Cut Grass and Grape Juice

It was an uncommonly beautiful August morning, sunny and clear, warm, but not yet hot, as I left my office on the university campus where I worked and walked toward the student union to grab an early lunch on a busy day. My route took me alongside a freshly-mown sports practice field, and as I loped along, mulling over one technical issue or another that was still on my mind, a gentle wind suddenly gusted across the field, pushing a whoosh of air from the warmed surface of the field right across my path. I felt the extra warmth and humidity as the air rushed around me, and I was quickly enveloped in the rich, pleasant fragrance of cut grass, which I inhaled deeply. Without warning, a very old memory flashed through my brain: I was thirteen, lying on the grass on a football practice field, having just been run over by a much larger 14-year-old ball carrier whom I was assigned to tackle. Both of the bones in my right forearm were broken, the shock was giving way to pain…and as quickly as it appeared, the memory faded. 

I had not been thinking about my brief junior-high football career (just one day, as it turned out, because my arm was broken on the first day of two-a-days—in those days we did full-contact from the very first day of practice). I had not been thinking about sports at all, but rather about some programming problem. What brought that memory out of the vault so unexpectedly was the smell of the cut grass. And it happened just that one time—I’ve smelled cut grass thousands of times before and since that walk without awakening that memory.

I don’t know anything about the psychology or physiology of such things, but I can’t help but believe that our sense of smell can at times be a powerfully evocative trigger for memories, and sometimes in unexpected ways.

There are some smells that always bring memories—the smell of a cattle pen always reminds me of my grandfather’s dairy farm, for example. The smell of my wife’s perfume or shampoo will always make me think of her. The smell of a very particular sort of pizza will always bring to mind Pasquale’s Pizza in Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1950s. The smell of a used bookstore reminds me of the library my parents took me to every week as a child. The memories evoked by smells are not always pleasant ones, but for me, it seems they mostly are. 

One of the most powerful aroma-triggered memories for me is the smell of the wine (grape juice, in most of the churches I’ve been involved with) of the eucharist. A whiff of the aroma of the juice in that little plastic cup often transports me to a specific communion service on the last day of a month-long youth ministry training school I attended right out of college in the summer of 1976. I was beginning my internship year with a para-church student ministry organization, and on the final night of our month together, we shared in a particularly meaningful communion experience, in which the communion officiant had read these words from the gospel of Matthew:

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26-27-29, NASB)

That communion observance was an unusually emotional moment for me, as I was ending my formal training and would soon begin my work in real-world ministry. The month had been a very intense and exhausting time of learning, and an equally intense time of spiritual growth. There were people I had come to know and love whom I would likely not see again. And in the swirling of those emotions, the statement of Jesus that he would wait to have that wine again until we were all together with him again in his Father’s kingdom was powerfully comforting to me. My head was bowed, and I remember tears falling from my eyes onto the inside surface of my eyeglasses as the passage was read from the gospel.

Many years later, sitting in a church service, long after I had left the para-church ministry, I remember taking my little plastic cup of juice and passing the tray down the row, and catching a whiff of the grape juice aroma—and suddenly there I was again, a brand-new ministry intern, eyes wet with tears. In a brief moment, I remembered that long-ago communion, and what Jesus had said about the wine…and then the moment passed.

I have wondered, in the years since then, whether Jesus’ followers ever had those same sorts of feelings and memories when they sat down together for the Lord’s Supper, or for any meal, for that matter. Jesus had said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The apostle Paul had written, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” As intense as my memories were, I imagine those memories and emotions were immeasurably stronger for those who actually knew him and walked with him. And I imagine that the aroma of the bread and wine always reminded them of their time with Jesus.

How and why memories work this way, I have no clue. I suspect that one day all of this will be explained and it will all become perfectly clear; we’ll see how all things do work together, and just how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. Until then, I’m praying for the grace to look and listen carefully, to inhale deeply, to feel all I can feel, and to receive every memory as a gift of grace from a loving God, who, in the person of Christ, has walked in the warm sun and smelled the cut grass, whose face has been wet with tears—a man of sorrows, and yet desirous of one day sharing his great joy with all who believe in him.

These lyrics from a song by Andrew Peterson now come to mind, and serve as a fitting conclusion to these rambling thoughts:

Into the peace of these wild things
Into the wild of this grace
Into the grace of this blessing
Speak in the peace of this place
Here at the magic hour
Time and eternity
Mingle a moment in chorus
Here at the magic hour
Bright is the mystery
Plain is the beauty before us
Could this beauty be for us?

—Andrew Peterson, “The Magic Hour” (from the album, Counting Stars)

Alabama, 1954

Pierce Pettis’ song, “Alabama, 1959” (from his outstanding 2004 album, Great Big World), is a wistful, melancholy, achingly beautiful song about growing up in Alabama in the 1950s. The lyrics thoughtfully mix nostalgia for a childhood lived in a bygone era with references to the segregation that was simply part of the culture, and a mournful violin part throughout the song evokes both a sense of loss and longing for that time, and also an acknowledgment of the injustice of those days. (It is among my favorite Pierce Pettis songs, and I advise you to go find it and give it a listen or two.

The lyrics are both nostalgic and a stark picture of the segregation and racism of that era and that region:

Football games beneath the lights
No one ever dared to cross the color line
Black faces watched through the fence outside
Alabama 1959

Don’t use that word, my mother said
It isn’t Christian–call them colored folks instead
So I learned to be polite
Alabama 1959

As I think about hearing that song for the first time not long after the album’s release, I have to confess that I am embarrassed that has taken me so long to thoughtfully consider and confront the reality of the world and culture that I was born into in 1954. I, too, was born in Alabama, at the WAC hospital at Aniston–my father was a corporal in the Army Corps of Engineers, working as a draftsman at the Redstone Arsenal. He was discharged a few months after I was born, and immediately moved us to Kansas–I have not been back to Alabama even once since I was six months old. But in recent years, I’ve decided I really need to go back there.

I have thought very little about Alabama over the years–I remember the George Wallace presidential runs, I watched the civil rights struggle play out on television, and it isn’t like I forgot I was born there, but it has only been recently that I confronted the reality that I was born in a place and at a time when there were whites-only water fountains and restrooms and when segregation was being vigorously debated (the Brown v. Board of Education case was decided in 1954). (I asked my dad recently if the hospital where I was born had whites-only restrooms and water fountains. He told me he didn’t think so, because I was born in a WAC hospital in Aniston at Fort McClellan–my dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving at the Redstone Arsenal near Hunstville–and President Truman had signed an executive order in 1948 requiring equal treatment and opportunity for all in the military. Real integration in the military would not be a reality for many years, of course, but at least the bathrooms and fountains were probably shared, on-base.)

A couple of years ago I heard a talk by Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and the author of the book, Just Mercy, and the subject of a recently-released docu-drama film with the same name. Stevenson is a lawyer who has worked many years for reforms in the criminal justice system, and helped to obtain justice for prisoners who were wrongly accused and incarcerated. Stevenson also headed the effort to develop the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. The Memorial is an effort to tell the story of the lynchings that took place primarily in the South between 1877 and 1950. Stevenson’s description of the Memorial (which had not yet opened at that time) deeply moved me.

With the Memorial and the museum, EJI not only shines light on the horror and the injustice of the lynchings, but the staff have also done considerable work to identify as many of the victims as possible, to help shed light on this gruesome and shameful period in American history, to make it personal, in effect, so that the names of these men (and women) will not be forgotten.

I feel very much like I am being drawn to Montgomery–the word “pilgrimage” has often come to mind. I feel I am being drawn there, perhaps by a sense of regret or remorse or sadness, but also out of a desire to simply face the truth about our nation’s history, or maybe even to own it, to some degree, as a sin of my country.

I was taught that slavery was merely an aberration, a sad and regrettable error that had been recognized and corrected. I was always taught that my country was founded by pilgrims who sought religious freedom, and then freedom from the tyranny of the King of England. The fact that my country was built on stolen land and stolen labor was essentially swept under the carpet. I did not learn about the laws that systematized racism in my country from the beginning. Now it seems obvious to me that the resistance to the removal of statues and monuments that honor the Confederacy, and the increasingly brazen demonstrations by white nationalists and the so-called “alt-right” since the 2016 elections are indicators of the persistence of a deeply-rooted racism and white supremacy in this country (and almost certainly a backlash against the two-term Obama presidency).

So I will go to Montgomery one day. I need to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I don’t know what I expect to happen, or to feel. There is certainly a part of me that doesn’t really want to confront the ugly truth, for fear that the horror of it will be unbearable–a sure sign of “white fragility” in me, I know. But there is another part of me that simply wants to sit for a time in this reality, to contemplate the injustice that is intertwined with my own past, and to shed at least some portion of my ignorance.

And I imagine there will be weeping.

*Lyrics quoted from “Alabama, 1959,” by Pierce Pettis, ℗ 2004 Compass Records.

A note to readers as I begin

This blog has existed (and remained mostly empty) for a couple of years. In the early days I posted a couple of things, which I took down later during a prolonged crisis of self-confidence and while I sorted out what I really intended to accomplish by publishing my writing online. (I’m still sorting that.) I have in mind no central, organizing theme or subject matter. I intend to write about whatever happens to be on my mind.

Though this blog has not had much published content during the past two years, I have still been writing, and there are numerous draft posts that have accumulated, so now that I’ve decided it’s time to release some words into the wild, there may be a few pieces (ones that I consider fit for reading) that may appear here relatively quickly–this pace will not be sustained. At the moment I can’t really commit to a regular publication schedule, but my hope is to publish something here about once a week, once I find a comfortable writing rhythm.

What sort of content might one expect here? I’ll answer that this way: I’m a pastor–not a lead pastor, but a pastor who deals with missions and outreach and social justice issues in my church. You can expect words here about refugees, homelessness, racism (particularly in the church), white supremacy, white Christian nationalism and the like. I might take on theological topics now and then, and I might complain a bit about the state of contemporary evangelicalism. Political topics and issues may surface–it’s hard to take Jesus seriously without venturing into that world. I will tell stories. I will write essays. I apologize right now for any ranting that may occur–I’ll try to keep that under control.

I’m a woodworker, an amateur electronics maker/tinkerer, and a musician. From time to time these interests may make an appearance. I am quite often lost in wonder at the beauty of the world around me, and I am often awe-struck by the creativity of others (and envious of it)–this will surely show, as I’ve been know to quote Bob Dylan when his words are perfect and mine are wimpy by comparison.

I’ve resolved to not care whether anyone else reads the words I write here, but you see through that, of course.

So if you are an actual person who has happened upon this blog, whether by accident or invitation, I thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you’ll come back.