I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting this year on situations where outcomes are out of my control. I’ve had lots to reflect on because I’ve had abundant experience in such situations this year. I spend two hours at the hospital each week, visiting patients. I realized very quickly how much I hate being asked to be present to something which I can do nothing to help. There’s a real feeling of inadequacy when sitting with a woman whose husband is about to die or with a man who had a heart transplant but is now unable to walk. My words and prayers often feel empty in the face of such pain and grief. I’ve learned that much of ministry is like that.
In hindsight, it seems appropriate that my favorite traditions at A&M were Silver Taps and Muster. Both of these traditions deal with death and are unique in that they really ask very little of the students. Besides a few key organizers, most students just show up. There is no yelling, pushing, preparing, presenting, achieving, winning, or busyness. There is no clear outcome or benefit to the student and the event goes on whether you are there or not. Presence and time are the only things asked of you. The only thing you have control over is your internal disposition.1
Silver Taps looked something like this. I’d walk to the plaza in silence, stand for 45 minutes in silence, hear footsteps from the Ross Volunteers, listen to the eerie sound of birds flying in the darkness after being jolted by the volley of 21 gunshots, soak in the dissonance of the bugles thrice repeating Silver Taps (I’m still not sure if it was intentionally bad tuning), and walk away in silent scuffle of feet on the ground to head back to whatever less important, passing thing I was doing before.
I didn’t know the person honored. The families didn’t see my face. I did nothing but show up and stand. By all appearances, nothing.
So some months I’d skip. I’d ‘have a lot of homework’ (sometimes legit), or ‘really need to sleep’ (never happened), or feel like it was a waste of time and simply want to watch an episode of Avatar or play another round of LoL (regret). But every time that happened I felt guilty, at least partly due to the never ending stream of newspaper guilt trips.
So I went back and kept going. I was pulled in for various reasons. It was partially a stubbornness to show up when so many others didn’t. Partially a fierce clinging to the hope the Aggies really do deeply care about each other. Partially the knowledge that 30 years before my dad had been standing in the exact same plaza doing the exact same thing. Partially the hope that my brother and sister would be standing there in my place once I graduate. Partially the hope that when I die someday there will still be students standing. Partially I appreciated the chance to pray a Chaplet of Divine Mercy for the deceased and the University endorsed monthly reminder that death happens to us all – I’m not going to escape it.
It was some combination of all those things, but I think it was ultimately rooted in a growing conviction of the power of the tradition. This is something that Aggies do – acknowledge death and care for each other. Every time I went, I was deeply moved. It was the first real testing ground for me to realize that presence is powerful. Silver Taps taught me that sometimes showing up is all you can and need to do. The families didn’t see my face; they needed to grieve. All they needed to know was that a sea of unnamed students was showing up in support of their son/daughter/friend. It said, “the life of your loved one mattered and I am impacted by their passing.” It was an acknowledge that death hurts and we could do nothing to stop it. Instead, we did the only thing we could, stand and be present.
It was not nothing. Being there was enough.
Presence spoke way louder than any words I could have produced. It was true then, is true now, and will be true throughout my entire life of ministry. My challenge is to believe it, give up my need for results, and give what little I can. It’s something I remind myself of constantly.
I still can’t listen to this without holding back tears
This started as a post about Muster and death, but it never got there. I’ll follow up on that next time. April 21 is this Thursday. Go! Find the closest location, get together with some great people, drink a beer, and share stories. Spend the night staring down death and celebrating life. If you’re in Dallas, feel free to join me.