Monday, June 20, 2011

Traveling to Tilton

Recently I attended the Alumni Weekend at my alma mater, Tilton School in Tilton, New Hampshire. When I attended Tilton in the 1960’s, it was a traditional boys prep school. Think of Hogwarts without the magic. Imagine “Goodbye Mr. Chips” New England style. We even had our own “Mr. Chips” a beloved master, and later headmaster, named John MacMorran, affectionately known as Mr. Mac.

It was a time of required chapel and formal dinners. Blazers and ties were the dinner attire, and tables were set with white tablecloths and cloth napkins. We learned table etiquette from the masters and wives, who sat with us and prompted us to engage in proper conversation.

2011 is not my reunion year, and so there was only one other member of my class in attendance for the weekend. I did not know him during my school years, and I did not meet him this time around. Apart from a meeting in the chapel and a meal under a tent, I spent most of my short time on campus wandering the campus buildings in the rain.

There were new buildings, of course, and the old buildings had been updated over the years. But I was surprised at how much was familiar. I was startled at how quickly the old feelings came back and how powerfully memories of my teen years returned.

The smells of the classroom building, the familiar sound of climbing the old stairwells, the arrangement of the furniture in the lobby, all brought back long-forgotten feelings. I felt like a character in a science-fiction movie who suddenly finds himself transported through time. If I looked in a mirror I thought I might see a fifteen year old with a bad haircut and acne staring back at me.

I missed the multi-media presentation on the schedule entitled “A Walk Down Memory Lane,” but I had my own personal walk. Even though it is summer, I could envision the front walk covered with snow. I could feel the weight of my tweed sport coat and long scarf with school colors.

I could hear the steam escaping from the old radiators and see the frost coating the single-paned windows. As I opened the door to my old dorm room, I half expected to see my old roommate sitting at his desk and listening to classical music on his record player.

I passed the door where I had sat on the floor of a master’s apartment while the Poetry Club analyzed T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I could taste the tea and remember the sound of Mr. Mac’s voice as we played cribbage in his bachelor apartment, a one-on-one habit that undoubtedly would be forbidden in our scandal-phobic society today.

I could picture the World War I vets sitting on the front porch of the New Hampshire Veterans Home as I walked past. I remember a trip to hear Satchmo play his horn at Plymouth State College and a trip to Franklin to see the new film, “Dr. Zhivago.” I remember the loneliness of being separated from my family, the kindness of the faculty, the thrill of being intellectually challenged by the academic material.

I remember a chapel sermon by the school’s chaplain about the spiritual impact of his military service in Korea. I even remember the title after all these years: “The Razor’s Edge” (undoubtedly borrowed from Maugham.) I remember visits to the chapel by Franciscan friars recruiting brothers for the monastic life.

I remember classes on Philosophy of Religion and Ethics taught by the chaplain. (Would a school offer such classes today?) I wonder now how much those religious discussions influenced my later decision to enter Christian ministry.

I was on campus for only a few hours on a Saturday. This busy pastor had to continue on to Concord that afternoon to visit a parishioner in the hospital, and then back to Sandwich to prepare for worship the next morning. But in those four hours I traveled over forty years.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A River Runs through Me

I spent the day in the mountains today and visited our favorite spots. One is the Swift River, which runs through the lower tier of the White Mountains. We stopped at Lower Falls. It is too early in the season for tourists – except on weekends - so we had the place to ourselves. The black flies drove back the few flatlanders who ventured out of their cars.

I sat on a rock in the middle of the river and listened to the water. Actually I listened to the voice that spoke beneath and through the waters. The quiet roar enveloped and suppressed all inner and outer noise.

Later we stopped to view a panorama of mountains. The expansive vista and the deep silence had the same effect on me as the river. The Spirit that inhabits the mountains also inhabits my soul. The Spirit draws out the silence of my spirit, and they echo together through these mountain valleys.

The quiet draws me in, and I disappear. I drown in silence. Thought ceases, and I momentarily cease as well.

I have felt this way throughout my life. They are sacred times. As a child, the ocean mesmerized me. As a boy the lake haunted me – especially on early morning fishing trips. As a teen, hiking these Appalachians inspired me to write a poem, which was published in our school’s literary magazine - to the chagrin of my teammates on the football team.

When I come in contact with the depths of nature, all thinking ceases. The voice of Creation “drowns out all music but its own” as the hymn says. At such times I can see most clearly. I know myself in a way deeper than words. And when I know myself, I notice the presence of God.

I catch glimpses of this also at other times - notably in prayer, meditation and worship. Music can do it; so can art. But the silence is loudest, and my own inner chatter the lowest, when I am in the wilderness.

Norman Maclean wrote a famous short story about fly-fishing in Montana. He writes of his experience:  “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I know what he means. The river runs through all things, and it runs through me.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pretty in Blue

In April I had surgery for skin cancer. It was originally scheduled for the middle of May, but there was a last minute cancellation. The doctor’s office called me up and asked if I could come to the office in Hanover in two days. I hesitated.

As everyone knows, Lent and holy week are important times in the church. I was not looking forward having this procedure done a couple of weeks before Easter. I did not like the thought of having a huge gash and large bandage decorating my forehead while leading the largest services of the year.

But I decided it was better to have this cancer removed sooner rather than later. After several hours in the doctor’s office and two sessions under the surgeon’s scalpel, I came home with a hole in my head, a two-inch scar and twelve stitches on my forehead (six on the inside and six on the outside.)

While the doctor was stitching me up, he asked if I was superstitious about the number six. I replied that I was glad there was not another row of six or I could be accused of having the “mark of the beast” (666) on my forehead.

The surgery was performed on a Thursday, and the pressure bandage removed on Saturday. When I took off the dressing on Saturday afternoon, the wound looked pretty bad. I debated whether to wear a large Band-Aid on my forehead during worship the next day or let the stitches show. I chose to go au naturel.

I explained during the sharing time in the service what had happened to my face. (My wife Jude had been telling people that she hit me over the head with a skillet, so I had to correct that rumor!) Before and after worship, people asked how I was doing and expressed their prayerful sympathy. 

But the best remark came after the service. As I walked out of the church, the family across the street (in the former parsonage) greeted me. I crossed the street to chat. (My daughter-in-law Sarah nannies for them, so I have gotten to know them.) Rachel was sitting on the steps while her two children, Gus and Leo, played nearby.

Five-year-old Gus took a look at my head and asked what happened. I explained the situation, and he was silent for a moment. Then he said, “It looks pretty. They’re blue!” (referring to the color of the stitches). I chuckled, thanked him, and pointed out that they matched my blue shirt. He agreed.

Only a child could look at a cancer incision and think it looked pretty. Only a child could see stitches as fashion accessories. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He who has eyes to see, let him see beyond scars to the beauty which is at the heart of all existence.