While sitting in church, half-heartedly attending to the liturgy, my ever-curious meandering mind free-associated to fantasies both secular and spiritual. My wanderings were reined in by the Psalmists words, and their unexpected confluence with thoughts of a former counselee.
My memory of BJ (not his real name) remains colorful. I met him when he was a sophomore at the high school where I’d taken a position as a school-based clinician. BeeJay, that’s how his mother told him to spell his name, “more sophisticated than BJ,” she’d said, and that’s what he did, obey her wish—an act of obedience foreign to him in most of the other areas and relationships in his life. His foul language and quick temper got him into trouble with teachers and peers alike.
After two years of working together, without much progress, or so I thought, he named my office couch the “BeeJay Memorial Couch” then proudly declared that aside from his mother I was the only person “whose opinion he gave a shit about, and the only man he’d listen to.” He bragged, to anyone who’d listen, that the only things in life he did more often than talk with me were to think about girls, drink Mountain Dew, smoke cigarettes, and fight—four habits for which he had an insatiable appetite. His self-declared white-trash upbringing made him “tougher ‘n nails,” he liked to say.
It was at this point in the worship service that the Psalmist’s words injected themselves into my thoughts.
“Blessed are the undefiled…” is the opening line of the 119th Psalm, the lengthiest of the Psalms, and the longest chapter in the Bible. In the Hebrew Torah the opening words of the chapter, “Ashrei temimei derecho,” mean “Happy are those whose way is perfect,” and the Latin phrase—Beati immaculate—refers to the first eight verses of the lengthy psalm, which read as follows:
1 Happy are they whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the Lord!
2 Happy are they who observe his decrees
And seek him with all their hearts!
3 Who never do any wrong,
But always walk in his ways.
4 You laid down your commandments,
That we should fully keep them.
5 Oh, that my ways were made so direct,
That I might keep your statutes!
6 Then I should not be put to shame,
When I regard all your commandments.
7 I will thank you with an unfeigned heart,
When I have learned your righteous judgments.
8 I will keep your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
I’m certain that when I knew BeeJay he had no familiarity with the psalm or the psalmist, but on this particular Sunday, the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, I wasn’t surprised by the convergence of my memories of him with the psalmist’s lyrics. I recalled the February afternoon, ten years before when he begged me to give him a ride home after school, a request that had less to do with our relationship than it did with my means of transportation—a fast and beautiful Porsche 911. He buckled up, his face flush with adolescent excitement and a macho “look-at-me” stare that he made sure classmates saw—especially those waiting for their buses in the driving snow.
The roads were slippery, and in spite of his urging to “let ‘er rip,” I kept a slow calculated pace as we traveled along isolated roads toward the trailer park where he lived with his mother and five siblings.
At the crest of a knoll, two miles from his home, I lost control of the car, and we went into a 360-degree slide down the middle of the two-lane road. When we came to a stop, I leaned over and asked how he was. All the brazenness and tough guy stance had left him. In place of the wiry fighter was a shaking, ashen-faced, and speechless sixteen-year-old young man. The silence lasted a minute or so, long enough for snow to cover the windshield, and for BeeJay to know his Porsche-riding days were done. “I can walk from here,” he said and exited the car.
I don’t know anyone who fits the psalmist’s description of being blameless, those “who never do any wrong,” or in the Hebrew translation, “those whose way is perfect,” and I suspect neither did the author of these verses. I know flawed folk who strive mightily to get it right, and good ones whose flaws, unannounced, bite them in the butt.
Several months after the winter spin-out, I drove BeeJay to Fletcher Allen Hospital in nearby Burlington to visit his beloved and dying grandfather. On that drive, his rage, created and nurtured by a life of isolation, brokenness, and poverty, exploded in streams of homophobic and racial epithets that I had never tolerated during our times together. I threatened to turn back if he didn’t stop, and when he paused to consider my warning, I posed a hypothetical scenario to him. I asked what he’d do if a gay couple had spun off the road, as we almost did months ago, and got stuck in a snow bank. Without hesitation or a hateful comment he declared that he’d help dig them out and make sure they were all right.
“But these are people you hate,” I said. “Why would you assist them?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “I just would.”
Perhaps BeeJay’s response may have been an example of “Vermonter-ethos,” a culture of community that transcends the awfulness of inbred bigotry and hate. However accurate that may be, I believe there’s more to it. He didn’t want to talk about why he’d help, and I wisely didn’t probe, but I suspected that beneath the palpable anger and fear was a wellspring of sadness, a feeling capable of generating empathy and generosity.
What was apparent to my meandering soul on this Sunday was how the psalmist gives hope, and the memories of an angry young man remind me how multifaceted we human beings are—capable of being tough and tender, embracing and hateful, defiled and blameless—and, even if we live fully, the perfection for which we strive will always elude us.