Thursday, October 18, 2007

All Manner of Things Will Be Salvaged

“Resurrection is verified where rebellion against the demonic thrives."
William Stringfellow

I've been meaning to post something on Harmon Wray for a long time. He died in July, and the notes I took during the memorial service have been sitting around awaiting blog treatment ever since. An amazing, inspiring man I'd like to emulate. The lively, self-deprecating seriousness with which he took the teachings of Jesus (specifically in his friendships with and advocacy of individuals living within the prison system) was an inspiration (and maybe a bit of a scandal) to the people who knew him and knew of him. A deeply irreverent man, Harmon studied, practiced, and embodied a determined (and often amused) irreverence toward any notion, idea, or system which failed to practice appropriate reverence toward human beings. But he had a strong sense of APPROPRIATE reverence. You could feel it when you were around him.
Harmon's way of seeing things was narrated and celebrated during the memorial service in a creed my friend Ray Waddle once heard him intone: “I don’t believe God gives up on anyone, and neither should we.” Throughout the service, in story after story, Harmon’s friendship and hospitality to those considered beyond the pale (grounded in his faith in a God whose redeeming love is, unrelenting, indiscriminate, and without end) was recounted. Richard Goode, a history professor at Lipscomb (and another good friend), spoke of Harmon’s articulation of the possibilities of Restorative Justice and his work at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison where, since 2003, he led a project whereby faculty, from Vanderbilt and elsewhere, conducted classes comprised of divinity school students and inmates. By Richard’s account, Harmon’s ministry with and to the inmates was a commitment to “the socially exiled and disinherited.” And as Richard shared what Harmon’s friends from Riverbend had to say about him, the shape of his life began to fit almost seamlessly within a vision of the eschaton that overturns many a reigning hierarchy, what Miroslav Volf has called, “the final social reconciliation." In view of and in faithful testimony concerning such visions, Harmon often observed aloud to the inmates that they were his church.
The week before Harmon’s death, Dean Shoemaker, a Riverbend inmate, told Richard that, upon arriving there, his cellmate had advised him to become acquainted with Harmon at the first available opportunity. While Shoemaker hadn’t been especially interested in furthering his education, he attended Harmon’s class anyway and ended up engaging him in a one-on-one conversation. As Harmon asked him questions, Shoemaker made mention of the fact that both of his parents had died and casually noted that, from here on out, there was no one left who loved him.
At this point in the story, Richard looked at the congregation and said, “We all know what Harmon said in response.” Without hesitation, Harmon said, “Well I love you.” And for the first time since he’d been incarcerated, Dean Shoemaker broke down in tears.
Richard remarked that exchanges like these, as everyone knew, characterize Harmon’s life, and, in the retelling, I believe the exchange was made to serve as a call to witnessing practice, to enact and facilitate such redeeming occasions, to remain alive to them even beyond the redeeming and witnessing occasion that was the service itself. As it was between Shoemaker and Wray, it could and must be for everyone assembled at the service. An opening has occurred, and, within it, the faithful will locate themselves. Or as Jurgen Moltmann puts it: "What was impossible before will then become possible. Energies will awaken which before were constricted. A future will be opened which was hitherto closed and inaccessible. Over against the reality of the visible world awaken the possibilities of change for that world, and its transformation into the kingdom of God."
In some sense, the service questioned, as Harmon often did, the audience’s sense of decorum. And it problematized the ways of revering (perhaps the false reverence) that characterize much ceremony. Harmon held everything up to a kind of redemptive (and redeeming) skepticism, and his seeming irreverence was, paradoxically, a deeper valuing of the human (all humans), a deeper sense of the tragic, than I’ve received from almost anyone I’ve ever known. He was even skeptical of his own sense of reverence (lest it mistake itself for practice). In light of his eschatology, he wouldn’t credit much. It all remained tentative. It made him a lot of fun to talk to (or a pain in the neck.
When Rev. Ken Carder returned to the podium, he spoke in a more self-consciously bemused fashion about the tension involved in taking seriously, as a witness, a person like Harmon. He spoke of the present world and the coming world and the fact that the world to come is forever impinging upon this one. Carder noted that we’ve all made compromises with this present world, and he said that, when it comes to the compromises he’s made with this world, nobody reminded him of them more than Harmon did. He noted the difficulties Harmon had in finding funding for his work in restorative justice and how his lack of certain credentials only added to the difficulties. And he emphasized that these issues were not Harmon’s fault, but merely further instances of the resistance Harmon met when he tried, as a faithful witness, to bring God’s world into this one. Carder’s words were met with deafening applause when he proclaimed that the world Harmon sought to represent will prevail. And the congregation was led in a prayer of thanksgiving for Harmon as a sign of the astonishing grace of God, followed by a prayer that God would disturb our despair even now that we might better follow, with renewed invigoration, Harmon’s example.
The service was not without an occasional sense of otherworldly consolation. There was talk of Harmon hearing, at the moment of the memorial, a voice saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” But in a fashion a-typical for many memorial services, even this was powerfully grounded in the hope of Harmon’s practice, a practice compelled by the notion of life lived before death on earth as it is in heaven. In keeping with the evangelical revolution he brought to his relationships, the service left its attendees with the sense that the world is more full of redemptive possibility than we have yet imagined.


Steve said...

Disturb our despair, indeed.

This is a good gift today. Thanks.

mjaneb said...

hey mr. d. melissa here. what do you mean appropriate reverence? hit me up.

jdaviddark said...

thanks for asking sister mel (and yoyoyo to flibbity).
i've found reverence and perversion to be helpful categoires lately. brother harmon believed that systems (marketing systems, criminal justice systems) often engage in perversion by reducing people to something they aren't (resources, collateral damage, hot-looking, useless, irredeemable, means-to-some-end), and when systems pull this kind of thing or make us pervert one another similarly, he refused to revere them. he would only render appropriate reverence where reverence was due. ALL HUMAN BEINGS, according to harmon, are worthy of absolute reverence. people are worth revering above all, and harmon did it (the reverence bizness). i want to do it too. i don't want to be a pervert.
does this make sense.
hit me with another question if you's like (anybody else have one?)
glad to be talky,

mjaneb said...

yeah yeah yeah. thanky. i don't want to be a pervert either. i am, though, i'm afraid.

appropriate reverence. gotcha. makes sense in situ now.

jdaviddark said...

since you put it that way, i hasten to add that i'm a pervert too (though i prefer to say it "prevert" as i think a flannery o'connor character somewhere puts it).
and i'll throw in that i can recall many a moment in which someone's spoken irrelevantly of some someone or people group or perceived enemy and you've gotten a disturbed look on your face (amused too at times) and said a word of protest in response to the perversion at work in the way folk(s) are being characterized. at these moments, you've served as a summons to reverence (to better looking) amid popular and easy perversions. from situ to situ, you've called people out (me among them). even imagining how you'd respond to stuff (i'd say) calls people out. and paradoxically, it perhaps takes a pervert to call perverts out, out of our habitual perversion, into the better ways of good revering, the better looking/handling/speaking that is reverence. you do it all the time. we, the people, notice.
hurray for blogging.
thanks for another occasion to go on and on.
i hope memphis is feeling (at least occasionally) kind.


mjaneb said...

mr d, it means a lot. thanks. i appreciate the word. a whole lot on this gloomy day.

mjaneb said...

p.s. i love assisting people to go on and on, and it's a particular nice thing to hear you go on. yay! and thanks about memphis. sickness and bad whether make me feel behind but it will pass.

mister tumnus said...

dave, reading this makes me feel like going to live in a cave for some time, at least a month, and reassessing every thing, but especially every word that i have spoken in one way or another over the past 2 or 3 years.

holy moly. the pervert in me wants to die.

Anonymous said...

You said:

"brother harmon believed that systems...often engage in perversion by reducing people to something they aren't."

What about people who *allow* themselves to be reduced, who accept the designation these systems provide for them? Do they then wilfully give up the absolute reverence Brother Harmon professed?

jdaviddark said...

monsieur tumnus,
i hear you on the cave thing. i'd only add that the part of us that perverts (and perhaps wants to off itself) is also that which looks goodly. or maybe i just want to say that we aren't parts (as i see it).
and anonymous,
i don't know how it works. i reckon we consent to our own reduction is myriad (multifarious) fashions, and harmon's one of those people who helped me not to do that quite so much. i think harmon viewed everybody as a fellow, oft-beleaguered pilgrim, not wanting to be or feel reduced but things is hard. he wouldn't give up on people who were (by all appearances) giving up on themselves, because he believed (for starters) that God is very actively not giving up on us. i think too of MLK who insisted that the image of God which every individual bears is NEVER completely gone. this is the profound christianity i aspire toward but which isn't often publicized.

Bart Thau said...

I'm not sure if you read this..but i just wanted to reach out and hug you in some way. I'm a bit empty feeling the space of time between our last meeting and today.

Thanks for befriending me in a tough time. I'm sure I didn't know what to do with that friendship, but I'm thankful that a group of strangers tried to help me not be such a fish out of water even though I was.

I'm sure there's a better forum for talking further, but I wanted to reach out and say hi and thank and extend a bit of love.


Mary said...

This comment has nothing to do with this post and I am sorry for that. I just sent you an e-mail concerning the PhD dissertation I just finished that dealt with apocalyptic ideas in contemporary fiction (Coupland, Ellis, Palahniuk)--but the e-mail bounced back (I used the contact address on the site for your book). As you can imagine, Everyday Apocalypse was a great help as I began brainstorming for the PhD and I want to thank you for that. I also had some questions for you as I continue to do my postdoc research(which is why I wrote) but do not know how else to contact you. I am so sorry to sort of intrude here (but I am glad I did as I only JUST learned that Richard Rorty died!). My e-mail contact is if you would be so kind as to give me the opportunity to ask those questions.

mister tumnus said...

heh. what you said, i blogged that some time ago. thanks!

mister tumnus said...

like, really thanks! just reading my old blog post again reminded me how much of that sort of thinking came out of ye olde days of the forum. it all goes round in circles. thankfully.

nard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nard said...

check this out.

Ahna said...

Yes, I was deeply impressed by Harmon's wisdom and gentle spirit when he spoke at the D.I.G. show at Downtown Prez this year. I am grateful I had a chance to encounter this wonderful soul. This is a lovely tribute to him.

mjaneb said...

i hope i will get to see you all sometime over the crazy holidays. If you need a sitter, you know who to call...