Monday, December 30, 2013

I Can Remember It Like It Was...Hmmmmmm...

Friday a piece of me disappeared.

Some background: as I said in my last post, I had a colonoscopy on Friday. The result, succinctly put: I'm not going to die of cancer. Not yet, anyway. This was a huge relief for me and my loved ones--those I told about it, that is. Even though I'm blogging about it, I'm old-fashioned enough that it makes me blush to even type the word "colon."

There was another part to this procedure that does not make me blush, but troubles me at the philosophical level. It's something that worried me the first time I had one of these, though I didn't experience it at that time. It's amnesia.

Some deep background: prior to my first (blush) colonoscopy, I had never been "under." Every previous medical or dental procedure I'd had involved only local anesthesia. I was conscious through the whole thing, uncomfortably so at times. (I subscribe to the theory that says redheads are anesthesia-resistant, and it's borne out in that I always need extra Novocaine, often to the consternation of my dentist.) Apart from sleeping, I'd never been unconscious. I'm a light sleeper, as well, and of all the people I've shared a room with, I've had only a few reports of talking in my sleep. Coming up on that first colonoscopy, the first drug-induced sleep of my entire life, I was nervous about a continuity gap.

The fear factor in this is the implicit philosophy behind my sense of self. I experience self in conscious awareness, which is to say, perception coupled with thought. Cogito ergo sum. I don't covet sleep because I know there will be a point in my thoughts at which I will slip into oblivion, and whatever I was thinking about as I reached that point will be permanently gone from my internal timeline.

Two years ago, when I went under for my first colonoscopy, there was no sense of such a gap in consciousness. I was aware of the nurse inserting the anesthesia into my IV, a second or two of wondering what it would be like, and then, almost without a break, of realizing I was conscious and the procedure wasn't quite finished. (There's that resistance to anesthesia again.) Fortunately, I didn't feel any discomfort; it was over seconds later. I think I dreamed while I was under, but like most dreams, I was only aware that I'd had them, and couldn't hang onto any details.

Last Friday, on the other hand, I was out for the entire procedure, and continued to be out as I was wheeled to recovery and had all the tubes and electrodes removed and the IV wound bandaged. At least, in my memory, I was out. In fact, Amy arrived to find me apparently conscious. I asked her about her workout (she'd gone to the gym after dropping me off). A little later, I asked her again. Apparently the nurse winked at her, having warned her my memory would be playing tricks for awhile. I can't remember any of this conversation; it's as if it didn't happen at all. I vaguely remember Amy helping me with my socks, and I distinctly remember the doctor telling me he'd found nothing that I needed to worry about. I also remember eating graham crackers and unsalted Saltines, washing them down with orange juice. And then we were in the car, driving home.

So there you have it: there is a gap in my memory tape, a break in my internal timeline, a period of probably just a few minutes when I was conscious, but was not recording what took place. And it bothers me.

I was told, just before the anesthesia was administered, that the drugs being used on me had an amnesiac quality to them, that even if I became conscious during the procedure, I'd have no memory of it, so it's not as if this was a surprise to me. And I've certainly forgotten many things over the course of my life. Like most adults, there are large portions of my childhood that are blanks to me. I've always been absent-minded about where I set things down, too, and frequently spend large blocks of time trying to locate something that I can even remember telling myself I wouldn't be able to find in the specific place I was leaving it. Finally, Amy and I frequently find ourselves disagreeing about the details of an experience, or about something one of us is certain he or she told the other. Post-finally, there are dreams, and the common experience of knowing I've had them but not remembering details. So I'm aware of the impermanence of memory.

Why, then, does this small gap in recent memory bother me? I've been wrestling with it all weekend, and I think I've put a finger on the issue: just as the possibility of cancer connected me to my own mortality, this experience forces me to confront the possibility that my identity is nothing more than a manifestation of the organic computer that regulates my body. And if that is the case, then perhaps I don't, after all, have an immortal soul. Which means that when the computer shuts down and the lights go out, I simply stop existing. So it comes back to mortality.

To be honest, I've been in the neighborhood of this viewpoint for at least two decades. As many of you know, my son Sean experienced a severe birth trauma that damaged his brain. Amazingly, his brain rewired itself so that he has been able to function at a high level, normal in most respects, and to be a wonderful, compassionate, generous person I am privileged to know. But he does have some differences.

One of them is epilepsy. He's not had a major seizure in many years, seems to have outgrown them, in fact, but it was touch and go through most of his childhood, with a treatment odyssey that lasted for more than a decade. Another is of the differences is memory.

When I was first aware of Sean's epilepsy, he had a behavior pattern that could be extremely frustrating to siblings and parents: constantly asking the same thing about what would be happening later in the day. Often he was looking forward to an experience he'd been told was coming: a movie, an amusement park, sleeping in a bunk. What I didn't realize was that he was having tiny seizures almost constantly, and every time he had one, his short-term memory was wiped clean. Repetition was one way for him to work around this problem. Another was to use the people around him as auxiliary hard drives: if he couldn't remember it, perhaps we could do it for him. These tiny seizures also kept him from learning how to read until he was in the third grade, and the ketogenic diet put a stop to them.

Sean's experience tells me that memory is an artifact, a pattern we create within our brains that can be disrupted, altered, erased by a flash of electricity, just as a power surge can corrupt files on my laptop. Typing this blog, I can rest secure that it's being backed up to the internet every few seconds, so that even a total failure of my computer will cost me only a sentence or two. The human brain is not like this, not yet, anyway. We don't have a cloud to backup our memories. We can, like Sean, entrust them to those around us, but that's not the same thing as being able to tap into a server. Every time we turn to a friend to help us remember, we are rebuilding those experiences, rewriting them like a historical novelist.

Even though Sean's memory journey has taught me how much the brain is like a computer, it has also given me some hope that I am more than just the sum of my conscious experiences and my memories of them. Sean has always been Sean: gentle, methodical, loving, stubborn, helpful, a beautiful human being I am privileged to call my son. Not even the status seizures that hospitalized him and forced him to relearn how to walk, not even the powerful psychotropic drugs that did so little to dampen his seizures but rendered him sleepy and cranky, none of the horrible tricks that birth trauma has played on his brain could alter who he is. This gives me hope, as well, that even without the memories that are starting to leak from my middle-aged brain, even with the temporary amnesia of anesthesia, even with the creeping senility I am bound to experience as I continue to age, I will continue to be me; and maybe--I can't know this with any certainty at all--there will be some kind of continuation of that self even as my body finally falls away from me.

I can take comfort in this: for those minutes that I can't remember, I was apparently patient, helpful, friendly, polite, interested in what my partner had been up to while she was at the gym. I acquitted myself admirably. That's the kind of man I want to be, even when I'm not conscious. So at least I've got that going for me.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Not Dead Yet


Yesterday I got a reprieve.

To be more specific, a couple of months ago, in preparation for my first physical with my new Kaiser Permanente primary care doctor I submitted a stool sample. It was a minor icky inconvenience, and I thought little of it at the time. But then I got a note on my phone's Kaiser app that there was a message for me: a new test result. Opening the message, I learned that there was blood in the sample.

I saw the doctor and talked with her about the test. I'd had a colonoscopy less than two years ago, and while some polyps were removed, they were benign, so she thought there was very little chance I had anything to worry about. Even so, she thought I'd better play it safe, and have another colonoscopy.

So the day after Christmas, I did my prep: a liquid diet, massive doses of laxative, and I'll spare you the obvious details of what happened then. Friday morning, Amy drove me to the hospital, and I was speedily checked in, undressed, hooked up to a variety of devices, and wheeled into the room where the procedure would take place. A sedative was added to my IV and the next thing I knew, I was being told the result was fine, there was only one small polyp, no sign of cancer, I could relax.

So yes, I got a reprieve. Soon after I got the message about blood in the sample, I was finding out what that meant for me. The chance that I had cancer was very low, but even so, it was hanging over me for the entire period between the receipt of the message and waking up to the result.

My own mortality is rarely on my mind. Certainly there are times when it enters my awareness: being thrown from a raft going over a Class IV Rapid; passing a semi on I-84 in the dark on a windy, rainy morning; feeling the plane I'm on hit some major turbulence; riding my bicycle on a country road and almost being clipped by a large truck; tripping and falling on a path at the Grand Canyon--there have been many times I've been just a few feet from death. Like most people, I don't let it dominate my thoughts, though, because if I did, I'd never be able to go anywhere.

This period has been, however, the first time I've been aware of a condition in myself that could be terminal. Colon cancer takes many lives each year. For two months, I thought I might be one of them. As I said, I knew it was only a small chance, especially since this would be a case of early detection, and treatments are far more effective now. Even so, the reality was inescapable: I am going to die.

This is true for every living being. None of us is immortal. We all die. And yet, somehow most of us are able to push this knowledge to a remote place in our minds and to operate from day to day as if it were not true. Hospitals battle to keep every patient alive, even when it means prolonging agony, postponing death by only days, perhaps hours. Every minute is precious.

And yet we fritter away those minutes with abandon. This morning I spent an hour mastering a single level of Angry Birds. Every day, I sacrifice between ten and thirty minutes on the New York Times crossword. I watch television that does not inspire, go to movies that do not satisfy, listen to podcasts that do not inform, eat meals that do not nourish. I spend 70-80 minutes a day during the week driving to and from my workplace.

Most of the time, I don't let myself focus on how unproductive these activities are, how little they do for me, or how little I'm doing for the world when I engage in them. Even with this imagined death sentence hanging over my head, I've gone on squandering my precious time. Now that the sentence is lifted, I expect I'll continue squandering--though not, perhaps, as unconsciously as I have in the past.

I did become more aware during this time of one thing: more precious than these minutes I live and breathe are the people I share them with. If I were to die tomorrow, there are things that would be left unsaid. Some people would go unforgiven; others would miss their chance to reconcile with me; some would find themselves wondering whatever happened to me, and might never know I was gone. I've had the experience of thinking about someone significant I haven't seen in awhile, then finding out that he or she had been gone for months, even years. It's an upsetting feeling, and I don't relish the probability that some who have been close to me will have it around my own death.

All these things I can, again, set aside, just as I did before I had these test results. I can go back to pretending I am immortal, to partitioning off that part of my consciousness that knows I can and will die. But what if, instead, I go out into the world to live in the face of death, to interact with others in such a way as to ensure that if this is my last encounter with them, they will look back on it and smile? What if all my days are informed by my mortality?

What if we all live this way? For Ebenezer Scrooge, the shock of seeing his name on a gravestone was not that he was mortal; he'd recently buried his business partner, after all, and he was not a young man himself. No, the jolt was realizing he could end his life a bitter, lonely miser no one would miss. This awareness was the stimulus he needed to change his life, to begin keeping Christmas with gusto, investing in his legacy with every fiber of his being.

Yes, we will all die. There will be an end to every one of our stories. Today, with my reprieve in hand, I commit to living as one who will not be alive forever, and wishes to leave this world a better place than he found it.

God bless us, every one.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

All There, No Back Again

We should've been here a whole movie ago.

That's what I kept thinking, couldn't stop thinking, all the way through The Desolation of Smaug: It was taking entirely too long to get to the dragon. But first it took us too long to get to the giant spiders. These two set pieces, plus the troll scene, are what people remember from the novel, and what they were looking for when they came to see Peter Jackson's version.

Here are some things we weren't looking for: Smaug chasing the dwarves all over the mine, shooting flame every minute or so. After waiting so long to see the dragon, now I was growing impatient for him to leave--except when he did, it was to set up the cliff hanger for the third movie.

Earlier on, the spiders seemed almost an inconvenience, a trick for introducing us to a superfluous scene involving Legolas, the heroic elf who never appeared in the novel at all.

And that's how it was for the entire nearly three hours of this film: waiting and waiting to see a brilliant visualization of what had previously only existed in my imagination. The visuals did not, by the way, disappoint: everything inch of Middle Earth that Peter Jackson films is exactly what it should be. What's not as it should be, sadly, is the plotting, the pacing, the enormity of these films.

One had the sense with The Lord of the Rings, even in the extended director's cut, that large parts of the story had been removed out of the necessity of condensing it down to nine hours (twelve in the director's cut), and it was a good sense to have. So much happens in that story: movements of entire civilizations, each with its own perspective; competing factions of evil; and off to the side, doing their best to stay out of the thick of it, two small people on a quest to bring it all to a better end than can possibly be had if they fail.

The Hobbit, as written by J.R.R. Tolkien, was never meant to be such a thing. The quest is at the center. Everything we experience is through Bilbo's eyes. The fictional memoir he writes upon returning to the Shire is called "There and Back Again." There are many small adventures in the story, and there is a battle at the end, but this is not an epic of trilogiac proportions.

Given the binary nature of Bilbo's memoir, I could see breaking the story into two parts: getting us to the Lonely Mountain ("There") by the end of the first, then confronting the dragon, fighting over the treasure, and returning home ("Back Again") in the second. I really think there's enough in the novel to sustain that much story.

But a trilogy? To blow this story up into such a huge epic, Peter Jackson has added story lines from other parts of the greater mythology of Middle Earth. He's also ret-conned The Lord of the Rings into a story that did not know it was a prelude to a greater tale, having Gandalf run off to consult with others about the dark forces beginning to stir, and even confront Sauron. Then there are the elves, given far more time than they deserve.

And what of Bilbo, the titular hobbit? In this second chapter, he actually is given very little to say or do. He does perform his rescue from the spiders, and he does cross rhetorical swords with Smaug; but mostly he's just part of the expedition, there to remind us who this movie is supposed to be about, but not given enough to do for us to believe it's his. That is the greatest flaw in this enormous treatment of the book: Bilbo risks becoming a side character. All the dark machinations, the hushed conferences, the debates between elves and wizards and humans over what darkness is brewing on the horizon, is time spent away from Bilbo.

As we watched this movie two nights ago, I found my wrist being pulled over to Amy's eyes so she could check the time. I did it myself. This movie was leaving me impatient, wishing there was less spectacle, more of the story I have loved since seeing the animated version in 1973, and reading the book for the first time in 1980. By the fourth or fifth time Smaug had filled the screen with draconic flame, I was more than ready for him to take wing and attack the village, where I expected him to be felled with a well-aimed arrow through the one chink in his armor. But no, we'll be waiting another year for that to happen.

I understand the temptation to do all this: Peter Jackson's studio has mastered the technology to make Middle Earth, monsters, elves, dwarves, wizards, the whole ball of wax seem as real as any place on our less fantastic planet; and if you've got it, why not use it? The answer is that this is a story about a small person, and grand though it may be, it needs to be much smaller than it is.

For Hobbit's sake, Peter Jackson, show some restraint! Or do you really want all three of these movies to go down as one of the greatest disappointments in cinematic history?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas without the Eve

This is the year my tree star burned out.

It was just a matter of time. Two of the lights were already out, and it was a cheap thing I picked up at Fred Meyer to begin with, probably seven or eight years ago. I've been looking around for a replacement, but there's nothing tasteful at any of the stores I've visited. Perhaps I'll find something in a post-Christmas clearance sale.

There is some powerful symbolism in that dark star, though. This is the first year I'm not at any religious service for Christmas. Instead, we stayed in, had a lovely turkey dinner, then went and saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a far-too-long movie that should've concluded the story, rather than padding it to a fare-the-well with extra story lines and characters that were not a part of the novel. But that's another blog post.

Until this year, Christmas Eve was almost always a hectic time for me. Growing up in the parsonage, I was always a part of whatever services Dad was leading, and often there were more than one. Supper on Christmas Eve was usually something fast, convenient, and non-messy.

Once I was out of my father's parsonage, and into my own, Christmas Eve became even crazier. I wasn't just helping with services now, I was running them. And then came the next piece, as having my children meant post-bedtime wrapping. After leaving the ministry, I continued to have church music jobs, which, of course, meant being at church for the best-attended services of the year. Sometimes there were as many as three of them. Even in the years when I had a break from being a church employee, I found services to attend.

And this year, I didn't.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. Christmas Eve services have always been fertile ground for curmudgeonly criticism. When I was planning them myself, I kept them relatively free of schmaltz, but I suspect that, were I to attend one of those services I led in my younger days, I'd find plenty to kvetch about. As a church musician, I had far less control over content: I selected music for the choir to perform, but I was also handed pieces I had to accompany as pianist, and while some were lovely, others were sweet enough to make my teeth hurt. And then there were the sermons, or what passed for sermons. I can sum up one senior pastor's Christmas preaching with six words: "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." The other tried much harder to keep his sermons in the meaning zone, and succeeded admirably, but at a level that just didn't reach me. Other sermons I heard from the pews never did much for me, either.

Because let's face it: the one thing Christmas Eve has to offer is not preachable. It's mystery. You can't cloak mystery in sentiment or comfort or whimsy. Musically, mystery comes through best when it's sung in a language few can speak (e.g., Daniel Pinkham's "Christmas Cantata," which I was privileged to sing in graduate school), or instrumentally with music that only hints at familiar melodies (e.g., Richard Purvis's "Divinum Mysterium," one of my mother's favorite pieces to play on the organ).

But what about beauty? What about holding up candles while we sing "Silent Night"?

Take the story itself: a baby born in a barn. A teenaged unwed mother sweating, grunting, screaming, the wail of the child gasping for its first breath. The air is pungent with stable odors: urine, feces, the straw that is now spattered with blood. Yes, there is a rough beauty in birth, but it is not the gentle, orderly swell of candlelight accompanied by the singing of a German lullaby. Birth is miraculous, mysterious, but it is rarely pretty; and few mothers have the strength to remain awake, let alone sing, in the aftermath of delivering a child.

I have attended two births. Both were life-changing events. Both were terrifying. The second ended in near-tragedy, and a two week advent wait to know if the baby would even get to come home. The truest way I can observe Christmas is to meditate on each of those terrible, wonderful days, to put myself back into those delivery rooms, struggling to be strong and supportive, to keep my fear in check, to be proud of my wife for what she was accomplishing, to advocate for her when she wanted something and the hospital staff was slow to provide it, and to be fully present at every moment, even those during which she could not.

Each birth involved a sleepless night. After the first, I held my daughter as her mother slept and the nurses cleaned up. I gazed into her solemn blue eyes, and told her how much she was loved, would always be loved. She fell asleep in my arms. And then I had to fight to keep myself from joining her in sleep, terrified now that I would drop her. She was finally taken from me and placed in a bassinet, then wheeled, along with her mother, to a four-bed maternity ward. After I'd made sure they were set, I drove home to make some phone calls--and dozed off behind the wheel moments after leaving the hospital grounds, snapping awake to find myself going off the road and onto an embankment. I got home in one piece, made my overseas calls, took a nap, drove back to the hospital, and still remember the weeks that followed as one of the happiest times of my life.

The second birth did not turn out the same way. After 24 hours of labor, my son was finally delivered, but something was wrong. Normally there'd be a weighing, a checking of stats, and then a quick return to the relieved, happy parents. Instead, we waited as more and more doctors came into the room, hushed voices exchanged information, and finally someone came to tell us he wasn't breathing right--or rather, that even though he was breathing, he wasn't getting any oxygen. Finally he was rushed down to the NICU, and we were left there, alone. I called for help: my counselor, my family, the friends who were taking care of our daughter. The counselor came to be with us, and accompanied us down to the NICU when they finally said we could see our baby. He had IVs and monitors attached to every limb, his forehead, and his navel, and he was intubated. We were not allowed to touch him, had to keep our voices low: any stimulus might cause his malfunctioning fetal pathways to open up again, routing the blood around rather than through his lungs. We asked if he could be baptized, and they said yes. My counselor (who was also a pastor) got a styrofoam bowl and performed the rite. And then we were taken to a hospital room and told to get some sleep.

Those two weeks saw a gradual release from fear, as Sean slowly, miraculously recovered from his trauma; but the fear never completely left. And when, four years later, he began to have seizures, what I felt most was that we'd had him on borrowed time. He survived epilepsy just as he'd survived birth, and he's now a big, healthy 21-year-old.

I think about these births, and I don't hear lullabies, I don't see candles, I don't experience anything gentle or sentimental. These were incredibly hard times for me, and I wasn't the one going through labor. They also happened in modern hospitals with all the personnel and equipment we could ask for.

In the Nativity story, there is no mention of a midwife. There is no sterile equipment. There are not even blankets. There is straw, manure, and a hapless not-yet-husband to help. Later there are shepherds. What we have in this story is an archetypal human birth of the kind most humans experienced for countless millennia.

That is the rough beauty I'm embracing tonight. If God really is incarnate in Jesus, there is no better way for him to come into the world than in this stable, with these two clueless people. It doesn't get any more incarnational than this. As weird as it feels not to be in church tonight, the fact that it's led me to relive my own two nativity stories makes it a far more powerful experience than candlelight service could be.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Heart...of...Ice...Meeeeeellllltiiiiinnnngggg....


You knew it was coming, that I couldn't stay in high dudgeon forever, that at some point my grinchy heart would grow three sizes and I'd be calling out "God bless us, everyone!" to anyone with ears. You knew it, and yet you said nothing. Jerks.

But seriously, this happens every year: I start off like Ebeneezer Grinch, and just like said mashed up Christmas-hater, I wind up sledding down Mt. Crumpet to return all the merch, dancing in the streets of Victorian Whoville, carving the roast beast with the Cratchets, won over by the spirit that so often seems buried beneath packages, boxes, and bags.

Things that won me over this year:


  1. My 500 Children: One cannot teach and lead holiday singing in an elementary school without having some of their delight rub off on one. And one absolutely cannot do bus duty with kindergartners wearing a Santa hat and maintain a gruff attitude toward the jolly old elf. When they glommed onto me at the door, wrapping their little bodies around my legs and jumping to bat at the pompon, I had nowhere to go but merry.
  2. The Annual Short-Jenkins/ComedySportz Holiday Party: As usual at this event, once I had all the calories I cared to consume, I gravitated to the piano, where I rotated among my many instruments: trumpet, recorder, djembe, egg shaker, and, yes, piano. Singing along to Christmas carols is da bom. Being the pianist at the center of a carol sing is da bom diggity.
  3. Less Shopping=More Joy: I decided several years ago that my part in my family's annual gift exchange would henceforth be consumable. While I did order a few things for my kids and my parents, they all came from Amazon, meaning I needn't come within many miles of a shopping mall. And my other holiday gift-giving came at Hanukkah, which was wonderfully situated this year at Thanksgiving. Since one of my primary grinch triggers is Black Friday style greed, I was able to distance myself from the shoppers crawling home in stop-and-go traffic with their treasures.
  4. Less Church=More Reflection: In my preaching days, Christmas always meant digging into the dark, depressing heart of the Nativity to find things I could use to shake up people's preconceived notions of what the holiday was all about. Once I stopped preaching, but continued to be a church musician, I found myself suffering through sentimental sermons often based on holiday films that did not in any way say any cogent thing about the revolutionary heart of the manger stories. There is just no way "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," the favorite text of the now-retired senior pastor at Vancouver First UMC, could be manipulated into a gospel message, try though he might. With a blog rather than a pulpit, and no piano bench chaining me to a chancel, I can think and say exactly what I want to, leaving nothing unsaid, and letting you make that TLDR decision yourself. Ahhhhhhh.
  5. A Memorial at the Peace House: A former housemate of mine passed away a few days ago. Her memorial service was Saturday. The Peace House is always decorated to the nines at Christmas, in large part because of the many grief groups that meet in the living room, all of which have Christmas parties to tearfully accept the fact that the holiday will never again feature the presence of the loved one being mourned. The first year I lived there, the sense of living in a Christmas boutique was overwhelming; but once I understood what it was all about, picked up on the poignancy of it (in addition to their recovery function, many of the decorations were bequeathed by an AIDS patient who died at the Peace House under Pat Schwiebert's expert hospice nursing), I came to believe that, of all places I've been, this address was most a most fitting repository for lights, ornaments, wreaths, tinsel, garlands, Santas, etc. Being there for a memorial service drove this all home again.
  6. I can't stay grumpy forever: The final truth in this essay, and series of essays, is that, at heart, I'm still the little boy who loves Christmas trees. However much I may fume over the crassness of store displays, the exploitation of marketers, the sentimental dreck piped into every public place, it all vanishes when I'm sitting in my living room with a lit-up tree from which hang dozens of decorations, each of which has a story behind it.
So there it is. In the end, I'm a sap, a sucker for the season. Hope you're happy.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cheap Courage

You may have heard the term "cheap grace" before. It was coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prophetic German theologian executed by the Nazis just before the end of World War II. Here's a brief definition, from his book The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

I yesterday became aware of a corollary cheapness in the form of a courageous-sounding open letter from a Bishop. The occasion for the letter was the defrocking three days ago of Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania United Methodist pastor convicted of performing a same-gender marriage ceremony for his son. The conference board that administered the punishment was acting as required by the Book of Discipline, a set of laws governing United Methodism that are treated as inviolable by church officials, even though they may disagree strongly with those laws.

Within a day of the defrocking, Bishop Minerva Carcano of the California-Pacific Annual Conference had posted an open letter inviting the former Rev. Schaefer to relocate to California, where he would be welcomed with open arms. She wrote that the Discipline was in error, and in need of change. For these words, she has been praised by many United Methodists seeking a voice of courageous leadership.

But here's what she also wrote: the Board of Ordained Ministry that removed Schaefer's orders acted correctly, following the rules that all United Methodists must observe. And she could make no promise that Schaefer would be able to return to ministry in California, since that decision is not hers to make. It rests with the Cal-Pacific Board of Ordained Ministry--which, she had just implied, will also be bound by the same rules that just resulted in his defrocking.

The essence of this "courageous" letter, then, is an invitation for Frank Schaefer to move his family from their long-time home state in which he can no longer be a minister to a new state where he will probably also not be a minister. Oh, and it's such a shame you were punished for performing a marriage ceremony for your own son, and I hope those rules change someday.

You may see by now why I'm having a hard time jumping on the praise bandwagon for this open letter. It costs Bishop Carcano absolutely nothing to post this letter. Any criticism she receives for having voiced her opinions will be drowned out by the chorus of Western Jurisdiction voices praising her for saying what they all believe. This is what's called "preaching to the choir." She has very carefully parsed her language to be sure she is not actually calling for any actions whatsoever that violate the discriminatory rules of the Discipline she claims to oppose, but clearly has no intention of disobeying. You will not find her turning over any tables in Nashville, burning any flags in front of the Good News offices, ordaining any openly gay pastors who have come out to her, or (Asbury forbid!) performing any same-gender marriages. Most importantly, you will not hear her crying out that the decision to defrock Frank Schaefer is null and void because it violates a much higher law than the Discipline, and because of that has no bearing on her decision to offer him something more than an empty invitation to move his family to a place where he knows no one and has no prospects of employment, something with real substance: an appointment to a church and the understanding that, the Discipline be damned, he is still ordained in her eyes and she will defend his right to act in that way until she finds herself defrocked.

What, then, was the point of this open letter? One could argue it was to offer support to Frank Schaefer and his family, but if that was the case, there was no need to post it on the conference web site. The Schaefers could have made it public themselves if they wanted to. No, this is, quite simply, a publicity grab. Bishop Carcano is riding the wave of progressive United Methodist outrage. She's cashing in.

I'm not surprised that she is. Bishops are politicians, and politicians stay in office by exploiting controversies. But courage? Please. This open letter came from a place of utter cowardice.

Courage in this situation demands sacrificial leadership, costly leadership. In this situation, it means putting one's power on the line. Frank Schaefer did that. Out of love for his son and, now, son-in-law, he performed a real wedding for them. Convicted of breaking church rules in the name of love, and given the choice of recanting what he had done by the Board of Ordained Ministry, he refused, and faced the consequences. That, my friends, is courageous leadership.

You won't see many other ministers acting as Frank Schaefer did. You won't see them facing church trials or clogging the agendas of their Boards of Ordained Ministry with disciplinary hearings. There will be a few, and perhaps, in time, the few will become more, but it probably will not be enough to bring about real change. What you will see from the many ordained ministers who support Schaefer's actions is platitudes, prayers for a more inclusive church, petitions to the General Conference that are doomed to failure, much hand-wringing, and an occasional decision to leave Methodism for a more inclusive denomination. But risk losing ordination and guaranteed appointments for life? No, there just aren't enough willing to put those things on the line.

And as for Bishops: Melvin Talbert, the only one yet to act in open disobedience to the Discipline by performing a same-gender wedding is retired. He may yet find himself in Frank Schaefer's shoes, facing a church trial and ultimately losing his title, but it won't cost him a job, a home, a salary (or, in his case, a pension). He'll just have to hand over that pretentious shepherd's crook United Methodist Bishops have taken to carrying in church processions.

As for the rest of them: I would love to have a bishop, any bishop, doing something genuinely courageous. But I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Age of Saying Goodbye


It was my third funeral in six months.

I attended my first funeral in 1987. I was the preacher. I was 26, and I had never been to a funeral in my life; now a member of the church of which I was student pastor had passed away, and I had to preside at her service. This being southern Illinois, it was an open casket service. It was a macabre experience, and I was extremely nervous going in, but apparently I acquitted myself well. Over the course of the next thirteen years, I performed many more funerals, some of them for parishioners I knew well, but most for strangers with only a tenuous connection to the church I was serving at the time. I became adept at preparing for these services, interviewing the family, selecting hymns, preaching a sermon that was personalized, comforting, and inspiring, setting just the right tone for the liturgy. I believe this was the most effective part of my ministry.

And then it stopped. In January 2000, I walked away from ministry, with the help of a not-too-gentle push from the United Methodist Church. Since then, I've been to very few funerals or memorial services--until this year, when I attended three, all for people I knew.

I am at the age, it seems, of attending funerals for the parents of friends--though in the case of Jo Bellinger, that description does not do her justice. I shared the third floor of the Peace House with Jo for three years. She was a classy lady, divorced at 59, moved into the Peace House soon after its founding in 1985, and launched her own career as a potter at 70, learning the craft from one of her five sons. Jo was deeply connected to all of them, worried about them constantly, and in that reminded me very much of my own mother. By the time I met her, she was 79, and beginning to lose her mobility as Parkinson's set in. She was a quiet talker, very private, with a dry wit that could be sharp and surprising. For three years she looked to me and my children as an extension of her own family. Her death came after a long decline, but not until all five of her sons could be present in her room, singing Christmas carols to her, and one of them could usher her into her final transition with a song he had written for her about passages.

There will be many more funerals in the coming years. The generation that mentored and parented me is beginning to pass. My teachers, professors, pastors, counselors are dropping away. So are my parents' generation of family members: my uncle died last year. My father is 87, and frail. Two other Peace House residents I have known for decades are in their 80s and beset by many health problems. Yes, there will be many more occasions for me to put on my good shoes and be in the company of others as they remember who someone was, and return another soul to the earth.

The funerals will continue for a time, and then that generation will be gone. There will be an interim during which there are few deaths. And then the next wave will hit, only this time, it won't be the parents of friends, but the friends themselves who are passing. And one day the picture on the mantle, the ashes in the urn, will be mine.

It comes to us all. I will not speculate here on what lies beyond, because, as ever, I am an agnostic on that question. What I will say is that the symmetry of every life, from birth to development to death, is part of what connects us to our world. We are the clocks of creation, living, moving calendars showing the passage of time with her tightening joints, deepening wrinkles, and fading memories. My life is a record of the Space Age, which began in earnest just weeks after my birth with the first manned space flights by both the USSR and USA.

Jo's funeral was based on the United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection, a liturgy I used countless times as a pastor, but which I don't believe I ever experienced from the pews--until today. Those were powerful words, and I found them deeply moving, and impressed that they were created for a Methodist service. Methodist liturgy can have a taint of composition by committee, but these texts are profound, embracing the sadness of farewell, the fear of what comes after, and the hope that somehow, in ways none of us can know, this person who is no more really is now in God's hands.

Whether or not that's true--whether or not there's even a God--is beside the point. Jo lived a long, fruitful life, and was clearly ready to leave it. She will be missed. We will grieve her passing for the selfish reason that we wish she was still in our lives; but we cannot begrudge her for releasing life's hold on her tired old soul.

Godspeed, Jo.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Homeless Jesus

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"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7)

In less than a week, we will celebrate the birth of a homeless savior.

To be fair, only Luke's gospel places the birth of Jesus in a borrowed barn, and that only because his parents were traveling in a town with inadequate hotel facilities at the time of the blessed event. It is the life of Jesus once he began his ministry that is rootless, roofless, without any fixed address, a traveling man relying upon the kindness of strangers for shelter.

I once got in hot water for describing Jesus as "homeless" at a men's prayer breakfast. It was 22 years ago, and one of the men hearing me speak was deeply offended by the thought. It could just have been that one man; after all, many churches operate soup kitchens, food pantries, and shelters for the homeless, and pastors' emergency funds are frequently tapped to help homeless persons with meals, motel rooms, and gas money. And yet, I have frequently encountered discomfort from church people around the issue of homelessness, particularly when it comes to begging.

And now comes the confession: last night, I partially blew off a homeless man asking me for money.

I was waiting for Amy just inside the door of a sushi restaurant in Beaverton when I saw a man waving to me through the door. I didn't recognize him, but he was acting as if he recognized me. I opened the door to find out what was going on, and he seized and vigorously shook my hand. Then he made me to understand--I think he was Korean, and didn't speak much English--that he was hungry, and wanted some money for a meal. Caught in an uncomfortable spot, I pulled out my wallet and gave him two dollar bills. He asked for another; I said, "No," put up my hand in a "Stop" gesture, and closed the door firmly. He walked away, discouragement on his face. I spent the rest of the evening, and much of today, questioning why I wouldn't give him another dollar.

The truth is that panhandlers make me uncomfortable. I know I'm hardly alone in this regard. I've never been an easy touch; frequently I question their motives, thinking they'll probably spend anything I give them on drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; and really, there have been many times in my life when I didn't have a lot off cash to spare, and what I have is earmarked--typically for something I could do without.

When I've acted in this way, ignoring or rejecting a panhandler, I frequently find myself reminded of Jesus' admonishment in Matthew 25:  "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me...just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." There have been many times I have turned away from "the least of these," street people looking for a meal, a room, a tank of gas; and as the man says, when I withhold mercy from the poor, I reject Jesus.

Christmas morning, I will be serving meals to poor people at Amy's temple. This will be my third year doing this. It's a moving experience for a lot of reasons. Most of the people are polite and grateful for our efforts. Many have health problems. And some have other problems, and can be difficult to serve. These are the ones that I try the hardest to see Jesus in. It's rewarding, and I feel like I'm making a difference--but it's just one day a year.

My friend Pat Schwiebert, on the other hand, works with these people several days a week, all year long. She has a passion for serving the homeless through meals and other work she performs at the Sunnyside United Methodist Church. Every Friday night, she cuts their hair. She and her husband John frequently employ them to do work around the Peace House. They come closer than anyone else I have ever known to modeling their lives on the ideal expressed in Matthew 25: to care for all those society has marginalized, for that is where one is most likely to meet Jesus.

I do take comfort in the work I am doing now at Scott Elementary School, and, beginning in February, at Hartley Elementary School. Some of the children I work with are probably homeless, in the sense that they are living in the home of a relative or friend of their parents, who are between homes. I don't think any are living in cars. They have many emotional and behavioral issues, and teaching them is challenging. They also express their gratitude for what I do every day with smiles, waves, high-fives, and hugs. I get a real sense of meeting Jesus when I find myself smothered by a kindergarten puppy pile.

I'll close out this meditation on homelessness with a news story reported in the Huffington Post two years ago, and followed up recently in Slate Magazine: there is one state that is solving its homeless problem in the most effective, literal way possible, by giving homeless people homes. It's an approach I've heard about before on NPR, and the science behind it is excellent: putting homeless people in apartments with social workers saves a good deal of money compared to having to care for them in emergency rooms and free clinics. Over time, they're able to reconstruct their lives and, eventually, to recover from whatever put them out on the streets in the first place. And the state that is doing this groundbreaking work, eliminating homelessness in this amazing progressive way, is: Utah.

I saw that, read it, reread it, and every time was stunned by this information--and then embarrassed. Utah, as red a state as exists in the western United States, is overcoming the traditional conservative distaste for giving services to the poor to give them what they need the most, and it's working. Meanwhile, Portland, a city that is a synonym for left-wing politics, has more and more people sleeping on its streets.

Think about that, Portlandians. Think about the many living in the cold wetness of a Northwest winter, for whom shelter would make all the difference. That's Jesus in that sleeping bag, atop a cardboard mattress under the bridge.

Isn't it about time, after two thousand years of wandering, that we got Jesus an apartment?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Merry Eclecticmas!


The purpose of this series of essays has been venting a lifetime of pent-up frustrations about how Christmas is celebrated. I've complained about Santa in the manger, carols during Advent, capitalist exploitation of a religious holiday, and my favorite rant of them all, harmonizing the Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke to put both wise men and shepherds in Bethlehem. It's been fun, and I'm probably not done yet; but this morning, home from school with a chest cold, I find myself wondering if maybe I haven't gone a little too far in my curmudgeonly grumbling.

Because, quite honestly, Christmas has never been anything but a mash-up.

One of the first "shocking" revelations one discovers when delving into the history of Christmas is that Jesus was, if one takes the gospel of Luke seriously, probably born in the spring or summer, because the shepherds were out in the fields with their flocks. (During the winter, they keep them in the barns at night, which would mean even less room for a baby to be born--but that's a different rant.) Setting aside the 99.9% certainty that Luke's (and Matthew's, too) Nativity story is fiction, let's ask the question of how Jesus's birthday got moved to a date suspiciously close to the Winter Solstice.

The most frequent explanation for this is an effort to shift religious focus away from Saturnalia, the Roman solstice revels that featured carousing, drunkenness, and sacrificial gladiatorial combat. As the Christian God began to supplant the Roman pantheon throughout the empire, social conservatism (a hallmark of both Judaism and Christianity) frowned upon the gluttonous feasting of pagan holidays. However, Saturnalia was commonly celebrated from December 17-23, so perhaps Christmas was seen by Christians as a time for revelers to come back to church and repent of the excesses of the previous week--not unlike the way Ash Wednesday comes after the Carnival of Mardi Gras in modern New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. Whatever the rationale, it's clear the early church was capitalizing on an already existing festival and seeking to reinterpret it through Christian eyes.

It also makes sense that, despite the teachings of both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, these leaders respected the ebb and flow of seasonal rhythms, and felt the need to program church holidays that corresponded with solstices and equinoxes. Thus Christmas joins the cavalcade of winter holidays celebrating the return of the sun as the shortened days begin to lengthen once more. In John's gospel, Jesus calls himself "the Light of the World," so it makes perfect sense to celebrate his birth right after the winter solstice.

The point I'm making is that from its very beginnings, Christmas was grafted onto other celebrations. And while the intent may have been to supplant the carousing that typified pagan solstice rites, this effort failed miserably. During the Puritan revolt that was Britain's true Reformation, Christmas was banned precisely because of the wanton drinking with which it was associated. It took the Victorian shift toward enshrining family values to render it the mostly benign (set aside for a moment the chilling abomination of Black Friday riots), child-friendly season it is today.

The religious holiday has, in fact, always functioned in uneasy alliance with the very human desire to party hearty at the solstice. Many of our most treasured Christmas traditions have come from seasonal pagan revels: Christmas trees, caroling, nog, wassail, feasting, gift-giving, yule logs. Much that we consider part of the religious side of Christmas has been lifted from these ancient ways of celebrating the return of the sun.

Excess has always been a part of the festival, then, as has the practice of blending traditions. Realizing this, is it any wonder Christmas has become such a jangling mash-up of disparate ideals and practices?

For many years, I concluded my Advent arguments for sanity by reading Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" from the pulpit. My congregations tolerated this because, I expect, they had walked through all the stages of Christmas frustration with me, and they knew how it would end: with their Grinchy pastor scratching his head because "it came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!" Yes, for all his puritanical efforts to purge the day of its commercial excesses, the Grinch is startled to learn that all the sound and fury grew out of something deeper, a sense of hope that united all the revelers in song, even knowing that all their careful preparations had been stripped away while they slept.

I conclude this essay with a story I heard from a superannuated (British Methodist for "retired") pastor, Rev. Benjamin Ohre, one Christmas Eve when I was in England. It was his explanation of why, no matter how loud and obnoxious American tourists might be, how aggressive American culture might be, or how hegemonic American foreign policy might be, he never engaged in America-bashing.

During World War II, Benjamin Ohre was captured and imprisoned by Japanese forces. In the prison camp were also Australian and American troops. From time to time, the Red Cross would deliver care packages for the soldiers. One of those deliveries coincided with Christmas. In an effort to divide the prisoners, the Japanese commandant delivered the entire care package to the Americans in the camp, expecting this would create resentment among the other prisoners. But then word got around that every other prisoner was invited to the American barracks. When they came, they found all the contents of the care package laid out on the bunks of the American troops, and were invited to walk through the barracks, taking something--a chocolate bar, a pack of cigarettes, some other luxury item--as a gift for themselves. The commandant's strategy had backfired: rather than divide the camp along national lines, it had united them in their common humanity. And that, for Benjamin Ohre, was the best Christmas ever.

Christmas is a mélange of traditions, many of them excessive and divisive. At its best, though, Christmas can be a time that brings people together, celebrating the truth that, however dark the season, light always triumphs in the end.

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Spot on the Spectrum


I finally did it: I took the Autism Spectrum Quotient test.

I've heard for most of my life that there's something not quite right about how I relate to other people. I don't pick up on nonverbal cues, I struggle and lose patience with small talk, I'm sensitive to clothing tags and repetitive noises in my environment, and I can have a powerful focus on something that interests me, to the exclusion of everything and everyone around me. And yes, I meant to say "not right," because that is how others around me have presented these personality traits when they've assessed me.

I've responded in several different ways to this assessment. At times I've been hurt by it, humiliated to be seen as somehow deficient, lacking in essential survival traits. At other times, I've become angry, insisting that this is who I am, damn it, and I have every right to be myself. Anger like this can lead me to dismiss the person making the assessment: What does he/she know? Who is she/he to decide what constitutes normal? A more reflective response has been to look for ways to remake myself, to become more like the person the assessor clearly wants me to be: study conversation strategies, put myself in situations where I can learn to better relate to others, try as hard as I can to be someone else.

There's a common theme linking all these responses: that there really is something wrong with me. Who I am isn't working for whoever is judging me. The result is rejection.

I know I'm not alone in having these feelings. I've been aware in the last year, and have blogged about extensively, an upswell of introverts insisting that we're tired of having our personalities judged by extraverts. I've certainly bought into this theme, and see myself in much of the descriptors introverts use for themselves--but not all of them. Introversion and extraversion are poles of a spectrum, and probably most people fall somewhere between the extremes.

Which brings me back to whether, in fact, there's something wrong with me. The word "spectrum" has come into common parlance as a safe term for an individual who sticks out from the norm in ways similar to my own idiosyncrasies. I've used to myself to describe children who don't act or react in ways typical for their age cohort, and occasionally to describe adults who demonstrate quirks of focus and communication similar to my own.

All right, I've been dancing around this long enough. On the 50-point autism scale, with 0 being no autistic tendencies at all and 50 being extremely autistic, my score is: 25.

What, exactly, does that mean? It means I have autistic tendencies slightly above the national average.

I emphasize: slightly.

And once more I say: slightly.

So now I know. Based on a subjective self-administered test, I come down slightly above average for autistic tendencies. That's pretty much what I expected. I am slightly abnormal, slightly quirky, slightly spectral, slightly autistic. So what?

So...please be patient with me when I don't know what you're thinking from the expression on your face. Maybe make a little more of an effort when you're talking to me to be sure you say what you mean. And try not to get too frustrated with me when I'm so lost in a crossword puzzle that I tune out the world for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I will work to cut you more slack for being less focused and not as plain-spoken as I prefer. Because here's the other side of being considered abnormal: over time, I've come to believe that the qualities so many others deride are actually good to have, are, if anything, superior to the norm I'm being compared to.

Consider the part about non-verbal cues: while I agree that humans communicate in far more ways than just language, and that part of the beauty of being in a relationship is growing to understand each other's body language, I do think the world would be a better place if, when communicating publicly, people worked to be more plain-spoken.

And then there's the matter of focus. Every teacher I know wishes his or her students were less scattered, more focused. Yes, with focus can come an inability to shift gears, something one has to do many times a day at school; but lessons run much more smoothly when students aren't distracted by conversations, daydreams, and what's happening on the other side of the classroom windows.

What I'd like you who are reading this to consider is whether we should be judging things according to norms at all. As a social race, humans naturally will be more successful when they interact smoothly with each other; as a tool-using race, we advance faster when people with high focus can work on innovations. Ideally, we value one another as differently gifted individuals, and seek to enhance each other's contributions to the commonweal in any way we can. For me, that may mean asking for clarification when I haven't gotten the full gist of what you've said. We may also begin looking for opportunities to utilize each other's gifts. If you grease the social rails for me, I may be able to present an innovation to our larger community that transforms it for the better.

I realize that's pretty vague and speculative. The point I really want to make is that each of us has tremendous worth just by virtue of being human. The autistic children I teach struggle to cope with the many stimuli of their surroundings, but when they focus their attention on what I'm teaching, they learn far more rapidly than their peers. Because I'm teaching music, though, and music is a communal art, it's essential that they broaden their focus to include their fellow musicians. I hope the same is true for them in their other classes, that their teachers are able to see them for the potential they possess, rather than the problems they present. I know it's an uphill struggle. I also know that at the school where I teach, autism is just one of a host of issues facing teachers; and in fact, it has the virtue of being well-understood, with a host of classroom strategies that work. The same is not necessarily true for all the poverty-related issues children present.

The best thing we can teach these children is that each of them is valuable. Growing up, perhaps they can apply that teaching to those they encounter who differ from themselves, whether it is from their placement on some arbitrary spectrum, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their religious affiliation, or some other category humans use to set themselves apart from each other. Perhaps it's an approach you could benefit from, as well.

Here's hoping you already use it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ret-conning the Nativity


Once upon a time, there was a children's novel entitled The Hobbit. It was a whimsical fantasy adventure about a small person, a hobbit, recruited by other small people, dwarves, and one tall person, a wizard, to go on a quest for a lost treasure. Along the way, there were battles with trolls, orcs, goblins, giant spiders and, eventually, a dragon. At the conclusion of this fantasy adventure was an all too realistic war for the treasure. And then the hobbit returned home.

The novel works perfectly well as a self-contained work of fiction. The author, JRR Tolkien, drew on a much larger work, the history of Middle Earth, a realm he spent his entire life creating. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are all that he ever published from this work, but since his death in 1973 his family has issued volume upon volume of "unfinished tales," gleaned from the mountains of backstory material he had written but never submitted. I've read some of this stuff, and frankly, I can see why he never published it. It's of interest to Tolkien scholars, but none of it is written in the vivid prose of the books known and loved by so many.

Let's go back to The Hobbit. As I said above, it's a stand-alone success. It needs nothing else to complete it. At some point, Tolkien picked a minor element in that first novel, the magic ring of invisibility, and invested it with far more import, ultimately making its possession and destruction the central conflict of The Lord of the Rings. There were a few attempts to put these novels on screen, but none worked--the technology just didn't exist--until Peter Jackson's version appeared a decade ago. To my mind, his filmed trilogy succeeds magnificently in capturing and, at times, transcending its source material, and stands as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cinema. It also rocketed him from status a minor director of exploitation films to the august company of Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. It was just a matter of time until he turned his attention to completing the canon by filming The Hobbit.

And now we enter the realm of ret-con, or retroactive continuity. It's a term that is used frequently by fans of science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Any fictional world that exists for long enough to experience some expansion will create continuity errors, and with them, the temptation to go back and "correct" the earlier works in the series. Thus, every release of the original Star Wars trilogy--which almost from the beginning were considered to be the middle of a larger work--has been modified in some way from what I first saw in theaters in 1977, 1980, and 1983. George Lucas can't help himself: the technology exists to enhance the special effects, so why not use it? And then there's that unused footage lying around which, when doctored with some digital imagery, can beef up Han Solo's back story, even if in the process it creates a redundancy, so why not? Oh, and the emperor's holographic image in Episode V is played by a different actor than the emperor of Episode VI, so why not fix that, too?

The Hobbit in its original form was never intended to be a prequel. In its cinematic form, which will in the end sprawl over three long movies for a butt-numbing total of almost nine hours' viewing time, Peter Jackson is going to great extremes to make sure we know what will follow. He's added subplots, created new characters, added in characters that should appear only in the trilogy to the prequel. The result is far more epic and complex than the simple, straightforward children's novel; and after re-watching the first part (I'll see part two sometime this week, health permitting), I find much of that complexity unnecessary. Why can't these two great stories just be permitted to exist on their own merits?

Because our brains won't let them. We may know cognitively that these stories are fine by themselves, that they need have nothing to do with each other save a few characters and a ring, but our brains insist on making connections and drawing out the implications of those connections. And that, finally, is what brings us back to the title of this essay, and its place within my Christmas series.

Anyone who's spent much time in church knows there are two different stories of the birth of Jesus. Both mention Bethlehem, Mary, and Joseph; apart from that, they have little in common. That's because they're written by completely different authors who probably had no idea of each other's version of the story, were writing for different communities, and were using the story for different reasons. In a nutshell, Matthew's story uses the Nativity to establish Jesus as the new Moses who will take the Torah to the Gentiles, while Luke's Nativity is about God's preferential option for the poor. Now, if we could just leave it at that--two different stories with different purposes told to different audiences that just happen to be collected in the same anthology--we'd be fine.

But, of course, we can't, and the reason is this: of all the reasons for ret-conning old texts, none rivals the belief that those texts are The Inerrant Word of God.

It's quite a pickle, this notion of inerrancy. It's a late arrival on the scene. For thousands of years, the Hebrew, Greek, and (yes, there are a few) Aramaic scriptures were treated as what they are: a collection of diverse writings about the spiritual experiences of ancient people whose ideas about religion were evolving over time. Select passages from these writings were frequently pulled out to support an argument, and the stories they told became the foundational history for the people who read them, but overall, few knew the whole work well enough to be concerned with contradictions in the text, and those who did know about them saw them as opportunities for entertaining debates about their interpretation. Two versions of the Nativity provided an opportunity for two different feast days, each with its own message: Christmas to proclaim Luke's story of God's love for the poor; Epiphany to announce the good news for all the world. The two stories existed side by side, separated by twelve days of church calendar time, and nobody blinked.

But then along came modern sensibilities, reductionist reasoning, the claim of inerrancy, and the insistence that, as one former parishioner of mine was fond of saying, "The Bible says what it means and means what it says." Luke and Matthew tell different stories? No problem; these two things both happened (because it's all literally true), just on different days; in fact, let's make the magi arrive when Jesus was, oh, a year old, to allow time for the other things that happen in Luke to take place first. Then they can still flee to Egypt, come back after Herod dies, and settle in Nazareth, just in time for the trip to Jerusalem when Jesus confounds the elders in the temple and...

And now we're firmly planted in ret-con territory.

While harmonizing the Nativity (and also the Passion, but I'll save that rant for April) is a relatively recent phenomenon, ret-conning the Old Testament has been around since the very beginnings of Christianity. In fact, Matthew is already doing just that in his Nativity story. Whenever something happens "to fulfill the scripture," that's Matthew projecting Jesus back into some passage that sounds to him like a prophecy. Some of these passages are actually the words of prophets, though in their own time prophecy was much less about prediction and much more about social commentary than later generations believed it to be. But many of them are from narratives, psalms, and wisdom writings. Few, if any, were written for the express purpose of predicting the coming of the Messiah.

This is problematic for me for a lot of reasons. Before I studied theology, I was a music major. One of the most influential rules one learns in music school is to respect the wishes of the composer. Handel wrote many versions of The Messiah, but none featured an orchestra like that employed by Leopold Stokowski in a recording my mother used to own on 78s. The wonderful moment in the Hallelujah Chorus where the trumpet wafts over the voices, finally descending a five-note scale to herald a modulation, becomes in Stokowski's orchestration an entire trumpet section bugling as if to herald the Apocalypse. Stokowski ret-conned a Romantic orchestra into Handel's sparer Baroque oratorio, and the result is laughably bombastic--much like the chase and battle scenes in Peter Jackson's Hobbit. The point here is that projecting a modern aesthetic onto an older work is a no-no in the world of musical interpretation, and I carried that principle with me to seminary.

It's also a problem for me because it is based on a fallacious belief: that God literally dictated the Bible, contradictions and all, so that every word of it is inerrantly true. Why believe this is so? Because the Bible says it is--or at least, that's how 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness," is interpreted. To my mind, the words "inspired" and "useful" don't imply "inerrant," even if the Greek work translated as "inspired" literally means "God-breathed"; but then, it's not important to be that God be perfect and inerrant. To force this passage to mean what inerrantists want it to mean, and then use it as the basis for proving that the whole book is inerrant, is ret-conning of the highest order. That intelligent human beings can buy into such a circular argument is laughable.

But I'm not laughing. The inerrancy argument has been used to ret-con every prejudice held by Christians into the Bible, to deadly effect. From slavery to denying women rights to gay-bashing to spreading the gospel at the point of a bayonet, countless millions of lives have been ruined or lost by this practice.

Linking the presence of juvenile shepherds and magi in the same Christmas pageant with the carnage of the Civil War might seem a stretch to you, but think about it. If you hold the Bible in high regard, shouldn't you be more concerned with what its many writers originally meant to say than with what you, in your heart of hearts, want it to say? If it's going to teach, reprove, and correct you from your very fallible and prejudiced interpretation of the world around you, shouldn't you be spending the extra time finding out what it really says?

Take that time, and you'll be shaken up. At times, you'll find yourself called by Scripture to change your life for the better. At other times, you'll find yourself questioning whether these words can, in fact, be applied as written, or whether this document might actually be in error.

So please, please, please get those wise men out of your manger scene, if not permanently, then at least until January 6.

And for now, Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

No Carols for You!


Of all the things seminary did to ruin Christianity for me, the worst was teaching me about Advent.

To review: in the church calendar, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. In its original form, Advent was intended to be a lot like Lent, a season of preparing one's heart for the new life symbolized in the holiday that marks the season's conclusion. Christmas being a lesser holiday than Easter, the Big Daddy of them all, Advent's spiritual prep was more muted, less extreme. There was no "shriving" during Advent. It simply meant hopeful expectation. The lesser status of the Christmas holiday also meant Advent's hope could have a broader focus than the very specific arrival of a baby: one was looking for all sorts of ways for God's saving justice to break through into the world.

And then came Dickens.

To be fair, Charles Dickens was just one of a host of 19th century influences that caused Christmas to transform from a minor church holiday that triggered, outside church walls, drunken rioting (and to be even more fair, it didn't take much to trigger drunken rioting in early industrial England) to a time of warmth, good will, family feasting, and gift given, and ultimately to the commercial monstrosity it has become. A Marxist analysis of the role of Christmas in pacifying the overworked masses would take far more space than I want to spend, especially since my topic for this post is extremely specific; so I'll leave it at this: Christmas as a multi-week, all-encompassing festival is a recent phenomenon.

In the days when Advent was still a time of preparation for something indeterminate, and Christmas was a festival that did not begin until December 25, and lasted only until January 6 (yes, that makes twelve days), there was never a problem with singing Christmas hymns prior to Christmas Eve. There just weren't that many of them, and people expected to sing them during the holiday, not before it. Advent was safe from Christmas intrusion. With that said, there was nothing in this practice to keep people from singing seasonal carols in the taverns, songs about wassail, fir trees, yule logs, and whatever other secular traditions marked the coming of winter. Those songs also tended to be far merrier than the hymns about the mystery of the Incarnation, which is how Christmas was generally seen in the church prior to the arrival of Victorian sentimentality: this baby was God in the flesh.

But then, as I said, along came the Victorians, schmaltzing everything up and expanding Christmas to a much larger event, an event that came to dwarf all other church-related holidays. Such a great moment could not be contained in a day, or even twelve days, so Christmas grew to become a season. And with that season came music that, again, could not be contained in that single day, and seemed stale and anti-climactic if restricted to the twelve days after that day.

Christmas carolers, who originally were more like trick-or-treaters, banging on one's door and singing rowdy winter drinking songs until given money or food, became more respectable, and sang songs about the birth of Jesus. These songs became popular in their own right, and Advent as a season of vague preparation bit the dust. From now on, Advent was all about being in the right spirit for Christmas.

I came to seminary believing this was the way things should be. How could I not? From Thanksgiving on, everywhere I went was permeated with Christmas carols, both sacred and secular. I loved these songs, loved the way so many of them could be reworked into jazz standards, loved playing them in brass choirs, singing them in four-part harmony, played them on my phonograph and Walkman. And I wondered why we weren't singing them in the seminary chapel. We always had in church, whether it was my father's church or the other churches I attended while in college and grad school.

And then I found out. It only took one lecture from worship professor Marjorie Procter-Smith to set me straight: Advent is not about Christmas. Only Advent-specific carols, which don't mention the baby Jesus, should be sung during Advent.

Just like that, Christmas was ruined for me. Not because the professor held any sway with me--I found her to be overly dogmatic, a quality I have never respected--but because I knew instantly that she was right. Since the first time I saw "A Charlie Brown Christmas," when I was five or six years old, I'd known there was a problem with the way this holiday is celebrated in European cultures, that we've blown it up to be far too big, to promise far more than it can deliver on, and set ourselves up for an annual cycle of hope and disappointment that does the church no favors. I knew Christmas needed to be reined in, kept within the confines of its place in the calendar. Marjorie had just given me the weapon I needed to do just that.

For the remainder of my shortish career in ministry, I sought to keep Advent as Christmas-carol-free as possible. I selected hymns from the paltry Advent section of the hymnal, most of which are in minor keys and give only inklings of the warm cheerful holiday to come. I also kept my sermons decidedly vague about whatever it was that we were supposed to be hoping for. The result: throughout the month of December, my church services were the one hour a week devoid of Christmas.

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it fosters an Ebenezer Scrooge/Grinch attitude toward the holiday in general. "Couldn't we please just sing one Christmas carol?" "No! It's not Christmas until December 25!" "But it's everywhere else." "Everywhere else is wrong!"

Maybe you see where this is going. I've known many pastors--and I must include myself in this category for at least the first few years of my ministry--who became Advent Nazis, bitterly fighting to tamp down the encroachment of Christmas in the one place that ought to know how to celebrate it properly. And yet, many of these pastors (myself included) permitted the church to be decorated with evergreen wreaths and Christmas trees festooned with lights and ornaments, fully in sync with the presence of such decorations in shopping malls, not to mention welcoming Christmas bazaars into their fellowship halls in November. Christmas-themed parties were celebrated by youth groups and women's circles, Sundays schools staged pageants, carols were played on carillons in the church tower; but the one place we drew the line was Sunday morning, 11 a.m. The rest of the time we just fumed about how much we'd already lost.

Eventually, I began to relax my white-knuckled grip on keeping Advent Christmas-free. I'd permit a carol or two done singalong style. I'd program hymns that, while associated with Christmas, didn't get into the manger specifics: "Joy to the World," "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus," "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming." What triggered this relaxation of standards? A simple realization: the church exists in the world, and is constituted by the people in the pews. Throughout December, their world is bursting with Christmas. Pretending it's not is like making church a place that never mentions poverty, divorce, economic inequality, recessions, political scandals, all trends that dominate headlines or gossip circles but still don't come close to the saturation of Christmas in the lives of ordinary people.

I no longer have to play this balancing act. During my years as a church musician, my senior pastors were responsible for making music choices: I just played the piano, picked anthems for the choir that fit with general sermon themes, and let my inner critic take the season off (or tried to; it's pretty hard for me not to analyze a sermon for every flaw of rhetoric, theology, and delivery).

School has been another matter. School districts go through cycles with respect to the presence of holiday themes in classrooms. During my first year of full-time music teaching, Beaverton was ruthless in its rejection of all expressions of holiday cheer, most likely in reaction to criticism by Evangelicals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other religious groups. In Banks, I received conflicting messages: Santa and Rudolph were fine, but be extremely cautious about anything that could be construed as religious. In my current gig, I've heard from a colleague who's being asked to put on a Christmas singalong using only general "winter songs," and wonders whether he should just refuse to do it because, as with Advent "carols," there just isn't much that's kid-appropriate. My own principal has requested that I keep it secular, and I'm fine with that: these are the songs these children want to sing. Those who like religious carols are almost certainly singing them in church. They're all saturated with this music already; in fact, the "Winter Workshop" craft activity in our cafeteria has an all-Christmas radio station playing as background music.

I understand that, for some, Christmas music, whether sacred or secular, is offensive because it is not part of their own faith or cultural tradition. For Jews and Muslims, Santa is a symbol from the same Teutonic tradition that handed them centuries of oppression and genocide. For Jehovah's Witnesses, any holiday celebration is an affront to God. For atheists, the fact that "Santa" is an adaptation of "saint," and that "Christmas" literally means "Christ's Mass," is enough to want to push the whole show out of every public setting. For some evangelicals and Catholics, there's not enough Christ in Christmas, and secular expressions are to be eschewed.

The reality is that our culture is so steeped in Christmas that we cannot avoid it, and that much of what we experience in this atmosphere is pleasing to us. This is true for our children, as well. Whether or not they understand the context of this music, they are hearing it, humming along with it, singing along to the extent they can understand it (and often, delightfully, adjusting the words so they make sense to them). They love the sound of jingle bells, love the smells of Christmas cooking, love the sense that all of this is oriented toward their happiness; and so yes, I will be teaching my students secular Christmas songs next week, and leading the whole school in singing about Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph on Friday afternoon. We'll have a lovely time, I don't believe anyone (myself included) will be psychically wounded by the experience, and then we'll all head off for our Winter Break. (And yes, I understand the irony of calling it "Winter Break" when all of this has been about how we know why it happens when it does.)

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Voice of Rachel


When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
 
Chances are that, even if you're a regular church goer, you've not heard this part of the Christmas story lately.
 
You probably know of it. It's appeared in a number of biopics of the life of Jesus. You've probably heard the expression "slaughter of the innocents" or "massacre of the innocents." And still, I doubt if you've heard a sermon preached on it.
 
I may be wrong. I, in fact, preached several sermons on this text during my years in the ministry; but then, I always liked the difficult texts, the passages that led people to ask, "Why is that even in the Bible?"
 
In the case of this passage, which is almost certainly fictional, the author had a number of excellent reasons, all part of the Matthean agenda:
 
1) Herod was a nominally Jewish ruler. It's important to Matthew that the Jews reject Jesus. What better way to do this than have their (corrupt, Roman-appointed) "king" kill a bunch of babies in an attempt to get him?
 
2) Fulfillment of prophecy: in Matthew's eyes, all of the Hebrew scriptures were looking ahead to the arrival of Jesus. There's a heart-rending passage in Jeremiah about the destruction of Judah by the Babylonian Empire that was just to good to leave out. Unfortunately, there were no stories about Jesus that fit the passage. No problem for Matthew: he made one up.
 
3) Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt with the infant Jesus for the sole purpose of fulfilling another "prophecy": "out of Egypt I called my son." Again, there's no reason to think this actually happened, but it fits another of Matthew's goals: making Jesus be the New Moses (see also the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teachers a new Torah from a mountaintop). As a baby, Moses barely escaped dying in a slaughter of innocents. Do I smell a manufactured parallel?
 
The story works admirably with all these agenda items. Unfortunately, it also accomplishes a counter-purpose similar to Noah's Flood, a horrendous story that depicts God as committing the ultimate crime against humanity, a genocide that claimed all but a half dozen lives, not to mention all the animals killed by the rising waters. The death of a couple dozen children does not nearly rise to that level of divine malfeasance, but it echoes with the same horror when applied to the Almighty, working out his purposes in the world at the cost of innocent lives. Do babies really have to die just to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy? Matthew thinks so. I think it's a nasty piece of writing that says something horrible about God.
 
In 1954, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke published a story entitled "The Star" which earned him a Hugo Award. It's a beautiful piece of writing, economical, spare, giving us all we need to arrive at the same shocking conclusion as the protagonist, a Jesuit astrophysicist aboard an interstellar mission that has found a ruined world that had been home to an advanced civilization until it was destroyed in a supernova, the date of which coincided with a certain blessed event, summed up in the final paragraph of the story:
 

There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

To those who believe everything happens for a reason, that God is always working his purposes out, such events are taken easily in stride: slaughtered children, plagues, famines, the Holocaust, the Flood. God does big things, and innocents wind up as collateral damage. Oops. But it's all God's will, so it must be okay, right?

 No. It's not okay. Innocents die all the time. We're at the one year anniversary of the slaughter of innocents that took place in Newtown at the hands of a lone gunman. When it happened, the nation cried out in protest, demanding changes in gun laws to protect our children against anymore of these abominations; but the gun lobbies cried louder, and two thirds of the laws that changed actually removed restrictions on gun ownership.

Five days a week, I teach music to children who come from shattered homes. Many of them have no idea what it is to have limits, to live a structured life, to know whether the one parent they have will be home tonight at all. The school serves them two meals a day. We are their structure, their consistency, the loving firmness they so desperately need. And at the end of the day, we put them on buses and send them back into the maelstrom of their home lives.

Doing this work can be heart-breaking--and wonderful. This morning, due to a freezing-fog late start (and a classroom teacher unable to show up at all), I was roped into taking a third grade class to breakfast, then entertaining them until another specialist could take over as their sub. I pulled a trick out of my grab bag that I haven't used in some time, since it failed to grab the kids in Banks: a body percussion system that includes claps, stomps, and striking various other parts of the body in sequence. They ate it up. I'm now planning to integrate it into more classes, because these children love it. They also love the playground songs I've been teaching them, songs that (again) just didn't work at Banks.

Yes, they can be difficult, emotional, aggressive; but at the end of the day, they're children. Few of them hold grudges. Even children I've had to discipline frequently are excited to see me when I walk through the lunch room. And as I've said before, I've had more hugs in the few months I've been at this school than in my entire previous career. These children are hands-on, cuddly, friendly, silly, empathic, and, at times, cruel, obnoxious, defiant, disrespectful, rebellious; they're everything children should be, but all of it heightened. It's hard not to love them, hard not to ache for the love they're not getting at home.
 
The outlook for many of these children is bleak. In just a few years, some will be gang members, some homeless runaways, some pregnant, some in the juvenile justice system. Many will grow up to be just like Mom or Dad: drug dealers, strippers, petty criminals, chronically unemployed, migrant, homeless. Some will not live to see adulthood, taken out by gang violence, overdose, exposure, or abuse.

And for all that, they're still children: innocent, confused, aching for love and approval.

Matthew almost certainly made up this story; and yet it is as true as anything else one can find in the Bible. Innocents die every day, victims of politics and commerce. Sometimes they die on purpose: the historical Herod was a cruel despot, and killing a couple dozen babies was in keeping with his approach to governance; similarly, the Roman occupation that put him in his puppet throne was ruthless in its application of violence to quell any thought of rebellion. The cross on which Jesus died was one of thousands employed by Pontius Pilate and his cohorts to keep the downtrodden of the Empire where they belonged. Babies who got in the way of the Legion were crushed.

Innocents also die as accidental casualties. Our own enlightened president has launched more drone attacks than any of his predecessors, largely because the technology has improved in concert with a growing rejection of using ground forces in the Middle East. He's proud of his record with this aerial terminators, even though the collateral damage can be high. As surgical as they're supposed to be, drones rarely kill just their targets; often there are wives and children in the vicinity, not to mention neighbors who may have nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

In this sense, then, Matthew was absolutely right about the "fulfillment of prophecy": Rachel is always weeping for her children, and will not be consoled, for they are no more.

It feels cruel to say Merry Christmas in the light of such grief. Instead, I urge you to give your children an extra hug tonight. Every one of them is as precious as the babies of Bethlehem, and every baby born since then. Every child is precious, every child a delight, and every child deserves every drop of love any of us can muster.