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Sunday, August 07, 2011

The word of truth is very near

Maybe I've preached one too many sermons about today's Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) of Jesus walking on water.

Maybe I'm more drawn to the Hebrew lesson (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28) of the story of Joseph and his brothers because of my own wonderfully awful dysfunctional family of origin.

Maybe my interest is even more keenly piqued because I've just read "The Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones.

Let me tell you a little bit about the book first. Here's the opening paragraph, so you can get a sense of the book and the writing skills of the author.
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison's downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding an­niversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn't right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James's marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.
That's how it begins. It gets even more interesting from there.

This is a story about a family in Atlanta, Georgia - two families, actually - one of which was kept secret from the other.

The "first family" does not know anything about the "other family". However, the daughter, Dana Lynn Yarbor, and her mother, Gwen, have always known about James's first wife, Laverne, and their daughter, Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon.

James Witherspoon owns his own limousine service, which he runs with his brother, Raleigh.

Well, Raleigh is not exactly his brother. Raleigh is the person his mother took in as a young child after Raleigh's mother, who had been raped by her white employer, abandoned him. Raleigh's light skin and Caucasian features are a constant source of the reminder of her secret shame, which becomes unbearable to her.

Blood may be thicker than water, as the saying goes, but these two men are brothers, sure and true. Indeed, Dana's birth certificate bears the name of Raleigh as her father. Which, of course, is not true, but it was the way to keep the evidence of James' infidelity - and, bigamy - a secret.

Eventually - indeed, inevitably - the daughters from each family meet and become friends, but only one of them knows they are sisters.

There are many secrets this family keeps in order to stay part of the family.

And, that's one of the most compelling themes of this book: That the need to be part of a family is sometimes so great that individual family members will do whatever needs be done in order to stay members of the family.

Even keep secrets about lies in order to protect the integrity of the family unit as well as individual members of the family.

Even expose the secrets about lies when the truth will finally insist on being told - and because someone realizes, finally, that the secrets are preventing them from being a 'real' family.

It's all so familiar and understandable, yet seems so surreal and inexplicable.

Indeed, the author notes in the novel how common this situation actually is — so common that many churches have smelling salts for the widow who discovers at the funeral that she's not the only wife.

Jones knows this from her own life. She has two sisters, about 10 years older than she is, who are her father's daughters. The girls were never kept secret from each other but the two sisters, who have a different last name and live in a different city, have a very different relationship with their father than she experiences with this same man.

Jones says that the notion that a father can be a different person to two of his children rings true, even when you strip away the shock and melodrama of bigamy.
"Even more common than that is this idea of what I used to call half-siblings until my nephew said, 'Don't say half.' He said, 'There are no half-people. My mother's your sister; she's not your half-sister,' "

"I was giving a reading in Florida and a woman had me sign her book, and she said that on Father's Day she had written on her Facebook status something like, 'Happy Father's Day to the greatest dad in the world.' And she had seen her sister's Facebook page, and her sister had written, 'I never had a father 'cause the coward wasn't there.' It's the same man. What does that mean?

"In talking about this book I've had to get all new language, because the impulse is to say legit daughter, but all people are legitimate. That's one thing this book has taught me is everybody, every person is legitimate."
The story is as old as . . . well . . . . as old as the Bible.

Look at the story of Joseph and his brothers. He is one of the sons of Jacob who, himself, is quite the liar and deceiver and betrayer, having stolen his father's blessing from his twin and older brother Esau.

After spending some time with Laban, his maternal uncle, he worked for seven years in order to earn his right to marry Laban's daughter, Rachel. But, Laban tricked him into marrying his eldest daughter, Leah, and made him work seven more years in order to finally marry Rachel.

Bigamy - indeed, polygamy - has been around for a long, long, long time.

As has jealousy, trickery, deceit and betrayal.
"Now Israel (the name God gave to Jacob after he wrestled with an angel) loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him".
Joseph was a helper to his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's other wives, and brought his father a "bad report" of them.' Israel sent Joseph to see after his brothers, who were supposed to be tending flock near Shechem, but instead, he found them at Dothan.

When his brothers saw him, they planned to kill him, concocting a story about how - oops! - he fell into a pit and was killed by a wild beast. Instead, they sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver and Joseph was taken to Egypt.

We later learn that Joseph, the dreamer, used his dreams to win the favor of his master and was, eventually, set free to return home.

Did he seek revenge from his brothers? No. We are told that, instead, he sought forgiveness and reconciliation.

Those, too, have been as integral a part of the human enterprise since deceit and betrayal.

All of it - all of it - to one degree or another, is part of the dynamic of family life - biological, nuclear, blended or 'shake and bake' families. Families of origin and families of choice.

We hurt the ones we love. We disappoint. We betray. We keep secrets. We make a mess.

We repent. We forgive. We reconcile. We move on  - or into something deeper and more meaningful.

Things worked out for Joseph and his brothers. Things work out for Dana and Chaurisse.  

They always do, somehow.

Or, not.

Actually, when Dana and Chaurisse finally deal with the secret and together, face the truth about their father, they lose as much as they gain in the process.

Much of it depends on telling the truth about the secrets we keep about and from each other and ourselves and being able to forgive.

That takes courage. And strength. And the desire to be part of a family that values each other enough to break the intricate web of deception and the secrecy that sometimes cloud it.

You don't have to walk on water to be able to do it, but it does take incredible faith to dive down deep into the swirling waters of family life and resurface into the miracle of truth. 

In those times, it is important to remember the words from Deuteronomy (30:14) which St. Paul quotes in his Epistle to the ancient church in Rome:
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."
And, when the Word is near you, the word of truth won't be too far behind.

1 comment:

walter said...

Elizabeth 4, I believe it is very appropriate to do a Holy Reading of the pericope of the Gospel of Matthew that you address with thee wonderfully awful dysfunctional family of origin’ dynamic of ours by partially revealing-telling secrets because first of all I am happy to believe what you can comprehend and because the sublimation of our liberated Erotica is the access to our Genuine Virginity. May these words enfold the silence and continue to speak truth to power. May our hearts - Walter Vitale & Elizabeth Kaeton -, preserve in our minds what our Love teaches and conversely may our Mind preserve in our hearts what our minds teach. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused, Jesus Thee Christ.

Walter Vitale