This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. Isaiah 30:15 (NIV)
I have a tat on my left bicep. It is a reference to King David’s song of repentance, written after he’d been caught committing adultery, conspiracy, and murder (along with a host of other mistakes). The reference is on my the left arm because throughout the ages the left has metaphorically been used in reference to foolishness, oddity, and wrong doing (Wendy and I are both left-handed, btw). It has an illuminated “P” inspired by the Book of Kells in honor of the monks of Ireland who kept God’s Word alive on the edges of the known world while the institutional church and ecclesiastical powers in Rome and France led the western world into the dark ages. It is on my bicep to remind me of exactly what the ancient prophet Isaiah called out in today’s chapter:
In repentance and rest is your salvation,
In quietness and trust is your strength
For a good, long time on my life journey I followed the path I find most of the world follows. I hid my shortcomings beneath a well crafted public veneer of purity and self-righteousness. Like a successful political candidate I obfuscated, excused, ignored, and covered up. I refused to acknowledge my selfish motives, wanton appetites, and foolish choices. Like David, I woke up one day to find myself at a place on life’s road I swore I would never be. I had wandered so far.
My experience taught me hard and painful lessons in humility. Trouble is a powerful tutor, and I quietly began to understand what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the followers of Jesus in Corinth “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.'”
The mystery of the spiritual paradox began to lay hold of me. In repentance is strength. Spiritual power is birthed through grace amidst the shattered pieces of my life and the tragic evidence of my own frail humanity. I struck out in a new direction, understanding that repentance, not self-righteousness, was the way of strength.
I put a tat on my left bicep to remind me, every day for the rest of my journey, what I have learned, and what I am continually learning.
Last night on the way home from rehearsal I was scanning through the music on my iPhone and stumbled upon an unlikely song I didn’t really know I had. It’s essentially a negro spiritual sung by the old Irish rocker Tom Jones. Talk about a paradox. I listened to it multiple times on the way home. Seems now like a bit of synchronicity in light of my thoughts this morning. I may find myself in a place of trouble, but God uses that trouble “for to make me human, to make me whole.”
Here are the words:
When I close my eyes, so I would not see, My Lord did trouble me. When I let things stand that should not be, My Lord did trouble me.
Did trouble me, With a word or a sign, With a ring of a bell in the back of my mind. Did trouble me, Did stir my soul, For to make me human, to make me whole.
When I slept too long and I slept too deep, Put a worrisome vision into my sleep. When I held myself away and apart, And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart.
Did trouble me, With a word and a sign, With a ringing of a bell in the back of my mind. Did trouble me, Did stir my soul For to make me human, to make me whole.
And of this I’m sure, of this I know: My Lord will trouble me. Whatever I do, wherever I go, My Lord will trouble me.
In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song My Lord will trouble me. To keep me on the path where I belong, My Lord will trouble me.
Will trouble me, With a word or a sign, With the ringing of a bell in the back of my mind. Will trouble me, Will stir my soul, For to make me human, to make me whole.
The other night Wendy and I were sitting on the couch watching television and working.
“When they market a movie as ‘inspirational’ it makes me not want to see it,” Wendy mused. “If Hollywood would make movies in which things don’t turn out the way you want and call it ‘inspirational’ then I might want to see it.”
I can think of a movie or two that fit the description of what m’love is talking about, but there are precious few. I get where she’s coming from. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control.
In 1998 I was given a great gift when a friend offered to fly me and some other guys to Dublin for a long “guys” weekend. Something awoke in my soul that weekend. Something that had lain dormant sprung to life and my life has never been quite the same. I had long been told by my mother that this little Dutch boy had Scotch-Irish genes, but I didn’t really know how or from whom. It turns out to be quite a story that began with a sixteen year old girl named Malinda Jane Helmick, known as Lenna.
The year was 1881 and Lenna’s father had died four years earlier. Her widowed mother had worked desperately to keep the family farm going. Older siblings had married and moved on. There was just Lenna and her younger sister, Maggie, left at home. Times were hard. Lenna’s mother surprised the teen one day, and it was not a pleasant surprise. She told Lenna that she had hired her out to a family who lived miles away on a farm near Melrose, Iowa. Feeling like an unwanted burden to her mother, Lenna was forced to move what seemed in impossibly long distance to be a servant on the farm of John and Elizabeth McCoy.
The McCoy farm was run by the aging John and his bachelor son, David Thomas McCoy who, at the time, was 34. There were four other sons and a daughter who had all grown and moved on. Lenna’s life with the McCoys was hard. She was up early to cook the family breakfast. She cooked and cleaned throughout the day. She emptied, daily, the family’s commodes and chamber pots. She cleaned up after the evening meal and wasn’t finished with her work until late each evening. Lenna was given one day off every two weeks, and a few hours each Sunday morning to attend church.
On top of the long hours and hard work, Lenna’s life was made miserable by Mrs. McCoy. Elizabeth McCoy was an angry, cantankerous woman, partially invalid, and impossible to please. Lenna had the daily burden of trying to make Mrs. McCoy comfortable and to wait on her hand and foot amidst her regular chores. If Mrs. McCoy was hot Lenna was asked to open all the windows in the house. A short time later Mrs. McCoy would be cold and Lenna would have to close the windows and heat up a water bottle to warm the woman back up.
Lenna’s days off and occasional breaks from work afforded her little pleasure. She was stuck on the farm with no transportation and no place to go. She spent her free time walking in the woods near the McCoy farm. It was during these walks that she began to meet with and enjoy conversation with the McCoy’s bachelor son, David, who was almost 20 years her senior. Over time the man pledged his love to Lenna, promising to marry her and, together, take over the family farm. He simply had to get his mother’s blessing, he said. That blessing would never come. Elizabeth McCoy hated Lenna, looked down on her, and would never allow her son to marry a lowly servant.
Life is messy, and it happened that after one of Lenna and David’s dates in the woods near the farm that Lenna became pregnant. She thought that this would force David to stand up to his mother and claim her has his bride, but instead Elizabeth McCoy flatly forbade her son from marrying Lenna and dismissed the teen from her service before she began to show. David promised to take care of Lenna and the baby, but he would not marry her over his mother’s objections.
Lenna had few options and begged her married sister, Lou, to take her in. Lou and her husband lived in the town of Tracy, Iowa. They took Lenna in out of “Christian charity” but she would no longer be considered a sister. Lenna would, in her fallen state, simply be a household servant relegated to waiting on her sister’s family just as she had waited on the McCoys. Fearing that the community would discover the truth, Lou and her husband forbade Lenna from being seen in public. When guests came to their house they demanded Lenna stay out of sight. It was in that home that Lenna gave birth to a son, and named him David, after his father.
Lenna continued to correspond with David McCoy and he continued to make promises. He pledged to marry her one day and make everything right. The promises, however, remained hollow. McCoy moved from Iowa to Nebraska, then to Missouri, and then back to Iowa. Lenna soon owned up to the realization of just how empty McCoy’s promises had always been and would always be. She met a local farmer of German descent named Jacob Miller Yeater and the two were married. Yeater understood Lenna’s circumstances and agreed to raise Lenna’s son as his own. No legal papers were filed. Lenna simply began to call her son Oscar William Yeater, and the boy grew up completely ignorant of the real story of his birth.
It was many years later that Will, now an adult and newly married, discovered his parents marriage certificate as he was going through some papers. He did the math and saw that they were married two years after his birth. Despite nagging misgivings about his true identity, Will chose to deny the dates as a simple typographical error. Years later it was his father, Jacob Yeater, in a temperamental rage because Will’s young wife rebuffed his sexual advances, who revealed to Will the scandalous story of his illegitimate birth.
Will would eventually meet and confront David McCoy about being his father. McCoy did not deny it, but told Will that he would never confess to it in public and he would never accept Will as his son. McCoy’s brothers, however, knowing the true story, showed kindness to the young man. When David McCoy passed away as a confirmed bachelor, he left his estate to two of his siblings. Will sued for his rightful share of the estate, publicly revealing that he had been the illegitimate son of David Thomas McCoy. The scandalous story was front page news in the Chariton, Iowa newspapers, and Will’s family was humiliated. In the end, the paternity was established when the court forced an aging Lenna Yeater to travel to Chariton from Missouri and confess the truth of her early transgressions in open court. The court awarded Will one half of the McCoy estate, then promptly took it away to cover unpaid child support to his estranged wife.
William Oscar Yeater was my great-grandfather. He had a rough life, and I have merely scratched the surface of the full tragedy in this post. Will was haunted by a past that seemed to resist any kind of redemption or reconciliation. Will was a broken man, and he made many foolish choices. He was not fondly remembered by family members. Stories about him were rare and always spoken in hushed, hurried words. Will’s wife, Daisy, struggled to love him well and suffered deeply from his many failings. She married him, twice. All that Will put her through would help to transform her into the hallowed martyr and matriarch she became to her many descendants.
I did not know this story until I was well into adulthood with children of my own. I was, perhaps, near the same age as Will when he discovered the truth about himself. I was given a great gift to visit Dublin and it was there my dormant Irish genes woke within me. When I returned home I began to investigate my Irish roots and my exploration led me to meet Lenna Helmick and her son, Will Yeater, the bastard son of an Irishman named David Thomas McCoy. I am the heir of illegitimate Irish genes. Somehow, that makes them feel legitimately more Irish.
Lenna Helmick’s Cinderella story did not have a happy ending, neither would her son’s. Life is regularly messy, and it is more often unfair. Things don’t always work out as we had hoped and planned, and at times the cards are stacked against us before life even begins by people whose decisions we did not control. Few of us get an ending that Hollywood would market as “inspirational.” That does not, however, make them bad stories. It does not mean that we cannot find inspiration in the midst of their tragedy. Joy is not always a natural by-product of circumstance. Sometimes joy emerges only from careful and deliberate consideration. That was Wendy’s point the other night on the couch. She was right, as she so often is. Wendy knows the truth of it.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the heir of illegitimate Irish genes.
I have a pipe dream of someday starting an Irish folk band. We will be “The Bastard Sons of McCoy.”
(Note for regular readers: I’ve been taking a little time off for spring break this week. Regular posts will resume next week)
Besides a love of family and an arguably tragic loyalty to the Cubs and Vikings, I have realized that God instilled in me three passions/interests in this life journey:
In retrospect, it is no wonder that I was mesmerized when in I walked into the library of Trinity College in Dublin and first gazed on The Book of Kells. I can’t believe I had never heard of it, but I am eternally grateful for my travel companion who insisted we visit the ancient, handwritten copy of the Gospels. It was my first real introduction to the world of illuminated manuscripts, and in that fateful moment I experienced a harmonic convergence of my passions. Here was the Word of God presented in an obvious work of art that was steeped in the rich stories and context of history. I have been fascinated by illuminated manuscripts ever since.
Before the invention of the printing press, both scriptures and books of common prayer were affectionately and painstakingly copied by hand. Often, these handwritten copies were the work of monks who embellished the written word with beautiful and colorful illustrations. In the case of The Book of Kells, the illustrations included mysterious symbols and celtic imagery. The printing press and moveable type changed history forever. Books could be quickly and efficiently published and copied. Handwritten illuminated manuscripts were a thing of the past.
Last year I stumbled upon news of The St. John’s Bible. For the first time in hundreds of years, a team of calligraphers and artists began working on a completely handwritten and illuminated copy of the Bible commissioned by St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota. I discovered that high resolution copies of the modern manuscript were available in multiple volumes and this past Christmas I received two of the volumes: The Pentateuch and The Gospels and Acts. Since then I’ve added The Books of History. I also, by the way, received a copy of Bernard Meehan’s gorgeous history and analysis of The Book of Kells for Christmas.
So, each morning I’ve been opening and reading a chapter from the gorgeous copy of the handwritten St. John’s Bible. I’ve been blown away by the incredible effort, craftsmanship and artistry involved, along with the textual nuances of the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version in which it was written. One of these days on a trip up to the Twin Cities I hope to make the trek up I-94 to St. John’s and see the original for myself.
Wendy and I made our annual pilgrimage to see Gaelic Storm in concert this past weekend at the Val Air Ballroom. As always, we had a great time. This year we loved having Taylor and Clayton along as we dined at Nick’s before the concert with our friends Kevin and Becky.
One of the songs on the group’s newest CD is entitled “Green Eyes, Red Hair” and it’s become one of my favorites. In part, my affinity for the song goes back to a brief experience I had in Dublin back in 1998. I was there with friends and we’d been pub hopping most of the afternoon and evening. We ended up in a small pub that was packed with people. It was November and the weather was cold and damp. As with most pubs, the atmosphere was dark. People were dressed in dark leather coats and (in those years) the place was full of smoke.
Suddenly, like the sun bursting through a hole in the clouds, a young woman walked through the crowd wearing a bright, white cable knit sweater that accentuated her beautiful porcelain complexion. She had the largest, most gorgeous mane of long, curly red hair that flowed over her shoulders and down her back and when she turned she had the brightest, most penetrating green eyes I’d ever seen. With a glance, her eyes communicated that you’d better not mess with her because beyond her beauty was a temperament that could cut you down and squash you like a bug should she choose to do so. It was like an apparition had just appeared in the bar. In my memory, I can see the packed crowd parting to let her through and as people turned their heads.
Anyway, the moment I heard Gaelic Storm sing this song I knew that somewhere, at some point in time, they’d seen the same apparition.
Shes a cup of tea, shes a Jaegerbomb Shes an angel, shes an Amazon Shes a poem, shes an alphabet Shes a violin with a bayonet Shes a revolution, shes a peace accord Shes a grain of sand, shes the Cliffs of Moher Shes Friday night, shes Sunday Morning Shes a fair wind, shes a sailors warning Green eyes, red hair, long legs Devil inside her Green eyes, red hair, long legs Shes got the devil inside her Shes a glass house, shes an ivory tower Shes a tin roof, shes a summer shower Shes a carnival, shes a masquerade Shes a picket fence, shes lemonade Green eyes, red hair, long legs Devil inside her Green eyes, red hair, long legs Devil inside her Green eyes, red hair, long legs Devil inside her Green eyes, red hair, long legs Shes got the devil inside her She can disappear, she can walk on water Shes the Queen of Sheba, shes the farmers daughter Shes a cocktail dress, a cowboy boot Shes a question mark, shes absolute Green eyes, red hair, long legs Devil inside her…
There is nothing like good memories to bring a smile to your face when you need it. So, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I have to pull some old photos out of the archive. In 1998, I had a rare opportunity to go to Ireland for a long weekend with my friends Eric, Justin, Drew, Tracy, and Jason. Long evenings drinking Guinness and having great conversations in the pubs of Dublin became one of the best memories of my life. In the photo below, we were camped out at the Brazen Head, a pub which had been in continuous operation longer than the United States had been a country.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!
I’m looking forward to making some more best memories of my life this weekend, but more about that in the days to come.