Saturday, February 7, 2015

why me

Take my hand quick and tell me . . . 

-- A. E. Housman, "A Shropshire Lad"

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

-- Isaiah 40:2 (NRSV)

- You're a priest? -

- A chaplain. -

Not even a client of mine. This won't appear on my work record. I had gone to a hospital room, met a patient, assessed the needs, performed the introduction, given the blessing. And as I was leaving he came out from behind the curtain that partitioned the room. He was young and robust and ambulatory (meaning in medical lingo that he can walk), so I didn't think he was a patient. I thought he must be the son of a patient. But I looked behind the curtain, and there was no one in the bed. This man before me was himself the other patient. He stood with his left hand on the IV stand that he had rolled from the bedside as he sought me out.

- Can I talk to you? -

- Of course. - 

Of course. I sat down with him. Why me? Not for me to say. I have no authority to refuse. He who has ears, let him hear. He told me his story. He had been HIV positive for thirteen years. He was alcoholic. He had just broken up with his partner. He was in despair. He didn't know how to get through the next twenty-four hours.

- How can I help? -

- Would you pray for me? -

- Of course. -

Of course. He put out his hand and I took it. I looked him square in the eyes, then I closed my own and asked the Spirit to come. It had better come, because my cupboard is bare. The abundance he needs is not in me. Who am I to comfort him?

- Gregg is here with me, - I said, - and he doesn't know what to do. He feels alone and unloved. Send the message, Spirit, send it through me if it's possible. Send it through my body right now, through my voice and my hand and my words if it will serve the purpose but send the good news somehow. Let him know he is loved. Let him know that his illness doesn't matter to you, and that if he's lost you are the shepherd who is on the way to find him. -

I stopped for a bit because I had run out of words.

- That's what we need right now. -

I waited.

- We're waiting. -

We waited.

- Amen. -

I waited. Was I done?

He was tearful. I waited.

- But is it all right that I'm gay? -

The ground fell away, and my breath with it. I hadn't touched it yet. I had talked all around it, but I hadn't gotten to the root.

In the time it would take to hesitate, my hesitation would become the message.

- Of course it's all right. -

But I hadn't hesitated. I had already spoken. I had already jumped off the edge, still reeling.

- Listen to me now. God makes us different, and gives us different gifts. I'm a straight guy and you're a gay guy. I have the gift of loving women, and you have the gift of loving men. We each of us have to find our place in the world, the people who need us. Right now there's someone who needs your love. You don't know where that person is right now, but that's your task, to find them. Somewhere in the world there's an empty spot, and in that place there's work to do that only you can do. -

I was out of words again and out of breath, trying to catch up with the message that was passing.

- Thank you. -

- You're welcome. -

As I waited, a thought of my own broke the murk.

- You're obviously a person of Christian belief. Catholic? -

- No, Lutheran. -

There are Lutherans and Lutherans. So I probed.

- Have you talked about any of this with your pastor? -

His brow furrowed.

- It didn't go well. -

- OK, now look at me. There are pastors who will affirm you. There are congregations that will affirm you. There are whole churches that will affirm you. So if your pastor won't help you, find another one. You hear me? -

- Yes. -

- Promise me that. -

- I promise. -

- Come here. -

And I gave him the biggest bear hug (and I am rather a big bear), and we held each other for a moment.

- You'll remember? -

- Yes I will. You helped me. -

- God bless you. -

And that was it. Abrupt in ending as in beginning. The sky opens, and then closes again. No process. That was the nature of it. That's the dare I say beauty of it. I'll never see him again. This is what we call the boundary.

How could I speak so definitively, all on my own? Because he asked me for it. He asked flat out. And if I had hesitated, my hesitation would have been the answer. He's heard enough hesitation, enough half-hearted blessing, enough advice that he can be one with God if he'll only cut his heart out first.

He needed to hear the blessing. And he needed to hear it from me. Flat out from a straight man. Or through a straight man rather. And he needed to hear it from a man of the cloth, if I may quaintly assume the title; it was a quaintness that he needed. I'm just the channel. I did my best to clear for the message. A messenger maybe I was. I don't know that I didn't save a life.

Isaiah is talking a lot to me these days. His bony prophet's finger probes me, pushing aside dead tissues to reveal the wells of life that I would rather look away from. Being born, the first time or again, is not a peaceful thing. At times the spirit of the Lord, as Isaiah said, descends on one;* and one is chosen, authorized, empowered or -- how did the prophet say it? "anointed" --  to bind up the broken-hearted and comfort the mourners. No telling when, or where. Or why me.

*Is 61:1-2

Saturday, January 31, 2015

baby boom

How do we forgive our fathers?

-- Dick Lourie

The people will no longer quote this proverb: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children's mouths pucker at the taste."

-- Jeremiah 31:29 (NLT)

I am one of the oldest children of the post-war baby boom. I’m sick of being called a “boomer.”

When you call me a boomer, without remembering the phrase that first described us, you imply that I’ve spent my life “booming,” whatever that means. But I haven’t been booming. I’ve been doing my best to survive the social engineering that caused me and millions of other babies to be born at the same time. So when we started school there weren’t enough school buildings. And when we went to college there weren’t enough places in college. And when some of us tried to find a career in college teaching there weren’t enough jobs in college teaching. And now as we live toward our old age and retirement, the nation says oops, there's not enough money to pay the promises it made, promises on the basis of which we made major life decisions.

And it’s not our fault. We didn't engineer those acts of mass multiplication for which the country was not prepared. We didn’t encourage sixteen million returning servicemen from world war to go to school, buy houses and start making families. It’s not our fault there are so many of us, and that nobody had planned for us all to be there, and that the infrastructure of family life was always catching up. It wasn’t our fault that the country grew prosperous and then decided to spend lots of money on children, and then expected them to be grateful no matter what. It’s not our fault that three presidents who were not baby boomers -- no, they were members of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” -- sent half a million of us at a time to a war that couldn’t be won, a war based on lies and false ideology, a war whose loss the nation blamed on us. We didn't have a glorious adventure to tell, in Sunday evening prime time with stock military footage, and music written by the nation's greatest composers, voiced over by news anchors who had once been war correspondents, and no, that's not our fault. We weren't in charge.

We were busy, though. We were busy cleaning up the messes of our parents. We had to clean up the continuing racial terrorism, the stultifying confinement of women into poses of ornament and alcoholic stupor, the claustrophobic conformity endured in houses of ticky-tacky, the red scares set loose on our artists and our prophets to deprive them of authority and livelihood. No, we weren't booming. We were sucking on the sour taste of our parents’ grapes. Sometimes we got angry about it.

There. I'm glad to get that off my chest. Actually, I love my country. She is, of course, the worst country of all -- except for all the others. There is greatness in that story of our parents: to spend so much blood and treasure defeating on both sides of the world two paranoid, aggressive and racist regimes, then making our former enemies free and prosperous, is perhaps the most noble campaign of grand strategy ever executed in human history. It didn't of course bring an end to history; not even the miraculous and mostly peaceful fall of Bolshevism's incompetent, violent and corrupt experiment has accomplished that. And we have our own contradiction still to own, again and again. Through all this persistence of history we are fallible, and sinful when we can get away with it. I am willing to pledge allegiance to my country "under God," because I want it known that my loyalty to the nation depends on its submission to moral authority. Not my country right or wrong, but my country under God. That was Dr. King's blessing -- he brought us the judgment of God.

Shall there be forgiveness of our parents? Shall we get the sourness of their grapes out of our mouths? Shall we be forgiven by our children? We are as disappointing and peculiar to them as our parents were to us. The parents set the table and provide the cooking vessels: the kids can cook what they want, but the flavor of the past is cured into those pots.