Wednesday, December 31, 2008

seeing ghosts

O may my heart’s truth

Still be sung

On this high hill in a year’s turning.


-- Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October”


My friend once said that his epitaph should be “I Still Don’t Get It!” Mine should be “Wait a Minute! I Was Just Getting the Hang of This!”


The poet committing his thirtieth birthday to verse while drinking himself to death would get his wish. Nine more times. But his greater wish was also granted. His heart’s truth is still sung, fifty-five years now since it stopped beating. His singing outlives him. But that’s what singing is for. We sing to outlive ourselves, it’s as simple as that. We’re only here. We’re only now. We’re only this. We’re every bit of here, and now, and this. There’s no way out of facticity; eternity is deeper in.


Yeshua supposedly did this for us – he went deeper. If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing, goes the carol, a star in the sky or a bird on the wing, he surely could have had it. But he emptied himself, in what the theologians call a kenosis. That’s the story -- the All became a This. This is All.


I’ve already exceeded the poet’s span by twenty-two years, but I too could use another turning. I’m not finished. I’m barely begun. I’m just getting the hang of it. This project hasn’t turned a year since it began. The world however is turning over its year, and this is the first of its turnings in my present era, my Year One. There isn’t any way out of this passage, these words I excrete in the last few hours of the year, throwing away as many as still remain, filling a form that has no authority but my brief tradition, inflating my balloon with buoyant gas, racing to the established number of words before the deadline. I’m here now doing this.


I work with a nurse who once said he’d been doing this work so long he was starting to see ghosts. You might think this sounds like a bad thing. People say, how can you stand to do “this work”? How can you bear the grief? To lose all these people!


I quote him all the time, because I also see ghosts. He meant that we have known people who are still singing. The city where I work or amuse myself is not a faceless place. In that building lives Mario, who canonized me. Just down that block lives Vivienne, who found me funky enough. Across the street from St. John the Divine is the nursing home where Joseph pushed my buttons. From the front door of my seminary I see the apartment where Margaret showed me that her heart was still beating. We don’t lose these people. We find them. We take them with us as the year turns.


My powers – remember – are “to Hear, to Travel, to Name and to Bless” (July 28). I do not rescue these people. I do not save them. I can’t fix their predicament or repeal mortality. I do not create, but when I’m on my game I might reveal something – remembering that what is revealed was already there. I might make it possible for their song to emerge, their strange song in a strange land – the land between birth and death that we both are crossing. It’s only in strange lands that the Lord’s song can be sung.


We are no better than we should be, either of us. On a given day, the client is in a mess and I am a mess. But it’s not about me. It’s what they are, here and now, that counts. No way out of their facticity, only deeper in. It’s their story, they write the script. Where they go, we follow. Where they get stuck, we stay with them. This is what we call Traveling.


Sometimes I think I’m cheating. There is loss in our work; those who knew a client before I knew him -- they lose him. But I never knew him before, and I do not lose. I gain. Those for whom their loved ones grieve travel with me; as the poet says, their heart’s truth still sings as the year turns. It All comes down to This.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

another world

We stand with one hand on the door,

Looking into another world

That is this world . . .


-- Wendell Berry, “Remembering that it happened once”


I know some nurses who do this fifty times a day. Me, half a dozen or so.


The founder of our work, Anton Boisen, spoke of our patients as “living human documents.” The words imply a task – we are to read these documents. They are scripture – the place we start from. We do not come to the door – we ought not – to reveal the truth but to be present at it. When we go through the door we enter another world.


Reading scripture is difficult. Both words are difficult: reading and scripture.


Scripture is difficult because, though we must start there, it is never the beginning. It is uncanny, but its uncanniness is always already smudged. The papyrus has rotted, the letters have faded, the scribe was inattentive, the copyist mistook marginal notes for text, the translator lacks the voice of dead language, the church father smears timeless surface with wash of his time, the pastor intones the Word with concupiscence of institution. When I was a child it was impious to abandon the sonorous erroneous Shakespearian language of the King James Bible; now fundamentalists arm themselves with snappy modern versions. The essence of idolatry is to mistake the smudge for what was smudged; to declare sacred what separates us from the sacred. Like a devotee of vinyl who can’t hear truth unless its contrasts are compressed and overlaid with a needle’s hiss, we worship the Veil.


Our living documents are no more perfect than ourselves. Their living both reveals and smudges the spark of creation. We come into their presence with sandals removed. Shema! is the ancient command, not just to listen but to “hearken” – to listen and obey. But what is our obedience? Not just to accept, but to argue. Jonah argued; Job argued; Moses argued. You argue not because you know the truth but because you do not, because truth is never delivered, like the head of a prophet, on a platter. So as the document unwinds, you hear the voice with suspicion. Inwardly agnostic to the claim of devotion, you postpone the awe. This other world, as the poet says, is our world. You owe it at least as much care as you give to this one. You probe. You explore. You experiment. You hypothesize. Have I got it right? If you fear to be wrong, you will never see the right. Is it this? Is it that? What if . . . ? “No” begins the world. Criticism’s disarmament offends God.


It all comes down to reading. This too is a difficult word. Reading is never of marks in themselves but of marks reaching out toward what they signify. Reading peels back the surface of delivered text, which is always a secondary revision, to what lies behind it but which in turn is always to be read. There’s no end to this reading. That’s how you know it’s holy.


The poet proposes a vision of Holy Family. In a world where it happened once, he says, we can’t be sure, going through any familiar door, it won’t happen again. We don’t know that it hasn’t happened, or that we didn’t fail to see it. The other world is this one, prosaic and unique. Our place is “Holy, though we knew it not” – because at any given moment it could be holy.


True children of Enlightenment, people of my faith hate hierarchies, queasy at the thought that anyone should have a special place in creation. We democratize the birth. “So the children come,/ And so they have been coming./ . . . . Each night a child is born is a holy night,” wrote Sophia Lyons Fahs, and her words are spoken in many of our churches on Christmas Eve. The sacredness of birth is universal, and this one birth no more no less. But no one birth in the endless procession is mere statistic. Each transforms the world. Each is Good News to all people of good will. Each is the unique child of God. Looking into new eyes, we see the sky crack open, and we are sore afraid.

Monday, December 15, 2008

divine work

Those who wish to join us in this divine work must be willing to lose their white identity – indeed, destroy it.


-- James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation


This I cannot do. I cannot destroy my identity. I cannot even lose it.


My circle of prep school boys loved an older girl who told us of adventures in the city. She had met James Brown in a club – and he talked with her. “This,” he said, touching the flesh of his arm with the other hand, “this doesn’t rub off.” This was of course his color. If James Brown said such a thing – even if Patricia only imagined that he did – the trope shows contrast of colored and colorless. Peoples of color learn that their existence is an issue. One can imagine the erasure of even an indelible pigment, and therefore colored and colorless may say, expressing different wishes, If only . . . But erasing whiteness, rubbing off what has no color, is more than impractical – it’s inconceivable. No one asked Patricia to “rub off” her whiteness. Except perhaps Patricia herself.


New York City was for Patricia where real life happened. Her family in the suburbs of Hartford were a kind of death for her. White. A blank page. No story. And Patricia was a story-teller. So whenever she could, she went to the city to smudge her whiteness, to mark the page that otherwise had nothing to say. When she told me of her tête-à-tête with the King of Soul, I had no idea who James Brown was. Or what Soul was, for that matter. But I heard the tremor when she spoke his name, her thrill at the Monarch’s condescension, confiding to her his grief. Now I think it was not grief.


This doesn’t rub off. If he didn’t say it, he might have said it. It doesn’t rub off because it isn’t paint. It goes through and through. There’s no way to remove it and leave me here. This doesn’t rub off. It’s not a lament when I say it. It’s a celebration. I don’t work around my color. I don’t overcome my color. I sing my color, and I Feel Good when I sing it. My integrity is to sing what I am and what you – incidentally – are not. Your city makeup, the solidarity written on your blank face, comes off with a little soap when you go home. I’ll still be here, Black and Proud.


“Theology is always identified with a particular community.” And mine is the community that enslaved one people of color for profit and power, while cleansing another from the land in the name of New Jerusalem. We did it because we could, and then we convinced ourselves that it was good to do it. We rationalized our work and pronounced on it the blessing of God. These are the original sins of my country.


Our parents ate sour grapes, and now my teeth are on edge. I look at my hand and my arm, turning slowly in the light, and I say, this doesn’t rub off. I can paint over it, but after a shower the blankness returns. How shall I recover my soul? I can’t take it from a black man, for it lives only in his body. I can’t sing his song without changing it. “No matter how hard whitey tries there can be no real duplication of black soul.”


I can never cease to be the son of my mother and my father, trained in a school for leading citizens that, even if I hadn’t done well on my entrance exams, would have had a place for me. Not viewed as a shoplifter every time I enter a store. Not encouraged by well-meaning teachers to become a janitor. If I give all my earthly goods to the poor, I shall still be white. After my death I will still be white. Even more so.


“Interrogate your social location.” These words are not carved in stone over the gate of my seminary, and yet I read them there. I have interrogated: I am who I am. I take inventory of the sins that have always already tilted the ground. And I take inventory of the assets that, even if corruptly awarded, I cannot alienate. If power is mine, I hold it in trust. It comes down to this: love kindness and act justly, and walk humbly with the God who took sides before I was born.

Monday, December 8, 2008

fool's gold

Business! . . . Mankind was my business.


-- A Christmas Carol


A good man I know, who sold his business and retired to family life, argued once with his wife about how much he paid his workers. She thought he paid them too much, or himself too little. “Yes,” he said, “I let some of those guys earn more than I did. And that is why we’re rich today.” Teddy didn’t think the people who worked for him were liabilities. Though he did not own them, they were his wealth. He shared the rewards of work, and lo! there was plenty to go around.


Now it seems that workers are reduced to cost. Cheap as dirt, washed down the drain whenever capital markets need a gesture of due diligence. Every new management begins by firing people to show they are “serious.” (The old management were not serious, because they left people unfired.) A penny paid in compensation for the skill and care of others is a penny stolen from the profits. And the more people you fire, the higher soar the shares: your options turn to gold. It’s a model of scarcity, a less-than-zero sum game. If you find cheaper people, or make one do the work of two, you pocket more than what you paid the departed ones. The wheels are coming off the carriage, but you’ll be safe and gone before the passengers tumble in the ditch. It’s you or them. The less goes round, the more there is for you.


Every Scrooge gets to define his Cratchit as a criminal. Poor Bob picks his boss’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December. A day’s pay with nothing done. Where, shouts Moneybags, is his work ethic? How dare he consume my substance? For that matter, how dare he burn another of my lumps of coal?


Yet not even Moneybags can repress the memory of another business model. “Yo ho, my boys! No more work tonight,” shouts Fezziwig, curtailing labor to waste his capital on feast and drink, music and dance, laughter and family affection. Though Moneybags has the power to condemn his dependents, Fezziwig has the power to bless them, “to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil.” The difference is “a few pounds of your mortal money.” The model of abundance. The more goes round, the more there is. Moneybags is envious. But he has had his revenge.


Scrooge is right. There is always a dark satanic mill and a frigid counting-house ready to put Fezziwig out of business. It isn’t good enough to do well; one must extract every last dime right now. So capital markets punish the generous impulse, the vision of future, the aspiration to quality, prudence itself. Not even the bottom line matters in the end – it’s all tomorrow’s stock price. Capital flows like water, enabling us to kill on Monday, sell on Tuesday and on Wednesday, when the bodies are found, lounge on a tropic beach.


Our current Scrooges know nothing of gruel and bare chambers. They can’t remember how many rooms they have prepared, or in how many mansions. They tilt the scales. They cannot lose.


“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,” cried the prophet Amos, “but are not grieved over the ruin.” Our lascivious Scrooges have sold fool’s gold to each other, and now there is no trust. Now we learn, in its disappearance, that solidarity has value. Now we learn that, where everyone has three jobs, a firm loses its reputation. Now we learn that a clerk with warm hands writes good accounts. Now we learn that a worker who can pay his mortgage is productive, a manager who can see her future makes good decisions. Nothing costs money like misery and terror. Bad faith makes us poor. We are learning.


The Fezziwigs of the world conduct the business of mankind and they are holy fools. The Scrooges are very wise but their wisdom killeth. Fezziwig’s apprentices don’t ask for much. In the world of solidarity, a few pounds’ expenditure, a few loaves and fishes can satisfy thousands. We hope our children learn the world’s wisdom; but sooner or later they must also learn the foolishness of God. As Scrooge learns, the wage of such folly is life itself.

Friday, December 5, 2008

shriveled wick

As a low lantern’s flame flicks in its final blaze

then leaps above its shriveled wick and mounts aloft,

. . . so did his fierce soul leap before it vanished in air.


-- Nikos Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (trans. Kimon Friar)


My hostess at Thanksgiving dinner, knowing my profession, turned toward philosophy. “What do you think?” (Who, me?) “What really happens after we die?” Here she mentioned a recently reported instance of the near-death experience: the tunnel, the light, the reunion with loved ones, the voice that says to go back because it’s not your time, the lasting belief that death is not to fear. There are many such accounts. (There are also many accounts of alien abductions.) These visions might point to something transcendental; or they might be instances of a common dream the mind calls up as it sinks into itself and out of the world. In either case the vision is a calming one. How, o philosopher, would you explain the difference between objective immortality and a phantom of immortality that is never corrected?


“But what do you think?” (Who, me?) “You’ve known dying people.” I’ve not seen anyone “come back” speaking of the tunnel. But some clients have told me they see people the rest of us cannot see. A deceased mother, father, brother or sister, or spouse; or a being not to be named, an angel of death. We call these visions hallucinations because we cannot detect them. But the work is about the client’s experience. Not about our classification of that experience. So we do not challenge the angel. We try to interpret her.


What do I think? I lack standing to decide whether I will outlast myself. It doesn’t matter much what I think of immortality. What matters is, I can’t understand it. What would it mean to say that I will live on after death? What is the “I” in question? In our Department of Reality we see the body lose its integrity. Visions of Resurrection repeal destruction and restore a still living body, systems intact despite stigmata. But Resurrection of the body, in the dead condition that we observe, is the stuff of horror movies. Jesus is not a zombie. That’s not the meaning of the Promise.


Bodies are destroyed. My “living on” would have to be done by something else. Descartes said my soul is an “incorporeal substance” joined to my corporeal self. But what can this mean? This thing that survives, but no longer seeks the touch of skin or the body of beer, how could this be called “me”? Some have loved my mind, or felt the stirrings of my heart, but they have known them only as presented on this specific stage of flesh. If I succeed in speaking to my children after I am gone, they will know it is me when they hear what Roland Barthes called the “grain” of my voice.


I can assign no meaning to the notion of an incorporeal substance. It is an empty class. “I” am not a substance. Of any kind. I am something that a substance does. Only this particular messy substance could do it. And its ability to do it will be consumed.


We can talk about the soul, but not as substance. The soul is like a flame that leaps from a wick, flickers and stands up again. It might be blown out. Or not. Eventually the shriveled wick will lose capacity to perform the vaudeville trick that is me. Other flames may be lit from me. They resemble me more or less, as the substance that performs them, and the circumstances of performance, are like or unlike mine. Does this mean I live on? Is memory – not my own – enough?


After my final blaze, the substantial ruin remains. It is more immortal than I. My matter disperses and participates in the universe. But the universe is not me. I will have been this very particular prophet, this Word in the Hand. The Word, like this sentence, comes to an end.


Even Time itself is told between Alpha and Omega, and my life burns from a to zed. I am grateful for the letters in between. Only knowing that zed is on the way can I summon the sacred dimension of a dinner table. I don’t know how else.

Monday, November 24, 2008

some grace

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.


-- Mark 12:17


As usual, Yeshua sets us a riddle. What things are Caesar’s? what God’s? Yeshua refers to a Roman coin, the denarius, bearing the emperor’s image. But what about the backside? On an Augustan denarius (Eretz Museum, Tel Aviv) there appears a temple. Such a coin shows how God and Caesar are stamped on the same substance. Can we really divide one side of the coin from another? give Caesar (or God for that matter) one side without giving also the other?


A hospice is a ministry. Like many do-gooder outfits, it belongs to God. We help people live in the face of death. We walk with them through the dark valley. We wipe away tears. But as we do this, we feel the hand of Caesar. Medicare pays the bill for most clients. So Medicare looks over our shoulders. And besides Medicare, there’s the state Department of Health. And something else whose real name I’ve never deciphered, whose fearsome acronym is JHACO. The public wants to know its money is well spent. We invite the emperor into our ministry because good work is not done for free. Our good work is marked by Caesar, who leaves his fingerprints all over our guts.


“Compliance can interfere with good patient care.” That’s what one of our administrators said to me, just as I was saying it to her. Bless her.


“Compliance” is all the stuff we have to do so that the regulators will let us continue the good work. A lot of it is what we just plain ought to do, whether anybody inspects us or not. We like to think we’re such good people we’d do it on our own. Unfortunately, though individuals have the capacity for virtue, organizations tend over time to be about as rotten as they can get away with. (Moral man, immoral society, said Niebuhr.) Every regulation is a memorial to some ghastly abuse, the solution to some shocking conundrum of sin. Somebody’s always already spoiled things for us. Regulations are the punishment for that original sin. The darker side of compliance is bureaucracy.


Documentation is a good thing, and I have taken pains to learn it. I ought to leave behind myself a comprehensible account of my work, so that those who follow me can know what I encountered, what I did about it and who helped me do it. And they should do the same for me. Such narratives are of clinical value. They help us do good work. Without good documentation, we cannot be the “interdisciplinary team” that hospice philosophy requires.


Harder to accept is that I must contribute to an electronic pseudo-statistical artifact that is duplicative of, but inferior to, good written narrative. Though this artifact does a poor job of describing reality and is therefore of no clinical value, it alone counts to the residents of that exotic world where regulations are conceived as our “plan of care” – the indispensable mark of compliance. Every minute I spend feeding this chimera is a minute taken away from my clients.


Air traffic controllers, if they operate “by the book,” can bring commercial aviation to a halt. If we in hospice operated “by the book,” following every regulation expressed to us by every agency with fundamentalist devotion, literally as it is written, we would never visit any patients. There would then be nothing to document. Conversely if we could separate legitimate documentation from deathly bureaucracy and shed the latter, we could meet about half again more clients, or care for them half again as well.


I rejoice that I am not an administrator. They receive The Word from on high, and must bring it down the mountain to us. Only the commandments are not ten; they are rather ten thousand. I’ve been given contradictory commandments. And I’ve been given commandments that, if I really did them, would be pastoral malpractice. But I’m learning not to blame the bosses. The fault is more in the song than in the singer.


So I bless the boss who said, “Compliance can interfere with good patient care.” She understands that God and Caesar are at war in our guts, and that we must negotiate between them if the work is to go on. It takes some creativity. Some grace.

Monday, November 17, 2008

first client

-- Something is taking its course.
-- We’re not beginning to . . . to . . . mean something?

-- Samuel Beckett, Endgame

You remember your first clients, because they teach you how to work. I’ll call her Kitty. She taught me what my job was. I didn’t know.

Imperious, angry, terrified, begging and demanding help, a retired schoolteacher still teaching the world, she had for the first time met the pupil who would not sit down, the guest who had come to her home and would not leave. “I don’t appreciate that,” she used to say of some remark, some behavior or other, fill in the blank, that offended her prerogatives and high standards. Kitty didn’t appreciate a death sentence. It offended her. This wasn’t the way it ought to be. Somebody was to blame. Maybe God. No, that was impossible. Maybe herself. But no, that was inconceivable.

From the office they called me -- an intern chaplain making my very first visits. This lady has just been admitted, they said, and she has urgent spiritual needs. You should see her as soon as possible.

Me. They called me. But I was a mess. I staggered through my visits, deflected from the mark by doubt and fear of failure. These people are really in trouble, I said to myself. What have I got to offer them? No words from a book, no advice delivered in a seminar, could answer that question.

I called her that evening, and Kitty invited me to her home the next day. High in a spotless apartment of a housing project tower, she opened her door to me. Unusually robust for a “terminal” patient, she led me to her parlor, gave orders for coffee, placed me on her couch and herself in an armchair close by. I felt her authority. I’m the wrong guy, I thought, for a commanding lady estranged from one of Harlem’s great black Baptist churches because, as she would say, they “don’t have the true Spirit.” I’m – well, I’m, er – white. And I’m a Unitarian Universalist: I bring to her parlor my utterly classic liberal Problem of Belief.

Kitty didn’t have time for any of that. She never noticed my disbelief, she brushed it aside. She didn’t give a damn, there was work to do.

I opened by the book. I asked what she was feeling, and encouraged her to tell me about it. She poured out her rage, indignation, confusion, terror. How could God do this to her? She, who had always tried to do things right. She wept. The worst thing was, she and God weren’t talking to each other. That was what most terrified her. She couldn’t pray.

I suggested that God, according to everything I had been taught, wants to know our honest thoughts. Not just the nice things, the adulation and adoration and gratitude; but also the rage, the resentment, the impossibly difficult critical questions. This idea surprised her. I asked if I could help.

So she took both my hands, and we both bowed our heads, and I started talking. I began with the facts. I told the Spirit that I was here with Kitty, that she had seen the end of her life, was overwhelmed and angry about it, didn’t know what she should do or how she should do it; she felt abandoned and betrayed, and needed help to find the meaning in these days to come. I kept listening for the next words, and all the while Kitty kept speaking for herself, over under around those words that were not mine. And when there were no more words to say, I said Amen, and she did too. And we looked at each other. And let go our hands. Something had taken its course. We knew this because we could feel it had finished now. If you can feel the end of it, you know it was something.

Kitty didn’t die. At least not on my watch. Like a number of people with her particular diagnosis, she got better. We had to discharge her. Our parting had a different grief.

Kitty ordained me. Though I can’t give a simple answer to the first great theological question (and am not obliged to), I am her “man of God.” No matter what other seals of approval I may acquire, I will retain that one. God bless her.

Monday, November 10, 2008

christian home

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life

That was my father’s prophecy every morning as he raised the shades, let in the light, and roused us to the day. It was fatuous, and he knew it. An introvert’s vaudeville, over the top in his under the vest manner. Like Jack Benny, he made the same joke every day, and that was what made it a joke.

I was brought up in a Christian home. In my father’s Christian house there was no war of faith and learning. To understand a Bible passage, you had to inform it as you would a sonnet, bringing all your heart and all your soul – and all your mind. Poetry, music, philosophy and history, plays and novels were our prayer life, and these were not harsh disciplines, like hair shirts to irritate the flesh, but sports and tournaments of delight. Above all, words. Words of the scripture, of Shakespeare or Milton or lesser poets, or words of daily life, trained to athleticism by stunts, puns, colossal spoonerisms and daring inversions. A regimen of poetry, transcending calisthenic and precipitating laughter.

His darkly bound books in many languages, shelved to the ceiling, were family gods, and though they would not speak to me, I knew these lares were friendly. Later I learned that his collection included both scholars of Higher Criticism who taught us to ask of scripture the questions we would ask of other reverend books, and prophets of Neo-Orthodoxy who taught us we might still be sinners as we did so. But there were other works as well, and there was no barrier between scriptures of the church and scriptures from outside it. If Yeshua said that what we did for the least of his kin we had done to him, Arthur Miller said that a man is not a piece of fruit, you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – and Arthur Miller was just as likely to show up in a sermon.

My father wrote his sermons between midnight and three on Sunday mornings. He cranked up the music as he banged his typewriter: Bach and Brahms, Mahler and Wagner, Poulenc and Honneger, Haydn and Mozart, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan, Victor Borge and Ray Bolger, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Virgil Fox. In our bedrooms we might wake for a moment to his blessing and assurance of safety. How could anything harm us when our father was awake and working below, communing with theologians and artists and scripture while Mormons sang the German Requium?

In our Christian home, religion and learning were intimate. When did study become a sin, and education a sign of moral degeneracy? By what perversion of the American dream has expertise been designated a disgrace? To what prophet was it revealed that only residents of tiny dying towns have values, and that people of the urban centers (most of us in fact) are not real Americans?

We liberals like to point our fingers at others, but we have also played our role in the war on intellect. Drones and imitators in the universities turned an obscure French philosopher’s difficult technique of reading into a school of nihilism, in which all discourses are equivalent and the illiterate is as good as the eloquent – 50 Cent and Jerome Kern in the same display case. Liberation theologians shamed us for appealing to the laws of reason that make liberation necessary. Those who sabotage themselves so effectively scarcely need enemies. The self-loathing of intellectuals turns out to be no more liberative than their arrogance. The proud and deliberate ignorance of our culture and its leaders was an ejaculate of deconstructionist dreaming.

My father died five years ago. But if he were still with us, he might say this week that he got his country back. And in memory I got his learned Christian home back. The lovers of ignorance, haters of knowledge, of those who gather it and of the places where it is gathered, took it on the chin this week, and for a time they are chastened. Let us, then, be up and doing . . . still achieving, still pursuing . . . Awake!

Monday, November 3, 2008

nunc dimittis

“Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, . . . since my eyes have seen your salvation.”

-- Luke 2:29

I’m way too invested in this.

I am a boomer. One of the first boomers, the leading edge on whom our ills are blamed. When black people stood up for their rights and made people angry, we were blamed for it. When the country lost a war, stuck in the morass of two presidents’ cowardice, lifting its helicopters off Saigon roofs while enemies rode into the suburbs, we were blamed for it. When at Jackson State and Kent State Universities the nation killed its children and cheered, we were blamed for it. When under a conservative president the country turned away from ideals to the worship of mammon, we were blamed for it. I graduated from college in 1968, the year hope died – the year of war’s failure, assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, police riot in Chicago and election of a paranoid president. Happy graduation: enjoy your adulthood.

Enough already. We weren’t in charge. Our parents were in charge. There wasn’t a boomer president until 1992.

A dirty word, “boomer.” Sounds like “bummer.” Give us our full title. We are the “Post-War Baby Boom.” No one remembers what that means. The PWBB began in 1946, when soldiers of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” came home from the Good War and decided they’d had enough mayhem. Aided and abetted by a vast welfare plan, they got married, bought houses and produced children on a record-shattering scale.

It’s not our fault. We didn’t choose to be born all at the same time.

Politicians beg for our votes and diss us. They say we are a privileged special-interest group with disproportionate power. Our “privilege” amounts to this: that wherever we went, there wasn’t enough. There weren’t enough houses, there weren’t enough schools, there weren’t enough colleges and, when some of us sought academic careers, there weren’t enough careers. When we retire and die, there won’t be enough money to pay the promises made to us. We were born by decision of our parents, and we will live with those decisions until we die.

But when the Maker of All consults my generation’s account book, she will read there a shocking secret: there are credits lodged against the debits. When I was a child, a black child could be beaten, shot in the head and dumped in the river for whistling in the presence of a white woman, and white people would close ranks around the murderers; black people couldn’t vote. Tomorrow a man of African descent may be elected president. This is a Sign: and like all true signs, it does more than signify – it Is.

In my seminary I studied with a great black Liberation Theologian. Like Jeremiah Wright thundering to his congregation that America lives under the judgment of God and her chickens are coming home to roost, James Cone testifies to his classroom that the Enlightenment was a rationalization of white European power and Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. It’s painful for liberals to admit that enlightenment is no guarantee of virtue; and the sins of Jefferson, our second Unitarian president, hurt us personally.

The great liberationist says “Racism is alive and well” at my seminary; but he says this to a classroom featuring people of all colors, and he represents from his tenured chair a faculty diverse in nationality, gender and race. He invokes the memory of 1968, when America was going to hell and he was writing his first books. But his present audience and the present occasion of his speech were inconceivable in 1968. If racism is alive and well, then the words “alive” and “well” have changed their meaning – or perhaps the word “racism” has changed its meaning.

When I was a child, racism was the law and racists boasted of their racism. Now racism dares not look in the glass to see its face.

I’m way too invested in this, and it won’t be my personal achievement. But it could mean that my generation, our adulthood ruined before it began, can take pride in our lifetime. The demographer says that in twenty years or so I’ll be out of here. But like old Simeon, I’ve seen the promise in the flesh. Nunc dimittis tuum servum.

Monday, October 27, 2008

ten thousand

“The ten thousand things depend upon it and it denies none of them. It accomplishes its task yet claims no reward.”

-- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 34

“Pray without ceasing,” said the apostle (I Th 5:17), but this confuses me. If I prayed without ceasing, then there would be no time when I do not pray. This is not what most people understand by prayer. I wouldn’t get much else done.

Maybe the apostle thought it was okay if nothing much got done. He thought the end was coming. No kidding. Soon. Like a thief in the night. You couldn’t lay up treasures here and now, not even spiritual ones, because the here and the now would soon be gone. But the end was delayed and, to our great disappointment, time goes on. We learn that we must care how things come out. Like it or not we are stewards, because the world will outlive us and we must leave it in a tolerable state for those who follow, a few of whom at least we love. We have stuff to do.

When a family says, “Before you go, would you pray with us?” – it’s clear that up till now I haven’t prayed. But then, I didn’t mean to. Prayer is not a thing to be pushed on people. I’m only supposed to do it on request. Until that request comes, I’m supposed to be doing something else.

My life is mostly something else.

So don’t tell me I must rise at the third hour to pray, I have responsibilities. Ten thousand other things to do. And I have a problem with authority. I’m Unitarian. I don’t even recognize my own authority.

I don’t pray without ceasing. I don’t have a discipline of prayer, though I am brought to it by others. I pray if I’m asked. The people who ask for it – they discipline me. Is that good enough?

Good enough for whom?

If my colleague thinks I should have a practice, he means that I need a regular prompt, like a muezzin’s call, to halt the day’s stammer. What I give on request to others, I should give to myself.

Ten thousand things. I won’t do them all. I won’t do most of them. I choose what to do, and the other things – they just won’t be done right now. If I can choose, leaving the other things to providence, isn’t that what we’re talking about? The giving up of things. I am not equal to the ten thousand, but they call to me nevertheless. A mist of obligation rises, all the things I ought to do, in so many different ways, for so many people, from so many points of view. It’s not so much my vices as my virtues that seduce me. My passion to please. My desire to comply. I would pass all tests, meet all expectations. I’ve auditioned for the role of Great Exception.

The Tao is the pin that punctures the balloon of my grandiosity. Lord, help me choose, because I am not equal to it all, it’s far too much. There’s something here for me but only if I discern it. If it finds me.

I used to say I didn’t want to go on stage with any nice guys. The only good comrade is the one who chooses without guilt, plays without mercy, and does with killer instinct what is to be done. Making the invisible visible is rough business. To think of what you ought to do is a mystification and a temporizing betrayal. The world doesn’t watch temporizers. Holding one’s moistened finger to the wind is not the way of faith. The mountain never moves by dithering. Only if we do the work and nothing else can we help each other.

Lord, it’s too much for me. Help me own my inadequacy. Close the doors of fantasy. Open the eyes of my eyes. Mark me for discernment. The thing that is for me to do, if I do it, is my glory.

Discernment is a via negativa. There’s cruelty in it. To know what you are doing is to know the things you are not doing. All nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine of them.

Monday, October 20, 2008

no argument

“A work becomes inarguable when it creates the terms by which it is perceived, when it becomes its own system of value, when there is nothing behind what it is saying.”

-- Herbert Blau, Blooded Thought

I have to do this. But I didn’t know. I only learned by doing it.

Is it any good? That’s what I asked as I fashioned secret juvenilia, recreating poems I had learned in literature classes. Am I any good? That’s what I asked as I trampled the stage in school plays. Do I look normal? That’s what I asked as with fear and trembling I approached a girl, requesting what would terrify me to obtain. Did I get it right? That’s what I asked as I stuttered my tremulous thoughts to sullen undergraduates filling out their distribution requirements. How can I become a real boy? That’s what I asked as my wooden head puzzled what a man, a husband, a father would do. Do I deserve the space I fill?

It took half my life to grasp the futility of such questions. There is always a problem, always something wrong, always something deficient, always another test. The Voice has only one thing to say: No, Not yet. It will say these words as long as you keep asking the questions. It’s not the voice of life.

“Try not,” said Yoda. “Do or do not. There is no try.” Calvin, though his doctrine declares the uselessness of effort, drove his followers crazy with trying. God, he said, is utterly free; God knows whether you’re damned or not, and nothing you do can change the truth. But a Calvinist is a human being, and cannot leave it at that. Human nature drives a Calvinist to try, try – to prove, prove – that what he presents is the appearance of an elected one. To whom should he present? To the Voice that always says No, Not Yet, It’s Not Enough. Yoda’s voice does not appear in Calvin’s book. Yoda knows that trying and doing are fundamentally dissimilar. What you do is what you are not trying to do. If you’re still trying, you are not doing it. Trying is a siren, a dead seduction from the task.

That’s what artists know. Trying is for dilettantes who prove, by grunts and grimaces, that they are “at their work.” If it’s hard to do, you failed. Effort only leads you astray. So how can a strutting sinner, how can a poor player dissected on the stage, be saved? How can I do what is really hard to do, and not by trying? Not by work, but by grace. How ironic.

Grace – the real illusion of a miracle. “Lend me your ears,” said Antony in the crowded square; and if I have grace you will lend me your ears. But if you hear my effort, how hard I work to make you hear me, you will not listen. Art is a cruel place, no place for sissies. To those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But then neither is reality a place for sissies. It’s true in art but in reality as well, that what gets truly done seems – really seems – really easy. Could have been no other.

So in this Cockpit where I work, this Department of Reality, this Chaplaincy, where Life and Death play out their tragicomedy, I do the work that on a good day lets me leave the work behind. It’s hard to learn to do things simply. It’s hard for a singer to learn the throat’s co-ordination. It’s hard for an actor to learn the gesture that can touch the hall’s back row. It’s hard for a pastor to learn the simple presence, the seeing and the being-with, that heals. But when the spirit moves us, the learning is already done. It’s then that, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know. We go backstage, behind opinion, and correctness, and approval, and debate.

I am not always pretty. I am not always good. I am not always right. I am not always true. But sometimes after sixty-one years, with all my heart and soul and strength and by grace, I do what will be done. Take me or leave me then. It’s what it is. There’s no argument.

Monday, October 6, 2008

modern baron

“The gift of the One to Men.”
-- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The wind is meager, so we motor rather than sail past the island. Isolated by shallow waters and swift currents stands the burnt shell of a Scottish castle designed by Frank Bannerman VI, who bought up the surplus of the Spanish-American War. One might say, flinching at the joke, that he made a killing with it. Bannerman’s Castle was his arsenal. A ruined residence in the same style commands the island’s crest.

I’m also thinking of William Randolph Hearst, who built another self-designed hotchpotch castle on his private mountain, overlooking the other coast. And of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The destroyed castle mocks Bannerman, and the preserved one mocks Hearst. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” says the severed stone head.

“If you’re rich enough,” I say, “you can realize your fantasy.”

Fantasy of isolation. A castle is weirdly ambivalent between defense and offense. You shall not be moved from your keep; but because you are immovable, you can always “sally forth.” So you rule the terrain. Kings hated it when their barons built castles. It threatened their fragile authority.

A baron in your castle keep, no one can sneak up on you. The mountain, or the river and its currents, impede approach. Whoever wants to touch you, you can see them coming. From your battlement you can repel them – particularly if you are self-sufficient, with a store of food and armament within the walls.

The wealth of a modern baron comes not from isolation but from commerce; there are people he wants to touch, and to touch him. But he can afford the private planes or skilled river transport that take him out into the world, and that bring his chosen guests into the keep. The modern baron is so rich, he can even pay the cost of his dysfunction.

“Thank God we all die,” says my host.

My friend, who invited me on his boat, has longer experience than I to look back on. We were talking of a futurist who says that science is about to cure us of age. We may see lifespans of patriarchal length, a thousand years or more. “What’s really strange,” says my friend, “is that he thinks this is a good thing.”

If we live to a thousand years, where will we put the children? What shall we do with those misguided beings who engender and give birth to them? Perhaps we shall have no children. If I have nine more centuries to live, I may not want a squirming grandchild on my lap. If I am immortal, my descendents cannot make me so. Perhaps we’ll keep the children on a reservation, lest they change things. However old they grow, they won’t know what we know. They’ll lack the true perspective. Perfecting, rubbing smooth our pleasures, we may never give way. Some dying churches are like this.

But of course we must give way, and unmade, we must make our immortality. Every thing I do now is a hundred other things that now I’ll never do. We cannot keep to ourselves. If I do not learn the strange new pleasures of my children, and if they do not know my joys, if I do not love and am not loved, then my relic castle, burnt out or preserved, will mock me in my death. It is not that we must love in spite of death; it is because of death that we can love. I work in a cockpit of love and death. Death shows his colors here, and the trumpet calls us to change and to declare our loyalties. If I had forever to love you I’d never bother, and you’d never care.

Our mortality is therefore our gift and the ground of our joy. Tolkien imagined two kinds of sentient creature, one immortal and one mortal. The immortal elves poisoned the world in self-regard, greed and lust for power. In boundless grief they have left Middle-Earth to Humankind, who came later and who, dying the individual “death of weariness” that elves never knew, must save the moments of their lives in loyalty and love. The transitory survives where the eternal does not. Our castle walls dissolve, and we must meet each other in the open air. Thank God we all die.

I encourage readers to leave comments by using the widget below, clicking on the word “comment(s).”

Monday, September 29, 2008

made flesh

“My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”
-- Hamlet

The – LORD – GOD – Je – HO – VAH!”

She sings each syllable, alternating between two notes. I know, because I’ve studied such things, that the interval is a major second, like the first two notes of the scale. “Do – RE – RE – do – RE – RE!” She punctuates each note, each syllable, with a louder silence.

“IN – THE – be – GIN – ning – WAS – the – WORD.”

At the top of subway steps in Grand Central Station at morning rush, she is all I hear.

“AND – the – WORD – WAS – with – GOD.”

I pass her by, descending to a deeper ring of urban transport.

“AND – the – WORD – WAS – GOD.”
From the platform below I still hear her.

“AND – the – WORD – WAS – made – FLESH.”

There it is. Authenticity. She is what she claims to be. Refugee from the theatre, I recall language from studios of acting: She is not just telling, she is doing. She doesn’t just say that the word was made flesh. She is a Word Made Flesh.

The – WORD – WAS – made – FLESH – and – DWELT – a – MONG – US.”

I am witness to the power of the Incarnate Word. Her Flesh is given over to Her Word. Her blood and breath are timed to Her Word’s pulse. Her throat vibrates in mathematic passion, and my throat rises sympathetically. Machines scream and a hundred conversations scurry on their way, but what I hear is Her Word. This is not a liberal sermon with five logical points, later to be judged “interesting” and “stimulating” by parishioners. She does not interest me. She does not stimulate me. She seizes me.

“HE – was – IN – the – WORLD.”

In a hundred studios of drama in this city, acolytes make offerings to their gurus. They mortify themselves in worship of this very power to en-flesh the word. Two of them finish an exercise, and there is a silence for the space of half a minute.

“BUT – the – WORLD – KNEW – him – NOT.”

They are waiting for the guru to unseal his verdict. (The really clever guru prolongs the pain.) They are lost; they await the revelation. Was it true? Am I real? Does my “work” have authenticity? Am I talented? Do I have IT? Desperation feeds on the silence.

Let’s leave it there. If the word had been made flesh, it would have seized you all. You wouldn’t be waiting for the guru to tell you what happened.

That’s why Hamlet, the prince of failed actors, knowing his role but never bringing it off, talking talking of what’s to do, tormented by words words words that stop his thoughts, curses his thoughts until they shall learn the pulse of his body. If his thoughts are not now “bloody” they shall be worth nothing. Only at his end, too late and by accident, are his Words Incarnate.

“WE – have – SEEN – his – GLO – RY.”

That God became one of us is the Christian glory. That he grew in the bowels of a woman. Nascitur inter sanguinem et faeces et urinam. That he heard the pulse of her blood and the pedal point of her breath, syncopated by a slithering symphony of fluids and solids in passage toward the world. So did we all. And all of us, Yeshua included, were then expelled into silence. Perhaps it is not the sudden cold or bright light that bakes a baby cry. Perhaps it is the silence. Our bodies, abruptly orphaned, no longer purr to the music of creation.

His – GLO – RY, – FULL – of – GRACE – and – TRUTH.”

After expulsion, we do our best to compensate for dis-enfleshment. We seek grace in making love and art. We seek truth in reason, or veritas in the vine or pharmacy. We laugh, cry, sometimes pray. Sometimes we sing or dance, and for a moment remember.

We must learn from our Christian brothers what they so often deny – that God is in the flesh. God is Incarnate. Our eating and drinking, pissing and shitting, laughing and crying, belching and farting, singing and dancing, our compassion and our copulation – these are what God could not bear to be separated from.

“GRACE – and – TRUTH.”

I stand clear of the closing doors. They close. I am on my way to work.

I encourage readers to leave comments by using the widget below, clicking on the word “comment(s).”

Monday, September 22, 2008

religion unknown

“Will there be anything left . . . that can properly be called religion?”
-- John White Chadwick, The Faith of Reason (1879)

“He believes in science,” she said.

I had stopped by his room. A new admission. His chart said “Religion Unknown.” He was, as we say to family members on the phone afterward, “resting comfortably.” There’s nothing else to say. He’s still breathing. He doesn’t, so far as we can tell, know we’re here. But because the oral culture of our craft says that hearing may be the last of mental powers to go – and because there’s nothing else to do – we speak. I greeted him, I said who I was. I said that I was here to help.

The most likely possibility, if the patient has any religious culture at all, is that he is a Christian or a Jew. So I spoke a psalm of comfort, about fear and the overcoming of fear. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Perhaps, if my words roused his mind from its depthless dream, they would be of – comfort. That was it. I had learned nothing. But I must fill out a “Spiritual Assessment.” So I was not done.

The next step is to “reach out” to the “Primary Care Giver.” His wife picked up the phone. I said who I was, that I had visited her husband and found him resting comfortably, that I had spoken a psalm with him. We are here to support the patient and the family; if she could take a moment to speak with me, she could help me better to understand –

“He doesn’t practice any religion.”

This information, my first in the case, meant that I had somewhat exceeded my mandate. Of course, I had been somewhat misinformed. The chart might have said, “No religion.” But I would still have been required to seek her out, to hear her say the words.

“There won’t be any last rites. No prayers. Nothing like that. How is it possible that people can just come into his room like that without permission?”

I explained that I was legally required to approach the patient, for assessment of religious or spiritual needs. Patient and family can refuse pastoral care if they wish.

“He was a great scientist. He didn’t believe in anything like that. He believed that the world is an orderly place, and that reason is the key to it. There’s not to be any ceremonies. No last rites.”

Transference. The importation of remembered or imagined experience to the present situation. In her mind she saw black-robed figures of Inquisition, smoke and mirrors, mumbo-jumbo and exploitative conversion in extremis.

Counter-Transference. In my mind I saw white-gowned figures of Scientism, bald heads and black-rimmed coke-bottle spectacles. The Scriptures of Atheism, revealing every few years under a new prophet’s name the freshly scrubbed icon of The Wheel. As if scientists had invented Doubt.

She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. No point explaining that my church has been for eighteen centuries accused of Atheism. That if you ask me whether I believe there is a God, I don’t know what the question means or what difference my answer could make.

We all respect science too much. The only thing science can tell us is how things generally work. It’s a powerful knowledge, but strictly limited. We love science to idolatry. We expect it to tell us what is sacred. But if there are miracles, science can’t speak of them. Any scientist who speaks of the sacred – even to say there is no sacred – has stopped for that moment being a scientist.

I don’t think God is so cruel that my prayer could save the patient’s life. And our doctors know they cannot predict the time of death. It’s not like in the movies. “One year to live,” says the doctor, and the patient, sound of mind and strong of body, goes round the world making up for his faulty life, expiring plump at last amidst violins and good lighting, and speaking wise words.

When she said he believed “that reason is the key,” she was praying for him.

“So I’ll indicate that you’re refusing pastoral care.”

“No last rites. He believes in science,” said she.

“So do I,” said I.

I encourage readers to leave comments by using the widget below, clicking on the word “comment(s).”

Monday, September 15, 2008

do good

“Love your enemies, do favors for those who hate you.”
-- Luke 6:27

This is the hardest, most paradoxical of commandments. It makes no sense: how can I love an enemy? If I love him, he is not my enemy. Is that the point? That friendship is mutual, and enemyship the same? So if I love my enemy he is no longer my enemy. He might not be my friend, but he is no longer my foe. Is that what Yeshua had in mind?

Karen says (August 5), “I've always wondered if ‘love your enemies’ wasn't a mistranslation.” It’s a good translation, but English can’t convey the precision of the word “love.” Agapate: a commandment, an imperative verb-form related to agape, one of three words for love. Yeshua commands us to extend agape to those who hate us. How can he dare to command our feelings

Feelings, as your shrink will tell you, are what they are – we do not choose them, though we can name them, know them, lead them, follow them, deny them or disconnect them. But agape is the most rational of loves – it is the love that we can choose.

Eros is the body’s desire to unite with other bodies. Philia is a more generalized desire to “press the flesh” through fellowship and mutuality. The lexicon says that agape is not so much what we feel as what we do, based on “evaluation and choice.” Agape is what God gives us, and what God asks of us in return. God is sometimes angry with us for good reason, and we with God. Feel what you must – happy sad friendly hostile – but Agapate.

So the commandment is not about our feelings. I don’t have to cherish the lover who harms me. I don’t have to “feel the pain” of the comrade who betrays me. I don’t have to like Slobodan Milosevic. Yeshua says, “Don’t get bent out of shape. Don’t let your enemy deform you. Don’t descend to his lowest level. Don’t scrabble in the dirt just because she did.” Continue to love kindness, and do justice, and walk humbly.

There are foolish enemies and smart enemies. Foolish enemies are the ones we can laugh off. They fall on their faces and take nothing from us; or they take from us what we never wanted anyway. Sometimes we can make ambitious enemies foolish by withdrawing desire from what they want to take. We can even do this retroactively, by declaring that the thing our enemy took is something we never wanted. Or that we should not have wanted it – and then we thank the would-be enemy for teaching us that our better self never wanted what they took. Thus we deny foolish enemies the very status of enemy. We belittle and disarm them. They never harmed us, and thus we defeat them. “Love your enemies: it’ll drive them crazy.” So many people have said it that I don’t know who I stole it from.

But there are also smart enemies, who do irreparable damage. They steal innocence and savage souls. Like Mohammed Attah and Timothy McVeigh, they take from us what we ought most dearly to want, that cannot be restored to us. Sometimes they do this in a frenzy of false self-preservation. There are a few who do it for the joy of it. Such enemies wound us in vital organs of the soul, and no one – certainly not Yeshua – can tell us to laugh it off. I shall not turn my other cheek. I shall not go back to my abuser. Not until I know how to render my smart enemy foolish. I do not know when, or if, that day may come.

Agapate and agathopoieite. Love your enemies and do good. It’s not always possible to forgive, particularly where there is no remorse. More likely, I think, is to forget. No, “forget” is not the exact word: a holocaust must never be forgotten. But we can distract ourselves by doing good, until the injury is no longer our obsession. Survival, they say, is the best revenge. Survival with access to memory. Love those that can be loved. Render to enemies what is theirs, which includes justice but not vendetta. Protect from them what is precious. Agathopoieite.

I encourage readers to leave comments by clicking on the word "comment(s)" below.