Posted by: mpdonley | August 8, 2014

Making Peace With the Scar

The other day, a friend put a pretty bad dent onto the side of my grand piano. A total accident, of course, and he was mortified. I felt bad for my friend, and quickly forgave him. But the truth is, that scar was a blow.

Besides the house, this is the most valuable thing I own. The cars depreciate in value sooner than a good Yamaha piano does. And even though I don’t play it very often these days, this piano has a great deal of sentimental value for me. It represents a lifetime of work achieving a level of proficiency, and a greater level of joy. On it I have written songs, worked on arrangements, held rehearsals, accompanied friends, jammed with my kids, played duets with my wife.

I tackled Bach on that piano. Practiced scales. And sometimes, when the house is empty except for me, I have quietly played my heart out, just for myself and God and the night.

Having children, I expected it would get pretty dinged up, but amazingly it survived with barely a scratch. It’s maintained its finish, its tune, its beauty. Until last weekend.

Now, understand that I don’t blame my friend at all. It could’ve been me or one of my kids or anyone else who happened to walk by that big black box. He just happened to be the one who made that first mark. And while this would not be considered a huge scrape, the scar is not in a hidden place. It has the appearance of carelessness, like a casual knock that was shrugged over. It’s just there, and unfortunately I can’t ignore it when I walk by.

If you know me at all, you probably know where this is going. My body is covered with scars. There’s a huge “+” on my torso, sixteen inches across, eight down. Two on my lower back, one on my neck, two in private places. There are five on my face. Three from accidents, two from diseases. Conspicuous and “ugly.”

Every scar has its story. Its trauma, its recovery, and its permanent mark. I did not choose any of these marks, like I would a tattoo. Some of them were from silly childhood slips, some aided in saving my life, or at least easing my pain. They’ve all become part of my story, part of the reason I am the way I am.

A few weeks ago, someone said I had a dirt mark on my forehead. After looking in the mirror, I said, “Nope, that’s just me.” Not my scar, me.

I didn’t choose the scars I have, but from now on they are just me. They are part of my story, and I’ll tell you about them if you want. No hiding it.

And so it is with my piano. Another story to tell. This object has so many stories, so many hours it has filled or just witnessed my life. And it is no less beautiful now than it was. More bumping up against life. And that’s a good thing.

Posted by: mpdonley | May 8, 2012

Full of the Dickens

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When you see me in casual, friendly conversation, I am hiding the fact that my brain is seeping out of the back of my head.

You remember The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves has an umbilical cord at the base of his skull?  This connection enables an upload of vast catalogues of information he can use to dance around flying bullets and destroy groups of suit-wearing evildoers.

The hole in Keanu’s head is used to great purpose. But my uncorked plug constantly leaks brain matter containing coherent sentences, common words, even the ability to know what I am doing at a particular moment.  I am here to bear witness to this truth with the following snapshot into the life of my draining brain.

______

I love audio books.  I get immersed in books in a way I never do when I’m just reading from a page.  I love to listen to as many genres as the library can afford me: fiction, classics, biographies and histories.

Audio books helped me conquer some nice fat books, and I’ve greatly enjoyed listening to books by Charles Dickens.  Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, and most recently, Nicholas Nickelby, a 30-CD volume that will be my longest audio book to date, surpassing the 24-disk Roots.

Nicholas Nickelby was a complete delight.  Dickens was a master of meter, tempo, tongue-in-cheek turns of phrases, and joyously lilting language.  The story was constantly rolling around in my head, with characters like the devoted Peggotty, the cruel Mr. Murstone and the lovely Little Em’ly.

On the fifth CD, in the middle of Chapter 10, the CD began to skip at a most inopportune moment.  While driving, I tried to rescue the disk by rubbing it on my t-shirt and wiping off the smudges, to no avail.  When I inserted CD 6, the story was at a completely different place and time, and I was terribly frustrated when I arrived at my destination that day, The American Red Cross, where I was to donate blood.

I may be in my late 40s, but I am no technological slouch. As the nurse was preparing to take my blood, I was on my iPhone.  I knew that because Nicholas Nickelby was a public domain book, it would be a free download as an ebook.  So I downloaded the ebook to my phone in 8 seconds flat, and proceeded to Chapter 10 of my book so I could find the missing information at the end of the passage.

I began scanning near the end of the chapter, going backwards until I found the spot where the disk went bad.  Back and back I went, looking for a familiar phrase, or a familiar setting, or a familiar character.  I was finding none of these.  I made it to the beginning of Chapter 10, and my story was nowhere to be found.  Back to Chapter 9 I went, deeper and deeper, looking for anything that resembled the book I’d been reading.

Man on gurney, connected to an IV, losing his blood and his mind.  Is this the same book?  I looked at the title page, and saw The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens.  Check.  I went back to a few earlier chapters, and did not find a single soul that I recognized.

Did I mention I am not a technological slouch?  As the blood drained from my arm (and my face), I googled Nicholas Nickleby and began to read the cast of characters off of the Wikipedia page.  No one I recognized!  Was it possible that this was such a long book, I hadn’t even encountered the main characters yet?

It was then I realized I’d been listening to David Copperfield.

Here’s my lone, weak defense: I only looked at the cover of my CD once, which was when I found it on the shelf.  I’ve gotten quite skilled at changing the disks while driving, so I never take my eye off the road or venture another look at the case.

But here’s the deal: I’d been replacing the name David Copperfield with Nicholas Nickelby in my brain for 10 chapters, telling the world on Facebook and my family at home how much I am enjoying the wrong book.

The blood was out of my arm and still out of my face when I deleted NN from my phone and downloaded DC, and sheepishly read the missing information from Chapter 10.

_______________

This is the kind of story I tell a friend, and the friend laughs, while a veiled look of concern causes the friend to deeply search my eyes to see if I’m okay.

I say no!  My brain is leaking out of my head.  You are now a witness to these things.

Posted by: mpdonley | April 8, 2012

Wake Up, Breathe

Wake up

Wake up, Jesus

Breathe

 

Feel that?

The last breath you took

Was clogged, choked, stopped

Breathe deep

 

I didn’t forget you, son

I wasn’t late

I showed up right on time

Just like you did for the dead man

 

But now it’s your time to come out

 

Look behind you

See the multitudes of people

Breathing, living, coming out

Through the door you opened

 

Soon I will lift you up

Oh, but not yet

Go, show, prove,

Restore, laugh

Show everyone what life is

 

Say to them,

“Wake up,

Wake up, child,

Breathe.”

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Posted by: mpdonley | December 5, 2011

Joseph Unspoken: an advent poem

Mary thinks I don’t believe her.

How could I not believe her?

She shines like Moses coming off the mountain.

She has entered the Most Holy Place,

And lived to tell about it.

 

She seems to want something from me.

Reassurance? Permission? Blessing?

She asks me what’s wrong.

How can I say?

 

I haven’t spoken the words

that are running around in my brain:

“Mary, I am sad because there will be three of us

before there were two of us.”

 

Is it wrong to want her for myself?

Even for a little while?

 

Why did the angel speak to her face to face,

While I am only entrusted with dreams?

 

What about me?

The baby comes and steals the tender eyes

That were meant to gaze on me.

 

Am I any part of this?

Do I have any say?

If the Spirit can do this impossible thing,

Can the Spirit undo it?

 

She must not hear my questions,

She must not see my heart,

How fragile I feel, how broken.

 

I am a man, I am here to defend her,

To protect her, to provide a home,

To be a rock for her.

 

A rock I will be.

I will be steady and firm,

And I will not wallow in sadness.

Above all else, I will not cry.

 

I will learn to love this child.

I will learn to love.

I will learn.

I will.

 

Jehovah – please keep speaking to me.

I like when you speak to me.

Posted by: mpdonley | December 5, 2011

When You’re a Shepherd: an advent poem


When you’re a shepherd on the graveyard shift,

You use your ears for eyes.

You know the sound of your sheep

Under the blanket of blackness –

The familiar heavy breathing of sleep.

We listen for the unfamiliar things.

Wolves are cunning, but they’re not quiet as house cats;

Stealthiness sounds different from strolling.

Sneaking has a specific sound; we hear it clearly.

 

Shepherds are accustomed to midnight: the quiet and the dark.

Most of us don’t wish for the day shift.

Truth is, we’re more comfortable among sheep than people.

Sheep aren’t complicated; no awkward conversations.

It’s easier to be in the quiet, in the dark, under the sky.

No, the darkness does not bother us;

Darkness is normal at nighttime.

You get used to the dark.

 

At midnight, blindness does not come from darkness,

It comes from blazing light!

Blindness is the piercing illumination of every sleeping sheep

On the now bright green grass of the hills.

 

At midnight, deafness does not come from silence,

It comes from blaring sound!

Deafness is the explosion of song in night air,

Trumpeting like a sword into our brains.

 

I don’t know how long the singing lasted

Or how long the sky flamed,

But I remember the thudding in my temples

When it was dark and quiet again.

Now the darkness was as deep as a cave, unfamiliar.

Now the quiet was ringing, buzzing and strange.

 

After a long while,

After our breathing restarted,

We stumbled across the hills, huddled together

And spoke into this deafening silence:

“What did they say?

Does anyone remember what that song was about?”

 

The memory was a little fuzzy at first, but soon it started to focus.

There was light somewhere; now we have to go find it;

Something about a baby.

 

So now we are looking.  Others will have to herd the sheep.

But as we begin this journey, one relentless question remains:

 

“Why us?”

Posted by: mpdonley | February 1, 2011

The Mr. Blinky Show

We used to call it The Mr. Blinky Show.  Three performers who’ve done a production literally thousands of times simultaneously forget their lines.  Well, one of us forgets his lines, and the other two realize they have no idea how to help get the dialogue back on track.  Then the three, in a moment of stunned stillness, look at each other and blink.  In a moment, a conversation jolts from our eyes.

“What just happened?”

“I don’t know. Was that my line?”

“Dumbhead, of course it was your line.  Wait!  It was MY line!  Oh crap.  Where are we?”

“What just happened?”

“Don’t just stand there, say something!”

“Okay, okay.  Where are we in the scene?  What has been said?  What information does the audience already know?  How can I say something that naturally gets him to say the right thing?  How long has there been silence?  Does the audience know something’s wrong?”

“SAY something!”

“I CAN’T say something!  You guys are supposed to be telling ME something.  How can I respond to something that hasn’t been said yet?”

“But I don’t know what scene we’re in!”

“What just happened?”

“Okay.  I have officially left my body.  I am floating away, into the audience, looking at my dead body.  Miraculously, it is still standing.  Sweating.  Blinking.  Mouth forming words, little syllables plinging from the back of my throat and dropping like coins in a vast hall, ringing with naked impotence upon the ears of the crickets…staring…chirping…”

“Who wrote this show?  We did.  Who can remember this show?  None of us.”

One of us smiles at the stupidity of it.  Two smile.  One invariably tries to stay “professional,” then realizes professional left the building when The Mr. Blinky Show started airing.  Someone says something dumb.  The audience laughs.  One of us says something resembling the material, and we’re back.

Later in the dressing room, we laugh and shake our heads.  “What was that?” And the story is always the same:

Some distraction happened – an audience member made a weird  animalistic sound, a lazy tongue made a line sound garbled, a momentary laundry list invaded the mind, anything different – and for a moment, the brain went backward and thought about that distraction.  Meanwhile, the train left the station without us, and we find ourselves alone in silence with our partners blinking at us.  All in the space of a few seconds.  It all comes down to rewinding.

(You of the younger generation might not relate to this word.  It is an analog word, not a digital one.  It requires stopping the forward motion of a tape, and spooling it back to an earlier point in the reel.  It’s clearly a 20th century phenomenon, but hopefully the visual is in your head.)

If I ever rewind during a show, I’m dead.  I’ve left the scene.  Even if I try to leave a bookmark in the present while I go back – try to figure out what I did, what he said, how I could do that thing better next time – when I return to my bookmark I find that the book has gone on without me.  Now I have to scan and try to figure out what’s been going on while I’ve been away.

Rewinding is the curse of long-running shows.  In a short run, we don’t dare rewind because we’re still so new to the material that out minds are busy keeping up with it, or hopefully slightly ahead.

But in a long run, the show has more of a chance to breathe, to live slightly beyond the text and choreography.  Not that one is improvising, but actually understanding the show better, listening to the little things, noticing the personality of the audience and the show’s ebbs and flows.  For me, this is when performing gets really fun.  As I understand a show better, I’m able to put more honesty into every individual moment.  This doesn’t mean I’m acting more, but acting less and interacting more, sharing more, being more.  It’s exhilarating when a show breathes and lives like it was intended to.

When a show becomes so familiar, when I know where it’s going at any given moment, my work becomes very detailed. Every line, every conversation, every reaction and every space has investment.  So if something doesn’t land the way I wanted, it is very tempting to rewind and investigate what went wrong. And if I’m not careful, I can be caught thinking, which is bad.

Of course, there are also the times when I’m caught thinking about something completely unrelated to the show.  And that is usually the case when we have the MBS, and that’s why it’s so embarrassing and exposed.

Rewinding is not simply deadly for me, to be sure, it is deadly for my partners on stage.  Good performers always know when a partner has left the building. And nothing makes a good performer more frustrated than sharing the stage with someone who is checked out.  Acting is collaborating, listening and responding, inter-acting.  Actors depend on each other’s investment, and expect it.  We need each other.

There are times in life when it’s good to rewind.  To take stock, investigate what happened, reflect, remember, regret, learn.  But save it for after, when you have time to think it through and have some perspective.  A life void of reflection never gets the chance to improve.

But when you are in your life, in your day, in your job, BE there.  Stay awake, even in the sameness of it.  Find joy in the nuances, the little things you never noticed.  Be aware of your partners – respond, react, be present for them, because they need you.

Otherwise, while you’re busy thinking, reflecting, regretting, rehashing, you may find that life has gone on without you.

Posted by: mpdonley | July 29, 2010

Confessing to Mr. Neighbor

Every Midwest neighborhood has at least one.

Joy and I call him Mr. Neighbor.  The guy who cuts his grass to the PGA regulation standard. He has a big smile and a suburban handshake (a wave) for the rest of the neighborhood – we who run mole motels and cannot, EVER, beat Mr. Neighbor to the punch for any yard job.  He has always completed the raking, trimming, blowing, sweeping, snipping, buffing before the rest of us have had our Saturday morning coffee.  With a smile he will gladly offer any tool or equipment to surrounding households, so that they too may be as he is.

Why does Mr. Neighbor intimidate me so?  Why does the perfection of his estate make me feel like a failure?  Has anyone ever complained about the state of my yard?  How has his discipline and skill offended me?  Does his greatness make me a weakling?

So everyone has a Mr. Neighbor.  But not everyone has a Ray.  Most yard perfectionists are aware of boundaries.  But our Mr. Neighbor mows the proverbial lawn of Parenthood, and if the mole motel of my family infests his yard, he will offer to manicure my lawn to be just like his own.

His back yard, which is kitty-corner up to ours, is a shrine to boyhood.  There are toys for little guys and big guys, from the $3,000 playset with swings, slides, flags and ladders to the shiny Harley motorcycle. The three Neighbor boys are all-American, rough and athletic and loud until late at night, while being well-disciplined, respectful and courteous.  Model citizens and meat hunters in training.  They are like a well-manicured lawn, earthy and smooth, and on display.

We have a boy and a girl, Lewis and Emma.  Emma is a flower garden, sweet smelling, sunny and colorful; display-worthy herself.  Lewis is a babbling brook, flitting from one adventure to the next, taking sharp corners, racing over rocks and down hills, sparkling and free.  Try to catch him, but he’ll slide through the hands; there is too much to do and see.  This boy is tough to discipline, as tough as he is to hold.  And yet he embodies laughter and creativity and abandon.  But he can tend to mess up well-manicured lawns.

Consider his run-ins with Mr. Neighbor.  We soon began to realize that when we saw Mr. Neighbor walk from his back yard to ours, we were not in for good news.  The first time he made the trek was when Lewis was about 5.  It seems Lewis was playing with the Neighbor boys on the playset until he decided he was hungry.  He walked into their house (a Donley family no-no), and began searching for an adult (good!).  He heard water running in the bathroom, an under-construction room with no doors.  Lewis walked in, pulled back the shower curtain where Mrs. Neighbor was vulnerable and drippy, and said “Can I have an apple?”

Mr. Neighbor thought we should know.

Another time, Mr. Neighbor traversed the span from Shangri-Lawn to our mole motel, carrying a ziplock bag containing some unknown substance.  Apparently Lewis was playing with Ray’s sons, when he decided the need to defecate was upon him.  Being a man of the earth, Lewis decided to fertilize the soil rather than interrupting his adventures by entering the comforts of suburban facilities.

Ray thought we should have proof.

And then there was the incident we call The Crush.  This time it was Lewis who made his way across the span to our yard, with a spring in his step.  He entered our home through the deck and passed by my chair where I was working.  I stopped him.  “Lewis, what have you been doing?”  “Nothing,” he said with wide-eyes and a mouth like a circus clown, orange fructose paint surrounding his lips.

“What have you been drinking?” “Nothing,” came his reply.  “Then why is your mouth orange?”  “I don’t know,” said my red-cheeked, citrus-lipped fibber.

“Lewis,” I said, my tone lowering parentally, “have you been drinking orange soda?”  He was caught.  We do not keep pop in the house, but we know that Lewis adores Orange Crush over all other sodas.  “Where did you get it?” I asked.

Prying the nails from the solid planks of his deceit, I learned that he had gone over to Mr. Neighbor’s back patio and opened a cooler reserved for an upcoming barbecue, pulled out his favorite drink and taken healthy, fizzy, guilty swallows.  As he realized that his act amounted to stealing, his lower pumpkin-colored pouter began to pooch, and tears filled his eyes.  We mutually agreed that the only way to make this right was to confess to Mr. Neighbor.

The trajectory of truth had turned the other way as we took a death-gallows walk over to Ray’s house.  He was not home, and the date of execution was stayed, prolonging our agonies.  It is one thing to roll our eyes at Mr. Neighbor’s perfectionism, and another to be in need of his mercy.  I felt like I was more guilty than Lewis, for not teaching him right from wrong.

The hour came later in the day, when we saw movement across the canyon separating life from death.  I held my son’s hand as we made our way across.  My thoughts turned to my little man, who was already tearing up.  How long this walk must have been for him.  I was proud of him, and hurting for him.

I flashed back to when I was 8 and my dad and I made a similar trek.  I had taken a dime from my father’s change dish and headed to the neighborhood store to buy some candy.  It was after school, and I was hungry for something sweet and good.  My eye was caught by a gumball machine that had little trinkets in plastic bubbles for a dime.  I looked at all the small shiny toys, and wanted something cool.  I deposited my dime, turned the lever and lifted the door to find a massively lame, stupid, girly toy, and it made me mad.  I had wasted my dime (which was not my dime), and my stomach was even angrier with hunger.

I went up to the lady at the cash register and said, “I lost my dime in that gumball machine.”  She looked at me suspiciously, but reached in the register and gave me a new dime, with which I bought the most substantial sugary snack I could buy.  Stomach satisfied, I headed home.

Around the dinner table that night, I told my story.  My dad’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth as he realized I was telling him that I stole, not once but twice, from him and from the store.  It had not occurred to me consciously what I had done until the words hit my father’s face.  He put his fork down and told me to get my jacket; we were going back to that store.

This moment was happening to me again as I was walking with my son across the lawn.

Dad and I arrived at the dime store during the early evening rush, and I had to wait in line to meet the same lady I had met earlier.  He had given me another dime to pay the debt, and it felt so weighty in my pocketed hand, and I imagined all the eyes in the busy store were on me.  Finally, I reached the lady, and tears were streaming down my face.  I said, “The gumball machine wasn’t broken,” and handed her the dime.  My dad was in the corner, and as I see his face in my memory, I think there was something in his eyes remembering some walk in his past, a moment of truth for him.

Now we were walking to Mr. Neighbor’s door, knocking, and we were face to face with the Lewis’ cash register lady.  We sat down, and in the halting voice of a repentant, tearful 6-year-old, the confession was made.

I was so proud of this son of mine that I barely heard the prolonged speech of Mr. Neighbor, who used adult words like, “transgressions, atonement, trustworthy, disappointed” as Lewis’ eyes glazed over.  Every word of his sermon were aimed at me as much as Lewis, and I was irritated.  I knew the time for application of lessons would be happening in the future, but for now, Lewis had slain the giant of fear, confessed his wrong, and survived.

We walked back home still hand in hand, with my dad in my memory, and my dad’s dad in his, back to safety.  We remember these moments, not because of the sermon we received, but because of the love that holds our hands while we do the right thing.

Lewis, age 9

Posted by: mpdonley | June 5, 2010

Baseball

And that's the way it's played

The umpire blew it; he apologized, and he felt deeply remorseful (“Ump’s blown call was a shame, but compassion ruled day after,” June 4). He did not quit; he did not go into hiding; he did not blame someone else. He did the most courageous thing he could have done: He showed up for work the next day.

The pitcher was robbed; he knew it, and he was mad. He did not throw a tantrum; he did not call for a lawsuit, and he did not shout the injustice to the media. He graciously shook hands with the umpire the next day.

The fans even applauded when the umpire arrived on the field.

This is the best news I’ve read in the paper in months.

Posted by: mpdonley | May 7, 2010

Leaning to the Left

If it weren’t for the left side of my body, I would be a completely healthy person.

That’s right, split me down the middle.  Everything to the right is in its proper place, fully functional and, dare I say it, bland.  The left side has dents, holes, scars, batteries and wires and staples enough to warrant a very thick medical file.  And let’s face it, they give me great stories to tell.

Let’s start with my left butt cheek.  I have a broken bionic butt.

See, I’ve had two back surgeries for really bad herniated disks that affected, yes, my left side, shooting pain down my left leg.  When I was into my 3rd go-round with a back crisis, a pain specialist suggested something new to try.  A bionic implant.

The idea is that herniated disks, if ignored like a screaming child, will eventually cry itself to sleep.  A bionic implant is earplugs to keep you from going insane in the meantime.

There are two parts: one is a little rectangular piece that sits on part of my lower spine, the other is a battery that powers it, and that is in my butt cheek, just under the skin.  They are connected by two wire leads.  The device sends an electrical pulse (which feels like one of those irritating vibrating pillows sold at Walgreens in the ’80s) down to the offending area of the body, in my case my aching left leg.

The lucky Six Million Dollar Man or Bionic Woman gets a big fat remote control that he or she inconspicuously points at his or her butt to raise or lower the level of the pulse (insert bionic sound effect here).  Appropriately stimulated, he or she goes through the rest of the day jittery as a schoolgirl on a first date.  No matter how hard she tries to speak normally, she always sounds really nervous.

But hey, it’s worth it.  The pulse is supposed to make me forget that I have leg pain.  It’s like being in a motel room on a swelteringly hot day, grateful for the air conditioning, while attempting to ignore the fact that the deafening roar of the wall unit is making my eyeballs spasm.

Let’s return for a moment to the fact that I have a battery in my butt.  One can’t expect it to turn one’s leg into a jackhammer indefinitely, can one?  How does one plug in a battery that is underneath the skin?  So weekly I need to recharge my butt.

There is a recharging unit I keep plugged in until I need it.  I need to either affix it to my butt with Crazy Glue-strength tape, or wear an attractive belt with a charger pouch that rests low on my hips like a grandma’s fanny pack.  The unit beeps insistently if the fanny pack shifts, and beeps pleasantly when I’m recharged.

But when I was fully charged I had to be careful, or I would get unexpectedly zapped.  Truly.  If I laughed too loud, I would get zapped.  If I sang too loud, zappo.  Acted in a show that required volume, zap-a-roni every time I spoke.  I must’ve looked like Steve Martin in “All of Me” – my inner Lily Tomlin distorting my body as I tried to remain dignified and in control of my faculties. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and say, “Back in bowl!”

So did the thing actually do what it was designed to do? Well yes, I guess it did, until it broke.  The two leads from the device to my butt both broke.  I went to the doctor, he told me so.  For the past 3 years, I have had a dead metal battery in my butt, irritating me when I sit down.  Sending me through the roof it I bump it.  I won’t name the company who makes the thing (Boston Scientific), but so far they have not assured me they would pay for the surgery if I have the dumb thing taken out.  So in the meantime, I am The Man With the Broken Bionic Butt.

So that is one of my lopsided maladies.  Another is my face.

I’m depressed.  Well, my forehead is depressed.  Pressed in, on the left side.  Dented, you might say.  Some think there must have been some sort of car accident involving a windshield.  Or perhaps a cranial earthquake happened, leaving a sinkhole in its wake.

This is a strange disease called en coup de sabre (the cut of a sword or saber), a form of skin disease from the schleroderma family.  I had a normal forehead until my early 20s, when a small depression began at my hairline (I had one back then).  The skin discolored and was a little shiny.  Over the next few years, the indentation went slowly down my forehead and cut off my left eyebrow and some of the bone around my eye socket.  In the years since, there have been other lines jutting out from the original one, like branches or veins.

Look at my chart, and see what’s left.  Testicular cancer back in 1989 (left), skin cancer on my nose (left side). Ingrown toenail, left.  Scar in the middle of my forehead that favors the left side. Another scar by my left eye.

Alright, so it’s all left.  That’s me.  But look at all the stories I have to tell.

There’s a saying I’ve been hearing lately about leaning into the questions.  Not shying away from the whys or the hows, but embracing the seeming randomness of it all.  Because I don’t believe in randomness; I believe that in every story there is a hero, and my hero is my Creator.  God created me the way I am, and when I tell my stories I point to God’s creative power, to make himself known in the most unexpected, unsymmetrical ways.

Besides, sometimes laughter is all that’s left.

Posted by: mpdonley | May 6, 2010

Setting a Good Table

My job title at Roseville Covenant Church for the last 15 years has been worship coordinator.  A strange title.  I’m increasingly convinced that “designing worship” is impossible.  So is making someone fall in love with someone else.  I’m just trying to set a good table and invite people to the banquet.

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I recently studied Luke 5 while I was preparing to put together a worship service.  Here’s the passage:

(Luke 5:17-26)

One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there.  They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem.  And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.  Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to pay him before Jesus.  When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.  They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

That last verse is my heart’s desire for the congregation, that they would be amazed and give praise to God, be filled with awe and say, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

To that end, I try to set a good table.  Jesus is the host – his presence is a given.  I invite people and try to make sure that the dining room is condusive to a good meeting time between Jesus and the guests.

Once people are in the room and seated at the table and served the meal, my part of the transaction is largely over, because I cannot force the guests to commune with the host or with each other. Jesus initiates conversation, and the guests can do one of two things: JUST EAT, or COMMUNE.

Many people who come to worship keep their faces on their plates, eat what is served, rate the meal on its flavor and balance and taste and atmosphere, then get up and leave.  What a sad thing for Jesus, to be ready to share love with his daughter or son, only to be ignored.

Those who are coming to commune with Jesus realize that the food, the decor, the background music are all secondary.  They have come to exchange love with God and with the other guests.  And when they leave, they go away full, whether the meal was mac & cheese or filet mignon.

I spend a lot of internal energy hoping that people have seen remarkable things. And it is extremely tempting to use my own performance as a barometer for the “success” of the worship time.  I say this to my shame.

In fact, Sunday after Sunday for 15 years I have grilled my wife Joy for her assessment of so many aspects of the service. “Do you like the song we sang?” “What did you think of the Keynote presentation I made?” “Was it awkward when the choir left the platform?” “Did my transition sound okay?”

A few months ago, Joy said, “You know, I am not going to answer these questions anymore.”  “Well, why not?” I asked.  “Because that’s not what I’m thinking about in worship.  That’s not what I’m there for.”

And she added one more level of truth: “And besides, you always get so crabby when I answer those questions!”

See, Joy was there to COMMUNE, not just EAT.  She came to the table ready for a great conversation with the Master.  Whether the food was perfect or the servers did a great job was beside the point.

When those friends let the paralyzed man through the roof, they were not coming for a casual encounter. They were busting in, not so they could just hang out with Jesus, but to be changed by him.

By the way, Luke 5:20 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.'”  But we don’t know for sure who he was talking to!  He saw their faith, and he forgave someone’s sins.  Either way, I don’t think the paralyzed man was the only one who went away healed.

Our goal as Christians every day, not only on Sunday, is to show up for the mea ready to meet with the Master. And when we go away from the table healed and changed, the world will be amazed and give praise to God and say, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

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