Tuesday, August 30, 2016

new song

. . . let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

-- Ann Sexton, "Welcome Morning"*

I have the answer.

What was the question?

The question is not whether God exists, or what God would be like if God existed, or whether God is one or three or both, or whether God is love or justice, or whether God wants us to rest on Saturday or on Sunday, or whether God would have us immerse ourselves in the world or detach from it, or whether the wine actually becomes the blood of Christ or only sort of, or whether God is omniscient, or omnipotent, or omnibenevolent, or whether God is one of us or totaliter aliter. None of these are the question I know the answer to.

The question I'm talking about is: how should we ask questions whose answer might include the word "God"? I have the right answer to that question.

Most people don't agree with my answer, and many who think they agree with it don't understand it. There are even people who would kill me for saying it (strange, because my answer does not require me to kill any of those people). Nevertheless I am right. My answer is very simple. It's so simple that it's hard to understand.

We should ask such questions very humbly. But that's not my answer, though my answer would bring about more humility.

Questions whose answers might include the word "God" should be poetic. Yes, God-talk should be poetic. It should be poetic because it actually is poetic, and God-talk that pretends to be something other than poetic is false.

Theology, which is to say organized God-talk, is poetry. More specifically, every statement of theology is or relies on a metaphor. A metaphor makes two different things into one thing: a ship of state, a sea of troubles, a brief candle of life. A metaphor does not name a fact, for if taken factually it is incorrect. A metaphor is not a deduction, for if taken logically it is a contradiction. A candle is not a life, two sticks nailed together do not prevent death, and my love is not a red red rose. So why do we say such things? We say such things because by saying them we accomplish what cannot be accomplished by fact or logic.

Books are full of fact and logic. We go to school to fill our minds with fact and logic -- and a good thing too -- but life is not based on fact and logic. Life is based on the daily papering over of a contradiction. We're here but know we soon won't be. So we have to act as if our action matters, while the long facts say it matters not. Forrest Church said that religion is "our human response to being alive and having to die."** The paper that hides the contradiction, the water we walk over the drowning wave, is faith. But faith is not knowledge. What we know needs no faith to declare.

We take our first step over the chasm every morning without looking down, singing a song to ourselves for distraction. The song may be one of joy or of duty, of laughter or of grief, of gratitude or of protest. "Let me paint a thank-you on my palm," said one poet. "I thank you god for most this amazing day," sang another. "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me -- " "I have a dream." "Some day my prince will come." "My country will thank me." "My child is special." "I'm going to get rich." "I'm going to kiss that girl (or boy)." "I'm going to sing at Carnegie Hall." Every day we sing a new song, or we sing an old song made new in singing. If you lose the skill for more than a day or two, you're in trouble. Depression kills. 

"O grave, where is thy victory?" wrote the apostle, but it's pretty obvious where the victory is. Death wins on the facts. And yet we're not willing to leave it there. Not even an atheist will leave it there: the statement cries out however. Where life is concerned we're not content to rest with facts. So to withhold the victory from death we eschew the facts. The Soul by definition cannot be a fact. The Soul is incorporeal, cannot be measured or weighed, so there are no facts about it. The Soul is a metaphor. It is as if the disorganized remains were still somehow an ensemble. We carry on as if two unlike things were like: we declare the remains to be an ensemble. What do we accomplish by that? to ask is to ask the purpose of poetry.

There are false poems, but this is the truth of poetry. Poetry seduces us to walk on water. I say my love is like a red red rose, so I can love her in a way that I could not love her if I had not said it. The prophet declares his dream, so we can achieve wonders we could not otherwise achieve if he did not declare it. The poet says death shall have no dominion, so we can live with a fullness we are unable to sustain if he does not say it.

Theology is poetry, and faith is a poem. If only everyone agreed with me, two good things would happen. Theology, including atheistic theology, would be more humble. And everyone would be freer to say different things about God, without fear of torture, murder, rapine, liquidation, pillage or enslavement.

And yet if I say that theology is poetry and faith is a poem, many religious people, including many Christians not only fundamentalist but high critical as well, will be outraged or alarmed. "How can you say that theology is mere poetry?" they ask as their eyebrows meet.

But they misquoted me. I didn't say that theology is mere poetry. I said that theology is poetry. The mere is what they added, out of their own prejudice. They think poetry is mere. They think poetry is low.

But I think poetry is high. And I am raising theology to its level. I am theology's best friend.

Faith recovers life from deadly facts. Faith is a poem, with all the truth of poetry. "He is risen." That's all you need to say.

*The Awful Rowing Toward God (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)

**Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), p. 64.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

nerd's revenge

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.

-- Twelfth Night, II. v. 156-8

They say best men are molded out of faults.

-- Measure for Measure, V. i. 444

A few weeks ago ("one's own," June 26) I warned friends not to take pictures of me because I hate my images. Now I make a different proposal, and for that very reason.

"Greatness" is too great a word for my novella. Obscurity would be a promotion. I light it from the inside, by the light of my obsessions, which may not be visible on the outside. Nevertheless in every line of work, every stage of life, some people are born great, and seem to prosper naturally. They are talented, popular, charismatic. Their achievements seem to come easy. Others come to what they have the hard way, or not yet. There are extra steps for them to every goal. They are awkward, shunned, unattractive, or perhaps just "strange," and must achieve their greatness.

I'm of the latter group. There are many things I wanted to do, that I still can't and will never do; and everything I now can do, I once was terrible at. Everything: from high-level tasks like reading a poem to elemental ones like walking across a room.

The revenge of nerds, or at least of the ones who do well in school, is what they promise you from the beginning: "Don't worry -- when you all grow up, they'll be working for you." A long time to wait for the great transvaluation. Some of us are lost. A long time for marching to distant drummers, not because you want to but because you can't hear the drums in the room with you. A long time for praying god please to make you normal.

In the long wait for their revenge, some nerds develop strange, even prodigious abilities. They memorize epic poems, or compose operas, or build robots, or win six simultaneous games of chess blindfolded. If they find each other, they can form support groups of present losers, future inheritors. But the best advantage of nerdity is that, when you learn things after the natural age of knowing them, you know their value. If you learn too late for popularity how to walk without shambling, too late for making the baseball team how to catch a soft fly ball, or too late for student council how to speak to others without retching, then what you choose to do is who you choose to be. Nerds can reinvent themselves. The only thing they cannot be is normal, not at least for long. The smooth gloss of natural grace and charm are forever lost. In its place might appear a finish more uneven and interesting, the dark luster of wisdom.

I've spent almost seven decades becoming the rough, complicated, crusty and twisted thing I am, molded out of faults. I'm still learning, but the more I learn, the more I succeed. A friend recently said she found me strange but authentic. This might mean I am a nerd surviving into my glory. Congratulations. I am a maturing nerd.

As children we were sorted: a few were cool, many were normal, and the remainder were nerds. Strangeness is a high wall: kids struggling for an image to grow into don't have time for strangeness in themselves, and the sight of it in others raises unbearable questions. Nerds can inherit the earth, but always with the memory of their strangeness: authority is not natural to them. I have learned to be heard, but am always surprised that anyone should listen to me.

It's my nerdly memory of strangeness that makes me hate my pictures. But I'm in need of some images: the one I use is over ten years old, and even if you tell me that I still look the same, it isn't honest to keep using it. So I say now to my friends, give it a try. Sneak a picture, don't give me too much warning. If you like it, show it to me and convince me it's okay. A nerd will always need your discreet reassurance, though he will never let on.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

giving ear

Domine exaudi orationem meam
et clamor meus ad te veniat

-- Ps 102:1*

I've discovered that the pastoral counselor has four healing powers: to hear, to name, to bless and to travel with . . . But hearing is the first power. A person heard is a person changed, a person for whom the other powers may be deployed. I saw it happen. I saw an act of hearing.

Hearing -- listening -- giving ear. Active listening: the skill of proving by your conduct before the complainer that you are hearing. Changing expression, leaning in, mirroring in word and deed, rephrasing the complaint and sending it back for comment. Here, you see, your cry of protest is affecting me, compelling my reply; I am not unmoved. You keep the act going until the complainer relents; until the klaxon of outrage starts descending the scale.

The bigger the outrage, the bigger the hearing has to be. Job was the biggest complainer of all, and he got a big hearing. Everything taken from him by a tiny god who wasn't even wrathful, but who tortured him to settle a bet, he waited three days and then let loose. He started by cursing the day he was born, and finished by calling God into court so he could sue ("I know there is an advocate in the world, who will speak for me in court").**

Then God comes into court, though the god who bursts the doors bears little resemblance to the country cousin who bet lives as if they were poker chips. This is the bigger older brother, and his listening is the biggest, with voice of a cyclone. Okay, I heard you. I'm here, so what do you want? Can't you see I'm busy, driving the stars in their circles and keeping the seas in their place? Don't you know I've got enough to do, feeding the creatures of water earth and air, keeping watch on the monsters who escape my skill? All this beauty! so what do  you expect from me, blood from a stone? you expect maybe justice?

Modern professions of counseling lay a long time in the future. We might wish that God had taken some Clinical Pastoral Education. Still, in the context of another millennium, the big hearing had its big effect. The cycle of complaint was broken. "I have spoken of great things that I did not understand," Job said (but we hope with irony). The greatest and most justified complaint in the history of humankind was moderated.

Hearing has its effect here and now, on the prosaic scale. And it isn't only I who get to do it.

I was at bedside as a woman approached death. Her nephew and the nephew's wife were there to keep her company. When I asked what I could do for them, he said "Repeal suffering." And he was serious: "Why do children get sick, and suffer? Why do good people get screwed, and lose the ones they love?"

And I said, "The problem of evil."

"If God is all-powerful, why does He let it happen? If He lets it happen, then He is not all-powerful. Or else He's Evil."

Stop this! he was saying without saying, bring her back and make her life easy.

We all understood I could not answer the question. Nor could I repeal suffering, though all around us were the signs of its mitigation. The patient lay quietly, with no sign of struggle.

I referenced Job for them, that Job had lost and suffered for no good reason, and made complaint -- so loud and deep, so beyond the range of his counselors who counseled submission, so refusing of moderation, that the cyclone heard his song from the world's bottom and came to meet him. Complain, I was saying without saying, take God to task. If God is anything, God can take it. God is big enough, or nothing. We were quiet for a while.

I asked if the team were caring well for this woman. And they said yes. "She's very peaceful now, said the nephew's wife, "and everyone we've met here has listened to us."

She pointed to a bag of fluid hanging on the IV rack. I knew what was in that bag, because I heard about it in rounds that morning. It was a bag of water, with a tiny amount of nourishment in it, flowing at a slow but measurable rate into her vein.

Frequently our advice, as organs start shutting down, is that there comes a time when feeding or hydration can do harm because the body can no longer process it. But they could not countenance the shutting off. To us the IV seemed an intervention in the natural process. To them it seemed  that shutting off the IV would be the intervention: they would be killing her. They were in conflict with themselves; they understood and did not understand our advice. They wanted and did not want the fluid. So in consultation with them we made it minimal. That was the doctor's order. It was just enough and it had made the difference: the bag of water was the visible sign of our hearing. They had been listened to, and were at peace.

I went to tell the doctor how beautiful had been his intervention. He had done my work for me. Except it wasn't my work. We had all done it.

*Lord, hear my prayer
and let my cry for help reach thee (NEB)

**Job 19:25

Sunday, August 7, 2016

self pity

He does not deal with us according to our sins.

-- Psalm 103:10 (NRSV)

Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.

-- Gospel of Thomas, 77:2-3*

Observing an intern chaplain's presentation of his verbatim, I picked up the paper and shook it, saying "We're not in control of this!" I was laughing at the time, it seemed such a joyful discovery. Then of course I had to convince others in the room that I am not crazy. What I meant was that you can ask the perfect question that goes nowhere, or you can be thinking of the pint that awaits you at the pub when the client opens his soul to you. It's not all about us, thank god.

I've made myself a pretty good writer, and I'm a pretty good teller of my stories; but I can't adequately describe how much I hate being on call. When the phone rings, it feels like a home invasion.

So when the call came in after eleven PM, about a family in Brooklyn whose patriarch had died, I sharply drew my breath, in a bargaining stage of grief for my Good Night's Sleep. Please God, so bitterly I prayed, make them happy with the sound of my voice. I'll say the words over the phone, and listen for them to say, "All better now, you don't need to come." Then all will be well, all manner of thing.

I couldn't afford to lose my Good Night's Sleep. Just back from vacation, catching up my own work, covering for my comrade now on his own vacation, preparing to preach on Sunday and drive to another state for an all-day meeting of my professional association, I didn't have time to stay out all night and then go to work in the morning. It was going to be a wreck, and I was going to be wrecked.

And guess what. The family wanted a visit. Grandpa's last day had been hard for him. Some of the family needed comfort.

As I walked out my door I pitied myself, and muttered audible curses.

In the middle of the night you learn secrets of the subway system. Like how interminable are the waits and which lines, unbeknownst to your apps, won't be running, so now, when you've gone as far as you can by rail, your walk through unknown neighborhoods will be longer. You also learn how easy it is, though you have a compass in your phone, to get disoriented and walk a long time in the wrong direction.

About two o'clock I came to the door, still open and watched by two children. The social worker had come and gone, and the funeral home had already taken the body. "They're upstairs," said one of the kids, and led the way.

Around the bed where he no longer was, his children sat. Bad timing, I thought. Behind the eight ball for botching my midnight travel (and for my secret bad attitude), I apologized and offered to say the prayers we would have said in his presence. So we sent after him, on the road to his maker, the blessings and entreaties spoken for centuries, amen.

No one moved. We sat around the bed where his spirit remained. I thought of what I usually do before it gets to this. "Do you want to talk about him?" They did want to talk about him. Three daughters and a son, with spouses and children, they told their stories that added up to one story.

An island man with a gift for figuring things out, he came to the country for opportunity. It was hard here for a black man to get credit for his intellect, and sometimes he had worked two jobs to get the bills paid. Then in twenty years with the MTA he had risen to management. Always when he came home he was for the children. No matter how many hours he worked, they said, we always knew he loved us. And he was our teacher: always he said work, study, learn. He read the papers and heard the news, and could talk about the world. Go to school, he said; study, get degrees, work with your mind.

They all had graduate degrees. They had all become mind workers. He was ninety years old when he died. One of the sons-in-law looked at me and said: "You don't realize that we're all retired now. We're all over sixty-five." They looked in their middle forties.

They were done. There was a great softness in the room, and we sat in the midst of it. I don't know whether I actually said this or only thought it, but we all knew the truth, that their father's life was triumphant, and they were his triumph.

We sat together in the glow, reluctant to leave. The spirit of the man could go now in his proper glory.

It's not all about me. His son drove me home. I got back to my desk, and began to write the report, at about four. My week was ruined, and I was glad.

*The Complete Gospels, ed. Robert J. Miller (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994), p. 317.