Thursday, May 26, 2016

Notes on Notes from Susie

(A version of this post - the actual letter I wrote to Mark, edited only slightly to remove a couple of very personal references - has already appeared on the website Here, I have edited that letter more carefully for my readers who do not know Mark, Susie, or the story of her last years.)

I have just had quite a weekend. The Susie Edwards Memorial Concert was Saturday night, held in conjunction with the release of the new book Notes from Susie. You can read about and order the book here.

Without rehashing the history that has led to the book, let me say briefly that it is a compilation, primarily, of a running diary kept by Mark and Susie Edwards during Susie's two-year bout with cancer that ended with her death in March of 2015. This diary took the form of almost nightly Facebook posts on a group site established by the Edwards' daughter Weslee Edwards Hill.

This blog is not really meant to be an advertisement for the book. They have a good marketing campaign already. Instead, I want to see if I can articulate my reaction to having read the book on the heals of having sung in the thrilling concert, which you can see here. There are some spoilers about how the book ends in this blog, but since I have already said in the previous paragraph that Susie died last year, I don't think any of the spoilers really matters.

I began reading the book the night of the concert. I sat up late reading, but I had to give up a little after midnight, 100 pages or so in. Rehearsals were long and the concert was intense, and I was exhausted.

I picked up reading again on the flight home. I expect the tattooed gentleman sitting next to me drinking his scotch on the rocks wondered why I was getting weepy reading a paperback, but he did not ask. The plane landed just as I reached the point where Susie chooses to forgo further treatment and Mark calls in hospice. We got our bags, drove home, and spent some time with my daughter, and then I came upstairs, turned on the video of the concert, and finished reading.

Reading the book with the concert playing in the background created what I would call coincidences... if I believed in coincidences. For instance, as I got to the page on which Mark records Susie's actual death, speaking of how she "turned and looked straight into the Light," I was listening to "Be Thou My Vision."

Having read most of the words in Notes from Susie the first time as they were posted on Facebook, I went into reading the book with an expectation of being reminded, and I suppose I was, but that is far and away not the primary experience ... or even in the Top 5, of what the book meant to me. Reading this book was not about reminders. Reading the book was an almost entirely new, and profound, event.

So, if being reminded was not the primary impact of the book, what was?

First, I heard Susie's voice so clearly. As I told Gena on the drive home from the airport, I do not know that I ever thought of Susie's speaking voice as being particularly unique, but it is distinct to me now. I read all the time, and I suppose I conjure up voices in my imagination for characters in books, but never before has it happened to me like this... where I read the words of someone and hear her particular voice enunciating every syllable as though she were sitting next to me carrying on a conversation. I don't really know what to make of that yet, except to say the book is entirely personal. I did not hear her voice in that same way when I was reading the posts on Facebook; this was different in kind. So perhaps there is something to the idea that Susie was somehow with me, sitting next to me, writing me a note and reading it out loud to make sure it was just right before she sealed the envelope, as I read. My theology does not entirely know what to do with that, but I know what I experienced.

Second, I am overwhelmed by the lists of things for which Susie is grateful as she walks through the shadow... even at times expressing thankfulness for her health.

Third, I found myself rooting for her as I read. Of course, I knew the ending. I knew that she is not going to make it. But as I turned pages, especially early on, I found myself hoping against hope that the next infusion will be the magic elixir that will kill the dreaded disease and mean decades more of life for her. Illogical? Yes, since I just sang in her memorial concert. And yet, the struggle is on, and as in any good book, I was fighting right along with the hero.

Fourth, I found myself asking hard questions, questions with painful answers. Since I knew the ending, and the timing of the ending, I reacted viscerally as the days wear on and the details become more and more painful. I started yelling (in my head - I did not want to disturb my seatmate's scotch) at Susie not to have that next infusion, not to put herself through another dose of poison that I knew is not going to work. I found myself asking, "Is it worth it?" And before that awful question was even fully formed, the answers came flooding in. Whether the medicine gave her another week or another month is not for me to know, but what I do know is the implausible, incredible, oh-so-real impact Susie's (and Mark's) experiences had and are having on hundreds, yea thousands, of people every single day. What God did with the choices, hurts, hopes, dealing with the ups and downs of a losing battle, and of course faith of Mark and Susie goes beyond the depths of comprehension, passing all understanding. As their daughter Weslee explains near the book's conclusion, Mark and Susie's story has had and continues to have a modern fish-and-loaves impact. As the diary progresses, Mark and Susie make every choice based on the best advice from doctors, taking each other's wishes into account, and grounded in faith in God; and the outcome is what the outcome is. In the meantime - in the middle of the journey - they each, individually and together, evidence what most people only sniff around the edges, if they have any real sense of it at all. I do not for a minute suggest that this two-year free-fall was "necessary" or was "God's plan;" but I know beyond all doubt that God did and is doing a marvelous thing with Susie's last two years. And just as God needed Antonio to build a Stradivarius violin, he needed Mark and Susie to pen these words. During the daily readings of the postings as they appeared on Facebook in 2013 and 2014 and 2015, I had no perspective to understand the importance of the project; at that point, I was simply praying and hoping and waiting for what would happen next. Now, in reading the book when I know the ending... and simultaneously regretting every pain and miserable moment Susie has and Mark shares... I cannot but rejoice.

Fifth, I am humbled by Mark's faith. I have known Mark a long time. I sang under his baton for years. We did shows together. We played softball together. Mark ministered to my wife in many personal and powerful ways. He and I were charter members of the Tuesday morning Bible study group he discusses in the book and still attends. I have always known Mark as a man of faith... but this dark night of the soul gave him a whole new way to follow, a demonstration of faith beyond the comfort of the podium and the notes-and-rests for which he is professionally and vocationally trained. And I suspect Mark would admit - and agree with me - that these struggles grew his faith. Mark Edwards - musician, minister, composer, arranger - discovered a new song in the night, a new hymn-tune to which to set words he had known for years. In concluding the book, Mark demonstrates vulnerability and questioning without once betraying a failing of faith, and for that he is a role model to me and to all who read this book. Like Jacob, Mark had to wrestle with God, and he emerges walking with a pronounced limp; but he leaves as Israel, the chosen of God.

I have other reactions to the book, but they are more personal, for Mark and his precious family are close to my heart. Some of my reactions remain between me and them.

And after all that... yes, I was reminded of the privilege I had - as countless others had - to share a little part of the journey with you both.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of Susie, and of Mark.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Loneliness of the Middle

Very few people who know me would describe me as being in "the middle."

My liberal friends will scoff at the very idea, for my politics and economics are, to them, very conservative. I am a member of a Baptist church. My personal ethics and morality are straight arrow.

My conservative friends, on the other hand, shake their heads that I do not join their causes. I do not boycott, retweet, or rally. I don't think that either President Obama or Secretary Clinton is evil. I don't think we are on the brink of socialism in America. I don't think most people in America even have much of a clue what socialism is.

It is well-documented that the extremes are controlling the political debate in our nation. That is also true in our churches. To say that I am in the Middle does not define me as classically "middle of the road" on any issue, nor does it mean that I do not hold strong and well thought-out convictions. It simply means that I do not identify with either extreme.

I entitle this blog "The Loneliness of the Middle" not because I think I am alone there. I fully believe that a vast majority of Americans, of the church, and of my friends are right there with me. The reason it is a Lonely Middle is that majority stays largely silent to avoid the barbs and arrows that will invariably rain down on them from both sides if they speak.

It is lonely when your friends on one side lead with fear, distrust, and suspicion. They do not, by and large, (and despite what my friends on the other extreme say) actually preach hatred. But they are loudly offended, and they believe that the end is near - whether because of economics, crime, immigration, blanket acceptance of behaviors that are unthinkable to them, or terrorism. In their response - often without their intent or even their understanding - they are offensive, narrow, and off-putting. Their language is foreign to much of the rest of the world, and so they are not understood as anything but reactionary.

It is lonely when your friends on the other extreme lead with open intolerance, mockery, and disdain. They preach broadminded acceptance but show no forbearance or patience with those on the other extreme, not simply disagreeing but labeling with brickbats and ostracism. In their response - often apparently intentionally - they are rude and dismissive. They appear uncaring and uninterested in other points of view, and so they are not understood as anything but high-handed and, ironically, bigoted. They cannot imagine that they are so viewed by anyone with any bit of discernment, but they are.

Freedom of course must mean that we allow what we do not like, what offends us, and that with which we do not agree. As we become freer and freer, more and more behaviors, attitudes, speech, and ideas become more and more prevalent. To want to squash what grows freely is no doubt contradictory, hypocritical, and wrong.

Having an opinion or a standard that says that any behavior is somehow wrong has become the equivalent, in the loudest circles, of small-minded hatred. "Love the sinner but hate the sin," a watchword for many of us growing up, has somehow become a byword, a badge of condescension and scorn. The idea of absolute truth knowable to human beings is, in our post-modern conceit, somewhere between an afterthought and a punchline.

I have friends on one side sermonizing with a message that sounds like anything but love for neighbor and faith that God will bring us through. I understand the reaction to what are believed to be dangerous actions, but expecting everyone to behave like you want them to, or like people used to, or like you imagine would be perfect is a fruitless - and, more importantly, dangerous - daydream. I understand concern that the Left is leading us down a path of no return - whether the issue is economic, political, religious, or behavioral; but understanding it does not mean that I agree with it. And while I understand the concern, I do not understand the lack of faith that truth and right and grace - and yes, God - will not only survive but overcome.

I have friends on the other side moralizing with a message that sounds like anything but love for neighbor and faith that God has brought us safe thus far. I understand the reaction to what is believed to be opinionated and unjustifiable prejudice, but expecting everyone to agree that anything goes and that long-held standards have become passé is a fool's errand. I understand concern that the Right is callous and dogmatic; but understanding it does not mean that I agree. And while I understand the concern, I do not understand the easy intolerance for those perceived to be intolerant. The prejudice against the (perceived to be) prejudiced is self-evident and paradoxical.

There may be no better example of what I am talking about than within the church, where there are those who condemn interpretations that vary from the approved and there are others who cannot abide the idea of doctrine. The fundamentalist's unwillingness to commune with those who disagree is outgunned only by the progressive's complete intolerance of the fundamentalist.

I also have many friends who profess to be "tired" of it all. That is scary, and it is unfortunate. When those on the extreme have worn down those who do not want to engage, or do not know how to engage, or simply find better things to do than engage on the extreme arguments, we are all poorer as a result.

I find myself in the Middle. I have strong beliefs about behaviors, economics, politics, and religion; in the right setting, I am happy to debate all of them. But I do not understand the need to announce them to the world in what can only - especially in this day and age - alienate and offend far more than it can ever hope to persuade. I do not understand subjugating love and grace to the blood sport that our political (and far too often our religious) colloquy has become.

I am ok being lonely in the middle. I am not writing this asking for like-minded folks to send me an attaboy and let me know you are there with me. But I do hope that my friends on both extremes can take a deep breath and think about what is ultimately important. On the Right, is sending a message that is heard by many (even if wrongly) that you are guided by anything less than love worth it? Does announcing fear do anything to demonstrate your faith in the Spirit of Christ? On the Left, does browbeating those who hold to standards you no longer hold do anything to make the freedom you cherish more palatable? Does loudly declaring that those who disagree with you are morons really demonstrate your superiority?

Do the ends justify these means?

I end by reminding myself that I am doubtless guilty of much of what I chastise. I have unquestionably spent my time on my high horse - perhaps even in this blog. I have criticized behavior, taught scripture in a way that I am sure made me sound narrow and intolerant, and arrogantly dismissed those who have disagreed with me. I need to read my own words.

The Middle is full of lonely people who hold all sorts of views. We are liberals, conservatives, pragmatists, dreamers, believers, non-believers, nationalists, universalists, free spirits, and sticks in the mud. We diverge on many issues. But however much we disagree with each other, we circle around principles of knowable truth, freedom, reasonableness, standards, toleration, hope, love, grace, and faith.

There is much that needs to be discussed and addressed. The Left has some good points to make about freedom and self-control and growth. The Right has some good points to make about what threatens us and what deserves preservation. Those of us in the Lonely Middle - whatever edge of the Middle may be our home - are fully engaged in debating and seeking those answers. I invite my friends on both extremes to join us. We welcome you.