Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A few weeks after Richard’s wife died, he offered me a pair of her shoes. He pulled a box out of a crumpled Macy’s bag and handed it to me.

"Her feet swelled up when she was sick, so she never wore them," he said. "I bought them for her, but they wouldn’t fit. What size do you wear?"

Sitting down on the sofa in my apartment manager’s apartment, I lifted the lid, only to find shoes that I knew immediately I would never wear. They were my grandmother’s shoes—practical canoes for walking and living, with a medium-brown tone and modest metal decoration at the toe—and completely off limits for at least another 35 years in my mind. The shoes were marked size eight.

"I’m usually size seven," I said, instead of the seven-and-a-half that is the truth. Richard didn’t seem to have heard and motioned for me to try them on. He watched me slip into Helen’s shoes and stand. They were on the big side, but functional. I thought about just taking them—that was the decent thing to do. That’s what he wanted.

I’d run into Richard on my way out the door that morning, and he’d given me a ride to the metro station. It was cold, and he was pretty much insisting. I hadn’t really talked to him since the day a few weeks back, when we crossed paths at the mailboxes and I asked him how things were going.

"Fine," he’d answered, then paused. "My wife died." I’d had no idea and didn’t know what to say.

In the car, his eyes started to fill with just a few blocks to go.

"You can say what you want, but I do miss her," he told me. "We have a queen-size bed, and I still sleep on my side. I don’t want to take her space."

I wish I’d accepted the shoes that day. After declining them, I was next offered several of Helen’s suit jackets from the closet, and there was no way I could feign a need for those.

"I bet Macy’s would take the shoes back, since they’re brand new," I said. He explained he’d tried that too late, and such a return was no longer an option because the shoes had been on clearance.

As I prepared to go, Richard picked up a bright conference brochure and handed it to me. He’d just seen the much-loved/despised Joel Olsteen, friend of Richard’s pastor at Faith Church St. Louis, speak the other day. It was just great, he said. I nodded, again not knowing what to say. He struggled to tell me something, but couldn’t quite get it out.

"I go every week," Richard said. "If you ever want to come … I’m not bothering you, I’m just, like I say, I go ever week . The kids come running up to me after. They call me the candy man."

Richard reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of wrapped strawberry candies, the kind with the chewy middle. They're one of my favorites, I told him, and I took one.

"Take more," he said.

I declined again, popping the first in my mouth, and shifted toward the door.

"Thanks, Richard. I’ll see you around. You take care."

The next weekend, Richard buzzed. When I opened my door, he held out a whole bag of the candies, and I gladly accepted it.

I live in a different apartment building now. So I don’t see Richard often, though occasionally I spy him sitting out on the stoop a half-block down as I pass by the old street on my walk home from work. We wave.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Manners may prevail"

I've Emily on the brain this weekend:

Abraham to kill him/
Was distinctly told -
Isaac was an Urchin -
Abraham was old -
Not a hesitation -
Abraham complied -
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred -
Isaac – to his Children
Lived to tell the tale -
Moral – with a Mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Poem #1332

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The dark side of the talents parable

What follows is something I wrote a while ago but was reminded of this week. It gets at one of the main issues that led me to distrust the God described (at certain points) in the Bible.


In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus likens the coming kingdom to a master who goes on a long journey, leaving his property in the hands of three servants. The first receives five “talents” (units of money), the second gets two talents, and the third is given one, “each according to his ability.” There are no explicit instructions about what’s to be done with these allotments, but the first two servants get to work “at once,” Jesus says in the story, each of them doubling the original amount by their successful stewardship of the master’s property.

“But the man who had received the one talent,” Jesus says, “went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

When the master returns to “settle accounts,” the first two servants get rave reviews: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The contrast with his response to the third servant could not be more stark.

"I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed,” the servant begins. “So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you."

His confession is an honest one, giving a straightforward account of his actions. But he’s done for: "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents … throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"

The master’s reprimand is troubling in its focus on the stupidity of the servant, who is roundly dismissed as a wicked, slothful fool, and who receives no meaningful response to his admitted fears of the master’s tactics.

But there is an even harsher magic at work in the master’s rebuke, and that is that the master fully acknowledges himself to be a hard man, reaping where he has not sown, and seems, if anything, a little proud of the trait. Jesus does not address the ethical issues that the master’s cruelty raises. That appears to beside the point in the story.

And what is that point? This is not one of the parables that Jesus goes on to unpack for his baffled disciples, but here’s my guess: that it makes you worthless and lazy and even evil not to buckle down and please and obey, in anticipation of reward. (Ouch.) Hesitations, questions, doubts—these distract and destroy.


I wrote that at a point when my own hesitations, questions, and doubts had finally overwhelmed me past the point of return. The lighter side of the parable still stands--the value of putting to use the things we possess, the skills we have. But words are powerful, and as someone who was instructed to take the words of scripture to heart and to take them to be authoritative, I took to heart not only the master's commendations but also his insistence that he harvests where he has not sown and gathers where he has not scattered seed. And I found I could no longer worship such a master with any confidence or sincerity whatsoever.