Friday, January 8, 2016

Lovers of mankind

image and song from Living in Luxury
In the morning cold I wake
The floor is hard
I see my breath
Alone, I think my heart must break,
I shave my face and take my bath
I shiver on some restless clothes,
choke on my tie,
and stoke the stove
and I only want to see you again

I was a thirty-six year old ‘lover of mankind’—I hate the term ‘philanthropist’ because it sounds like the description of a graying, bespectacled, middle-aged or retired, ‘fat, friendly German businessman’ who’s making it up to God by funding favored sectors of poor humanity— I was a thirty-six year old ‘lover of mankind’ a year before the boat of my youthful dreams capsized and I found myself rescued by loving arms and carefully carried to the safe haven of holy Orthodoxy—that’s a community of other ‘lovers of mankind’ that I had heard about but hadn’t met yet. Yes, a thirty-six year old, already at my mid-life crisis, brought on by the tension in my life between the demands of family life and the gospel plow.

I worked in an office, then. Left behind me were the years of happy camaraderie and the joy of craftsmanship when I was ‘just’ a cabinetmaker. My other ‘talents’ had been discovered by my boss, who told me one morning that my job in the shop was terminated, and that I had better ‘choke on my tie’ and meet him at my new desk in the office the next Monday. I was doing drafting and design work at my work bench, on the fly as needed, correcting the mistakes of the ‘professionals’ upstairs, and then speeding the work along through the ‘maschinenstrasse’—the boss was proud of his German-made assembly line, even though it really didn’t work—and mentoring younger men starting out in the trade.

‘I was thirty-six years when I wrote this song’ I could have mused, recalling a favorite Paul Simon ballad, but my song wasn’t that light-hearted, and it wasn’t about lost loves or getting old. Because for me, there were no lost loves, and I was beginning to understand that there’s no such thing as age. Taped on the wall above my make-shift desk in a hidden corner of my farmhouse basement was this picture of a sixteen or seventeen year old boy looking dreamily out and up. It was an advertisement page from a Reader’s Digest that I came across when I was a boy in high school in small town Illinois. The boy in the picture reminded me of myself, not just in looks but in spirit. I’ve kept that snippet for over fifty years.

image from Between the Burgh and the City
I joke with people sometimes, ‘I’m a twenty-four year old man trapped in a sixty-four year old body.’ Soon, I will either have to change the joke—I will turn sixty-five in exactly four weeks—or else come up with some other way to verbalize what I’ve found out, ‘that there’s no such thing as age.’ The passage of time, though, is a reality, even though we needn’t let ourselves be intimidated by it, nor by the number of years as they pile up against us. For some those years can be a support, though for others only a wall keeping them from life’s joys. I think back to that song I wrote, auto-biographically lamenting not lost love or the flow of time, but the human condition, incapable of being uninterruptedly in God’s presence.

And I only want to see you again
Can I, please,
I only want to see you
in the light
I want to hold you
Oh no, don’t throw me away
I want to hold you again
Oh, let me, please

Yes, the refrain does sound as if I’m pleading with a human lover, for God doesn’t throw anyone away, and how could I or anyone say to Him, ‘I want to hold you again’? I am no Spanish mystic like St Teresa or St John of the Cross, but it was during that precocious mid-life crisis that I came to understand why this incessant tugging at my heart, why I had no choice but to be what God made me, ‘a lover of mankind,’ and what that meant. It is the Incarnation. It is what is celebrated at Christmas. It is ‘baby Jesus.’ The presents and the good cheer that surround us during the annual feast is, not should be, what we are when we give ourselves over to our nature, made in the image of ‘the Only Lover of mankind.’

My song has become truer with the years. I no longer am a struggling young cabinetmaker-turned-designer, struggling to make a living to support a wife and four young sons, struggling to find a balance between loving everyone I meet and knowing what is possible in that love. Waking up in a freezing house in the winter darkness, bringing in firewood for the stove so the family could get out of bed in comfort, having to dress and shave myself to conform to the world’s expectations—that reality is over!—but not the longing for Him who walks and works among us as the people we see around us, all of them crying out for the same love, without understanding why.

That last part hasn’t changed, ‘yearning to see and to touch the Lord,’ yes, to be with Him, to love Him in any way that He shows He needs, in whatever form He appears, as whomever. The gospels tell us of a God who loves us first, who calls us ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ before we ever realize who He is, a God who loves us so much, even to death, that He patiently and meekly endures everything we must go through with us, at our side. We want to love Him in return, but sometimes we exchange this love, which feels too natural, for a religious love, a love for God in heaven. Yet it is to touch real flesh and blood, to love the man, woman, or child that He has placed before us, here and now, that we were created for.

For all of us are made to be ‘lovers of mankind.’

image from Between the Burgh and the City

No comments: