Saturday, January 31, 2009

private babel

Let them believe what I could not.


-- Miguel de Unamuno, “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr”


I do not come to take away hope. I am not an angel of death. But I come to people whose hope is not the same as mine. They hope that if they pray well, or if someone prays well for them, they will get better. Or there will be a miracle and mama will improve. Or they believe in eternal life, and they think that something I can do will help them, or help a loved one, attain this thing I do not understand. How cruel God would be, I think, if they were right.


Others are as skeptical, even as Higher Critical, as I. Such people often think they do not need me. They fear I will come to convert them. It’s ironic that the more like me, the less likely a client is to seek my help.


The individual theologies of chaplains are, to say the least, various. Though some of us are conservatives, the clinical pastorate is a liberal profession. It renounces pontification. We cannot tell a client what the truth is. He must find his own way, for he can only be saved, if he is to be saved, by a way of his own. We do not presume that we can save souls, and we are not here to save souls by spreading our own good news. I could lose my job for trying. And my religion forbids it.


My job is to read the client’s story and help her, if I can, complete it. Her story. The terms and tropes may only by co-incidence resemble mine. I may not assume that my images are normal. I must not assume that I know the destination. Something in us would like to stage-manage death and make it always “peaceful,” with pain relieved, dignity restored, grievance amended, love resolved, grief compensated. Cue lights. Cue sound. Action. Cut. Again please. We want to report, like a mechanic dumping unction in the spirit’s crankcase, an “increase in spiritual well-being.” But who am I to play the poet and tell my client to go gentle? There’s plenty to rage about, plenty to mourn, plenty of pain and loss. Those who speak of Job’s patience never read the book. Job could not be domesticated. He made God bless him for his anger.


“The Lord will never send us more than we can bear.” “God is always just on time.” “Everything happens for a reason.” If saying such things helps them bear what they should not be asked to bear, then amen. But if to bear it they must complain, I give them Job, who is more to my taste. “My sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease; nor am I quiet” (3:24-5). Where they go, I follow. Where they get stuck, I stay there. That’s what I’m supposed to do.


People of my faith are made for this Traveling. We can travel because we lack, on principle, our own fixed image. Our God is not the Unmoved Mover but a Moving Motive; Sophia gropes her way with us into light, and finds her voice as we find ours. We are not at our best when we share definitions. What we share, on principle, is the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It is written, in our Declaration of Principles. We help the Moving Motive by our labor. If we do it right it’s hard work.


Like Unamuno’s suffering Manuel, I minister to people who have no notion of my faith, which they might think a lack of faith. A free-form dialogue between us might convince them I am on the road to hell. But the only road I’m on is their road. The signage, no matter what the language, is means not goal, and that’s my heresy. Theology is the queen of sciences that never knows her place; she forgets she is metaphor and tries to rule in fact. Keeping her in place is my professional skill.


Theology, even a theology of disbelief, is homework. It should be done at home and left there. A chaplain who believes homosexuality is sin must accept with compassion the lesbian partners who on their love have staked their souls. I, who can’t imagine why God would care whether I say he exists, must accept God’s importance for some who ask me to travel with them. For them I should not speak in private babel but in language that directs them on their road.

Friday, January 23, 2009

canaanite location

We, as a people, will get to the promised land.


-- Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968


We are one people . . . and our time for change has come.


-- Barack Obama, January 3, 2008


When the forty-fourth president says he is a “Joshua generation” leader, he both honors and dismisses older leaders of the “Moses generation.” Moses saw the promised land from a mountaintop but died without entering it. Joshua led the people into the land. The Israelites spent forty years – a generation – in the Wilderness. This is no accident. There was an essential difference: the people who left Egypt were not the same people who settled amidst milk and honey.


Joshua has come to Canaan. For centuries the national epic of the Hebrews has blessed the rise of African-Americans out of slavery, their trek through terror, segregation and informal discrimination toward full citizenship. But now that God’s people are crossing the Jordan, we must ask what it means to enter the promise. Now that we sing the epic’s last canto, its tropes have already changed.


It’s time to remember what happens in Joshua’s book; because it must not happen now, and is not happening. The history describes a lightning military campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Canaanites’ only fault is that they do not worship the god of Abraham – that is, they are not Israelites. Oh, and they have the misfortune of living in the land of promise. For these shortcomings they are “utterly destroyed.” Their towers are knocked down, their cities burned, their populations exterminated. From the Canaanite point of view, the coming of Israel is hardly a blessed event. Thank God this tale, a story the Israelites told about themselves, is not born out by modern archaeology.


I am a Canaanite. I can’t help it. I was “thrown” (geworfen, Heidegger’s word) into this life, this place in history and culture. I can’t claim another location any more than I can be another person. The choice before me is whether I shall own my place, or pretend it is not mine. Only one of these alternatives is authentic.


I am a Canaanite. I was born, according to the language of liberators, in the land of promise, and my life was bathed in its blessings. My brothers and sisters of African descent, having endured slavery and many weary years in the Wilderness, have crossed the river and have come for their share of the land, its milk and honey.


It was precisely at this point of projected history that the Civil Rights Movement broke with its mythical model. Dr. King never referenced the Book of Joshua in his sermons; he never threatened to “burn, baby, burn” our cities or to bring their walls “tumblin’ down.” Why would he? He wanted not to destroy Canaan but to live in it with dignity. He was not Joshua, nor in the wilderness did he cry out for Joshua. He placed an impossible bet against history’s wretchedness – he wagered that Canaan would share its milk and honey, conquered by love and not by force.


The image of our new First Family, of our leader and his cabinet, is both a sign and an achievement. We are not perfect, but we have shared some of our power and its sweetness. Our anti-Joshua president speaks not against a wicked America awaiting destruction but for a suffering America whose patchwork people are united by common experiences. We have all, he says, “tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation.” In this one phrase, he invites me into his dream.


Yes, I in my Canaanite location have suffered from America’s injustice. I have not suffered in the same way as my African brother, and my privations are not the same as those of my African sister. But America’s swill is bitter to me as well. My country’s illness has made me sick in my own white way.


We’ve already had bitter medicine, and we still feel sick; the only cure now is exercise. Teshuvah. We have turned around. We are one people. We must take a long walk together, stopping sometimes to sit under our various vines and fig trees.


To my sibling of color I extend my hand. Sometimes, I say, the somebody who’s calling your name is me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

falsetto prophecy

If your heart is in your dream,
No request is too extreme.

-- Ned Washington

What happens to a dream deferred?

-- Langston Hughes

When a star shoots over the palace at the end of Main Street, it’s just like TV, except it’s not TV, it’s actually happening in front of you, and Tinkerbell (an actual professional actress, a member of Actors’ Equity Association) flies the length of the plaza, scattering pixie dust from the castle tower to a shop’s back door. It happens every night at eight PM, five hours after the daily parade with brass band and floats. You’re in an Iowa small town circa 1900, but the costs are evaded and the consequences denied. There’s no town drunk and no jail where he could sleep it off. There is a railroad but nobody lives on the other side of the tracks. There are no churches on Main Street Disney World: no need for them, I suppose. This is heaven, and no one dies here – how could they, in the dream of a man whose juvenile hero wouldn’t grow up?

I don’t know much about Walt himself except what I saw on TV when I was a kid. But I imagine him shouting at his underlings: “Don’t tell me I can’t have fireworks every night! Don’t tell me I can’t have a parade every day! Don’t tell me it can’t be spotless! Don’t bother me. I’m making a place where dreams come true. My heart is in it. I have wished upon a star.”

There is theology in Disney. Not all of it bad. Jiminy Cricket’s falsetto prophecy is for everybody. Even the least of us can have our heart’s desire if we desire it enough and never give up, never ever, even in the darkest hour. “Makes no difference who you are!” It’s a testimony of secular American faith, a hallelujah that lures immigrant choruses to step on our shores and to crawl under our border fences.

Disney told terrifying stories to children. Bambi loses his mother; Dumbo is shamed for his most precious gift; Pinocchio sins against his loving father and is swallowed by the whale; Snow White is marked for assassination, abandoned and poisoned. Walt says to the child, I know you are afraid. I know that you are small, weak and bewildered. But deep in Leviathan’s gut, dead in a glass coffin, or drugged in a forest of thorns, you are not lost; something knows where you are. Perhaps your fairy godmother, perhaps your prince, perhaps your distant father buck with the disembodied voice of a god, will find you. As the Cricket says, fate will step in and see you through. The universe is a kind place. So never stop dreaming. Never let anyone demean your dream.

Dr. King also had a dream, and like the Unitarian Theodore Parker before him he said that though the arc of the moral universe is long it tends toward justice. But how long, O Lord, is that arc? How long can we ask a dreamer to dream?

Perhaps the benevolence of Walt’s world and mine was stolen. The fairy godmother who tended our needs would not come for Du Bois, for Paul Robeson, for Josephine Baker. Their hearts were broken. These children of unwilling immigrants were judged by the color of their skin; it made great difference who they were. We who inherit the theft of their hope cannot blame them for despairing. Their dream, too long deferred, dried up “like a raisin in the sun.”

Others, in defiance of logic, kept the dream fresh. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Eckford, captured forever by a photo-journalist as she walked through a white mob in Little Rock on September 4, 1957, carried more than her schoolbooks. She carried the American faith, preserved by the black church during generations of terror. She knew that God loved her. A few days later, her prince came – the soldier-president with his army, a Lord of Hosts.

Tomorrow a dreamer of African descent takes the world’s most powerful office. He asked us to judge him by the content of his character. Enough of us did so. For this man, for these purposes, on this day, it made no difference who he was. His dream, our dream, so long deferred, can come true.

Walt was a white man of the fifties and before. But his dream is not such a bad place, and will be better when shared. Isn’t that what we’ve hoped for, that we could all walk down Main Street together?

Friday, January 9, 2009

toward grief

I ran toward grief.


-- Mary Ellen Geist, Measure of the Heart


“Happily ever after” was the phrase. It’s how we were supposed to live, we baby boomers growing up in the anesthetic world of our traumatized parents. Happily ever after is how Cinderella and her Prince lived, how Harriet and her Ozzie lived. They taught suburban families to live that way. It was how I planned to live when I grew up and real life could begin. If I didn’t grow up to live happily ever after, there would be something wrong with me.


Ozzie and Harriet had a laugh track. We did not have to take their adventures seriously, for no one was in danger. In the world where father knew best there could be no harm. The problems of the week could neither be serious nor seem to be serious. They were not problems at all. Dad, who spent so much time around the house, would never lose his job. Mom would never down a pitcher of martinis. Junior would never drop out of school. Princess would never get pregnant and sell herself for drugs. No one would be poor, or sick, or black or gay. No one would sing the blues. No one would die, or find that he had lived a lie, or seek the meaning of life. Our parents created this artifact, not us. The laugh track was their substitute for danger. It was a secular age. There were no gods there, not even lower case ones.


It was a crude laugh track. Obsolete. For today’s producers, recorded mirth merely “sweetens” the real and timely laughter of spectators, who have become in our time a supple and expressive audience, specific and verisimilar. But for the Nelson family there was only one kind of laugh, and it was in the can, to be repeated as necessary. It lasted exactly one second. It never rolled. It never built to a climax. It never disturbed the comedy’s solemn timing. You never heard the voice of an individual: those ladies and gents laughed discreetly in their grey flannel suits, for they did not wish to be recognized, they knew their place. Spontaneous only in solemnity, America’s favorite family were eternal; they showed us how to prevent anything from happening.


But the real world is not forever. Life is not a monument but a happening. Lovers change, and then they die, and love itself must come out of the crypt each day, never original, always recreated. No finding but by losing. Hard work, this joy.


The gym teacher said “No pain no gain.” He meant it falsely, but there was something true in what he said. We must not worship pain, for pain won’t save and may corrupt us. But the road to what is worth the pain is painful. Our choices cost the things we did not choose. I read this book and thereby others are not read. I do this job and thereby others are not done. I stay here with this person and thereby others are forsaken. Our choices are, or rather must be, worth their grief. Which is to say that we must make them so.


“Those who go out weeping . . . will come back with shouts of joy” (126:6), sang the psalmist. Mary Ellen ran toward grief. She walked out of a career and went home, where her father was declining in dementia. There, with her mother, she offered up the tribute that a kind and stylish, gifted and faithful life deserved. I know this family. I have been in their home. I am proud that they share my faith. They know that there is something sacred, and they know in which dimension they must seek it. No way around but through. Why do we weep when happy? One might say that tears are the price we pay for joy, but that’s an old moralist cliché. No, it’s more positive than that. Our joy is constituted in those tears that entitle and enable us to rejoice. To rejoice in the life of a good man, and in his gift to those who love him.


These are real adventures I’m talking about. Something is really happening. It’s a matter of life and death. The father dying, the daughter and the wife living in the face of his decline. It’s not a vale of tears. There is joy. There is love. There is laughter, but no laugh track. If you’re not grieving, you’re not living.