Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Making the Most of the Time

Making your mark in Washington, D. C. is no easy thing, I learned two summers ago during a stint working at the Folger Library. I thought especially about this as I would run past Abraham Lincoln’s Memorial most mornings—a President shot down just as he was about to have a respite from the agonies of war. Or, a bit further down the road at Haines Point as I rounded the newer Roosevelt Memorial—a President who, likewise, died in the saddle before peace could be declared. Though we remember and honor them, their stories remind us just how short life is and how every moment is precious. Buried somewhere in the recesses of our minds are those infamous words uttered by the young English teacher, John Keating, in the film, “Dead Poets’ Society,” as he lines his students up in the hallway to gaze at the photographs of their predecessors, many of whom are now long dead. “Carpe diem,” he breathes into their ears, “seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Professor Keating is not the first, nor the last, to attempt to create an apologetic for “making the most of the time." All of us, whether old or young, perhaps feel the hoofs of Father Time as we slide over the next few weeks into the frenetic pace of fall and towards the Thanksgiving Break. For those of us who have recently lost loved ones, there is the added recognition that the one who was with us this time last year during the holidays is no longer here, that life will never quite be the same. Even if we are still in the same community or workplace where we have labored for ages we may suddenly look up and realize all those who are now gone with whom we associated the place and discover that we are the old codger, the icon, about whom others chortle when they think of this particular place.

As I prepare to speak in chapel on Monday as a prelude to All Saints' Day, I am freshly aware of those I used to think of as being the mainstays of Greenville College. My wife and I enjoy visiting their graves and asking ourselves what they would do if facing the challenges of our times. As I watch the leaves turn colors and begin to fall, I realize just how short the time is and how important it is to be about those matters that are most essential. After all, someday somebody else may be visiting my grave and thinking these same rather somber thoughts. I hope no one will be able to accuse me of not making the most of my short time here.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Prophet as Poet

Finding anyone with a truly prophetic voice in post-9/11 America has become something of a chore. But if anyone fits that bill it would probably be none other than Stanley Hauerwas, my colleague in theology and ethics at Duke University. At an address to the Wesleyan Theological Society earlier this year, Dr. Hauerwas reminded us that in the medieval church three years of penance were necessary for returning crusaders and warriors before they were allowed entry back into the sacred space of the worshipping assembly and could receive communion. In contrast, he suggested, many American church leaders have fixated on issues of sexuality and almost entirely ignored issues of war and peace. His conclusion was that squabbling over homosexuality makes the church look silly and unengaged in the primary moral issues before us. If you read his books, you will pick up on his one continual refrain: that as Americans we feel ourselves dominated by the need for security and yet live in a dangerous world made more dangerous by our goods and our incessant lust for more of them. His prophetic cry is for us to embrace a radical pacifism and to learn to stand over against the culture as the church of Jesus Christ and not as sentimentally-religious Americans.

Perhaps Hauerwas’ voice comes as close to any who attempt to rattle the cage of those who have found in sentimentality a substitute for genuine Christian faith. My favorite definition of the prophet is that coined by the inimitable Frederick Buechner: “the prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them.” They were the ultimate iconoclasts, smashing reputations and fortunes wherever they went--sounding forth God's word as poetry come to life.

Walt Whitman, in his “Leaves of Grass,” suggests that, “after the seas are all crossed, after the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work, after the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, finally shall come the poet worthy that name, the true son of God shall come singing his songs.” That is, in an age attempting to make sense of the world in modern terms, at the end there still stands the power of poetry—shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities.

Those of you who have seen Ken Burn’s wonderfully rhapsodic tribute to “Jazz” on PBS a few years ago, will remember just how powerful this new art form proved in pressing the envelope and finding new ways of crawling out of the formal patterns that stood behind it, yet at times threatened to shackle it. I oftentimes think of the jazz form when I’m reading a really creative writer, someone like Anne Lamott. In her hot-off-the-press new book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, she begins with words that hit us like a freight train: “On my forty-ninth birthday,” she says, “I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death. These are desert days. Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow death by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration. However, after a second cup of coffee, I realized that I couldn’t kill myself that morning—not because it was my birthday but because I’d promised to get arrested the next day. I had been arrested three weeks earlier with an ecumenical bunch of religious peaceniks, people who still believe in Dr. King and Gandhi. Also, my back was out. I didn’t want to die in crone mode. Plus, there was no food in the house. So I took a long, hot shower instead and began another day of being gloated to death,” (3-4). No one ever accused Annie of not being honest and unwilling to make her readers uncomfortable.

Likewise, with the prophetic word, there is always this discomfort, even with the established patterns of prophecy. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the magisterial Roman Catholic scholar, says that, “God needs prophets in order to make himself known, and all prophets are necessarily artistic. What a prophet has to say can never be said in prose.” In my worship class, I continually refer to the fact that the liturgy is poetic and shapes us as people. In our age, however, truth is oftentimes confined to facts and that which breaks forth as poetic and prophetic utterance runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood.

This was the case with those who heard Jesus’ words in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry in Luke’s gospel. This is the carpenter’s son, they said. We’ve got him nailed down! Within a few verses their tone moves from one of admiration to rage. They knew what they were looking for in this one, and his prophetic word of judgment rendered in poetic utterance set their teeth on edge. The liberation they expected was the steady, militaristic cadence of prose, and he had the audacity to soar across established boundaries by the use of poetry, parable, and pithy aphorisms.

We all know what usually happens to prophets (just check out the end of Luke's story above!). In the midst of all of the political infighting, ideological pigeon-holing, greed and mediocrity in leadership these days, perhaps a "word fitly spoken," a word of poetic power from a few prophets is, perhaps, just what we need. I, for one, look forward to hearing those who are willing to step forward and to sing out a theology that challenges the status quo.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Dealing with our Mortality

Today, the necessity of finding time to be alone has been exacerbated by our unwillingness to face up to our own mortality. Behind our extraordinary need to be connected at all times, our desire to be immersed in a culture of toxic noise, and the value we place on sheer busy-ness, lies, I am convinced, our fear of death. No topic is perhaps quite so off-limits in our culture of youth as is this ultimate and final appointment. One scholar has even gone so far as to suggest that whereas in the Victorian era the forbidden topic for discussion was sex and everyone was obsessed with death, today the obverse is true.

Thomas Lynch, in his wonderful little book, The Undertaking, sketches out the history of many of the rituals we have devised to avoid having to think too long or deeply about death. He says, “a person who has ceased to be is as compelling a prospect as it was when the Neanderthal first dug holes for his dead, shaping the questions we still shape in the face of death: ‘Is that all there is?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Why is it cold?’ ‘Can it happen to me?’” (21). Lynch posits a connection between the emergence of both the toilet and the modern-day funeral home: “Just about the time we were bringing the making of water and the movement of bowels into the house, we were pushing the birthing and marriage and sickness and dying out. . . And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one,” (36-37). Barbara Brown Taylor goes so far as to claim that death is God’s final defense against our idolatry, that, “when we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God,” (When God is Silent, 39). As we approach death, “the breath goes out and it does not come in again. No one knows it was the last until it is gone, and the silence that follows it is like no other sound in the world,” (Taylor, 37).

I was seventeen the first time I watched a man die. By that time, I had already witnessed half a dozen autopsies. I had stood by as the coroner’s saw had done its worst—severing sinew from bone and carving thin slices of tissue from the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and various other organs in order to look for signs of disease. But those had been lifeless bodies which, while striking a certain curiosity in one so young, I had been able to depersonalize. But working with the doctor on call that night on a man younger than I am now, sending volt after volt of electricity into his non-responsive body was somehow different. Yes, a typical cardiac arrest could be construed as essentially accidental, as the author, Joan Didion, writes: it is a sudden spasm rupturing a deposit of plaque in a coronary artery, with ischemia following, and the heart, deprived of oxygen, entering into ventricular fibrillation. But to the emergency workers gathered around, it is also, as my British friends would say, “bloody hell.” For, when it was all over and the doctor had pronounced the inevitable, I looked down at my hands which, in those days before AIDS, were blood-spattered and devoid of gloves of any kind. Someone had mentioned reaching for the rib-spreader which would have meant everyone donning gloves, but it was clear that cracking the man’s chest would have been an exercise in futility.

Because this was my first time to prepare a body to take down to the morgue, the veteran nurse, Barbara Dungee, came and walked me through the entire procedure. I won’t attempt to shock you with the details; they only serve to reinforce the ignominious nature of death itself. By the time I was twenty, I had performed the routine so many times that I could almost do it in my sleep. But what never changed was the cold, antiseptic chill of death itself that pervaded the room after yet another battle with the great enemy. The monitor which had faithfully belched out its blips and alarms always stood silent sentinel next to the remains. In that brief window of time, between life and rigor mortis, the body almost miraculously retains its warmth and only gradually yields to its waxy glaze of morbidity.

In those liminal moments, I would oftentimes reflect on the conversations I had had with the deceased as I would circulate from room to room emptying catheters, supplying ice chips, carefully washing the flesh and applying lotions and ointments in an attempt to hold death and disease at bay. When a man who is used to commanding others finds himself alone in a room, draped only in a hospital gown with a pimply-faced adolescent extending a warm cloth with which to wash his privates, the conversation can oftentimes turn quite personal. I found myself, not necessarily by choice but by default, playing father confessor to more than one wayward executive. I heard confessions of sexual indiscretions, unethical behavior--all the loves and hates that make up a man’s life. There were requests for morphine, for smuggled-in pornography, for forbidden foods. One time I even had to sneak a girlfriend out the back when a wife arrived unexpectedly at the nurse’s station.

But, in the end, each person had to face death alone and prepare to meet his or her Maker. At such times it was my privilege—something I didn’t recognize at the time, but have only come to realize in hindsight—to listen to final confessions and to overhear tearful good-byes. Later, as a pastor, those death-bed experiences would come in handy when I stood guard beside loved ones with dying family members. Watching the divine breath (the ruach of life) leave a person is a holy and sanctified moment. One is tempted to turn away from beholding the face of God. The ancients developed a process called the ars moriendi, the art of facing death, and spent a lifetime preparing for the inevitable. Because death was so prevalent in their society, they learned to be prepared at any moment. We, on the other hand, go through life glibly denying its reality and so find ourselves always surprised by its inevitable knock at our door. We find ourselves reduced, as Didion reminds us in her new prize-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking, to “the most terrifying verse I know: merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

The best way to prepare for the event is by learning to live in the silent interstices of life, recognizing the need to be alone with God and to listen for all we’re worth. Because what deadens us most to God’s presence within us is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, there is no surer way than by keeping silent, (Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 105). Out of that void you will find prayer happening: waking at night when the silence in your room is palpable, or rising in the morning to trace the emergence of the autumnal sun against the horizon. But, whether it is alone in the dark or alone in the breaking light, it is then, and only then, that you begin to recognize that still, small voice and you know in your heart of hearts, that it is He, the One you have longed for all along. And in that fragmentary moment when the fear of being alone, truly alone, is realized, then it is that you recognize that you have never really been entirely alone at all.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Praying at St. Meinrad's

I have just returned from my annual trip to St. Meinrad's Archabbey in southern Indiana. Each year I take at least one class to Meinrad's to join in the cycle of daily prayer, roam the grounds, talk to the monks, and learn to listen to God's voice in the quiet of life "on the hill." I always am interested in how students respond to this choice that some individuals make which is so contrary to the values of our individualistic, celebrity-obsessed culture.

Perhaps the most jarring juxtaposition for some was to see monastics who, a few hours before, had been singing Vespers in the medieval plain chant, tossing back a few beers, eating pizza, and joining in the fun and frivolity of the "Unstable" (the local hangout). It reminds me of just how sharp are the distinctions that many make in life, siloing off their "religious" life from their "secular" life--as if God could be confined to some kind of box. Living a life of prayer does not mean excising joy from one's day. In fact, my experience has been that those who pray intensely are oftentimes those who know how to play with abandon.

On Saturday night we had the joy of dialoging with two monks: Fr. Simeon, an elder member of the community, and Br. Paul, a more recent addition. The former was able to share from the wealth of his experience extending back to the mid-1930's. He read a poignant account of what it was like to be dropped off at the monastery's door at the age of 14 and later to struggle with what it meant to serve others as a librarian. The latter, only in his early 30's, was able to speak candidly of his call to Christ and the Church in a way which seemed so reminiscent of my young charges who are also wrestling with issues of vocation.

Two issues were clarified for me that night. First, both spoke of the "magic of the hill," or what I oftentimes refer to as sacred space. That is, the need for places where God can be experienced in all of the nitty-gritty of life. I couldn't help but think of the place where I serve (which was similarly established in the 1850's by idealistic religious types!). Over the years, it is a joy to watch students and alums return and talk about how this was a place where they made important decisions that were to set the course for the rest of their lives. For both Simeon and myself, it becomes one of the strong reasons why "stability of place" is so important (for a more secular view of this same idea, try reading R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them all My Days). Second, though the barriers that separate Protestant from Catholic still remain, it has become clear to those of us engaged in ecumenical dialogue that we share so much common ground. As the monks spoke, I was reminded of "testimony time" in my own tradition where common people share what God is doing in their life. The search for meaning and the desire to find and please God in and through the gospel message of the cross and resurrection transcends boundaries of tradition or denominational stripe.

I am always thankful when I return home that I have brothers at St. Meinrad's who are praying four times each and every day. I lift my voice with theirs on fewer occasions, but recognize that we are a part of a much larger choir who believe that prayer is integral to the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ. Even if others consider such regular daily prayer irrelevant or quaint, those of us who practice it know that it is part of what sustains the world.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Conforming Our Lives to a Counter-Cultural Song

The world in which we live makes tremendous counter-claims to those of the Gospel. We are encouraged to indulge ourselves in hedonistic behavior and to spend our way to happiness. We eat fast-food individually, separate from the community. We say a quick prayer on our own, separate from the community. We listen to our IPOD’s pre-programmed to music self-selected, separate from the community. We surf the Internet in an isolated cubicle, separate from the community. Whether we like it or not, the culture is telling us that we are primarily individuals, independent consumer spending-units, whose goal is to, according to the market mantra, “have it your way.”

In contrast, as Christians, we have been called to sing an entirely different tune to a different God. Like Christ’s disciples, we are beckoned away from doing our work only unto self into a community of the faithful who learn to pray together, listen to one another, and to become the people of God in service to the world. Doing this requires enormous effort in the midst of the toxicity of a self-indulgent, me-oriented, capitalistic American culture. Learning to speak the language of Zion oftentimes seems quaint, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

I just returned this weekend from a 600-mile odyssey to southern Missouri to lay my grandmother to rest in a rustic, rural, family cemetery in the midst of nowhere. The world that she and my grandfather sought to tame was harsh and difficult—one wracked by the vagaries of economic depression, agrarian failure, and childhood death. She and my grandfather learned to work with their hands and to toil long and hard for precious little. They served congregation after congregation, dodging rats in the basement as grandpa labored at building a sanctuary above; boiling dandelions and scraping the bottom of the barrel for grains of corn meal in order to feed themselves, their children, and their charges. They did the best they could, handing on the traditions of the faith and both my parents and those in my generation have had to rewrite the old, old story in words more appropriate for the brave new world in which we find ourselves.

As a child, I can still remember her parents alone in their bedroom on the cold wooden floor of a frame house praying our names aloud as the wind whistled outside in the midst of yet another Iowa snowstorm. She was raised to read her Bible faithfully, to labor in the Lord’s service diligently, and to pray as if her life, and those of her children depended on it. On the last day on which I saw her, this past summer, she had been reduced to a shadow of her former self. She sat in a wheelchair, an afghan over her withering legs for protection and stared somewhat incoherently ahead. She resorted most often to grunts and groans and the spark of recognition was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes, the one-way conversation died out and I wasn’t sure what else to say—other than to pray with her, as I always did. But in the background, the piano was playing and a few of the residents were singing along. The nursing home administrator had told our family that this was my grandmother’s favorite activity, the one time when her tongue would be loosed and she would seem to become herself again. And so, I looked right at her and began to sing: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to whom belong; they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me—the Bible tells me so.” And, sure enough, the hint of a smile began to cross her lips and she joined right in.

These are the words of the Christian community, along with so much else from the Gloria Patri, to the Prayer of Confession, to the words of the Psalter. They make their ways into our minds and into our hearts conforming us to another reality than the cultural construct which surrounds us. They make up the liturgy of Zion and, when all else has faded in our memories, they remain with us. They have been said and sung by countless generations before us and they will continue to exist long after we are gone. This is how the people of God begin their day, with others—both the living and the dead—and we are invited to join in.