By Laura Van Tosh
Late last fall, I reached out to Zack McDermott using Facebook after learning about his new book, Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love(Little, Brown and Company 2017). A simple question, “Would you like to come out to Seattle?” followed by Zack’s “Yeah. Sure!” put me on the journey to bring him to Seattle. That short exchange began the project that was enhanced through the partnership formed with SFBC, the Rodney R. Romney Legacy Fund, Companis, and Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. (There were other events planned for Zack in the first week of April. This article is about the public event held on April 7 at SFBC.) The design and implementation of these events also woke rusty and dormant skills, so in a way it was an experiment! Today’s social media tools made planning and outreach easier in many ways, however old-fashioned networking still played a major and necessary role.
Now that Zack’s visit has come and gone, Jim Segaar invited me to write a short blog about the event. I, in turn, reached out to a few SFBC members who were there for their impressions. Coincidentally, May is Mental Health Month, and while Zack’s visit took place in early April, his message helps reinforce lessons that mental health and substance use disorders and the struggles they can impose knows no day, week, or month for that matter!
Christopher Poulos, a recognized leader in reentry services and related policy in Washington state, was the guest interviewer for an engaging on-stage dialogue with Zack. They shared their own stories of surviving mental health and substance use crises as well as their involvement with jail and prison systems. Another common thread in their recovery trajectories was the role of family.
Zack and Chris’ dialogue left several church members hopeful and with the sense that overcoming barriers (prejudices) and recognizing recovery is possible, if not expected, can help create a new status quo.
Another church member who read the book prior to the event, understood the hereditary nature of “disease,” but it became clear that other issues play a role in family as we understand it. Those realizations gave pause as we think about the structure of family, not simply genes. The family unit, especially if “broken” raises other concerns relevant to the development of illness and disease. The strong desire to not repeat history and find one’s own path was shared by these young men.
In the wide-ranging dialogue, they shared the irony of terminology present in the justice system such as ‘criminal justice’ and even ‘correctional facility,’ and the confounding nature of this system that has become an over-crowded de facto mental health hospital.
Another church member was curious about what clinical or psycho-social services were helpful for Zack on his path to recovery. It was clear his deep connection to this mother played a huge role. Her unwavering support and presence during the height of his crises and journey to “normal,” was profoundly impactful. That undying devotion brought church members closer to understanding how important family is for people who experience mental health and/or substance use disorders.
This vital connection to family was strikingly clear as I worked on the planning of the events. The partnerships created a close family bond of sorts, with a sense of faith and spirit-healing. The connection with SFBC embodies the stated church values of “being present,” and “welcoming the stranger.” The partnership with Companis and Real Change furthers the teachings important to its workers and the community at-large. Together we made a simple greeting on social media a reality.
For more information about Zack McDermott, visit the Facebook page created for the SFBC/Companis event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1866093023690428/
Thank you to Carole Cornell, Cherry Johnson, and Harriet Platts for your observations.
By Jim Segaar
If there is anything I love more than music, it is probably making fun of music, or at least musicians. I’ve enjoyed singing in choir for decades, and part of my joy comes from laughing at what we’re singing at times. But last night I was blown away, in a good sense, by the work of a composer that I’ve made fun of in the past.
Aaron Copeland. I’ve never considered myself a fan of this all-American composer. I remember a time about 15 years ago in the Seattle First Baptist Sanctuary Choir, when we were singing a number of Copeland pieces. One of my least favorite songs featured lyrics about the men working outside all day while the women sat around quilting and “singing snatches.” That line is forever etched in my memory because one evening the choir president introduced herself by saying, “Hi, I’m one of the singing snatches.”
Those were the days.
But what does any of this have to do with life today, in 2018. Let me explain.
It’s spring in Methow Valley, and Jim G and I are busy working on our country house. We’re enjoying beautiful weather, and we’re doing a lot of hard work. As I write we are sitting in lawn chairs in our Great Room, and night has fallen around us. I can’t see anything outside except darkness. But it’s one of my favorite times of day – the hard work is done for the day and it’s time to enjoy a mug of hot chocolate, enhanced with a bit of bourbon.
Last night, as I sipped my warm (and warming) beverage I decided to watch a video on my iPad. I opened my PBS app and selected a program from the Live at Lincoln Centerseries. Sitting and relaxing was a special treat. I’d spent the day digging and pushing a wheel barrow and hefting rocks and doing other physically demanding work, and I was tired and sore. My hands hurt. My shoulders ached. My calves kept cramping. My butt was too exhausted to move. But I had enough energy to select a program to watch. It wasn’t actually from Lincoln Center. It was chamber music from a Shaker village in Kentucky.
I clicked on the appropriate links, and in a matter of seconds I was watching the program. Fortunately I’d remembered to bring earphones, so I could hear the music without disturbing Jim G and our dog Otto. The show was recorded in a “tobacco barn” (did you know there is such a thing?) in a bucolic setting. The music was rousing, joyful, just what I needed in my achy state. I was enraptured, but then the hosts explained that they were going to finish with a piece that contained a strong Shaker melody. Simple Gifts. Embedded into a suite called Appalachian Springby ol’ singing snatch himself, Aaron Copeland.
And it was magical. I found myself transfixed by the music, bowled over by the melodies and harmonies, enraptured.
There is nothing evil about making fun of music, composers, lyrics, melodies. My brain would explode if such activities were verboten. But I love to be caught off guard by something that I tend to joke about. Normally I make wise cracks about Aaron Copeland. But last night I was engulfed in his music, moved out of my tired, achy body, blessed.
Simple gifts. Unexpected gifts. Surprising gifts. Is there anything better?
‘Tis a gift to be simple
‘Tis a gift to be free
‘Tis a gift to come round
Where we ought to be…
And it’s a gift to embrace and enjoy beauty, especially where we don’t expect to find it.
By Jim Segaar
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?
I John 3.17
In our consumption-driven society possessors often become the possessed. And I mean “possessed” the way that Merriam-Webster defines it: influenced or controlled by something (such as an evil spirit, a passion, or an idea).
During our Lenten Adult Learning series, Professor Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz mentioned that people in our nation often become possessed by their possessions. We keep accumulating stuff whether we need it or not. And then we consider that stuff too valuable to part with, but it piles up and gets in our way. So we rent a storage unit and fill it with things that get in our way and we don’t need and yet we treasure enough to keep. We pay to pile up treasures someplace out of our way. We are possessed – controlled by our possessions.
This past month I witnessed a more subtle version of possession like this. Jim G and I drove to Missouri to help clear out his mother’s condo. A recent stroke has weakened her, and she is living in a retirement facility now. It was time to empty the home where she and Jim’s dad, who died in 2016, lived for the last decade. I never thought the condo was overfull of things, no more so than most homes I’ve been in. But as we sorted through their belongings it quickly became overwhelming. Jim G and I got off easy – his sisters had already been through almost everything. We had to deal with books - 24 boxes of them, and frozen food left in the freezers, and various keepsakes that no one really wanted but thought someone else should keep. Keepsakes that had little monetary value but great emotional value. It was exhausting, disheartening, depressing work, and reminded me of moving my own parents during the last years of their lives. Each move my siblings and I got rid of more and more of our parents’ stuff, and still we ended up with boxes of things we didn’t know what to do with when they died. It seems to be a rite of passage that adult children become possessed by their parents’ possessions – controlled by them sometimes beyond reason, filling up our own basements and storage spaces with boxes of “valuables” that we never look at again until we have to move it.
Where does this compulsion to consume, to keep come from? Is it a manifestation of our need to believe that our parents lives mattered, that their things mattered, are valuable? Does it speak to our own sense of worth? What I know from experience is that eventually we either get to a place where the stuff stops mattering and we get rid of it, or we drown ourselves in accumulation until we leave it to someone else to deal with.
I am not implying that Jim G’s parents did anything wrong, or that his siblings and he did anything wrong, or that my parents and siblings and I did anything wrong. I am simply observing this pattern of accumulation, how it crosses generations, defies death if you will. When kept at a reasonable level, precious gifts from our parents can keep on giving – reminding us of them and the times we shared. But their stuff can also possess us, take control of our lives at least for a while, get in our way.
In extreme cases our possessions can become more than an intergenerational inconvenience. They can drive our lives, take possession of our souls and minds. Turn us into hoarders of things or money or power or status.
Can we make it stop? Not just for our own sanity, or that of our children, but for the sake of our overpopulated, overburdened, overconsumed planet. And, if we believe Jesus and his followers, for the sake of our own souls. I recently read a book by John Dominic Crossan where he defined the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached as an earthly existence of commensality, where all eat at the same table, all share what they have, all needs are met. In my imagination that Kingdom has a narrow entryway, a door that is just wide enough for a person to fit through. In some cases we consume so much, we take so much stuff into ourselves, make things so much a part of who we are that we can’t fit through the door. Or perhaps we arrive at the door wearing a backpack and cargo pants and carrying other baggage stuffed to the gills with things. We can’t get in the door until we drop some or all of it.
Being possessed by possessions is not what matters. Possession possession does not give our lives meaning, and it is not eternal. Our willingness to share what we have - our stuff and our love - is what creates life, and what lives on.
By Bill Malcomson
For my birthday I was given a book entitled THE FIVE INVITATIONS:Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. The author is Frank Ostaseski. He is a Buddhist teacher, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project. There are a lot of good insights in his book.
I want to share a few quotes from the book and then comment:
"Like the confluence of great rivers, our lives are a series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. ... The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. It is like the sages say:'We can't step into the same river twice.'" (p. 20)
"Each moment is born and dies. And in a very real way, we are born and die with it." (p. 21)
"The Persian poet Ghalib wrote, 'For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river.'" (p.31)
In a way, life is a series of episodes. We live from one event to another. Talking with friends, watching a movie, eating a cookie, petting a dog. Some episodes or events are transforming.
When my Dad was around the same age I am now, we were riding in a car and he was telling me about his Dad. He heard his Dad saying to a friend, and referring to my Dad, "I don't know what I would do without him." As Dad told me this, he began to cry. Even in his elder years, it was important for Dad to remember how his father affirmed him. I have tried, as often as I have had a chance to do so, to affirm those of my family.
The birth of our first child was a transforming event. All of a sudden, I was responsible, for the rest of my life, for the life of another. I could no longer live alone. My wife and I could no longer be independent.
Each event in our lives has a wholeness to it. When I was Dean of a seminary, I spent a lot of time with individual students. I learned how important it was that when the student and I were in my office, talking, looking at each other, listening for our real stories, that for that moment it was all of life. It was everything in one place, at one time, with each other. This is what my dear friend Warren Molton calls a "lived moment."
We can live fully in the present. If we don't keep re-living our past. How do I look at myself now? Am I a teacher? I was a teacher, but I am not teaching anywhere now. That was then. Am I a pastor? I have been, but not now. That was then, this is now. What am I now? I am who I have always been, yet fully new in the present. I am not a label. I am not a profession. I am in this time.
It was a great life. A lot happened. But I am not living that life now. And I will never live it again.
We can live fully in the present. If we quit trying to live for the future. One of the insights that can come from being in the elder years is that I cannot determine my future. I will probably die within a few years, but I have no idea when, and I have no power over that event. I wish there would be a future when I have more energy, and maybe there will be, but I don't know that. All I can really do is be fully involved in what is happening now. (Remember Flip Wilson as Reverend Leroy, pastor of the"Church of What's Happening Now")
In Thornton Wilder's play OUR TOWN, the heroine asks the stage manager "Does anyone ever live life every, every moment?" He replies that the saints do and, maybe, poets. Which are you?
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist