Certainly the recent massacre in Newtown, Connecticut is weighing heavily on many minds and hearts. But some of us were already grieving during this Advent season, so our tears were close to the surface. A seminary classmate died earlier in the week and a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church on Wednesday. My Uncle Lee Roy Valliant died during the holidays two years ago and my beloved great-grandmother, Lina Burgin McLain died on Christmas day in 1974, making this whole season a bit sad for me.
Today, though, I remember my father, Delbert Dean McLain who died early in the morning on December 15, 1999. He was a remarkable man, beloved by many, but really known by very few. In his obituary, we listed him as a wheat farmer because he always thought of himself that way, though he didn’t really do that for most of his life. What he loved the most was music and the theater and he nourished those loves in me. I remember sitting in the living room listening to Rachmaninoff with him on his Teac reel-to-reel and right now in the recesses of my memory banks I can hear him whistling the main tune of the 18th variation on a Theme of Paganini. I’ve looked through some old photos today of him in various costumes and I love wearing his Santa hat during this time of year. On Monday, I will don his tuxedo jacket to do some singing and love that it fits me so well.
But his life wasn’t all music and frivolity, like those in Newtown, his life was changed by gun violence. When I was six years old, my grandfather committed suicide. My father discovered his gunshot-ravaged body and later on he had a complete psychological meltdown that landed him in the hospital in Amarillo. Later, my mother brought him home, and for an extended time my father lay in bed day after day.
Our pastor the Rev. John Otey was the only person who seemed to have an idea of what to do. John would come to visit in the afternoons. He would simply sit at the end of the bed and wait. Eventually, my father began to talk to him and to pull out of his profound depression. Many years later, as a first year seminarian, I went to see John and I asked him . . . “what were you doing, John?” He laughed and explained, “your father’s depression changed my life and ministry. I didn’t know what to do, so I just showed up. I’d like to say that I sat there in prayer and with healing intentions, but sometimes I just sat there and constructed a grocery list or thought about errands.”
When John left Perryton, he moved to Lubbock where he enrolled in a graduate program in psychology. He told me, “as long as I was going to be in these remote places where there was no therapist or other professional to refer folks to, I figured I’d better get some training myself.” Still, what John showed me was the power of presence. He sat and waited. He showed up and eventually my father was able to get up. This is still the essence of pastoral ministry to me –to keep showing up. I miss John too at this time of year. He died at Christmas 20 years ago.
I fully began to understand this “power of presence” for myself as I navigated the theological shoals presented during the worst of the HIV/AIDS years. When the “dying years” began in the early 1980’s, I had taken a year off from my studies in music at Rice University to work as a stage manager for Houston Grand Opera. During that time over 75% of our supernumeraries (the non-singing “extras” that perform in operas) died. Many singers, designers, directors, choristers, and almost every gay man I knew in high school died too. By the time I was 30 years old, I had lost over 250 friends and colleagues. We had many, many blue Christmases.
So while we wait for the Christ child to be born anew, perhaps we can simply take this time to be more fully present to one another through all the sadness, grief, and finally gratitude that will lead us again to joy.