Out of season

Charles Cooper

Charles Cooper

By Charles Cooper
Special Contributor

This shirt is one I picked up last November on clearance. People all summer had left it on the rack or bought it and brought it back because they didn’t like it or it didn’t fit, but I liked it, and it fit.

I like this office chair I picked up thirty years ago. It’s where I sit and read and write and puzzle over life or fall asleep; and where, perhaps, someday I will fall asleep and be found by someone who cared enough to check on me: “Charles, are you okay?”

“Yes, very much so for being dead.”

The shirt is not folded, but tossed over the back of the chair—I can’t remember when. The arbitrariness creates contortions in the plaid, so the shirt appears active, though at rest, as if it blew into my office through the window and has been eagerly waiting to be blown back into the world.

I wish I could paint. I would paint, “Portrait of Myself as a Shirt.” I might even include cartoon bubbles: someone asking, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, very much so for being a shirt.”

I look at the tag, and it was 100 percent conceived in a cotton field, and the hands of strangers on the other side of the earth assembled it, and it traveled across the ocean and half way across the continent to a store in Fayetteville, where it was neglected and rejected and remained on the rack until it was out of season. And a real bargain!

A big name shirt so well-traveled should be worth more. I know I can’t fly or sail to the Near East for that price. And I think of those who labored in the fields and in the factory, and the smiling folks at the store who complimented my frugality—all of that for less than the price of a fancy burrito and only because it’s a month or two out of date, as if summer will never come again, as if the colors might fade while it hibernated in the dark of my closet.

Someone might argue, “But others know it’s last year’s style.”

At my age I am going to look out of fashion no matter what I am wearing. Actually a shirt from last summer is an update, and one which I picked up for a fantastic 75 percent discount.

Why is it we want to be so up to date anyway? People ask me if I have read this new book or have seen that new movie, and sometimes I say what my seminary professor, Stuart Henry, was fond of saying, “Have you read The Divine Comedy? It’s been out for over six hundred years. You don’t want to fall too far behind.”

As for you who might point to Jesus and the prophets and say that they were more concerned with the present and the future than the past, need I remind you that you have used as your argument people who are from two to three thousand years ago? As for the prophets, they were the singers of the old time religion, holding up the ancient standard against the wayward trending of their day. And Jesus sang that song as well. Repent: turn back to God. Hear the law and prophets; it’s all truer now than it was back then!

I will concede that “The Kingdom is at hand” seems to direct us toward the future, but understand the implication of “at hand.” It is certainly not the present with its fads and fashions and always slipping through our fingers like water, but something that awaits just beyond the fingertips of the present, something far better than what is now, something which will follow the pattern of things that have already been: God’s providence among the wandering patriarchs; the exodus; the return from exile; the resurrection, all of it, so close to us it could be happening now.

Such an “at hand” cannot be limited to the future. Think about it this way: if “at hand” is always just a step beyond and continues to be just a step beyond year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, then we are too much like the greyhounds at the track chasing the bunny around and around until our tongues are hanging out. Not so, though, if “at hand” describes the presence of God that is all around us: past, present and future, or in the words of the liturgy: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

I made a modest investment in this red and blue shirt a few months before I would reach back into the summer of my closet and pull it out and put it on. I had faith in a good return, that I would be around to wear it in the spring, and if not, Becky would make an X-Large person at the Salvation Army happy with a virtually new shirt. That is a pleasant thought for this living man: for the meek shall inherit the earth, and the earth will not be worn out.

And as for last November and its clearance sales, whether the year was to bring life or death, Becky and I had extra cash for a dinner and a tip for the waiter or waitress—a gratuity or gift, approximately the price of an amazing piece of cloth that had come from far away.

The Rev. Cooper is a retired elder in the Arkansas Conference. Email: brocorbeau@gmail.com.