Fatherly pain My father was born in Detroit. Like many people at the time, his father worked in the then-booming automobile industry. He was one of 7 children my “mamaw,” as us grandkids say, gave birth to.
My father’s name was Daniel. James Daniel. He had blackish hair and olive skin. He loved to read – and fish. He spoke in a deep voice.
James Daniel left home at 16; he said he got sick of it: the rules, the drama, the nonsense. The abuse. My father’s father beat him – just as his father’s father did and his father’s father probably did and so on back for generations. Eventually, my father found his way to southern California. He became a successful construction worker. A tower-crane operator, in fact. In a real sense, my father helped build the city of San Diego.
James Daniel was known for his work ethic. With it, he impressed his co-workers. He was the first on the job in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. That kind of guy. And he worked hard not just for himself but for his family. He dreamt that his hard work would, one day, allow his children to get a good education and live good lives. From my father I learned what it means to dream and what kind of dreams really matter.
My mother was born and raised in San Diego. Her father died too young – of a heart attack. She lived a simple life in a small house with her mother and sister. She attended Chula Vista High School and Southwestern Community College, where she studied psychology. After college she worked as a manager of a department store kinda like Target. Everyday my mother infected her coworkers with her big, boisterous laugh. She was and remains a joy to be around.
She and my father met at a party. Cupid struck them over bowl of punch, they said—and while 70s music blared on the radio. Within two years, they were married. A year after that, when my mother was 21, she gave birth to me. I entered the world Paul Houston Blankenship. My big red mop of hair fresh out of the womb led my aunt nick-name me ET.
My father did not have the benefit of healing from the abuse he suffered. The wounds from his childhood were things to be dealt with, swallowed. Put in the back of a drawer. Drowned at the bottom of the sea. Locked away in a lost treasure box. If even they were wounds, I should say—and if even they were there. Talking about childhood abuse was sort of ridiculous; it made a person weak. Crying over one’s lot in life was to be avoided at all costs. The cure for pain was sucking it up and moving on.
The tragic effect of this mistaken cure for pain is that it did not make the pain go away. In fact, it made it worse. So, his wounds bled onto me. They bled onto my mother. Things were often good between them but when someone got upset, things got really bad. Like his father before him, my father beat his son and his wife. Me and my mom. He introduced me to a world of pain and suffering before I knew what pain and suffering was.
I grew up loving my father but also hating him, wishing that he were dead. That is a natural reaction when you see your father beat your mother and experience beatings yourself. For frivolous things, like peeing on the toilet seat or leaving the cupboard open.
One day, when I was seven, my father did die. Like usual, he was working into his lunch break. The machine he was working on malfunctioned. It crushed him. He was dead on the spot.
Every day after school I’d walk a few blocks to my grandmother’s house. I’d wait there for my father to pick me up. Often, he’d take me to McDonald’s because he knew I loved the food and getting a toy in my Happy Meal. To this day I love McDonald’s because it reminds me of my father’s love and care for me.
My grandmother’s house was usually quiet. Perhaps that’s one reason I am drawn to the silence of a Quaker meetinghouse—because it reminds me of my grandmother’s loving silence. I always felt safe in her silence, at home there. On the day my father died, the silence at my grandmother’s house stretched on too long. I remember her telling me that she had the sense that something might be wrong. We knew something was indeed wrong when my uncle and mother came to her door. My mother was beside herself with pain. She was screaming and crying. “Daniel’s dead,” she kept saying. My young mind did not comprehend what happened, so I asked if we could still go to McDonald’s. Through her tears and raw trauma, I remember her saying in the car: “he just doesn’t understand. He just doesn’t understand.”
It took me a while to begin to understand. Actually, I am still trying to understand.
It was a hard time for all of us. Not just for me and for my mom, but for my young sister. She was just a year old when he died.
The theologian Simone Weil writes that there is a suffering that marks the soul. She calls this kind of suffering affliction. Affliction reaches deep inside the person. It changes them, forever. In childhood I became intimately acquainted with this kind suffering. It was not just my father’s abuse or his death that marked me with affliction. It was the sexual abuse from my babysitter and the spiritual abuse at church.
It was too much pain for my young mind to handle. At night I’d fall asleep and dream that my mind was being swallowed by a monster.
A miracle by a waterfall As a child, I was rather troubled. The weight of affliction bore harshly down upon me. I was nervous to speak at school. People frightened me. They were unpredictable, potentially dangerous. They might lash out at me, or, worse, love me and then die. My spirit breathed fear like it was oxygen, drank terror like it was water.
My mother noticed this, of course, and thought it would be good for me to join the Cub Scouts. Being in nature with boys my age, she thought, might help cure my suffering soul. As mothers often are, she was right. I loved carving sticks with a knife at night beside the fire. I loved eating smores and hearing ghost stories. Most of all, I loved nature.
One day my fellow boy scouts and I went on a hike. On the hike, which I remember being quite a struggle, we happened upon a waterfall. Words fail me when I think about what happened to my soul when I saw that waterfall. It was the first waterfall I ever saw. A gentle force ripped through my body. Soothingly, it touched my spirit. The trouble waters in my mind, which tossed me—like a merry-go-round—around and around in fear, calmed. Powerfully, beautifully … mysteriously … the force within the waterfall tended to my soul. In that moment, the weight of my affliction lifted off of me and flew away into the sky like the birds.
I did not have words for the experience then. In a real way, I still don’t. I did not call what happened an encounter with God—as I do now. But in that moment I knew there was a presence in the world which radiated love and in which I felt a sense of safety and freedom. And I knew this presence was stronger than me and everyone else and all of the suffering in the world.
That presence in the waterfall transformed by life. I did not know it, but I would forever pursue that force and give my life for it: not just for myself, but for others.
So, for me, a waterfall is not just a waterfall. It is a force that carries within it the gentle power of God’s healing, transformative love. When I see a waterfall today I remember what it is like to experience salvation. In a waterfall I see one of God’s ministers: not human, to be sure, but no less a minister.
Beauty in Spokane Friends, we are blessed to live in Spokane. Spokane is beautiful because it is surrounded by natural beauty. And because it surrounded by natural beauty, it is full of God’s ministers.
Mt. Spokane is minister of God. A few weeks ago, I heard it was crawling with huckleberries. Veronika’s family spent hours picking huckleberries there, and then came home to make the most delicious dumplings out of them. The experience filled them, and our bellies, with goodness.
The Spokane River is minister of God. Last week I swam in the river and came above water when the sun was going down. When I got out of the water it looked like glass. It reflected yellow and purple flowers, beautiful green trees. Standing there, my spirit swam in the beauty of God’s creation.
The Spokane Falls are ministers of God. Every time I go to the library I see people who are homeless look out the windows and watch the falls fall. Doing so makes me remember that the rocks will cry out with God’s love even when people don’t.
Manito Park is a minister of God. From what I understand, there are over 1,500 rose bushes and over 150 different varieties of roses. Two weeks ago, I went there with a friend who is homeless. He was in awe as we walked slowly through the rose garden. He told me that someday, if he can ever get out of his situation, which he is trying desperately to, he might get married in the rose garden at Manito Park. There is just something about the beauty here, he said, which reminds me to make my dreams come true.
The birds that fly through our sky are ministers of God. The butterflies that land on our flowers are minsters of God. The deer that roam are streets are minsters of God. The wild turkeys that move in flocks through our neighborhoods are ministers of God. The creatures in our home, who care for us and who we care for, are ministers of God. Friends, we are surrounded by beauty. We are surrounded by ministers of God.
Beauty as a minister of God In Matthew 6, we find Jesus in the middle of his famous Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave one of the most important messages about the spiritual life. In chapter 6, he talks about the parasite of the spiritual life: fear.
Jesus spoke about fear because he saw then—as he sees now—that it enslaves people; that fear eats the soul. In response to the fear he saw gnawing at souls, Jesus gave the audience gathered before him a message. He gave them words, I mean, and a presence, that could become a remedy; that might heal them. That might cure their fears.
Do Not Worry
25 “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says in verse 25, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[k] 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32
Notice, Friends, how Jesus teaches people not to worry. Notice his remedy for fear, for the suffering that eats the soul.
Look at the birds of the air, he says. Consider the lilies of the field. The most creative mind could not dress them more beautifully. The wealthiest person in our world could not buy their loveliness. Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd that gathered to hear him speak that God made the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, that God takes care of them, and that by witnessing them we can experience God’s care for us.
Friends among us whose hearts are troubled by fear today: consider the lilies of the field. Look at the birds of the air. See the beauty the creator has created; how caringly he cares.
Climate Change Unfortunately, we are now in fire season. On certain days the air quality will be so bad that we will be advised to stay inside. This frustrates daily life, spoils the end of summer, and invokes concerns about climate change and whether our species has irreparably abused Mother Nature.
As Irene Morrow preached last week, scientists agree—overwhelmingly— that man-made climate change is real, that it poses a grave threat, and that if we do not act quickly, and drastically, it will be too late. Our species, and other species, will perish like the dinosaurs. Humanity will be a memory. The birds of the air and the flowers of the field will go on, still as ministers of God, without us.
In our culture, though, and in everyday life, people debate whether climate change is phony or for real. As usual, it is a few TV channels against others. Fox News isn’t so sure about man-made climate change, for example. Another hoax, I hear them say. CNN is certain about it. It’s foolish to disbelieve the facts, they often say.
As the debate about climate change rages on, and as the smoke begins to fill our lungs, I want to remind us of something else—something which our tired debates and talking points often miss. Something which I think we can all agree about, regardless of which channel we watch or radio program we listen to.
In the book of Genesis, God impels humanity to be good stewards over creation. Genesis 2:15: “Then the Lord God took them and put them in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
As humans, Genesis teaches us, we are obligated to care for the earth because the earth was entrusted to us by God. Caring for the earth, is not an option; it is a divine command.
But it is not an arbitrary command from an ancient book. It is not a dead order from a dead God. The living God made that command because She understands that Her presence is communicated through the natural world. God wants people to experience Her love and beauty in the natural world. He knows that we need to experience it. God knows that beauty is like oxygen for our spirits and that, without it, we will suffocate and die.
As Christians, we are called to care for creation and ensure that it remains beautiful so that God can better minister to the world: to everyone, no matter what—but especially to those who are suffering disproportionately
Friends of Jesus are friends of beauty. Beauty is a minister of God.
The Rock Whisperer as an example of a Friend of Jesus Most mornings in the summer, Veronika and I walk to the river in our neighborhood of Peaceful Valley. We take our dog, Wendell, and sit there and, without words, just observe the beauty: the water moving slowly by, the birds flying through the air, the flowers coming up through the rocks. Sometimes our cat takes the four-block journey. She sits beside us and meows.
There is one place by the river that is really special to us. It is a little beach: an area made of sand and trees and sticks and rocks. This beach has a number of beautiful creations that people made out of natural materials: creations, that is, which people have made with the sand and the trees and the sticks and the rocks. In one spot, for example, someone gathered over a hundred rocks to shape a peace sign. In another spot, there is a bench made of large tree branches. There is a small fire pit made of red brick. In another spot there is a labyrinth made of another hundred or so rocks.
Recently Veronika and I have gotten to know one of the men who helps put these beautiful creations together. I call him the Rock Whisperer, but his name is Francisco. We often see him moving rocks and picking up trash. Francisco does not create beauty to get praise; he is not interested in being known as the mysterious Rock Whisperer.
Francisco is missing some of his front teeth. He speaks slowly, and softly, in a Mexican accent. He has a dog named “Bebe.” When he talks, he often talks about the deep mysteries of the universe, how he can see in the stars that the end of time is near. Listening to him speak is alluring because of his slow speech and foreign tongue. I am never quite sure what to make of his talk about the end time, though. Maybe, maybe not. Who is to say? His words hold great wisdom, but many cultures have believed they’d be the last to see the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
When I watch Francisco clean up trash and arrange rocks and sticks so that people can experience beauty by the river, I am reminded of what it means to be a friend of Jesus. Francisco creates beautiful things so that people can have a beautiful experience. In my mind, he is creating space for God to minister to people through beauty.
This, it seems to me, is what Friends of Jesus must do in our age: care for beauty so that beauty can care for the world; so that people will experience the permanent presence of God’s love in all things.
Query: Who are your ministers in the natural world? Once they come to mind, I encourage you to pause and give thanks for them. For the healing of our planet, how might God be inviting you to befriend his nonhuman ministers?
This message was given by Paul Blankenship to Spokane Friends Church on Sunday, August 11, 2019. We are sorry to be so slow in posting it.