Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Farm days are here again...

I just got back from our first trip to the farm this year. Coming back to the farm each spring is always so exciting. Reacquainting ourselves with the rhythm of picking up our weekly produce, being out in the fields, greeting the farmers, it is all so refreshing. I took the boys, and they had a great time looking at the baby chicks, picking strawberries, and then feeding the hens. The strawberry crop is amazing this year! Rows and rows of big, juicy berries. It was actually the only thing I got today, because the real first day of pick-up isn't until next week. They just let us come early to get some strawberries, since they are ripe and ready to go. Next week I am looking forward to some chard, bok-choy and lettuce. We are ready for some fresh greens!!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The first year of losing someone is always hard. There is the day-to-day grieving of the person you lost. Sometimes the grief is sharp and sudden, brought on by the unexpected. Other times it is deep and rolling, as it washes over you in waves. There are times when you just cry your heart out, as it is breaking, and then other times there are those sudden, quick tears that spring to your eyes, and you can quickly wipe them away and continue on with your day. Throughout that first year the daily grief is punctuated by certain "milestones". The first holidays without them, the first vacation, family dinner, even trips to a place like a favorite restaurant. Yesterday was one of those milestones for our family- it was Dad's birthday. It would have been his 62nd. Looking at that number, it is hard to believe that he was so "young". In the average span of a human's life, 62 really is young.

All day long there were thoughts of past birthdays, but also sadness at how he should have been here, celebrating with his family. Smiling that famous smile, hugging his grandchildren tight, letting them blow out the candles on his birthday pies (Dad always preferred pies to cake), opening his presents and exclaiming over each new shirt as he held it up against him.

Instead, this year, we gathered around the table and there was a palpable feeling of loss as we felt his absence keenly. Even so, we were able to enjoy each others' company, as well as the delicious food. There was laughter and joking, even with the undercurrent of grief.

After dinner we all went out to the backyard where we planted a small Red Oak tree that had been given to us as a gift in remembrance of Dad. It seemed a fitting thing to do on his birthday, a way to remember him both now and for the future as the tree grows. Mom had a birthday card that she had purchased for him several months ago. As we all gathered around the freshly dug hole, she read the sweet words of love meant for him. She then tucked the card into the side of the hole and we planted the tree. It was surprisingly hard to put that tree into the dirt. Even though it wasn't Dad, the freshly dug hole, the was all too reminiscent of the burial. It was also painful to realize that we wouldn't be here, doing this, if Dad was still in our midst. Once the little tree was snug in the ground, we all took turns watering it- from the oldest to the very youngest. We then wiped our tears away, and went back inside to enjoy the peach pies Mom had made in Dad's honor.

As I look out to the backyard I can see where the tree is planted. I think Dad would have liked the spot we chose. It is near the hammock, a place where he would like to rest, rocking in the shade, reading the newspaper, enjoying the shady trees and the reservoir.

Dad, May 15, 2008

Monday, May 18, 2009

"each little bird that sings..."

It started with a bird. She darted in and out of the big
rhododendron bush outside our front door. We noticed her flurry of activity, but thought nothing of it. It was a couple of weeks before E took a closer look and saw a sturdy little nest built into the branches of the bush, close enough to the sidewalk that we could peer in and note the progress of the egg, which soon became plural. Two perfect, blue eggs cradled by the sticks and grasses, and warmed by their mother.
We kept a close watch, and suddenly, one day E came rushing in after school, and announced that there was a baby bird! I ran out the front door, with N close on my heels to see the new hatchling. As I gently pulled back the glossy leaves of the bush, a little scrap of a bird opened its mouth wide as it sensed a presence hovering above it. The effort proved to be exhausting as its head soon flopped to the side, and we wondered at the ability of such a scrawny little neck to hold up the baby bird's head. We then moved inside to our playroom window that looked out into the back-side of the bush. We had a perfect view of the nest from within, and we could keep an eye on the mama without her getting too nervous. We would see her flitting to and from the nest, coming back with worms that she fed to her hungry chick.
The next day was the second baby's birthday and E scoured the name books to come up with the names "Bluebell" for the mama, "Johnny" and "Buttercup" for the babies.

We also had to discuss some rules regarding the viewing of the nest. I explained to the kids that we didn't want to scare the mama bird away, so we would only look at the nest once a day. Throughout the next week I would walk up the pathway to the front door and casually look over at the nest, and there mama Bluebell would be, a foot away from my face, her eyes fixed on me, trying to determine if I was a threat or not. Most often I would move quickly by and she would remain on the nest, but sometimes it took longer as I had several small children with me, and she would dart out of the bush, and keep an eye on us from a nearby dogwood tree. By the end of the week the baby birds had started to grow feathers on their wings, and the fuzz was filling out. E and I bid them good-bye right before we left on our camping trip, and I took a picture.

Whe we returned yesterday the first thing E did was to run up the walkway and check on the nest. She ran back to me exclaiming,"Mommy! The birds are gone!" My heart sank with the news, but I was casual in my response,"Oh, really?" As I walked up I inspected the ground underneath the bush, but their was no sign of little bodies. The nest was indeed empty. I knew that those babies were too young to leave the nest, and the only thing that could have happened was another animal came and devoured them. I don't really know what that animal could have been, maybe a raccoon or even a bigger bird. I just know that I could hardly bear the thought myself, much less having to explain it to my daughter who had so loved those birds. It was the highlight of her day to check on them, and for the moment I let her come to her own conclusions, that the mama bird had carried them away. Later that evening E came to me and said that she hadn't seen the mama bird back at the nest at all, and why would she take her babies away? I gently explained to her that mama birds don't carry their babies. That an animal must have come and eaten the birds. She gazed at me, but she didn't say anything else. She just left the room and went up to bed. I didn't have the energy to pursue it further with her last night, and no time this morning. Yet the whole affair has left my heart heavy. I think of those poor defenseless babies, and the mother watching anxiously as the predator came and carried them away.

I was thinking along this vein as I was weeding the garden this afternoon. I was down by the water and a fluttering in the bushes caught my eye. I took a step closer, and a robin was flapping around in fright as I approached. It became clear that she had become tangled in some fishing line and was unable to get free. I had my gardening gloves on, so I quickly reached down and grabbed the bird, pinning her wings to her side, and tried to untangle her. She chirped in fright, and her mate came swooping out of a nearby tree where he had been watching her. He called out in alarm, but kept his distance. I cried out to N to go get some scissors, but ended up just running up the hill and indoors
myself where I grabbed a pair of safety scissors so that the bird wouldn't injure herself on the tips. I then ran pell-mell down to the water, passing KK who had almost reached the top. Both children ran after me calling,"Mommy! Mommy! What's wrong" Breathing heavily, and with shaking hands I once again grasped the bird around her body and tried to cut her free. Unfortunately, the line was wrapped too tightly, and I couldn't free her immediately. I decided to just cut the line a little long, and then try to work out the tangles from a better vantage point. Once I had the bird in my hand, the mate began to cry in distress, and the robin that I held valiantly tried to peck at my hands as I approached her neck with the scissors. She would grab at my fingers with her beak, and I am sure I would have been cut if it weren't for my gloves. It became clear that the line was really tangled, and I prayed aloud, repeating "Lord, please help me, please calm this little bird, please help me to free her." My children watched wide-eyed, K asking, "Quack-quack?" and N asking what I was doing. I tried to explain, "This little bird got caught in the fishing line, and mommy is trying to help her" Finally I located the end of the line stretched taught against the bird's throat, and I prayed I wouldn't cut her as I slid the scissors between the line and the skin of her neck. She would occasionally chirp out, and try to bite me, but I was able to unwind the line and pull it away. I released her and, with a flutter, she flew up to a branch. She perched there for a moment suspiciously surveying me and catching her breath before flying off. I breathed a sigh of thanks and relief as I walked up to the house on shaky legs.

It's amazing how even in
this the Lord's hand was there. He knew how I had felt about those baby birds, and although I couldn't save them, he let me play a part in saving another robin's life. And maybe she has some little babies somewhere that were waiting for her to come back, and now they are saved too. How great is our God!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Memorial Service

Roger Slideshow from Andrew Clark on Vimeo.

Here is what my brother Andrew shared at the service. It was a fitting tribute to Dad, and it is up on the other blog, but I wanted to post it here too.

What remains when a Christian dies?

Whenever my mother talks about who my father is, and was, the phrase that always seems to emerge is “a man of integrity.” What surer mark of integrity than to have your spouse—the person who knows you at your best and worst—attest to it? It was an expression used again last weekend, as the family was in the hospital room celebrating Mom and Dad’s 25th anniversary, and a testimony others in recent days have echoed. “Your father was a man of deep integrity.” I’ve been pondering this phrase. It doesn’t mean “Your father was a man of moral rectitude,” nor “He was a righteous man.” Dad was that, by God’s grace, yet his integrity wasn’t a matter of morality, but one of authenticity. Dad was almost completely free of hypocrisy, and always so quick to repent when confronted with any kind of conflict between what he said and what he did. Certainly he had his private fears and failings like the rest of us, but when it comes to the person he was, to the question of character, the man inside was the same as the man on the outside. What a simple, extraordinary achievement! Our father was a man with nothing phony or forced about him, nothing in his speech or manner that suggested self-conscious calculation or manipulation. Frank and pragmatic as Dad was, there was also a certain innocence of heart there—not naiveté or ignorance, but a kind of spiritual health that made him all but immune to these sorts of petty vices. Small- or narrow-minded, mean-spirited or conniving my Dad was not, ever. Now that I’ve said it in the wordiest way possible, I’ll share with you what my Dad always used to say to my Mom about himself, though more as a defense than as a boast: “What you see is what you get.”

My Dad was not an intellectual, not, as he used to say, a deep thinker, but he had a careful and wonderful way of thinking, straightforward and cool. The fact that he taught mathematics to thousands of students on two continents over the course of 40 years makes a lot of sense, when you consider Dad’s knack for seeing the simplest and therefore most elegant solution to any problem. This gift was brought to bear on any number of problems, financial, personal, parental, pastoral, theological or automotive. A few of the New Life elders at Dad’s bedside the other day were recalling how, during the inevitable disagreements and negotiations in session meetings, Dad would not be on anyone’s “side.” Rather, he was on the side of unity and harmony. This sounds trite--unless you knew my Dad. He was remarkably apolitical—not because he was apathetic or because he presumed superiority--but because he didn’t care a whit for self-advancement, because when he was most himself he had no agenda other than the truth, the unity of the body, and the good of his friends. He was able to minister to others so directly because he was all but free of self-regard and self-importance. He never pretended to be something more or less than who he was, never fawned and never patronized, and this made everyone he knew feel safe and loved around him, like they could relax and be themselves too. That was the environment in which real discipleship and communion could happen. Less subject than most to the blinding effects of those selfish social vices, Dad was able to cut to the heart of the issue: he could see the truth, articulate the facts of the matter, and identify the surest path to reconciliation or resolution in such a way that that solution was suddenly “obvious” to the rest of us as well.

That uncanny flair for dis-covering the obviousness of the truth is of course a defining mark of a great teacher. But Dad’s gift for teaching had as much to do with his heart for his students as it did with any pedagogical skill set. As one of Dad’s students from his days in Congo told us, “he was not a teacher who was far, but one who was close.” When it came to parental instruction, once we children reached a certain age, he never told us what to do--he either showed us, or he gently spoke the truth, and left it to us to work out the simple equation. Dad had little patience for abstract speculation, but where ideas touched life he was as sensitive and as sharp as St. Augustine. Not a teacher who was far--above you, lecturing you, lording it over you--but a teacher who was close-- alongside you, instructing by example.

The wife of that former student of Dad’s told me, “Your father wasn’t like other missionaries. They wanted us to come to them; he came to us.” She said that whenever a student didn’t show up to school, Dad would go out in search of him. Her husband remembers dad, walking through the winding paths of the villages with a pot of warm tea in his hands, seeking out the home of a sick student. This was a common theme in the reminiscences of Dad’s friends during that last hospitalization, recalling his heart for the ailing and suffering. As Angelo said, during many years of shared ministry with Dad he got very used to hearing, in the church office, “We’ve just found out that ‘blank’ is sick, but don’t worry, Roger Clark has already been to visit him.” It has been such a gift to the family, over the past week or so, to hear many stories about Dad, personal testimonies to the way he was used by God in the lives of so many others. Being someone’s son or daughter, or even wife, it’s all too easy to take him for granted on account of your proximity to him and your immersion in the routine of family. Even knowing him more intimately than most, you often don’t see the forest for the trees. I remember, when I was a teenager, waking up at 10 or 11 on Saturday mornings, and my Dad would be there, mowing the lawn, or doing his exercises—pushups and sit-ups—on the living room floor. Shirtless, of course. (I can’t help but share here an old, running joke among my friends, who thought that my parents' answering machine message should have been, “Hello, this is Roger Clark. I’m not wearing a shirt right now, but if you’ll leave a message at the beep we’ll get back to you.”) Anyway, on those mornings, it was easy to miss or forget the fact that he had been up at six and had already been out to his weekly prayer breakfast with his good friend, and made the rounds of the hospitals and the homes of the sick—all before I even woke up. There are so many stories, stories that each of you cherish, that exist because Dad was the kind of man he was, but that we would never have heard from him...because he was the kind of man he was. The wonderful thing, though, is that it was the same man. Just like our Dad was the same inside and outside, he was, finally, the same man inside the home and outside it. His private and public faces were different, of course, but also unmistakably the same.

“Free” is a word that I find myself using a lot right now, as I think and talk about my father. If he was nearly free of selfish ambition and vain conceit, he was also, more and more through the course of his life, free of legalism and dogmatism. One of the greatest gifts he gave me, personally, was his, again, simultaneously simple and subtle grasp of the spirit of the gospel. Speaking as someone who can get caught up in the letter, tangled in words, Dad always brought me back from the edge of absurdity with the deep and basic truths of the gospel. It was he who best taught me the difference between knowledge and wisdom. He never let himself get paralyzed by grey theory or remain stuck on the horns of a dilemma, doctrinal or personal, but always brought things back to the promise of God’s love and forgiveness, and the reminder that if tongues will be stilled, and knowledge pass away, it is love that will remain.

My Dad was free because he knew “the secret of being content in any and every situation”; he knew what it was to have plenty and to be in need, to be in community and to be alone, to succeed and to fail, to have hair and not to have hair. His secret was his confidence in Christ: I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Indeed, Dad was familiar with suffering and acquainted with grief. I often think of him in what was probably the low point of his life, returning from the mission field after his marriage had failed, with two young daughters in tow, and having had to leave his two other beloved girls behind. He was living with his parents, and, as he told me, in something close to despair. When my Dad’s brother Wayne shared some thoughts after the burial service yesterday, he recalled the same time, when, he said, Dad was broken, and angry with God, but he never turned away from Him. Given the circumstances, Dad had feared returning to Bethel Chapel, his home church, but he told me he remembered the command of Scripture not to forsake the assembly of believers. When he did return, he was overwhelmed and humbled by the instant love and acceptance he found there. This experience, I think, was one reason that our Dad so treasured the unity of the body.

When my Dad met my Mom, Karen, it quickly became clear that the Lord had prepared them for each other, and that, through deep adversity and heartache in both of their lives, he had instilled in them a hard-won maturity and a determination to do things right and in a way that would please the Lord. So I still remember, back when New Life was in the gym at Abington Friends, how, as an illustration of parenting strategies, the whole family recreated the Clark breakfast table onstage during Sunday worship, all of us polite and well-mannered, with every conflict resolved, with recitations of repentance and forgiveness, all capped of course with a slightly too-long prayer from Mom. I know that over the past 25 years the Clarks may have been regarded by the community as the model Christian family—at times, undoubtedly, annoyingly so--but it is a powerful thing to remember that both of my parents have been around the block more than once, and whatever success they have had in their marriage was due to God’s gracious and redeeming love.

Up until his literal death--and his death was no figure of speech--it was real, and painful, it was shocking and it was tragic, even as it was a beautiful going home--up until that death, Dad’s life was a process, deeper and deeper, of dying to self. The secret to Dad’s joy, even amidst suffering, was twofold. There’s a philosopher in Chicago who describes a key component of living a good life as “stepping outside the shadow of the self.” Dad was very much in his element outside that shadow. The second part of this “open secret” of Dad’s life was the step into the arms of God, into the clothing of Christ, as Galatians says, into the Rock of Ages. Dad’s life embodied John the Baptist’s words, “he must become greater, I must become less.”

The other part of the phrase, “man of integrity,” is of course “man,” and my father taught me what it was to be a man. My Dad was a man in the fullest sense of the word, a real human being. While he could be as tough and as courageous as anyone, he also had a wonderfully tender heart, and it was always a source of some amusement for us kids to hear the sniffling behind us during a family movie time, whether the fare was Oscar-worthy drama or Disney schlock. Dad was never afraid to kiss and flirt with Mom in front of us kids (much to our exaggerated chagrin and secret delight), or to sing old-time love songs and hymns with gusto, or to let his love for us kids break out in a spontaneous, loud, goofy burst of sing-songy tribute or teasing that would always make us laugh. He called Christine “La Grande Dame,” he would sing to Cara “young lady,” and I’ll never forget the mornings he would greet me with “Androso my son!!” Dad could startle you with his idiosyncratic expressions of tender affection. But being a man, a father and husband, to him meant being a provider, and he was often working two or three teaching positions plus one other job all at once, still with energy—what energy!—to serve as an elder, church greeter, visitor of the sick, home demolisher and renovator, encourager, and counselor.

Dad was also a servant, in attitude and deed. We kids were just recalling how the chore my Dad most unfailingly carried out, once a week, was the washing of the kitchen floor. There is no better symbol of my Dad’s way of loving and of embodying Christ to us, and the sudsy water he used to scrub that worn linoleum was as sacred as that in any baptismal font.

Considering Dad’s humanity, and his servant heart, the Bible passage that kept coming to mind for me this week was Philippians 2, where it speaks of the attitude of Christ,

Who, being in very nature God,
made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

“Obedient to death”—Could this be God’s most profound identification with us human beings, for him to experience human suffering so fully as to die—painfully, publicly, and not without wrestling with his fate, not without something approaching despair. I was moved, even inspired, by Dad’s honesty with me about his fear of dying. He was always clear that he knew where he was going, but up until the end he struggled with having to leave this life and those he loved. Dad wrestled with the Lord, he sought and interrogated the Lord’s will. He felt and faced squarely the challenge of trying to achieve the acceptance that overcomes stubborn, futile defiance, but that also isn't merely a passive admission of defeat. An eyes-wide-open reconciliation to life and death, which overcomes not only rage but also all the ways we human beings have found of "giving up" on real life. During that time, Dad sought, grappled with, and fell into the arms of a risen Savior, who sustained him all the way to his last breath.

Dad’s death was the completion of a lifetime’s work of becoming one with Christ. Because surely if Jesus identifies with us in dying, then we also finally become like him in death. My Dad’s final test was in his last few days, when the cancer had made him so weak that he could barely walk, then barely move his body in bed, then barely see, or speak, or even groan. The real test of strength is when every bit of physical, mental and psychological strength is stripped away, and one is left, naked, like Christ on the cross. What remains? To see such a strong and capable man so weak, so small in that hospital bed, was to witness Dad’s final passage through the refining fire that made his identification with Jesus complete. To be obedient to death. What remains, for Dad, and for us? What did he leave behind, and where did he go?

We buried Dad yesterday. As Marc Davis reminded us then, we were planting a seed in the ground. Jesus said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Paul, echoing these words, said, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” Like God himself had to die to attain life for us, my Dad had to die to make his unity with Jesus complete, and to enter into that life that is the fruit of the planted seed, of which the resurrected Christ, the Bible says, was the firstfruit.

What remains? This is 1 Corinthians again: “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”