Listening To the Dead Inside Us
My first (not chronologically but in the sense of bright lights whose voice and wisdom still speak to me through the years) mentor and teacher in pastoral care was a gentle giant in many ways. He also was a dauntless prophetic voice quite capable of piercing all your protective illusions. His name was Rev. Dr. Percy Johnson… though I don’t recall using all that title baggage… I remember him as Percy. Percy worked at Grady Memorial Hospital which was, and is, holy ground for me. I did class hours, an internship, and a residency there in Clinical Pastoral Education, and two of my brightest lights of guidance were supervisors and mentors I met there.
Percy, however, did not work at the main hospital – he worked down the road at the Infectious Disease Hospital. Percy wore no visible trappings of religion – he walked among a population that was deeply traumatized by religious people. I can recall him, with crystalline clarity, speaking to us about how he was called into ministry with people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Percy had been Marine Force Recon in Vietnam… and when he started ministry he recalled a person who had HIV who no one would visit for all the fears those days of the AIDS epidemic put on our hearts about people with AIDS… but Percy looked in and saw a fellow veteran… a veteran like him… who was being treated like a pariah… and Percy would not let that happen. With a marine’s (as much as a pastor’s – at least as I recall it in my fading but clear memory) sense of duty and care, he walked in and sat and listened and attended… he did not judge, he did not preach, he did not fix… I mean I don’t know that he didn’t… but I KNOW that he didn’t. I imagine that he was a well of deep compassion and you-are-not-alone-ness, gentle but strong… a Peter-like-rock carving out space to grieve and hope and heal… all without a word. I imagine Percy was, in that moment and many, many others, present to a person for whom few if any others were willing to be present. Present to a person that few if any others weren’t standing outside judging without knowing. Present to a person who very well may have kicked out of our, the Church’s, hallowed halls.
My absolute favorite confessional statement of the Church comes from the Holy Spirit section of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Brief Statement of Faith:
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
To unmask idolatries… to hear the voices of peoples long silenced….
Since 1988 December 1st has been designated World AIDS Day. It feels in many ways the world I live in has forgotten AIDS… after all we learned and grew, other pandemics have raged, and we are a people of short memories. And more than just a little, I imagine, many of us feel (if we feel at all on the subject) a sense of guilt when we look back… after all, we stayed on the other side of the glass and we judged. We created silence… the silence of the closet… the silence of people no longer in the room… the silence of a grave before anyone was dead. We held to idolatry and closed our ears to the voices of people long silenced.
I cannot go back to that time, but I will not look away from it. The words we speak are never unlived. The legacy of our silence, of our harm, of our rejection… it echoes and rings out still in the silence and the silencing. Generational harm is real, and generational trauma is powerful… and pervasive. We imagine it was yesterday and so it is water under the bridge… but that simply isn’t how we work, how the human heart works… how our bones work. Because even if we do not – our bodies remember.
A friend has me thinking this morning about trees and silence. And as I was reflecting on that I thought about the growth rings inside the tree. A tree is dead inside. I never knew that until today. The heartwood of the innermost tree is dead (it is the tree that once was) and yet so long as the exterior living tree protects it, that part of the tree itself protected by the inner and outer layers of bark, it will not rot. The living tree embraces its dead and former self and in death, that center still provides the structural heart and strength of the tree.
I’m not fully sure what to do with that but it’s teasing at my heart and mind. Nothing of our history is dead to us… its there in our bones – it is our strength or our downfall… and our history continues to shape us – whether we are aware of it or not. And so we are called to enter the room where we once slammed the door… we are called to listen to the one we once silenced… we are called to care for wounds we once caused (wounds that are still causing present and future harm). We are called to attend to the dead within the living… and let it shape our future.
I mean not to let that wax poetic. I play with words because they play with me… I’m not yet sure what tree rings and the dead being encased in the living is trying to tell me, but I am sure of the harm me and mine have caused and the listening I owe that harm – the reparations I long to attend to… and I have a heart to follow where the bright lights of my life are leading me: to pray and witness and unmask and hear and work… so now I must go, I have a tree to hug and listen to the whispering it is doing in the enforced silence.