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.