversational under the least circumstances, would want to gnaw at the topic like it was a bone, so I cut about a page from it so we would have a 25 minute congregational dialogue. I've marked those incisions with brackets.

“If This Paper is Wet, It’s Because I’m Crying So Bad”
A Sermon Delivered to DUUC,
Burnsville, MN, on September 25, 2011

This past July I drove out to Pennsylvania to spend some time with my dad. Having most of the summer free I avoided the Eisenhower Interstate system in favor of the old interstates and back roads. While there I drove out to my sister’s place in southwest New York and the Hudson River Valley where I grew up and then back out west toward Jamestown to meet up with my wife who was flying into Cornell to share my final week with my dad. Together we took another two days driving home.

What I noticed more than anything else on that long, circuitous route was the number of homes for sale and houses that have been abandoned. And not all of them were on the typical Hooterville-type roads that may have been paved at one time but now the only remnant of that is the occasional even patch where if you’re driving a car rather than a truck it might bottom out because the road has washed out lower than the transmission is slung. These were state and county roads that were in very good shape, where the bracken on either side is cut low and the signs are all new. I counted hundreds of such houses—all right, “counted” is not accurate because I didn’t count—but it’s fair to say I noticed what must have been hundreds of such places.

We live about five miles outside the little town of Baldwin, Wisconsin, where I’ve noticed that along the back roads between town and our house there are five homes for sale and four abandoned houses. You know the kind of places I mean by “abandoned.” A home up for sale, besides the telltale sign, often has the lawn cut and the hedges trimmed and all the buildings are in fair shape. Sometimes there’s a welcoming wreath on the front door and a nice little landscaped garden in the yard. An abandoned house can often be seen from the road only by a corner or a sagging porch end jutting out of the greenery. The grass has grown as tall as the top of the porch and the trees have shouldered together to keep the place seluded. Where I come from back east it’s not unusual to see large patches of fields where the farmers don’t plow because of variations in the terrain, but in this part of the country wherever there’s a clump of trees in a field or a flat place it surrounds a weathered empty house or the foundation of one. Sometimes in the winter in an area you’ve just moved to the bare branches uncover one of these places and on your drive home one night you’ll say, “I never knew that place was there.”

As a thought experiment I started keeping track of homes for sale and abandoned houses within a five-mile radius around our house but I gave up when I reached thirty-five. Perhaps the most disturbing part was the number of homes for sale where the house is still being kept up but the sign proclaiming it available and giving contact information is itself obscured by weeds or branches or overgrown by grass and shrubs, as if the owner has given up hope and is only willing to keep up part of the pretence that someone driving by might want to buy it.
It’s a sad time in this country, we all know that. [In some ways it strikes us as a sadder time than ever before even when we remember the turbulent 60s or 30s or even if we reread our history and recall the 1850s and the Civil War. Sadness is often the emotion of the day. We read about young girls sexually abused and murdered and we say, “that’s so sad.” We read about men, high on amphetamines or cough syrup, or women on crystal meth and with nothing left to lose, provoking a standoff with police and pretending they’ve got a weapon or threatening a cop with a car, and the official gun comes out and ends their miserable life and we say, “that’s so damn sad.” Everything around us seems so rotten and people seem hopeless and, well, it seems as if there’s nothing we can do that can make it better. ]

The title of my sermon is “If This Paper is Wet, It’s Because I’m Crying So Bad,” and some of you might recognize that as a quote from a recent sad story. It’s one of the messages Steven Cross, a divorced, unemployed man with a young son, left his 11 year old boy in a note the morning he disappeared. Let me remind you a little of that story. It’s a local one so you might have heard it. Sebastian Cross is an 11 year old boy who woke one morning back in July to discover that his dad, architect and single father Steven Cross, had left him alone in the house with two letters. One, addressed to Sebastian, explained that Steven had left for good, and directing the boy to the home of a neighbor and good friend, to whom the other letter was addressed. Sebastian’s letter included this heartbreaking sentence, “If this paper is wet, it’s because I’m crying so bad” as well as the astonishing news that his mother, whom the boy had not seen since he was 2 after which Cross explained she had died from cancer, was in fact alive.
Sebastian’s mother, now known as Katik Porter, had never expressed interest in contacting either of them and her whereabouts at that time were unknown. To be fair, Porter, who has a history of substance abuse and arrest, has since reemerged and asked to be a part of the boy’s life.
In his letter to Sebastian, Cross explained that things were mighty bad and had been for a long time. Cross had been out of work for a while, had been the subject of several litigations by former clients, and his financial problems had been accruing since at least 2007. A bank was scheduled to foreclose on the house they lived in. In booking photos since police discovered him in Cambria, California, Cross looks like a shell-shocked 60 year old for whom the world has turned out to hold more misery than he’d been told it would. After spending a month living out of his car in various California towns, Cross had finally found work at a deli where he was known as a tall-talker for the stories he told employers and co-workers. Doug Lindsey, co-owner of the deli, has said, “It’s a horrible situation…It’s just a sign of the times.”
It is, isn’t it, a sign of the times? Cross has explained his leaving Sebastian as his attempt to keep the boy from seeing the father homeless and destitute. Most of us in this room are fortunate enough not to have to leave behind our kids and our homes in order to start new and better lives. But the chances are that we know someone, maybe intimately, children or friends, only a step or two away from feeling that packing it in, packing up, and walking away is the only honorable solution left. Who is only a paycheck or a job or a marital argument away from that home becoming empty, the grass growing chest-high, the trees slowly merging as if hiding from the world the shame of someone’s failure.
What do we do with those people? And by “those people,” of course, I mean us. Because much as we might think ourselves outside that demographic, if nothing else the current economic collapse, often referred to as the worst in American history since the Great Depression, is a visceral reminder for many of us that we are not that secure in our fortunes. It can take only the loss of a job, of an income, the closing of a place of business, to break out the sweat on our foreheads and make us start to look around wildly for what we can jettison from our lives, the boat or the motor home or the cable connection, the weekly dinner out, the new clothes, the
Christmas or birthday presents, the relationship, what we can do without to keep the wolf from the door another couple weeks.
The other day I had a knock at my door but it wasn’t the wolf. It was one of my neighbors come to ask a favor. Dennis, who looks and sounds like the Canadian actor Graham Greene, is a farmer about three miles to our west and he’d had four stray dogs show up on his property that week in sets of two. The dogs had obviously been cared for and he could see the outline of collars on each neck, although there were no collars on any of them when they appeared in his fields. He already has four dogs and they weren’t getting along with the new ones. He surrendered them to another farmer—our township long ago eliminated the budget for an animal control officer after the county pet shelter also went belly up, and the farmer, who is also the township’s council chair, has been the unpaid acting officer for years, holding strays in one of his barns—but they were scheduled to be shot in a few days if no one claimed them. Would we be willing, Dennis asked, to hold them at our place until he could find adopters?
I want to note this happens, abandoning dogs, in our area often. We’re a couple miles off I-94 and there are wide stretches of roads where no one can see anything you do. It’s not unusual on my daily walks during spring thaw to find deer carcasses some hunter has thrown into a ditch after cutting off the antlers and choice pieces of meat, leaving the head and legs and guts for my dogs to discover. Just the week before last my largest one found where another person, probably after having cleaned his freezer, had dumped about five pounds of uncleaned pond fish by the side of the road. They had bloated and exploded in the sun and the smell tickled his nose a lot earlier than it did mine.
Last year my wife and I were walking our dogs, including the lab we found curled in a tiny broke-leg lump on the side of the road nine years ago, on the trail near our house. There had been flooding that spring that took out a bridge and we used that as a turnaround for our walks. A large brindle-colored dog bounded across the creek and joined us and after he and our dogs sniffed one another, joined us in heading home. He had no collar but he was in good shape and we assumed he was a local dog we hadn’t seen. As we got nearer home and nearer the main road, I was nervous about him following us onto the highway, so I stayed with him and Jayne took our dogs home and came back with a car so we could take him back to his home. He bounded in the back and we drove from neighbor to neighbor, asking if he was theirs or if they knew where he belonged. About five stops in, we realized he had been abandoned.
We couldn’t take him in so we contacted Jim, the farmer who’s also the council chair, and he said we had about four days to find him a place. This story has a happy ending. We put photos of him on Facebook that night and within a couple hours our friend Liz, who’d only the week before lost a local election and whose own dog had been killed the previous year by a car, contacted us to say that now she had the time and energy available to take him in. Liz drove over to Jim’s with my wife the next day and they had cartoon hearts coming out of each other’s eyes on meeting one another. His name is Murphy now and we get regular updates and photos showing how well he’s doing.
They don’t all have happy endings. Jim has had to shoot ten dogs already this year. Dennis didn’t want to make it fourteen if he could help it. I said yes, we’d find some way, and he said he had a couple leads but wanted to have a backup plan. He called me that night to say he’d found placements for three of them and then called the next morning to say he’d found a place for the last one. But he’s keeping my number on speed dial, he said, because he expects the situation will happen again soon.
[We figure, by the way, there are probably nearly as many cats abandoned out our way too, but aside from the few that take up residence at local farms, including one that winters in one of our barns, we assume the coyotes get them.

We say, “how sad” and we go on because what else can we do? Dogs and cats are even less visible than abandoned houses.] People in desperate times do desperate things. It’s not all bad news. Yesterday we learn that a La Crosse mother, citing Wisconsin’s 2001 Safe Haven Law, surrendered her three-hour-old newborn boy at a fire station where she also provided health and medical histories. This boy will doubtless grow up with complications from his abandonment, but I cannot fault someone who recognizes when she’s in over her head, especially in light of the reasons the Safe Haven Law was enacted. Perhaps the flip side to the American Dream, the idea that you can someday have it all, is that when it becomes too hard to manage, you can walk away from it.

Here is my question. Do we forgive these people who do these things? And if so, how do we forgive them? Relationships can be more quickly abandoned as houses. For instance, Dennis is certain he knows at least one farmer who has dumped a couple dogs on his property. He asks me, how can you do such a thing to an animal you’ve cared for? And also, how can you even bring that up when you know the other person?
We don’t all know someone who’s walked away from his home, his child, a pet, but we all know someone who has somehow crossed the boundaries we might think are well-established and inviolable. Here’s a for instance: I had a friend, a good friend, Bonnie. Like me she had been homeless and in need and had gotten back on her feet. At least it seemed so. Back in the late 90s, after she’d been working regularly as an accountant for a homeless advocacy group in the Twin Cities, Bonnie’s employer discovered she’d been embezzling money from the organization to fund trips to Treasure Island casino. Bonnie lost her job and was arrested but it never went to trial and she didn’t serve any jail time. It was, the mutual friend who told me about it said, a sign of the times.
I was incensed. I can’t fault stealing, I’ve found myself in positions where I’ve had to steal food. I’m not proud of those times, but I tell myself I took things that weren’t expensive and didn’t cause anyone much pain. What Bonnie did was to take money from people who least could afford the loss, who had already lost everything, and taken it from a group helping people in situations she had herself been in. It was the equivalent of spitting in the face of a nursing mother. In a fit of self-righteous apoplexy I dropped her from my life.
[You probably have an idea how this ends. Shortly after entering seminary I came to the conclusion that I need to forgive her. After all, if, as I keep hearing at United, the best way we can live out a life like Jesus or Gandhi or the Buddha is to behave as they did, then I need to live out my belief that no one is beyond redemption or forgiveness. If I hope, after all the wrongs and questionable decisions I’ve done in my life, to be at peace with who I am, then I need to be at peace with Bonnie.
It hasn’t gone any further than that.] I know this is what I have to do but the situation hasn’t presented itself nor have I gotten in touch with her through that common friend to bring the moment to its crisis. There is precedent for this. Pope John Paul II forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish would-be assassin who shot him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. Georgia Congressman John Lewis who, as a young civil rights advocate was spat on and had his skull fractured at Selma, forgave Governor George Wallace before his death. Bonnie didn’t shoot me or split my skull but I admit I’m afraid. She did a great wrong that hurt many people. Somehow the fact her actions didn’t affect me directly makes it harder. How do I say to her, “I forgive you” and mean it?

Someday Sebastian Cross will be faced with the need to forgive his father for abandoning him. Someday Dennis is going to ask that other farmer why he thought someone else should shoulder the cost he couldn’t anymore. Someday each person who walks away from a home or a dog or cat will need to face the need to forgive himself for having done that. Someday each of us will face the need to forgive someone we know, someone we love for having committed an act that, while it may not be the equal of abandonment or embezzlement, nonetheless pushes us away. What do we say, to them and to ourselves? How do we say it?

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