God of the When

by Jeannie Alexander My mind and heart are still raw from the day. Do I try to speak of the little ecstasies, the hunt I have been on, or do I choose to let the events and the images of the day steep in my mind, to stain my perceptions and memories like tea, and only then to write? We are taught that God is all powerful, but what fragile momentary beauty our encounters with the holy. The day moved in slow motion, and even now in the breeze I hear the bones of a horse clattering in the tree softly outside my window, a presence drifting across the land, touching the dreams of boys. These bones, long driftwood ribs lost by the horse, and then found again many years later in a grove by a woman searching.

We walked through the horse pasture, let to grow wild with rabbit tobacco, sweet annie, and burr. I had just taught my future nephews, 8 and 10, that an ankle length skirt is no impediment to scaling a fence and hopping a gate. A horse approached us, deep brown like the velvet peat waters of the lake, breathing her hay breath into our noses and open mouths the pneuma of the fields. Beneath the reflection of a cataract sun, we walked through the copse of trees, now christened “Bone Grove” (little boys continue Adam’s work of naming and renaming all of creation) and followed the horse trail into the shadows until we came upon the bones I had left sleeping a year ago still slumbering now. The boys excited to a high pitched chatter began to gather up the thick stout leg bones, and we built a temporary cairn of them. Deeper we walked through a low tree tunnel, where we found fresh evidence of a recent horse’s sojourn to the trickle creek. I looked for the slave graves my beloved spoke to me of, but aside from an intentional piling of stones at the base of a tree I found no other indication of a possible place of rest.

The boys are mad about creeks, and I am mad for their love of each other and the inevitable competition between the two set in their own bones from birth. We follow the creek for a bit until I refuse to cross through the tunnel under the road. Isiah waits by my side as his brother, pretending to be just slightly braver, walks another 20 feet ahead. I turn to go back and the youngest pleads for me not to leave his brother, I look into his serious brown eyes and promise never to leave either of them. The three of us walk back to the cairn and carry out more of the horse whose ribs sing in the dogwood now. Isaac complains briefly that he will get dirty, and I tell him of course he will, he’s carrying great green bones caked with mud and bugs, and what does he think water is for anyway? We approach the gate and toss our bones over and ready ourselves to climb, but first I break off a branch of rust brown sweet annie and tell them to smell. I tell them that this is one of my favorite smells and that their uncle loves it dearly. The elder brother focused and about the business of life already, sniffs quickly and he is over the fence.

And then it happens, and I am there watching God pause and emerge before me, breaking through as the clouds part and golden light seeks out the curves of Isiah’s face as he inhales deeply, eyes closed, and replies, “I love this, this is one of my favorite smells.” Oh child you have now participated in a memory, the haze of a haunting, and the continuation of the sacred knowing of a particular land by a particular people. You will remember but perhaps for a long time you will not know why.

Later driving back to Nashville, I talk with Dean for an hour, Dean with whom I share a soul of common substance, Dean who never struck out violently against another human and yet has completed 18 years of exile in the desert wasteland of Tennessee prisons serving an impossible three life sentences without possibility of parole. As if the machine of prison death could take his future lives when it cannot even own his heart and mind in this one. We share the familiar greeting now: “How are you?” “Somewhat dying.” and laugh easily in each other’s presence. I tell Dean that a gallery has recently taken three pieces of my art and he understands my anxiety at letting the pieces go. Each photograph a scrambling, fleeting, flailing effort to interpret and project a sacred blink of suspended desire and fulfillment before paradise is lost again. And if I let these images go, do I let the moment go, must I surround myself with such totems? Forgive my idolatry, I was only chasing you.

Dean too is an artist, my twin soul chasing God’s ecstasy. Because that’s just it for freaks like us, chasing the addiction of that moment when you first felt the Presence moving inside of you. We build our walls and listen as Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God, when the whole time we should have been stripping naked in the field.

Aquinas asked God “when?” and God opened God’s arms, and Aquinas having learned compassion said he allowed himself to stay. But don’t believe it. We do not exist in such moments for prolonged periods of time. It’s too much; the intensity is too much. And so we look away and release the embrace, just as Aquinas did. At best we can commit to staying raw, naked, and awake; waiting for God to come in punctuated events like a slippery eel in cold waters that we can only grab long enough for the shock to knock us on our ass, gleeful to suck in the water and drown again. God would be a constant lover if only we could stand in the moment and truth of the “when?” What would the world do with such mad men and women, stepping into ourselves, stepping into God, locked in the embrace, and releasing the grief and fear? What would such men and women do with the world, and how long could we burn?

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Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.