Thursday, September 21, 2023

When Pastors Don't Leave the Church

The post circulated with a peculiarly aggressive virality, singing out across my algorithm-mediated social awareness.  All across the [#pastor #church #denominational #progressive] networks, it was shared and reshared, not because it said anything new, but because it was both familiar and touched a deep taproot of anxiety.

A pastor had flamed out in their congregation, and said why at length.  Their reasons, all familiar.  Overwork.  Unrealistic expectations on all sides, conflict around said expectations, emotional trauma, burnout, low salary, and the like, part of a dark litany that resonated with the gnawing anxiety of America's dying denominations.  

People are leaving.  Pastors are leaving.  The whole edifice is falling apart.  So we pick over every failure, looking for clues as to what's going wrong.  

There is much to be learned from that, of course.  Understanding what causes the demise of movements and organizations can be profoundly useful, assuming you don't just obsess over those causes and do nothing about it.  Understanding the factors that contribute to burnout and generate destructive conflict are also essential.

But it can also be ruminative, in the way that anxious systems tend to chew at something endlessly, picking at their wounds, obsessing about their failings.

Focusing on the positive that can be replicated rather than the negative that must be avoided is of equal value.  What is it that makes a pastorate work?  What are the features of spiritual leadership that leave congregational leaders feeling blessed and alive, eager to be serving?  What are the frameworks and paradigms and core expectations that make it more likely you'll stick around?

I've served as a pastor for two decades.  There are times that it's been impossible.  I've left a church before, when it was clear I was serving no purpose there.  I've considered stepping out of ministry entirely.  But I didn't.  Why not?   Below are seven ways I've framed my own role within the church that have helped me stick around when the going got tough. 

1) Check your ego at the door.

Public leadership tends to draw folks who hunger for the affirmation of the crowd.   We want to feel important.  We want to be the One, the Chief Spiritual Officer, the Smartest Girl in the Room, the Hero, the Speaker of Prophetic Truth Bombs.

If this is our mindset, we will fail.  If we allow ourselves to believe our own propaganda, we will fail in our capacity as a pastor.  We might do well materially, sure.  We might gather the adulation of those who hunger for a powerful personality to define them.  

But we won't be serving the church.  We'll be serving ourselves and our own need to be at the heart of things.  If you come into a church expecting to be the capo di tutti capi, you're going to be sorely disappointed.  Because while church can feel like family, you don't want it to feel like Family, capice

The task of the pastor is to be the Servus Servorum Dei, the "servant of the servants of God."  Find the gifts and graces of your laity, and nurture them.  Encourage them.  Support them.  It's not about you, any more than it is about any other soul that chooses to follow Jesus.

It's a liberating thing.  Say it to yourself: "I am not in charge."  God is.  Sometimes you may need to be the one who makes a decision, if others expect it of you.  Other times, decisions will be made by others.  That's fine.  Trust that God is at work.

This is easier to do in smaller congregations, ones that function more as organic human communities and less like dot.coms or dot.govs.    It's why I prefer smaller congregations.  When a thousand souls see you pitched up before them as a Jumbotron demigod, it can do unhealthy things to your sense of your place in God's work.  

No matter what the size of the church, no matter how much organizational structure your church requires to function, you're a servant.  Hold that fast.

2) Your church is your community.

There is one question worth asking yourself whenever you begin in ministry: Were you not the pastor of the church you serve, would you be a member of that church?  If the answer is yes, good.  If the answer is, well, sure, after I've made them into exactly the church that I really want?  

You're in the wrong place, both physically and spiritually.  Ask yourself: how does that way of thinking work in any relationship?  It doesn't.  You know it doesn't.

"I don't have anywhere to worship," I've heard pastors say, "Because I'm so stressed and busy preparing for worship on Sunday."  Oh, dear heart.  If you're not worshiping in your worship, then you're not leading worship.  You're performing.  It's kind of a baseline, a measure of the authenticity of our relationship with our congregations.

There's a toxic misunderstanding of the role of the pastorate that pervades denominational Christianity, one that poisons pastors and communities alike.  Sure, we pastors are professionals.  But our relationship with our communities is unlike the relationships of other caring professions.  We are not psychotherapists, who must keep ourselves separate from those who pay for their services.  We are bound to our fellow Christians rather more deeply, and by fellow Christians, I mean the people right there in front of us.  A congregation is full of disciples of Jesus.  That's the point of a church.  Not one Professional Christian (tm), but an entire community of Jesus folk.

There's a tendency of professional pastors to view their colleagues as other pastors.  Seek community outside of your church, we were explicitly told in seminary.  Find a safe place where you can be yourself, where you can set aside your professional role and really be you.  Find real friends, by which pastors can mean "friends with whom you can comfortably gossip about your church."

Is there a logic to this?  Yes.  Is it a good logic?  O Sweet Lord Jesus no.  

When a pastor cannot be themselves in their community, authentically and truly, then they're modeling that behavior for everyone else.  If a pastor can't be vulnerable in church, can't show their imperfections to their brothers and sisters, can't screw up or make mistakes?  If they're dishonest about themselves, why the hell (I use that term advisedly, and in its meaning) would anyone else bring their whole self in?   If your church is not a sanctuary for you, then how can it be a sanctuary for anyone else?  The falseness of your Pastor Mask trickles down, and suddenly everyone is roles and masks and illusions.

Note that this does not mean "being undifferentiated."  You understand that you are more than your relationships within your church.  You're a human person.  You have family.  You have other friends.  It does not mean that you shouldn't have space for lifegiving and authentic relationships outside of your particular community.   But when we are only really ourselves outside of our church, we have become false.

Again, this is easier to do in an organically sized congregation, which is why I prefer the small church.  If you pastor a 10,000 member church, it's not humanly possible.  But those churches...when they are healthy...are really just a hundred smaller churches, communities within community.  There are ways to make that work, to be yourself within one of the ecclesiolae in ecclesia, the little churches within the big church.

This is not safe, I'll admit.  When you really love your community, you really hurt when they hurt.  You feel when they struggle, you feel when they fail, you feel when they're in pain.  You get to watch them die.  It's so hard.  

If you're in a toxic environment, you will pay a price for honesty about yourself.  It'll suck.  You may have to leave that particular place.  But it is a particular place, not all places.  It isn't the Beloved Community, no matter what your trauma may scream into your ear.  

3) Build up.

Your job is not to tear other people down and remake them in your image.  Your job is to find their grace, to illuminate it, to open it up, to bless and honor and encourage it.  Your job is, again, to be the servant of the servants of God.  Who is the servant of God?  Every single soul who has chosen to be part of your community.  

Your job is not to tear the church down and rebuild it as a temple to your ego.  Your job is not to rebuild a two thousand year old faith in your own image.

 Your task is to find what your community is good at, to find the dreams it has left unfulfilled, and to encourage it to be the community that God is calling it to be.  That call exists whether you're there or not.  At best, you are a part of it.  But it doesn't come from you.  Again, in case you didn't hear that, it doesn't come from you.  It's a God thing, one that involves others.  Trust your people.  Trust that Jesus is working in your people.

It's like walking through life with a friend as you grow together.  You watch, and you listen.  You rejoice in who they are, and their place in your life.  You give them room to be themselves, trust them to choose rightly, and help them up when they fail so that they'll have the courage to try again.  You treat them like a human being, a person who has value because they are a person.

Walk with your people.  Help them pull that weight.  Put in sweat equity.  Celebrate them.  

4) Be poor in spirit.

Set aside the idea that you're guaranteed to make a middle class living as a pastor.  You might.  But you also might not.  It's likely, given the context, that you won't.  Don't bank on it.  A minority of pastors will serve congregations that will pay them enough to do well.  Most of us won't, because most congregations are too small now.

You'll need two things to endure this.  First, most pastors will require another source of income.  Get your CDL.  Learn a trade.  Something real.  You can try writing books, because if there's one profession that always makes bank, it's being an author.  Please please please do note that this is sarcasm.

Or, if you're married, have a spouse who also has income, you can take on the dual role of homemaker and pastor.  It works.  That last one did for me.  Is that easy on the ego?  No, but again, check point number one.  

Second, go deeper than that.  Turn your heart away from viewing the church as a profit center in your life.  It can't be that.  It's your church, remember?  It's the place you go to be spiritually fed, to be among brothers and sisters in the faith.  Treat it as such.  Nothing is a surer sign that a pastor has lost the narrative than when their heart leaps first and foremost to kvetching about salary.  

It's a community, not a career.

That said, there are soul-blighted "churches" that wield a meager salary like an overseer's whip.  They expect eighty hours a week of work, a whole life sacrificed to their needs, but balk at giving a pastor enough to survive.  There are other churches that are happy to offer a hefty salary that they lock as a golden collar around a pastor's neck.  Would you be part of such a community?  Of course not.  Neither should you pastor one.  Value your freedom, as the Apostle Paul valued his.  

Seek only what you need, and nothing more, the absurdly self-indulgent standards of our decadent, bloated bourgeois culture be damned.  For millennia, this was the metric of authentic and spiritually healthy Christian leadership.  "Blessed," our Master said, "are the poor in spirit."

That hasn't changed.

5) Preach the faith.

Your task is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That's the whole and entire point of the pastoral vocation.  You're not an academic.  You are not an activist.  You are not a businessperson.  You're not an entertainer.   You're a pastor, and your duty is to proclaim the good news.

There's much to be said to engaging deeply in the study of scripture, tradition, and the faith.  I value my various and sundry degrees.  They've made me a better pastor.  But there's a shadow side to the academic mindset.  Academe is driven by faddishness and a hungry ethic of imposed newness.  You don't get tenure by teaching the foundations, eh?  It's also prone to the ethos of criticism and analysis, in which what matters isn't passing along a value set, but deconstructing that value set.   If you're at a critical remove from the faith, you're lecturing about it, not preaching it.

That's not to say that there isn't often a political component to the Gospel.  There is, but it never neatly lines up with your particular partisan predilections.  I mean, sure, there's a deep social justice element to Christian faith.  But the entire narrative of scripture also contains a fundamental distrust of the educated power elite, as the prophetic literature favors rural over urban.  It's neither bolshevik nor fascist.  It both does a new thing and holds on to the the good.  Preach it true, not as your circle of right or left wing fellow travelers would want to hear it.

That's not to say that you don't need to tend to the work of the church, and the use of congregational resources.  But it's never about profit and profit maximization.  It's not about organizational growth, and it sure as hell (again, said advisedly) isn't about guaranteeing that the pastor is living a life rich in material blessings.  The church is not a creature defined by the marketplace, no matter what AmeriChrist, Inc. might tell you.  Proclaim it.

And that we're not entertainers doesn't mean that preaching should be blindingly dull, or that our music should be a grim caterwauling, or that our buildings should be drab and brutalist.  Beauty, joy, and delight are a vital part of our calling to life together, and as we tell people about the Good News, it's fine for that news to sing in their ears.  Just so long as the song is intended to serve that purpose, rather than existing simply for itself.  Let that be clear in your public witnessing.

In your intention and in your practice, it's all about sharing the message of Jesus.

6) Teach the faith

There's a time when preaching isn't what you need to do.  There are times when it's the wrong tool.  In particular, it's counterproductive when you're presenting a challenging issue.  Getting up in a pulpit and tearing apart people's sense of themselves...their faith, their identity, the things they hold a great way to drive human beings away from the Gospel.  Delivering a monologue might feel "prophetic," but it sure ain't pastoral.

The challenge, of course, is that the Gospel is wildly provocative and unsettling.  It is an unsafe space for the partisan heart.  This is why going beyond sermons is important.  You've got to get into places where people can ask questions.  Where they can tell you where they're struggling.  Where they can push back against your interpretation, and know that you still love them.

Pastoring requires a willingness to be in conversation.  It requires listening to others as they respond, and sharing the stories of others, and letting them engage with one another and with you.  

That means genuinely listening, mind you.  Not "listening closely so you can prepare your calculated and devastating response."  Not "remembering all of what is said so you can complain to your true friends about it later."  But listening, and allowing yourself to hear the soul that is speaking.  The danger in that, of course, is that there's the real possibility that you might yourself be changed.  That your understanding of grace and the Gospel might shift as you encounter it expressed in loving disagreement.  

If you are progressive, you may find yourself seeing more value in the witness of the past.  If conservative, you might find yourself getting a little bit more open to new possibilities.  

Jesus is unsettling that way, but that's a good thing.  As you commit yourself to teaching that path, you'll be changed by it.

7) Live the faith

You can't preach or teach a thing you don't live out yourself.  The goal of every pastor is to be a disciple of Jesus.  If you don't feel that call above every other call in your life, you're missing something lifegiving.  You don't "differentiate" yourself from it.  It is the purpose around which your psyche integrates itself.  It defines you.  It sets the boundaries.  It establishes the goals.

Faith is what defines our understanding of all things.  Everything else is of less significance.  

Your faith is different from your calling to serve as a pastor.   This is important, because the call to be a pastor isn't a call for every season of your life.  There may come a time when you are no longer the right person to serve that role.

I understand that there may come a season where I am no longer a pastor, when I need to step back and just be a Christian. That's not for me to determine.  Should such a time come, I would welcome it.  What's the point of declaring to the world that being part of a community of Jesus followers is the Most Excellent Way, if you're not committed to walking that way yourself?  

Unless you're in charge, of course.  Again, back to point one.  

If "being a pastor" is the core of your faith, then encountering that season can be a shattering thing.  You can start faking faith.  You can start wearing your role like you're a cosplayer at JesusCon.  It's no longer really who you are, but you pretend it is.

Your inner life must also be defined by your faith in Jesus.  Not that you're perfect at it, a spiritual hero who is nothing but win.  When you start thinking that or presenting yourself that way, you've confused yourself with Jesus, and that's where things go badly wrong.  

But that the self you strive to become and your understanding of the good are grounded in the Gospel.  That's your plumb line.  That's your core metric.  That's your goal, the goal that defines all other goals.

And ultimately, it's why you stay.

Monday, September 18, 2023

So Help Me God

Mike Pence has always been a bit baffling.  

On the one hand, a deeply conservative Christian, who considers duty and honor and faith central to his existence.  On the other, a supporter of a leader who represents and lives out the precise opposite of every Christian virtue he espouses.   My curiosity in picking up this book at the library:  what did Pence think he was doing?   There's importance to that, to listening to what people believe they are doing as they act.  It gets to motivation, to self-understanding, to the ethos that makes a certain set of decisions possible.

In this book he tells us.  Lord have mercy, does he tell us.  It's over five hundred pages long, with meticulous endnotes.  Every meeting, every person he's interacted with meaningfully, every pet owned, all of it.  It's the whole life, right there.  The acknowledgements section goes on for eight pages.  

Pence and Trump were clearly cut from wildly different cloth.  An example, one that Mr. Pence notes on pages 187-188 of the book, and that hung in my own memory after it happened: He took his daughter to go see Hamilton, right after the election.  The cast, noting his presence, had a cast member read a short statement expressing their anxieties.  As Pence put it, the cast "..hoped we could uphold American values and work for all Americans.  I wasn't offended by anything he said."  Pence publicly described that...and the mixed reception he and his family "what democracy looks like."  Trump, on the other hand, raged about it on Twitter.  Later, Trump grumbled at Pence.  "You took the high road.  I never take the high road."

That dissonance continues throughout the book.  There's little evidence that Pence had significant influence in the administration, other his evident and primary role as a liaison to Christian conservatives and anxious democracies.

Why the support, support that lingers even after a mob instigated by Trump threatened Pence's life?

It seems to boil down to this: What Trump did worked.  Trump instinctively found handholds in the angers and bitternesses of the struggling American working class, and leveraged those resentments to his own benefit.  Trump's force of will, natural charisma and self-confidence parse as authenticity to many, sure.  That this is the modus operandi of every demagogue and charlatan throughout human history...the Neros, the Mussolinis...somehow eludes Pence.  He saw that it worked, and if it works, it must be Providence and part of God's will.  Right?  

Throughout the book, for all of my considerable disagreements with him, Pence comes across as a decent man, a good husband and father, someone who genuinely values country and faith.  At the same time, he remains someone whose partisanship leads him to both excuse and rationalize fundamentally immoral actions.

His anger at the riot on January 6th, his proclamation, "Not here, not in America," those are the selling points of the book, right there on the cover.  That's the entire case for his presidential campaign.  But what does that mean, if you turn right around and raise your hand affirmatively when asked if you'd vote again for the man whose lies were the root cause of that desecration?  How does that show duty to God or country, to truth or patriotism?  

It does not.  It means nothing.

Right there in a nutshell lies the paradox of Mike Pence.

Friday, September 15, 2023

It's Not a Competition

He pulled up next to me, right into my lane, and he was faster.  

At the intersection that releases you from the local Harris Teeter, he'd snaked his way to my side, lanesplitting through the cars behind us.  Me, on my scooter, a 300cc Yamaha.  Practical.  Utilitarian.  Efficient.  Underseat storage filled with groceries.  

He, on a 650cc Suzuki, an SV650S, a lovely and entertaining sporty bike with a rorty V-twin motor.  He'd modded it, clearly, from the rumble that blebbed from his twin aftermarket exhausts.  

I gave him a nod.  He, behind mirrored facemask in a black helmet, close enough to touch, did not respond.  I was on a scooter, after all.

Ah well.

When the light turned green, we pulled out side by side.  Too tight, right next to one another, doing the Ponch and Jon CHiPs thing, which is too close for my comfort.  I goosed my scoot.  Someone had to take position, and I wasn't going to wait for him to pull ahead.   I bolted forward, as a scooter can, little wheels and CVT-maximized torque curve making for a frisky zero to thirty-five push.  For a moment, I was in front.

There was a roar from behind me.  I had dropped a gauntlet.  I, on a mere scooter.  A fraction of a second later, he blasted past to my right, motor wound out and snarling.  It sounded lovely.  

But when he got well ahead of me, there was a pop, a moment of errant combustion.  Smoke, now, coming from his left exhaust.

He slowed, and I passed him, making an effort not to do so overly quickly.

At the next light, I went straight.  He took a right, and stopped for a moment to put his foot down.  Smoke rose in a cloud around him, and he looked around, realizing what he'd done.  A valve blown, most likely.  He rode off, smoke trailing behind him.

O my dude.  So sorry.  It's not a competition.  It really isn't.

Of News and Forgetting

Every day, something new.   It's our expectation.  It's how "news" works.

That process has accelerated, as our hyperkinetic twenty four hour newsday has expanded into the pure instant of distributed media.  It's not "daily news."  It's the news of the hour, the news of the minute, the news of the moment.  It is news broken into quanta, the smallest possible unit of newness, every hot-take and provocation given just the same value as an epochal event.

Last year, there was a hurricane that destroyed large portions of an entire region of Florida.  There was a fire in Hawaii that killed hundreds, and seared a whole town from the world. There was a president who lied about losing an election, then instigated a riot in an effort to overthrow the republic.  Those events are still happening.  

But they're not fresh, not now, not trending.  Not new.

Twenty thousand dead as floods sweep them away.  It will be forgotten next week.  The skies, filled with smoke from a burning world.  The wind changes, and we no longer care.  We doomscroll endlessly through the now, the moment, trapped in a cycle of illusory, anxious urgency.

News has become the agent of our collective forgetting, an erasure, the Heraclitan fires of the commodified moment burning away every trace of the real.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Of Memories and Blessings

"May their memory be for a blessing."  That phrase, in some form or another, has been spoken or written a great deal lately in my life.  First, with the unexpectedly abrupt passing of my mother-in-law after a lethal reaction to a new chemo drug.  Then, again, with the expected death of my Dad after the long slog through congestive heart failure.

It's a lovely, gentle Jewish condolence, one rooted in the traditions and mourning rituals of my wife's people.  I find it comforting, but at times I will wrestle with it a little bit.  That wrestling rises from my compulsive overthinking of every danged thing, a sure sign that I was double-predestined to be Presbyterian.

I love the blessing part, and receive the simple kindness of those words with gratitude.  I do quail a bit at the "memory" part of the equation.  

Memory?  Memory is so fleeting, so malleable, so flawed.  Mine in particular is not to be trusted with the task of carrying any soul besides my own.  I can barely remember what I did yesterday.  I'll put an entire week of work into a sermon, and preach it with passion, and then the next week a kind parishioner will say, "Oh, I really loved what you said in your sermon on Sunday."  I'll smile and thank them, and ask them to tell me what it was that they liked, because in that moment, I don't have a clue what it was I said.  Not just specific words.  The whole thing.  

Memory?  Must it fall to my memory?

Do I remember my mother-in-law's voice?  I do, but it's an echo, faint and tinny and distant.  It feels less real than those voices of the deceased that we can't bring ourselves to delete from our voicemails.  If I ask my memory of Dad a question, does it answer?  Is it him, or is it just a simulacrum, a golem knit together from the fragments churning about in my meat-based motherboard?  My memory seems so inadequate.  So unreliable.

C.S. Lewis wrestled mightily with this in A Grief Observed, as he struggled to cope with the loss of his wife:

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night— little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone. What pitiable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do.

As that concept had me wrapped up in a triple tiger suplex, I found myself slipping out of that hold.  Two thoughts fluttered down like butterfly seraphs and settled in my thinking.

My memory of those who have died is not the memory of them.  The memory of them is their completeness, known utterly to the God that sang them into being.  It is God's memory upon which I rest, because there, not a single aspect of their person is lost.  

Note that I say, "their person," because the "Physicist and a Funeral" understanding of material continuance is such a cold comfort, a fundamental category error that fails to grasp what it is we grieve.  Of course the component atoms still float about, as our flesh dissipates into the dust from which it came.  That crass materiality is not what we mourn.  It is their anima, their psyche, their "Thou," their soul.  That's the absence that yawns in us, and why one seeks the comfort of a faith that points us beyond the fabric of our time and space.

The second thought was different, but related.  

It is not my faulty and sputtering memory that holds the ones I love.  It is my life itself.  I in my wholeness am the memory of those who have died.  I could not be who I am had they not been, after all.  I would not exist as I do, both physically and personally.  I would not be in my kitchen now, as the human being that I have become, had they not existed.  They are necessary for this moment to be what it is.  

The closer we are to someone, the more true that becomes.  It's a truth that goes deeper than our capacity to fully engage with it.  That memory rests in God's knowledge of us, not our own fumbling and limited self-understanding.

May that memory, as they say, be for a blessing.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

A Harvest of Delight

Two or three times a day, they'll walk by the front of my house.  Different groups, but also the same.

A dad, his tiny daughter on his shoulders.  A mother and grandmother, three kids bundled into a wagon.  A mom, her little boy relaxed in a small folding stroller.

And when they pass the plot of sunflowers I've planted for years by the sidewalk, they'll stop.  It's a riot of life at this point in the season, dozens and dozens of flowers catching the light of our yellow star, perched above a dense thicket of stalks and tall grasses.  

Words will be exchanged, as the sun-golden blossoms peer down at them.  The children get out of strollers, or come down from shoulders.  The adults will point.  The little ones will look up.  From my window, I see them talking.

Grownups and small ones, talking and smiling, marveling at the absurdity of these impossible flowers, flowers taller than Mommy, taller than Daddy, beaming down in anthropomorphic beneficence.

I grow sunflowers for many reasons.  They're a beacon for pollinators, bright as a mountaintop signal fire, summoning and feeding the insects that will then collaterally pollinate my crop veggies.  They're perfect natural birdfeeders, drawing flickers and goldfinches.  They seedsave so very easily.

But perhaps my favorite part of growing them is that simple harvest of delight, those little faces looking up in wonder, the older faces looking down in pleasure at the joy of their children.

What better crop could one ask from a garden?

Thursday, August 31, 2023

How One Is Doing

"So, how are you doing," I asked, as Mom and I drove to have dinner with my son and daughter-in-law.   It can be a little hard to tell with Mom, who tends to view everything as positively as possible, who'll answer the phone cheerily almost under any circumstance, who sees the good in nearly everything, in an Eric Idle Bright-Side-of-Life sort of way.

"You know the Aztecs?  How they'd cut out someone's still beating heart?  I'm doing like that," she replied, matter of factly, while still humming and bopping along to the classic 50's playlist I'd spooled up for our ride.

After fifty five years with Dad, and after being with him all the way through the hourglass-trickle of congestive heart failure, of course that's how she feels.  He was so present.  Every few minutes, Dad calling her to get him something, or to come see a thing, or to come hear a thing.  Dad, the extrovert, with Mom his only audience.  Dad, who doted on her, who told her he loved her every single day.  Dad, who would flirt with her some evenings when I was taking a care shift, embers of a playful eroticism between them still glowing in his fading flesh, the sort of banter that would have mortally embarrassed me as a fifteen year old.  He was still that young man in there, and he would say over and over...smitten with her.  "I remember," he would say, as I helped him get ready for bed, "that time she took my arm, and she looked up at me, and Oh that look she gave me!  Oh, she got me."  He never stopped being smitten with her, and never stopped telling her so.

Of course Mom feels the emptiness, and grieves way down deep.  Doing things, she says, is hard.  She just doesn't feel like doing much of anything, which is why I'm trying as best I can to manage all of the things that must happen following Dad's death.

I still wonder at my own grief.  Over the last few days, it's shifted.  It's more of a heaviness now, and doing things has become harder.  It's harder to concentrate myself, to focus energies.  Motivation is difficult, and requires much more intention.  Get up.  Go do that thing.  C'mon.  Do it.  I manage to get it done, but everything feels like a bit more effort.  "A mild situational depression," I'd say.  It's not overwhelming. I know what heavier, deeper depression feels like.  This isn't that.  It isn't that peculiar energy, that anxious paralysis, that fatigue that traps you in a paradoxically restless inertia, a shimmering listlessness.

I'm still showering.  Still changing clothes.  I'm still able to tend to the house. 

I can still write.  I can still work.  How am I doing?  I am still "doing."

Rache and I talked about that last night, about work and grieving and doing.  "We should be able to take time away when we're grieving," she said.  "Not just a few days, but weeks.  Why shouldn't we be able to do that?"

It's a valid thing, and a cultural failing.  But my work differs a smidge from much of the labor most do in the world.   Pastoring a small church is a different animal, unlike not only secular work, but also unlike work in a larger church.  There are fewer organizational requirements.  It's complex, sure, but it's organic complexity rather than institutional complexity.  To effectively pastor a small church, that community can't be simply your job.  It must become your community.  It's your place of strength and support, where you're not the "boss" or "above," but right there in it.  You aren't your role.  You're you.  

Small church is not the place you go to be the font of all wisdom, a place of ego.  It must be the place where you are fed, where you feel supported, where you hear the voices of brothers and sisters who labor alongside you.  Not beneath you, or subordinate to you, but with you.

Yesterday when I arrived at church a couple of members were already there, because our bustling Little Free Pantry was about to receive a delivery, a large contribution of food from the lovely souls at a local Buddhist temple.  Eight hundred pounds of it, delivered by monks and laity, and it all needed to be moved from the backs of their 'utes into our storage area.

Had it been an afternoon meeting, a committee to plan a commission to form a task force to review policies, procedures, and protocols, I might have struggled.  Focus and energy might have been hard to find.

But I was doing, and the doing was easy.

What I found myself doing was carrying thirty pound bags of carrots and onions and taters, boxes of cans, crates of jars, alongside Presbyterian elders and earnest Buddhists, helping set a table for those who might not otherwise know where their next meal is coming from.  It was real, and I felt that reality in my arms, in my back.  

It felt good, to be doing that.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Grief and Loss

I am not, I remind myself repeatedly, on familiar ground now.

I've lost dear friends, sure, and as a pastor have walked many folks through the process of grieving a loved one.

But I haven't ever lost a parent.  That doesn't happen all that often in life.  I understand grieving such a loss in the abstract, and I've seen it through the eyes of others.  I've never been there myself, up until this moment.

People extend condolences, and ask me how I'm doing.  I am, as best I can tell, fine.  A little more scattered than usual, sure.  There's so much to do that has to be figured out.  But otherwise?  Functioning within what passes for my normal parameters.  

There've been moments of unexpected sorrow, sure.  Like driving back from picking up takeout Chinese, and Goodnight My Someone from The Music Man comes up on my playlist, Shirley Jones soprano filling the car.  Suddenly I'm back by the bedside on the day Dad died, watching Mom hold his cool hand and stroke his room-temperature forehead, listening to her tell him how wonderful their life together was.  It was so impossibly sweet, so tender, so intimate.

The throat closes, the chest tightens, the eyes brim and overflow, and I let that roll as long as it feels like going.

I had many moments like that when Dad was in the long decline of congestive heart failure, after watching him struggle for oxygen, when death seemed close and pain was present.  Find a quiet place, and let it out.  Being both male and introverted, I grieve alone, like a wounded animal seeks the safety of the shadows.  It's just where it feels right, and that's fine. 

Yet there are other things I don't feel.  "I'm sorry for your loss," someone will kindly say, and I appreciate the sentiment.  But I don't feel it.  I feel no loss.  Perhaps I will, at some point, a great wave of unfillable emptiness.  Rache feels that with her mom, a "hole in the world," as Amanda Held Opelt described it in her lovely book on grief and the absence of a loved one.

Dad just doesn't feel gone.  He's not physically present, of course, not as he was.  He is most certainly dead.  The ineffable processes of life that animated his material being are no longer active.  I will not speak with him again, not share some triumph or struggle, not listen to one of his old familiar stories.  I will miss that.  I do miss that.  I sat with his corpse for hours, absorbed the reality of it, the finality of it.  He is outside of the time and space that I currently inhabit.  

Yet still, he doesn't feel gone.

I'm too Augustinian, I suppose.  My view of life and the soul and God, too close to my ancient North African brother in the faith.  How can anything that God made and loved be truly lost?  How can I, who am connected to my Creator through that same love, be apart from anything else the Maker has made?  I'm at the point in my life where that's not a theological postulation or a convenient abstraction.  That faith is just part of who I am.  That circle remains unbroken, as sure as the gold band around my ring finger.

One could, I suppose, pick at that thought, in the same way one could argue that my wedding band is mostly just the empty space between Au atoms.  But what would be the purpose of that?  Realism?  The willful pursuit of despair isn't realism.  It's just neurotic.

I mean, how could I exist, if Dad had not existed?  He doesn't simply live on in my notoriously unreliable memory.   He lives on in my body, the meat and bone reality of it, of my unique, deeply complex admixture of his deoxyribonucleic particularity and Mom's.  It goes deeper, not just the flesh of me, but the way that I think and act, nature nurture-shaped by a lifetime of knowing him.  It goes past me, into my sons, into their faces, into their minds, into the warm music of their voices.  There he is, intermingled with so much.

If Dad was really gone from being, none of those things would be.  He is forever a part of my little corner of creation.

Not lost.  Just...completed.

The Names We Are Given

Funny, the titles we take on.

For the last twenty months, I'd been all in caring for Dad. I'd tested him for COVID, conferred with doctors, rushed him to the hospital. I'd sat in emergency rooms, conferred with doctors. I’ve managed home aide schedules and long term health insurance billing. I'd been a conduit of information to family and friends. I'd facilitated outings and visits. I'd cooked and organized and transported, bathed and cleaned up after toileting accidents, all of it, front of mind. The unifying label for all of that, as least as it’s now defined in our culture: Caregiver.

But as of pretty much exactly one week ago, I am no longer that.

I mean, sure, I’m caring for Mom, but that seems to mostly involve negotiating the byzantine American governmental and corporate death bureaucracies and making arrangements, so I’m more her Personal Executive Concierge.

Caregiving is for the time being is not an active label, no longer something that directly defines my day to day actions. That's done, or rather, that time is complete. That propensity is always going to be a part of my identity, and there are other seasons where I’ll take it on again.

All of us have elements of our identities that we consider definitional, which is an overly fancy way of saying that they shape our understanding of ourselves. We are a student. We are a teacher. We are a long haul trucker or an electrician or a contractor. We are an actor, or a writer, or a gardener. We’re a wife or a husband.

Those roles become like our names, something that defines us not just for others, but for ourselves. They are the word for who we are.

Names and meaning have wandered a bit from that way of defining us in the modern era. Generally speaking, we don’t tend much to the meaning of the name we’ve been given, or to our family names. That our last name might be Smith or Fisher, Gardener or Farmer, Carpenter or Taylor, Weaver or Wheeler? That doesn’t mean that’s what we do, not anymore. It’s less a definition and just a sound in our ears now. My wife’s family name, for example, rises from the book of Exodus. Mosheh, which means “From the Water,” the name given to that little Jewish baby found in a river. Outside of that blessedly short season when swim-team was seemingly all we did all the time, it doesn’t meaningfully define my family.

Jesus explores naming and identity in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, and the meaning of the names and the labels that can be applied to define our expectations of others and ourselves.

Who is the Son of Man, Jesus asks his disciples, illuminating a title that occurs thirty times in the Gospels and Epistles. It’s a challenging question, and an equally challenging title. In the Greek used in Matthew, that title is ho huios tou anthropou, a Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase ben adam.

We tend to associate the title with power and glory, which is kinda peculiar, because it means exactly the opposite. A ben adam is nothing more and nothing less than a human being, which is mostly how that term was understood. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, uses that term ninety three times, and it always just means “human being.” That’s certainly a compliment, generally speaking, even given the rather deep flaws we human beings carry within us. In Yiddish and in the German from which that language was derived, being a human being is being a “mensch,” which is a way of saying a person is a good egg, that they really are who they are, that they are genuine and trustworthy.

Where it’s used in Matthew and elsewhere in the Gospels, Son of Man means something a little different. Not “a human being,” but “The Human Being.   “Who do people think is The Human Being,” Jesus asks, and the disciples reply with a series of answers that would have been common in first century Judah and Galilee.

“And who am I,” he asks, laying that question out on the table.

It’s Simon, son of Jonah, who answers: “You are the Meschiach, the Christ, the Anointed one. You are Son of the living God.” He is commended for his successful answer, and Jesus calls him Rock, or Petros, the foundation on which the church will stand. Again, a name with meaning, a name that speaks to the role and place of a person, that defines their place in the world.

What is it that defines us? What is our true name, the name that isn’t either a fleeting thing or an empty sound?

One of the great strengths of faith is that the claims of faith over us aren’t simply for a single season. When we take on the title “disciple” or “Christian” or “follower of Jesus, and understand our every action as being defined by the teachings of the Nazarene, that form of self understanding doesn’t change season to season. Whether we are son or father, mother or daughter, that commitment remains. If we are studying, working, or in a season of rest, that commitment remains. We remain committed to his path of grace and mercy, or love that transcends every season, to a Name that is Above All other Names.

When the world shakes and shifts, and we find ourselves suddenly in a different place than we were, with former roles and relationships changed or gone, we can easily lose our sense of who we are. We can lose all sense of purpose, or all sense of who we are. That can leave us struggling, constantly seeking something that gives life meaning, chasing after one chimera after another.

Being grounded in our True Name means that we remain on solid ground throughout all of the shifts and storms of life. It also lets us hold on to that which has come before, to find that unbreakable connection between who we have been and who we were, to see our whole self as part of something that both defines us and remains forever beyond us.

Whoever we might be right now, that commitment shapes and holds us fast.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

A Peculiar Day

Sunday was a peculiar day.

Dad had died in the morning, passing as peacefully as one might have hoped.  He was at home, in bed, asleep, surrounded by familiar things.  Still and all, sitting with the cooling corpse of your husband of fifty five years, or your beloved father?  It's both peculiarly calm and charged with intensity, the eyewall of a storm.  The process of dying has passed.  The bureaucratic process of dying in this culture and the reality of a life without a loved one awaits.  But in that moment, you sit with cold flesh that just the day before told you that it loved you, that heard your voice, and all is still.

Mom talked to him, and kissed him, and held his hand.  I watched him, trying to take in the few moments we would have with the body that mortality had flensed of his personhood.  Time passed, as we waited for a medical professional to come and confirm what touch and sight made obvious.

There was a knock at the door, and the nurse arrived from hospice, a genial Nigerian.  I welcomed her back to the bedroom, and she listened for a heartbeat.  "He's really quite dead," I said, and she nodded.  Official time of death, Twelve Ten on August 20, 2023, although he'd been dead for two hours. 

The nurse made the call to the funeral home, the same one we'd used for my grandparents O so many years ago.  Information was confirmed.  Names and birthdates and addresses, and the plan was made to pick up the body.  "Sometime in the next two hours," we were told, and that was fine.  The nurse took her leave.  Mom sat with him and kissed him some more, and whispered things in his ear.  Mom and I talked theology for a while, about where Dad was now, not the meat of him, but the geist, the essence, the person, the soul.  Then she wandered off to call a dear friend, and I took her place.

He was so still.  My mind refused to see the stillness.  How could a person be so still?  For a moment or three, it looked like his chest was moving, rising and falling.  Looking closer, my vision swam, my brain struggling to create the illusion of breath.  I touched the body, and it was not actually moving.  And the hand was cold.  And the eyes were closed.  The breath was just as gone as it had been an hour before.  It was just a mild hallucination.  Or perhaps he was settling a little, as the hours passed.

After a time, another knock, and it was the funeral home arriving to take away the body.  Two men, both genial, and we chatted and joked with them as they went about their work.  Getting a human body out of the back bedroom of an early 1960s rambler isn't the easiest thing.  

They wrapped his body in a "bindling sheet," as Buster Scruggs sang it, which isn't a real word but sounds like it should be, and carried him to the waiting stretcher.  They laid him flat, and rigor mortis seemed already to be setting in, his head refusing to settle, his neck stiff, almost like he was trying to rise.  But he was not.  Mom kissed him.  I kissed him.  They covered him up, and were loading him into a minivan as my daughter-in-law arrived.  She hugged Mom for a a while.

Lunch was at a welcoming little family Egyptian restaurant nearby, where I'd taken Mom and Dad a few times as the pandemic waned.  We ate falafel and pita and grape leaves, and talked together.  Then a day of calls to family and friends, organizing and prepping, after which Mom packed a little bag to come spend a few days over at my house. 

When evening came, I asked Mom what she'd like to do.  Watch a movie, perhaps?  

"Read to me from one of your books," she said.  

So I did, reading her short stories from my short story collection as she curled under a hand-woven blanket on our living room sofa, until it was clear she'd fallen asleep.

It was so...calm.  Peculiar.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Call About Dad

The call came at quarter past ten, as I stood in the sanctuary of my little church, preparing for our ten thirty service. It was Mom. She was flustered, in a panic. Dad wasn’t breathing. Fidele, their home aide for the morning, couldn’t find a pulse. She didn’t know what to do, and I could hear Fidele trying to settle her down, try to get her to sit.

For the previous two weeks, Dad had declined. Exhaustion came with even the slightest effort, as his advanced terminal congestive heart failure and failing kidneys crumbled out from under him. He had become bedridden, unable to rise on his own, unable to do much but sleep. He grew less and less coherent as his oxygen levels varied, one foot out of the world.

I told Mom to wait for me. He was likely dead, but I would be there as soon as I could to be sure, or so I said. We were already in hospice care. There was no rush. There was nothing to do. Just sit with him for a while, I said.

Generally speaking, there are only a few circumstances in which I would bail on worship minutes before it was due to start. This was one of them. Hymns would be sung. Prayers would be said. Worship would happen. I received the good words and support of church folk as I bustled out, suited up, breathed deep, and hopped on my scooter for the forty five minute ride to the house where I grew up. Don’t rush, I reminded myself. I found myself muttering blessings to the slower moving cars that prevented me from pressing too hard.

Thanks for slowing me down a little, I’d say, and I’d mean it.

When I arrived, I got out of my gear and made my way to my parents’ room. There he was. He was dead. There was no breath in him. I kissed his forehead, to be sure, and it was cool beneath my lips.

Dad had a remarkable life, eighty four years of adventure and music, tennis and travel, the majority of it side by side with the love of his life. He was, as he said often over the last few months, entirely satisfied with how he had lived. “Very few people get to do as much as I did,” he would say, and he was right.

Oh, Dad.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Of Enemies and Gardens

When the sun peeks over the low rise to the east on a late summer morning, my garden comes alive.  

As the first light streams through the trees and strikes my flowers, the first shift of pollinators and seed-snackers arrives.  On the compound surface of the sunflowers, fat bumblebees trundle about, their furry pettable backs sprinkled liberally with pollen.  Honeybees from one of the neighborhood apiaries flit from squashblossom to squashblossom, as other tinier indigenous bees visit the delicate flowers of tomatoes and beans.

On my sunflowers, the early birds arrive, rich red cardinals and bright goldfinches sating themselves on the fat and oil of the seeds, momentarily annoying the bumblebees before darting away.  The birds are messy eaters, disturbing and dropping as many seeds as they consume, seedfall which will produce a healthy portion of next year's glorious sunflower display.

It's a great rush and bustle of living things, and as I go about my own sunrise weeding, sorting and puttering, I will often pause to admire the simple purposeful industry of it.  Each of these little creatures, going about their business, doing what they were made to do.  Without them, my own labors would be quite literally fruitless.

In that morning traffic, there are also workers one  might not expect.  

Like, say, flies.  No-one's favorite creature, flies, but there they are among the mint blossoms, pollinating as they move herky jerky across the soft white fuzz of the mint.  Their metallic green backs shine lovely dark emerald in the light of the new day, yet another helper bringing life to the garden.  Awfully pretty for a [poop] eater, I thought to myself.

As I watched the green flies work, I caught a soft shadow drifting in the herbs, from basil flower to basil flower, as near invisible as a mote of ash, more a hint of movement than a solidity.  I focused, and the delicate creature came more clearly into view.  

It was an Aedes albopictus, rear legs striped black and white, curled like whiskers.  An Asian Tiger.  The mosquito that invaded the East Coast late in my adolescence, brought over in shipping containers.  A literally mortal enemy, a tribe of voracious day-biters and despised disease vectors.   

Also, of itself, harmless.  It was a male, which is why it was so slightly built with feathery antennae, a fraction of the size of the females, even more delicate than the bloodthirsty skeeter-ladies that I kill on sight.  The males do not bite, do not need my life-fluid to gestate, do not spread itches and tropical ailments.  All they do is flit softly from flower to flower, drinking nectar and spreading pollen, and creating horrible offspring with their loathsome women.

I felt a strong, primal urge to bring my gargantuan hands together in a single killing thunderclap.

But in that moment, in the quiet of the morning and the good business of my garden, I did not.  Could not, soft-hearted fool that I am.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, sang the old prophet's voice in my ear, and I relented.

"Maybe I'll kill you tomorrow, little enemy," I muttered.  "But not today.  There's enough death in the world today."

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

A New Act

It's been a week and a half since we started Dad on hospice.  With his heart failing, his kidneys failing, and the bloodflow to his feet failing, and with no viable long term treatment path for any of those conditions, it was time.  He'd made it to his grandson's wedding, made it to the beach for a week of ocean breezes and family, and that meant both of the long term "goals" for survival had been met.

Adapting to that shift has been challenging.  The laundry list of medications, now whittled down to only those necessary for his "terminal diagnosis."  The complex care doctors and the network of specialists on whom I'd been relying for guidance, now set aside and replaced by a helpline.  A helpful helpline, to be sure, but different.

The relentless focus on diet, loosening.  We are no longer doing everything possible to keep him alive.

And that's been a difficult transition.  My learned instinct, from the last several years of helping with his care, is to be hypervigilant, to be constantly in a state of threat-assessment.  If his weight went up, what did that mean?  If his BP was too low, was that a concern?  If his affect changed, how did we need to respond to that?

Because if we didn't, it might mean death.  Mortality was on the line.  There was a bright, simple clarity to the purpose of each step along that tightrope.

Now, though?  Now things are hazier.  We've not given up, or chosen to expedite death.  The twofold goal is that he not feel pain, and that he be present for as long as he is present as a person, that there be some pleasure in life.

The challenge is that those two goals are often in tension.  Personhood and an absence of suffering often are at odds with one another.  He has struggled to sleep at night, and asked for sleep aids to help get him through the night.  But those sleep aids have left him drowsier during the day, folded over and drooling onto his shirt, difficult to rouse.  

Is he comfortable?  Yes.  Is he getting pleasure from life, savoring his last chapter?  No, not really, not if he's twitching and mumbling incoherently in his wheelchair.

So the balancing act has changed.  The threat has changed.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Age, Duty, and Transactional Self Interest

There comes a time when there's not much more we can do for others.

So much of our sense of self is woven up with our sense of purpose and productivity, our ability to protect provide, our ability to nurture and organize.  Those are the expectations about the value we bring to the world, and also how we understand the value that other human beings bring to the world.

We offer value, and others offer value in return.  That's the basic transaction of human social exchange, of our oiko-nomos, the fundamental "house law" of all economic interaction.

When we no longer has anything to offer others, what happens to that exchange?

'Cause at some point, that transaction breaks down.  We cease to be able to provide a quid for a pro quo.  All we have is need.  There are other stages in life when this is true, like when we're in utero, or when we're a squiggly little bup that eats and poops and disrupts our parents' sleep cycle.  In those times, though, we've got a future ahead of us.  We offer up the promise of future returns.  There's an R.O.I. on a baby, or so we tell ourselves as the college bills keep coming in.

But in the last few years of life, we can't provide return on investment.  With mobility compromised, and our economic worth diminished, what do we have?  For a small privileged minority, what we have are savings, a reserve of economic resources to carry us through the long desert of our senescence.  These are imaginary resources, of course, resources that exist solely as a social construct, but hey.  You go with what you got.

For the majority, what we will have is the reality of our need.  Given that most human beings on this planet do not have large reserves of lucre, what extreme age offers is this: More need, and deepening need, with nothing but need to offer in return for the care we require.

This is where the assumptions and intentions of our transactional culture break down.  Another moral framework is needed.

In the book of Ruth, we hear a story that lays out a very different vision of how we are to deal with those who can offer us no material reward when we care for them.  A family of Judeans fled the region around Bethlehem to escape a time of famine, and settled in nearby Moab.  The two sons both married Moabite women, and for a while, things were stable.  But then the father died.  Then both sons died, leaving the matriarch Naomi without a husband or male offspring.  She was too old to remarry. In the patriarchal culture of that time, that meant that she was utterly bereft. She had no value at all.

Naomi was forced to return to her homeland, with the hope that she might be taken back into the care of extended family.  That return offered no guarantees of anything other than poverty and hardship.  Knowing this, she tells both of her daughters-in-law that they should return to their families.  Both resist, but when Naomi insists they not come with her, only one of them leaves.  Ruth refuses.  From love and from duty, she will not abandon Naomi.  Her assertion of commitment to Naomi is total:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

This isn't a transactional relationship, or a relationship that assumes any reward.  It's an existential commitment.  Ruth's entire identity...her sense of place, her relationships with others and God, and her life woven up in her commitment to stand by her mother-in-law's side.

Ruth models a relationship of duty, tempered in the fires of love, a willingness to offer up the entirety of herself to another.  It's a faith commitment, one that is defining of her person, and cast in terms not of self interest but of covenant.

Where transactional morality fails to offer any grace or hope in aging, covenant commitment succeeds.  Does it require sacrifice?  Sure.  Does it offer an easy path?  No.  But aging is hard.  It will always be hard, as the reality of our mortality is hard.  The mealy, indulgent solipsism of consumerism and profiteering offers us nothing to endure that season.  For that endurance, we need the fierce strength of purpose that comes from a love as strong as Ruth's.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Age, Foolishness, and Wisdom

We don't know what we don't know.

It's a peculiar reality of youth, that moment when we realize that we are no longer children, and look at the world with newly minted adult eyes.  We suddenly see things anew, see adults as the flawed human beings that they are, see ourselves with an agency that childhood lacks.

This can be a time of wonder or sorrow, as we encounter everything as if it is freshly discovered.  No one has ever seen the world as we see it.  No one has ever had the realization we've just had about The Injustice of It All, or the Meaninglessness of Existence, or the Depth of Love.  

We are, in other words, fools.  I certainly was.

Well, "fool" isn't quite accurate.  A better word is "sophomore."  The word "sophomore" doesn't simply apply to one's second year at an institution of learning.  The root of the word comes to us from two Greek terms.  Sophos, meaning "wise."  Moros, meaning "fool."  With a limited data set defining our understanding of the world, and a shallow pool of lived experience, we extrapolate wildly, making decisions that to be the best.

Being fiercely attracted to people who are in need of "fixing" or "protecting" is one such error.  I was, again, such a fool.  Passionate?  Yes.  Well-meaning?  Sure.  But I didn't know yet how much I didn't know, both about life and myself.

Wisdom comes from listening to life, from a fullness of years in which we have experienced loss and failure, joy and sorrow.  It comes from learning from one's own experience, but also being willing to acknowledge that we do not know it all.  Wisdom continually learns and adds knowledge to knowledge, continually adapts, continually understands that it is limited, and that the world doesn't center around what you are feeling right now.

Age brings wisdom.  Or it doesn't.  There's no fool like an old fool, eh?

Still, when a culture stops valuing the insights that age can bring, it forgets itself.  It "lives in the moment," showing all the foresight of a fourteen year old boy, and all the emotional maturity of a tween girl.  When we imagine our past has nothing to teach us, when we silence the stories of our ancestors, both those passed and still among us, we commit all manner of errors.

Examples of this abound in the Bible, but perhaps none is so pungent as Rehoboam's folly.

Rehoboam, or so the story goes in 1 Kings 11 and 12, inherited the kingdom of Israel from Solomon.  Like his father Solomon, the base of Rehoboam's power centered in and around Jerusalem.  The relationship with the Northern tribes of Israel was tenuous, both during David's tumultuous reign and the Solomonic consolidation of power.  Northern insurrectionists challenged and tested the power of Jerusalem, most notably Jeroboam ben Nabat, who fled to Egypt during Solomon's reign and plotted uprising.

After Solomon's death, a group of representatives from the North arrived at Rehoboam's court, asking that the freshly minted king give them some relief from taxation, levies, and oppression.  "Remove this heavy yoke," they asked.  

The older and wiser advisors that had served Solomon counseled Rehoboam to show some leniency, to reduce the friction between South and North, and to buy goodwill.  They understood that showing grace creates grace, and that yielding and listening are necessary for reconciliation.  They also understood that the North represented most of the kingdom, and that there was only so far that they could be pushed before the connection to the power centers in Jerusalem would be severed.

But Rehoboam also had another cadre of advisors, young men who'd grown up with him in the Jerusalem court.  They were children of privilege, and filled with the rash aggression that so often defines manhood at that age.

Their counsel"different."  They suggested that Rehoboam should tell the Northerners first that his little finger was larger than his father's loins, a reminder that the Bible can get waaay earthy at times.  Then, the young men suggested telling the emissaries that Rehoboam was going to make life worse for them.  Make the yoke heavier!  Say, "Where my father punished you with whips, I'll punish you with scorpions." 

Scorpions.  LOL, bro.  Scorpions are bussin'.  Or groovy.  Or hep.  Or the bee's knees, depending on what generation of cocky young fool you are.

The voice of age and experience was ignored.  The passionate selfconfidence of the young was chosen.

And the kingdom that David had created and Solomon had built collapsed forever.  The outraged North seceded, turning to Jeroboam to lead their revolution.  That revolt succeeded, and the North left, taking with it the name Israel, most of the people, and most of the wealth.  

Any culture that assumes that learned experience is meaningless, and that a long-lived-life has nothing to offer?

The word for that culture? "Sophomoric."  

Friday, August 4, 2023

Age and Vulnerability

The call came midway through my day, from a dear soul at my prior congregation.  N was a remarkably gracious woman, bright and insightful, a retired scientist and one of the longtime bulwarks of a dying church, and when her name popped on my cellphone, I picked right up.

Her voice was agitated, and she needed prayers right away for her grandson.  "What's going on?" I asked.  

"Well, he's in prison in Mexico," she began, "and he called me because he needed bail money to..."

My anticipated prayers and advice took a different turn, mostly that she might get to Wells Fargo in time to stop the wire transfer she'd just authorized.

Nothing marks the shift into old age like the arrival of scammers.  As we become more isolated and less engaged with the broader world, it isn't just that our physical selves become more limited.  With that decline comes an increase in our broader vulnerability as persons.  It becomes harder to tell when that call is coming from a trusted source, or when that email is legitimate, or when the alert that flashes in your browser isn't actually from Microsoft.

I had a long, long talk with my Dad about that last one, after I'd spent an hour rooting out the malware the "Microsoft Help Desk" person had installed on my parents desktop.  

Where once being old meant that you had a familiarity with the world, the relentless pace of churn and change in our culture simply means that your lifetime of developed experience no longer has any purchase.   Even in cultures where the elderly were more honored and revered than in our own adolescence-focused society, they were still in a position to be taken advantage of.

The ancient stories of scripture offer up multiple witnesses of age and its weaknesses, of how easily those who seek advantage can take it from the unwary and unprotected old.

Take, from Torah, the way that Eli's corrupt sons took advantage of their heritage, stealing his honor and using their inherited priestly position to help themselves to offerings and women, so shaming him that he took a life-ending fall.

Or again and more sharply in Torah, Jacob's brazen scamming of blind Isaac, Jacob the sly mama's boy, a trickster-archetype, approaching his visually impaired father with masked voice and disguised form, stealing a blessing and a birthright that was not his.

Or Nathan and Bathsheba in 1 Kings 1, working together to gaslight the addled, unwarmable David into supporting Bathesheba's child Solomon over Haggith's son Adonijah.  

The weakness of the old makes them easy prey for those who want to take wealth or power for themselves.  It makes them just as easy to ignore, or to warehouse, or to treat as something less than a person.

If we view power and strength as the measure of a person's worth, then we are just as prone to diminishing those who are no longer what they once were.  We begin to treat the elderly in the same way that the ancient world treated they are not fully human and worthy of treating with decency.

That view of those who are less than fully able is anathema to an authentic Christian faith.  Weakness and vulnerability are not to be mocked, belittled, or viewed as an opening for advantage.  Those who find themselves without power are precisely the souls that the Crucified One demands that we protect and care for, not in spite of their weakness but because of it.

Because for all the different ways we delude ourselves into believing we will never age, that we ourselves will never be weak or vulnerable?  That's as false as Donald Trump's hair.  We will all of us eventually be that person, unable to stand on our own, fuddled and lost and a little confused.  How persons, and as a culture...treat those who cannot fend for themselves is the measure by which we will be judged.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Gathered to Our People

Abraham had a most interesting life.  It was, without question, an archetypal and mythic existence in the Joseph Campbell sense of those concepts.  His story provides the foundation for a worldview that currently defines meaning for half of the global population, 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.4 billion Christians, and the 16 million or so Jewish souls who carry on that mother faith.

At the end of those stories of his life is the story of his aging and passing.

As the twenty-fifth chapter Genesis/Beresheet tells it, Abraham lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and seventy five, to a "good old age", a b'sayvah tovah zaqen.  That age ended with him being, as most translations put in, "gathered to his people."  The word that is translated "gathered", or 'acaph, implies every form of gathering.  It can mean harvesting, or bringing in, or taking, or being brought together.  It can mean to assemble with others.

To be gathered in to one's people is, I would suggest, a marker of a life well lived.  For those of us who use Torah as a touchstone for our moral purpose, that connectedness to those around us is a defining feature of a life lived in covenant.  It is our hope in aging, because aging ain't easy, and not a one of us wants to do it on their own.  

What's striking about this scriptural concept is just how far we are from it as a culture.  Age and dying are kept at a remove from us, both materially and as part of our defining narrative.  The stories that the old have to tell aren't relevant, aren't relevant to a new generation doing new things.  Aging is best forgotten or ignored.

But covenant, like any form of deep relationship, requires more of us.  It's a defining commitment, a commitment that frames our self interest in terms of our connection to another.  Covenant is what builds community and connection.  It gathers us in, all together, an abundant harvest of grace.

It is the antidote to our culture of isolation, to the shattering of community and the blight of loneliness.  Like all commitments, it requires effort on our part.  

As I write this, I sit next to Dad as he drifts in and out of sleep.  Dad's always loved the beach, and summer visits to the seashore have been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember.  We're on the screen porch of the Delaware beach house we've rented for the last eight years.  Cool breezes come off of the Atlantic, after a night of fierce storms cleared off the heat of the summer.  The sound of the waves can be heard over the dunes.  The cry of seagulls fills the air, their brassy song softened by association with seasons of pleasure.  Fire Island.  Mombasa and Malindi.  Fripp Island.  Brighton and Margate.  And Bethany Beach, for the majority of my lifetime.

It was harder this year.  Getting him here required effort.  A packed minivan full of wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and an oxygen concentrator.  A panoply of medications, neatly sorted for a week away, which we managed to forget in the hurly burly of getting him into the van for the trip.  Nothing an eight hour round trip drive back home that first night couldn't cure.

His CHF has worsened as the summer has progressed, his calves now morbidly plump and taut with excess fluid, his dependence on oxygen complete.  His breathing is not labored absent the aforementioned oxygen, but any effort at all is difficult.  He can no longer stand on his own, not even with a walker.  He sleeps most of the day.

The house that was fine for him when we first started renting it years ago is now something he can't access on his own.  Doors are too small for wheelchairs to pass.  The bedroom he and my mother consider theirs is on the main floor of the house, but the most homes near the up on pylons.   Three grown men were needed to get him up that flight of stairs.  It was a production.

But the beach house is where his children and grandchildren are, where there are sounds of life and laughter.  He can tell his stories, and see loved ones around him.  Having him here means he is part of us, and the extra effort required is simply what this stage of life demands.  It is not, as I consider it, any different from the years we arrived at the beach with newborns.  It's not an imposition.  It's simply what must be done.

He isn't separated out, or discarded, or warehoused away.  He's valued.  He is gathered into his people.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Age, Pleasure, and Fruitfulness

Translation matters.

The task of a translator is, as I understand it, to best convey the intent of an author while simultaneously conveying a text into the language and idiom of the culture into which the text is being translated.  It's a fine art, a careful balancing between the mother language and the receiving tongue, between one set of cultural norms and another.

Hew too tightly to the forms and expectations of the original text, and a translation can be unreadable and inscrutable.  The geist of the author does not convey.  On the flip side, if you make too many accommodations to the receiving language and culture, you erase the original, smearing one's own desires over that of the author.

Which is what I found myself looking at, as I looked at one of my favorite scriptures about aging.  It's a familiar story, one from the heart of Torah.  Abraham and Sarah are hangin' out in the shade near Mamre, when they are approached by three strangers.  Abraham offers them hospitality, welcoming them to share in a meal.  In return for that hospitality, one of the strangers bears a message: this old, childless couple shall have children.  Sarah, hearing this, laughs softly to herself.  She's old.  Ain't no way that happens.

The verse in which she laughs is Genesis 18:12, and in the New Revised Standard Version, it read like this:

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?"

It's a polyvalent verse, meaning it bears multiple meanings.  Sarah snickers inwardly for two reasons.  The first has to do with the absurdity of her having a child at all.  I mean, she old.  I'll occasionally joke with my wife about having another kid now that our boys are grown, and she'll roll her eyes.  You idiot, she says, with a smile.

But when Sarah snickers, there's more to it than that.  As my Old Testament and Hebrew professor would say with a wink, it's also because she's sure there ain't no way Abraham is up for that.  So to speak.  Hence the use of the word "pleasure."  It's a sensual thing, and Sarah finds the idea that Abraham can still get it done amusing.

The New Revised Standard Version no longer exists, having been replaced by the New Revised Standard Updated Edition.  Honestly, that Bible name has started to get a little silly.  I mean, at what point does that stop?  Will there eventually be a New Contemporary Amended Reimagined Revised Standard Modified Updated Edition?

I probably shouldn't give anyone any ideas.

Anyhoo, in the NRSVUE, the same verse now reads:  

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I be fruitful?”

Instead of pleasure, fruitfulness, and honeychild, those are not the same thing.

The polyvalence is squelched, the joke, undercut.  The reasons for that editorial change, as best I can tell, are to "empower" Sarah.  The laugh becomes only about her fruitfulness as a...cough...birthing person, and the little roll of her eyes at her husband's withered limitations is erased.

It's waay less funny, lacking in the earthy viscerality that so often rises from ancient Jewish culture.  It also doesn't represent the Hebrew word ednah, which appears only three other places in scripture.  It's the feminine form of a word for pleasure, which even the NRSVUE approaches differently in every other location.  In Jeremiah 51:34, it's rendered "delicacies."  In 1 Samuel 1:24, it's "luxury."  In Psalm 36:8, it's "delights."

Delicacy? Luxury? Delights?  That ain't a way any sane person would describe the process of childbirth in the Ancient Near East, kids.  It's about the sexy sexy.  

When we view the aged, that element of their humanity can be muted or forgotten.  It's easy to forget, as we look at the old, how vital and alive they were.  We see them as only old, as if the whole arc of their lives is only defined by our perception of them in the now.  The life and energy still sings in that person, both as memory and as a lingering part of their person.  It's the great madness of so much of progressivism, that willful forgetting of the joy and vitality of what came before.

As we age, we can also forget that part of ourselves, allowing ourselves to assume that we are no longer capable of any joy, or of pleasure, or of delight, simply because we're no longer quite as spry and flexible as we used to be.   All that we once were, we are in God's eyes.  We are still children, full of promise and imagination.  We are still running fast with the sap of youth.  We are still brimming with love and life and promise.  We are wise and well-aged.  We are all of these things before our Creator, all at once. 

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Moral Holiness and Honoring the Aged

Within the sacred narratives of scripture, the commitment to respect and honor the old is a consistent emphasis. There's the familiar injunction which appears in both of the iterations of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:12, we hear:

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

In Deuteronomy 5:16, that's put slightly differently:

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Those both say more or less the same thing, although the later Deuteronomic phrasing seems to acknowledge that sometimes "days may be long" doesn't mean "that it may go well." Whichever way, the commandment is essentially identical.  Giving honor to the elderly is woven up with blessings of both age and a good life in one's place.

Elsewhere in Torah, that baseline commandment is reinforced.  "You shall rise before the aged and defer to the old, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord," intones the Creator of the Universe in Leviticus 19:32.

It's a baseline expectation of the Biblical covenant, which was also the standard expectation in most cultures of the Ancient Near East.  The concern with care for the aged is far from being an exclusively Semitic value.  It was the norm in almost every human society, a moral expectation of all premodern civilizations.

In author and doctor Atul Gawande's BEING MORTAL, for instance, Gawande describes the network of community support that sustained his century-old grandfather Sitaram in a small Indian village:

Elders were cared for in multigenerational systems, often with three generations living under one roof.  Even when the nuclear family replaced the extended family (as it did in Northern Europe several centuries ago), the elderly were not left to cope with the infirmities of age on their own...There was no need to save up for a spot in a nursing home or arrange for meals-on-wheels.  It was understood that parents would just keep living in their home, assisted by one or more of the children that they had raised. (BEING MORTAL, p. 17)

This ain't even close to being the norm in contemporary Western society.  As our family structures have been atomized by an endless fossil-fuel empowered diaspora, that cross-generational commitment has frayed.  It makes living well in the last chapter of life more challenging, even given the putative abundance of wealthy nations.

During conversations about the challenges of aging in a recent class I led at my congregation, one of the participants shared her desire not to grow old in America.  A is Ghanaian, and her observations of how the old are treated in Ghana and how the old are treated in the United States have led her to a very pointed conclusion.  Ideally, she said, she'd grow old in a Scandinavian nation.  After that, even given the limitations of the Ghanaian health system, she'd rather spend her last years in Ghana than in the United States.  "I mean, if you get very sick, the hospitals are not as good," she said.  "And you might die before you get to care.  But at least your life up until that point will be better.  So much better."  She's observed how her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles have all been included into the large extended households that are still the norm in her culture, and how much richer that has made their quality of life.

What was a moral norm has now faded, as has the idea of moral norms itself.  We postmoderns shy away from anything that resembles duty, any implication that our purpose extends beyond self-gratification and indulgence.  It's an ethos that masquerades as freedom, but is not.  It rises instead from consumer culture and the socially-mediated attention-deficit popcorn-brain that clouds our engagement with both past and future and keeps us imprisoned in our anxious, impulsive, profitable now.

From that solipsistic moral framework, we'd rather not be inconvenienced by the old, or by the unpleasant thought that we, too, will one day stand in their place.  

Because if we are not caring for the old, then we will not be cared for.  It will not, as the Deuteronomic scribes remind us, go well for us.  That's the nature of covenant, after all.