Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Thought God Drove A Silver Thunderbird

Sitting here working to Marc Cohen, raspy vocals, syncopated piano, hot afternoon on the cusp of the summer solstice, and suddenly I'm smiling at the image of God driving down Main Street in a silver Thunderbird, hairy arm resting along the top of the door frame, fingers tapping out a rhythm, shades on his face, slight smile tugging his lips, as he feels the evening sun across his face.

The lyrics actually go like this: Cohen describes a car driving down the street, with so much chrome you can't even see the driver--who has a fondness for Brylcreem and pocket combs--and then he imagines what the driver says to him, "Don't you give me no Buick. Son, you must take my word, If there's a God in heaven, He's got a silver Thunderbird. You can keep your Eldorados and the foreign car's absurd, Me I wanna go down in a silver Thunderbird." I like the image of God in a silver Thunderbird, sunburned forearm beating the universe's time with his middle finger. Works better for me than God in a minivan, or God in a three-piece suit with Hitler-path in his hair, or God in a white polyester robe and Santa Claus beard.

But, I don't know whether what I envision is even close to the center of Him at all.

I'm having what I'm coming to think of as "a man of God out of Judah" moment these past few days. This particular man of God is chosen by God to warn Jereboam about his false temples. After successfully delivering the message and then healing Jereboam's hand when it had shriveled after reaching out to touch the altar, the prophet turns to leave.

Jereboam asks him to stay and eat with him. The Man of God out of Judah declines, saying that one of the constraints of this particular mission was that he was to "Eat no bread, nor drink water, nor turn away by the same way that [he] camest" (1 Kings 13:9). So Man of God out of Judah leaves, apparently having passed his particular prophetic test. On his way, he gets stopped by "an old prophet of Beth-el" who tells Man of God out of Judah that he is also a prophet, just like Man of God out of Judah is, and that an angel has told him that it's alright for Man of God out of Judah to have dinner with Old Prophet from Beth-el. So, he does--which he shouldn't really . . . but when one of your own fraternity comes to you and says, "Hey, come to dinner," do you really get suspicious?

As soon as the meal is over, Old Prophet chastises him, "Thus saith the Lord, Forasmuch as thou has disobeyed the mouth of the Lord, and has not kept the commandment which the Lord thy God commanded thee, . . . thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of they fathers." Sure enough, on the way home, Man of God out of Judah is attacked by a lion, which lion is kind enough not to eat his carcass but to keep the ass upon which Man of God out of Judah rode company until Old Prophet comes by to pick up the body.

I don't like Hummers. I don't get people who drive Hummers. I just don't get Hummers, cars or drivers, on so many levels. Somehow, they feel wrong to me. The same wrong I feel when I see the university's ROTC soldiers practice military maneuvers in the park just as the elementary school gets out for the day and the children walk home past soldiers in full regalia and rifles wriggling their way between the black locust trees. Bizarre. When I read about Man of God out of Judah being killed by a lion, albeit a vegetarian lion, it felt like God just drove through my world in his suspiciously squat, carapaced, slinty-eyed Hummer. I don't recognize Him. And, in all honesty, don't really want to know that version of Him.

The last week of May our chestnut tree was a vision of Spring. Teenage leafs, in Vermont green, surrounded virile, fully pink-stamened chestnut tree flowers. In about a week, the tree would drop all its beauty in messy, oily clumps on the newly poured patio, like mascara the morning after. But for that glorious week, the tree took center stage in the garden.

Until it snowed. Not a polite dusting. But a heavy, wet, low-ceilinged, dark grey storm that started as I walked into the gym, was still going an hour later, and kept on going for hours. Heavy, wet winter snow falling onto peonies, and forsythia, and basket of gold, and daffodils, and the trees in their Spring finery.

The chestnut had lost the third of its branches facing the mountain by the time I got home. Some branches had completely broken off. Others were ripped in two, like a simple fracture, a tiny sliver of under branch still hanging on vainly. Then there were the Greenstick fractures, branches so badly bent, that even though they appeared intact, they were, as far as lifelines and arterial blood go, cut off from the main trunk.

I saw her through the kitchen windows, bravely trying still to be beautiful with her back third ripped away, and screamed. "Just, no! No! No! No!" "What on earth is it doing snowing a week from June. Why on earth does it need to snow now? It's enough. Just enough."

Kevin walked in and heard me, "What's the point in getting angry? Don't tell me you're getting angry at God?" That's when the guy rope slipped out of my head and I lost my mooring.

"I'm not angry at God. I'm just angry--at whatever God makes the weather. This is ridiculous. It's enough that I have to live in this place. It's enough that I have to have snow for five months of the year. It's enough that I have to learn to ski, and that I have to live through February and March, the most depressing months of the year. It's enough that we've had the longest winter in living memory. This is enough. It does not snow in May. It is not supposed to blizzard in May when all the trees are in full leaf. This is absurd."

I turned again and looked out the window. Yes, the chestnut was still mangled. "Just no! No! Enough. It's enough." I screamed. One of those shoulders back, chin at the sky, arms spread out wide in a question mark, howling at the moon screams. Then I got out the phone book and started calling trees services to see who could come and heal my crippled chestnut tree.

A Sunday morning last month, I was on my pre-church walk. This particular Sunday morning took me along an old lane which used to run through orchards that, even though long forgotten and untended, still fruited because the roots of the trees fed off the earthen irrigation canal. After the canal got pressurized and piped about ten years ago, the trees didn't have a source of water much past April when the ground absorbs the melting snow for a few weeks. So, they don't fruit like they could.

This particular morning as I ventured down the lane, I noticed that the plum trees were carrying fruit, as if they were getting weekly irrigation water. Then I noticed apricot trees amongst the plum trees showing gold at the end of their branches. As I rounded a slight turn in the lane, where a natural spring seeps slowly across the path, I lost my breath. There she stood, beside the spring, in all her beauty. An apricot tree, perfectly proportioned and dressed with golden orbs apparently arranged by the best Macy's Christmas window dresser heaven had on call. Archbishop Latour would have been proud to have her in his diocese garden. I just stood there and looked at her, smiling at her beauty, at her defiance, at her absolute confidence that she was an apricot tree, and always would be, even if they piped the canal. (I talk to my plants).

The thought crossed my mind, like the dash of the lizard's tongue, "No fruit in July, if not for that snowstorm in May, and that long ugly winter that never ended." I thought about that as I tromped my long way home. Would I have chosen to lose the backside of the chestnut tree so that this apricot tree could bear fruit this summer? No, not really. But, there never really was a choice. There was just a snowstorm that broke things and destroyed buds, and ripped the heart out of hundred-year-old trees. And now, there is an apricot tree in all her proud, golden-balled beauty.

On the way, as my feet walked and my arms swung and Colin Hay was singing about his beautiful world while the sun hit my bare shoulders, I felt a knowing slip into place: "Get one, get the other." I felt a space open up in my head for the God who shows himself in the snowstorm, the God who, this particular day, shows up in a way I had never imagined, in the Hummer or the minivan with a briefcase.

I see her every year, when I register my teams for the upcoming soccer seasons. She epitomizes tawny. Golden skin, copper hair, freckles like pennies. We had classes together at university twenty-five years ago. She runs for miles, and volunteers as the registrar for the local soccer league. Her children play the piano, and soccer. Her husband coaches soccer, and works at the university. Her front room has a piano and her front lawn always has a couple of kids. She's me, with longer legs and better wind and better hair.

I saw her yesterday. She came shuffling around the corner from her kitchen into the front room. She must have weighed 80 pounds. She was white. White face, white thin legs, white knitted cap pulled low to her white cheek bones. I stared at her in bewilderment.

"I have cancer. As of a month ago, I have lung cancer." I reached out to touch her, to steady the altar, like Jereboam. Not quite taking it in, feeling the sheer incomprehensibility well up in my eyes.

I still can't take it in. How a woman in her early forties, who has never smoked, and who runs ten miles a day, comes down with lung cancer, I don't know. Doesn't make sense to me. Makes me, just a yearly visitor, want to shout out, "No! Enough. This is just enough." I thought about her all day, as I drove, and sat in the coaching course, and got into bed. She floats across my consciousness, an unanswerable question. All I can dredge up is a faint refrain with words like, "works of God being made manifest." The lizard tongue that flicks across my brain.

After Sunday School the day I talked out my bewilderment about thinking I know God, and then coming to realize that he sends lions after prophets who have completed most of their mission, Reynie, a therapist with troubled youth, came up to me and said, "I've thought for a while that the reason we are given the frontal lobes in our brains is so that we learn to overcome the frontal lobe, the need to reason, to have it all make sense."

Sometimes, all we can do is kneel before the unknowable, and wait for God to show Himself. Then to make space for Him when He does, if it is different than we imagined. I don't know how He plans on showing up in Mel's driveway, but I'm asking that the delivery van, when it shows up--and I utterly believe it will show up--bring Mel an apricot tree, in all her golden-fruited beauty.

Title: from Marc Cohen, "Silver Thunderbird."


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  2. Time has a way of changing the lessons we get out of our trials--strengthening and deepening their teachings (hopefully!). My mom's death was so unexpected--who would ever think that her friend Nola would outlive her (since Nola had been at Death's doorstep since 1977). However, one of the greatest gifts to come out of her passing was the time for a graceful goodbye--we didn't have anything left unsaid, and we had time to mourn and to plan. She went fast enough that she didn't have to suffer for years, either, which was also a blessing.

    Your yard is beautiful! Enjoy some apricots!

  3. You pretty make me cry every time I read your stuff. Thank you for the beauty you bring to the world.