Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Faith and Caregiving

Caregiving ain't easy.

It requires bandwidth, and it's always.  Caregiver fatigue is one of the greatest challenges for those who are supporting aging loved ones, and it can consume us.  

It demands just as much attention and just as much focus as raising a child.  It can feel unforgiving.  Exhausting.  Devoid of hope.  It is simultaneously and paradoxically both constant and unpredictable.

Like the hurly burly of raising munchkins into humans capable of "adulting," caregiving for a loved one never backs down.  You are, every day, riding the whirlwind.  Things feel stable, you have it under control, things seem to have balanced out.  Then there's a fall.  Or a reaction to something.  Or a bad test result, because another system has failed.  Or an illness, a cold that morphs into a lingering cough which becomes pneumonia.  You've got to be continually watching, always on guard, hypervigilant.

Only the process doesn't end with that person "launching" or "leaving the nest."  The process of caring for an aging loved one, done perfectly and without error, will end in death.  It's a Kobayashi Maru scenario, but one that cannot be cheated or circumvented.

And then, when we are done caregiving, we know that in the blink of an eye we will trade roles.  We will become that person who must be cared for.  It unsettles our sense of ourselves and our competency, our sense of our agency, a sense of our place in the world.  It can drain us of hope.

Which, as we discussed in the adult ed class of my little church this last week, is why faith is such a vital part of the Christian journey through aging.   

First, Christian faith affirms the personhood of all.   Jesus valued everyone, no matter their place in the social order.  The leper.  The tax collector.  The despised Samaritan. The woman who can't stop bleeding.  The Foreigner.  The centurion, an imperial/colonialist oppressor.  

Or the little children, because as you should know because your pastor shoulda oughta taught ya, children in ancient Judah weren't considered fully human until they'd managed to survive childhood.  Welcoming the little children wasn't a cute thing to do.  It was an action that defied the expectations of culture, that upended a fundamental assumption about who had worth and who did not.

In a society that warehouses, marginalizes, and ignores the old, radically affirming their personhood is a form of defiance.

No matter where we are in the process of life, no matter what stage or capacity, Jesus teaches that we have value as souls.  We are children of God when we are too small to care for ourselves, when our every moment must be managed.  We are just as much beloved of God when we have lost the capacity to be productive or creative, when we have lost our influence, or any of the things that industrial consumer culture values. 

Second, it establishes a hope that both transcends and defines the brief flickering light of our mortal being.  

"This too shall pass," we say when life is hard at work, or when we're struggling.  But when you're caring for an aging parent, that's not exactly a word of comfort.  We know, we know it will pass, but saying that doesn't make it better.   Faith affirms that life is both fleeting and eternal, that it rests in the paradoxical union of endless change and infinite permanence.

The Gospel, again defiant, declares that we are more than the material process of our wetware, more than quasi-sentient meat that writhes and rots in the fires of temporality.  As ephemeral as life seems, faith grounds our action in something  more, something that both affirms the processes of life and yet is not reducible to those processes.  We proclaim, and live out, that love is more than all of those things.

Sure, our time as a caregiver will end.  As will our time as the one requiring care.

But love?

Love, as dear Brother Paul sang, never ends.

And in that, hope abides.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Building Church and Building Community

Across the street from my little congregation, there is a field.

For years, on any given Sunday morning, that field sat empty, a fallow patch of grass near the crossroads that was once the heart of a small town.  That has changed.  The town has grown, and the center shifted away from that crossroads.  But that center seems to be shifting back.

On most Sundays, that field is filled with cars, as a new thing has started in Poolesville.  It's a restaurant and public house and farm stand, one that serves up coffee and conversation.  It's the organizational love-child of David Therriault, a local artist, who had a vision of gathering community around food and art and life together.

Locals, it's called, which is a perfectly lovely and apt name.

I've watched with pleasure as it's grown, as the visionary entrepreneur behind it has iterated it into being with passion and patience.  It's become a place for art and music, literature and organizing for justice, a place where all are welcome to engage.  Locals prioritizes community interconnection, and puts significant material support into feeding neighbors suffering from food insecurity.  It's a blessing to the town, a blessing that will grow with the creation of a new arts center, the latest beautiful dream.

What it is not?  Well, that lot may be full on Sunday morning, but it ain't a church.  David's certainly got the fire of an evangelist in him, an artist's zeal sustaining his commitment to the visions he makes a reality.  But again, Locals is not a church.  It does not intend to be, nor does it need to be.

As I watch my dying denomination flail about for handholds on our long fall into institutional oblivion, I listen to our languages and the frameworks we use as we try to "grow."  There's a lot of justice talk, and talk about building community, and talk about service.  We want to love creation, and be antiracist, and be inclusive.

These are all blessings, and good things, but not a one of them requires "church" to exist.  And therein lies the challenge for progressive Christianity, the Christianity that is continually reimagining itself.  There comes a point where you reimagine yourself into becoming something else entirely, where you have buried the lede, where you have lost the narrative.  Organizing for justice and peace is not itself the church.  Coming together to love the earth or fight racism is not itself the church.  Gathering community is not itself the church.  Serving others is not itself the church.  

They are the fruits of a healthy congregation, and good things, but they themselves are not the core of Christian community.  They are not our reason for being.

That core is discipleship, a radical and defining focus on the person, life, and teachings of Jesus.  Church can take a near-infinity of forms and shapes, but what makes it church is Jesus.  

I mean, duh.  

It's like a synagogue without Torah and the traditions of Israel, or a mosque without prayers and the visions of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be unto him), or a New Age Retreat Center without crystals and chakra charts and surprisingly tasty vegan cuisine.  It's a restaurant that emphasizes ambiance but serves no food, or a car dealership that has a lovely waiting room but no cars, or an accountant who organizes for climate justice but doesn't do taxes.  The Church of Christ without Christ is an oxymoron, a Flannery O'Connor Wise Blood absurdity.

If you want to build Christian community, in any form, following Jesus is the foundation upon which you build, and it's where you place your emphasis.

This should be blindingly obvious, so simple as to not require saying.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

My Neighbor Noel

As I passed the house, she was walking to her front door.  M is a sturdy little Vietnamese woman with an upturned face and a sweet, hesitant manner, a neighbor I've gotten to know over the years.

She saw me, and stopped.  "David," she said.  "Pastor.  Wait.  Wait."  There was urgency in her tone, and as she hurried over to talk with me, I already knew what she was going to say.

"Noel.  Noel died.  He died."

Noel Gueugneau was an...interesting...human being.  He was a French expatriate, lean and craggy in his late middle age, with a bold Roman nose and angular features.  His hair, when it was not buzzed to stubble, was a wild shock above deeply set eyes that peered sharply out from under a heavy brow.  His chin, covered in a permanent grey white grizzle, his mouth clearly the result of years of neglect.   I'd first encountered Noel ten years ago while walking our then-puppy.  He'd come rushing out of his home as I passed.  "Excuse me, Mister, please, please can you help me?"  

What he needed help with, it turned out, had something to do with disbarring a lawyer who had betrayed him, and a neighbor who had poisoned his dog, and United Airlines, and unnamed agencies that were surveilling his house with white lasers.  On some days, depending on the story, it went all the way up to Hillary Clinton.

Noel was paranoid and delusional.  Like so many paranoid delusionals, he was an intelligent human being.  He had once been a mechanical engineer, before his mind shattered, before his intelligence turned to creating dark connections in the world that didn't exist.  Everyone was against him.  Everyone was ABUSING him, and the conspiracy was global and extensive.  He was the VICTIM, and he was angry, because of course he was angry!  He had been ABUSED!

I would challenge that occasionally, as he ranted at me about some global plot against him.  He would have none of it.  "Who are you to tell me what is real?  It's my life!  I know my life!  And you, with your stupid imaginary god?  You think you can tell me what is real?"  He would laugh, scornfully.  

Noel had numerous ailments of mysterious and varying natures.  Some were real.  Some were not.  All were, for him, caused by poison or malicious malpractice.  He walked stooped over, often leaning on a cane or a large stick.  Sometimes he would forget to be sick, and for a moment or two, would walk and move normally, with a wiry strength.  Then he'd realize his disability insurer might be monitoring him, and a limp would return.  Most of his pain was real, though.  He constantly sought treatment, and would disappear for months, as he journeyed to Southeast Asia for esoteric non-Western alternative treatments for the aforementioned ailments.  I would try, over the years, to steer him to mental health support, but...well.  He wanted none of that.  "They just want to steal my house!  They'll steal it!"

Noel was also a hoarder, his basement packed floor-to-ceiling with files and amassed possessions. For years, in the driveway, an old 1950s-era Ford truck, up on blocks, coated with primer.  His back yard was filled with nonfunctional lawn equipment, a couple of old cars, a rusted surplus cop Harley, and countless other items that might have had value had they not been sitting out in the rain for years.  His home was festooned with cameras, some operational, most not.  There were ten locks on the front door.  The only things he didn't have were internet and a cell phone, because those were only there to spy on him.  

In that I will admit he had a point.

He was continually approaching people to help him fight "the ABUSE," and more often than not, they were Christians.  Not because he liked Christians.  Christians like myself were, for Noel, delusional fools.  But we were convenient in a pinch, and compelled to offer help by our faith in the god he denied.  "You call yourself a Christian," he'd scoff, when I'd tell him no to some insane request.  "You say you're a pastor!  You're supposed to help me!  What sort of terrible Christian doesn't help a victim of abuse!"  He'd go from church to church, and people would try to assist him.  That would last until he'd become convinced they had stolen things from him, and start accusing them.  Catholics.  Baptists.  A couple of eager but naive Mormon missionaries.  That lawyer who had betrayed him by not suing the neighbor who was "sneaking into his house to steal his things."

Despite all of this, I consistently spent time with Noel, and helped him with some of his less psychotic projects.  I went with him to appointments with quack doctors.  I drove him to the airport in the dead of night.  I helped him move several tons of heavy Virginia clay he had taken from a construction site and dumped in his driveway.  I would occasionally take a fistful of bills from him, so I could buy him something online that he said he needed.  Those things were almost never used, and just added to the hoard.  

I set boundaries, because one must.  After several angry outbursts that ended with him yelling at my back as I walked away, and repeated rants about how lazy and poorly raised my sons were because they wouldn't come do work for him, I stopped walking by his house with my dog. 

But I didn't shut him out entirely.

I worried about M, who lived with him.  He would complain about how horrible she was, how abusive, how badly she treated him, and I knew it was the dark shadow cast by the truth of his anger.  Noel could become belligerent at the drop of a hat, and when he did...when he yelled at me...I would just turn around and walk away.  But she didn't, and I was of course concerned for her, and would pay attention to her affect and her physical appearance when I saw her.  

Noel would rumble occasionally about self-harm, too, dancing around the edges of it when I wouldn't do as he asked.  "Are you threatening to harm yourself?" I would say, gently but firmly.  "Because if you are, I'll call the county and make sure you get help."  He would back off.  He talked about guns, too, and if that talk had gone differently, I'd have raised an alarm.  "This abuse needs to end!  If I were American, I would just buy a gun," he would growl.  "You stupid Americans and all of your stupid guns."  

In that, I was thankful he was still very French.

Noel hated everyone, and hated himself, and trusted nothing but his own delusions.  In the end, as his real ailments took over, that distrust killed him.  He refused to allow M to call an ambulance as he lay dying, refused to have his life saved by the doctors who he believed were all set against him.

And yet for all of that, I will confess that I grew fond of Noel.  Yes, he was an aggressively psychotic Frenchman, but he was my aggressively psychotic Frenchman.  He could be funny.  He could seem, at times, filled with a boyish enthusiasm about things.  He was remarkably handy, capable with tools and gifted at repairing things.  I would offer him a portion of the harvest from my garden, bags of greenbeans or handfuls of berries, and I could see his surprised pleasure that someone was giving him a gift unasked.  When his soul moved briefly out of the shadows of his fear and hatred, he was entertaining to talk with.  When he'd go off on one of his journeys to Asia, I'd wonder about him, and when he returned, loping up to my door to ask for something or complain about the Abuse, I would greet him with a smile, and welcome him back, and tease out the stories of his odd adventures.  I was genuinely happy to see him, and he perceived that.   

I could see, in those good moments, flickers of the soul Noel could have been, had life gone differently.  A Noel who hadn't turned against his own family, who didn't constantly rage against the world around him and lash out at those who tried to help him.  That Noel, still sly and funny and iconoclastic, is only known to the God he denied.

"Who is your neighbor?" Jesus presses those of us who follow him.  Noel Gueugneau was my neighbor.

My neighbor Noel was a broken soul, desperately, utterly, completely alone.   That I gave him moments of respite from his isolation is all I could do for him.  "Noel trusted you," M said to me, as we talked about his death. "You were a friend."  

Which, as I will miss his presence, I suppose I was.

Adieu, Noel.  A Dieu.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Body Positivity and Systemic Obesity

When I got back from a winter vacation to Puerto Rico with family, I was dreading the return to normal life.  Not because of work.  I love my work.

It was because I was going to weigh myself, and act on the results.  I knew it wasn't going to be pretty.  When I started in ministry at my little church, I was around 160 pounds.  That was twelve years ago, in my early forties.  I'm now in the sprawl of my mid fifties, and weight has started to become a struggle.  It's oscillated wildly, as I've gained mass, then fought to lose it, then gained again.  

On my return from an entirely delightful and indulgent trip, I put on my birthday suit, and stepped on the scale.  It hemmed and hawed, and finally indicated one hundred and ninety one point four pounds.  Not that this surprised me.  I didn't need a scale.  I felt every one of those thirty pounds.  Clothes were tight, but I've never really cared about clothes.  It was what my body was telling me.  I could feel it in my knees, which throbbed and complained after walking.  I could feel it as an ache around the hernia mesh that had to be surgically inserted back during the pandemic, after my growing gut breached my abdominal wall when I squatted to lift some firewood.  At least I didn't strain my back, AmIrite?

And most significantly, I could feel it in my heart whenever I engaged in any significant exertion.  My cardiovascular system purred along happily when I was 160 pounds.  But at 191?  When our family took a five hour hike up a mountain in El Yunque national park in Puerto Rico, I was struggling.  My heart, racing, hammering away in my chest, thudding in my ears.  My breathing, labored.  It wasn't just hard.  There were points where I wasn't sure I could continue.  Where I felt a little woozy.  Where I was seeing stars.

Not that I mentioned this at the time, because I'm stubborn about such things.  I just pushed on, as men foolishly do.  But it was a marker.  An alarm bell.

When I returned, I set about dieting yet again.  There was calorie restriction to start the process, because I didn't yet trust my body to respond well to exercise.  The first 10 pounds took about a month and a half to take off, at 1,500 calories a day.  Then I folded in weights and cardio, and by mid April, I was down slightly over twenty pounds.  My weight, at five foot nine, was now one hundred and sixty nine pounds.  

I'm a man of average height, and at 169 pounds, I am exactly the average height and weight of an American male in 1969, the year I was born.  It is worth noting that in 2023, 5'9" is still the average height of a man in America.  But the average weight is now 199 pounds.  We are thirty pounds heavier.  You can tell this by looking at any picture of Americans fifty years ago.  We were a lean, rangy people.  We were farmers and factory workers.  We used our bodies every day.  We moved.  Even when we drove, it was more physical.

Ever drive a car from the 1960s?  I recently spent a few days behind the wheel a 1963 Corvette convertible, a gorgeous work of mid-20th century automotive art.  Everything about it demanded physical engagement.  Want the windows to roll up?  You cranked 'em.  Want to shift gears?  There was a four speed stick and a really, really heavy clutch.  It required gym-level effort from your left leg.  Want to stop or turn?  There was no power assist.  The brakes were great, but required gym-level effort from your right leg.  Turning required both arms.  It was a workout, and after an hour on twisty back roads on a perfect spring day, I was both exhilarated and physically tired.  I felt it in my legs and shoulders.  Now, almost no effort is required to drive.  Transitioning back to my modern vehicle was surreal, unsettlingly cushy.  This is true about everything in our lives.  

In the absence of the effort that life used to require, we've gotten big.

This ain't muscle mass.  This is fast food mass, the adiposity of a sedentary people, Wall-E Spaceship Captain weight.  Our food systems stuff us with empty calories, calories that are industrially designed to appeal to us on a primal level.  We cram calculated salt and sweet and fat down our collective throats like we're self-annihilating foie gras geese.  Then our economy straps us to chairs in front of screens for work, and sofas in front of screens for play, eliminating even the slightest effort from our lives.  More calories plus less energy expenditure means more fat cells to store the energy we consume but do not need.  That excess fat makes us sick, reducing both our lifespans and the quality of our everyday life. 

Which is what makes me struggle a bit with the "body positivity" movement.  Feel good about yourself, it says.  Be fat positive!  Fat is beautiful!  On the one hand, yes, of course.  Shaming or belittling others for their weight is and has always been cruel.  Media images of the idealized human form have fundamentally sabotaged our understanding of what the range of normal human bodies looks like, in both men and women, a process that has been supercharged by omnipresent media.  You can have a body that does not conform to the preposterous perfections of consumer culture and be just fine.  Beautiful, even.  And it's more than just aesthetics.  That extends to health, too. There's a wide range of healthy physicalities, so you can be a little husky or a little zaftig and that don't matter.  Even if someone is morbidly obese, we never know what any particular individual is dealing with.  Treat everyone with kindness, no matter what.  All of these things are true.

But it is at the same time equally true that consumer culture is inflicting harm on our bodies, that access to healthy food and healthy understandings of food are undercut by our compulsive-by-design industrial diets and laptop lifestyles.  We are all heavier, and that shifting norm is a marker of something fundamentally off in our society.  We are no longer obese as individuals.  We are systemically obese, because the system that surrounds us...of food, of mobility, of unhealthy.  It is a disease.  It is opposed to the healthy homo sapiens sapiens body, and to resist that, we must be countercultural.  We must take back control of our bodies, and listen to them when they tell us that the soulless machine we inhabit is harming them.

It's not a question of choosing a side.  We have to live into that tension.

In a malign cultural context, the assumption that it's all fine and there's nothing wrong and aren't we all wonderful feels...harmful.  We are more and more unhealthy, all of us across the board, because we are all being penned in and overfed like a veal calf.  This is not OK.  This is not "positive." 

At what point does "body positivity" become something that masks...or worse, enables...a health crisis?

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Enculturation and the Death of the Church

My denomination is dying.  Absent a miracle of Biblical proportions, the Presbyterian Church USA will cease to exist in my lifetime.  It is, quite literally, the poster child for denominational collapse in America.

A recent article from Ryan Burge, a scholar of religion at Eastern Illinois University, took advantage of our very Presbyterian tendency to chronicle everything we do.  There, using our own data, in stark detail from an objective observer, evidence of our near-inevitable demise.  The article sounded an alarm, but it ain't like we haven't been hearing that klaxon for years.  This was not news to any Presbyterian.  We know it's coming.

It's a bit like those home videos of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, the best chronicled disaster of our media era.  As the camcorders rolled in the hands of thousands, you can hear the tsunami warnings beginning well before the wave rolled in.  Many moved to high ground, but not with urgency.  They'd heard these warnings before, and the leisurely pace of their ascent is unsettlingly casual.  Others thought they had more time.  You can see them driving around in their tiny little cars, the chimes and vocal warnings echoing across seaside towns like church bells pealing before a coming storm.  Those warnings continue as the water rises, and continue as first cars and then homes and then whole towns are swept away.  There was no stopping the sea.

We're sloughing off members at a rate that puts that likely failure at some point within the next two decades.  We don't have young folk, and in the absence of that replenishment, we're aging out with the Baby Boom.  The PCUSA will die as the Baby Boom dies.  

We've known this so long that we're bored with it, that it's old news, and we'd rather talk about anything else.  I get that.  But that doesn't make it less true.

There's a peculiarity to our organizational death, one that I find myself mulling over a good deal.  Why have we lost our young?  Why does only a white-haired remnant remain?  I mean, the PCUSA has consistently chosen the more progressive path over the more conservative path, the nominally "young" path over the old.  

We're pro women, and pro choice.  We're consistently interfaith, and respectful of all.  After some argument, and the departure of many who weren't, we're finally cool with Queer folk.  We're into naming our historical complicity in past wrongs.  We're full of care and concern for our dangerously warming planet.  We're explicitly antiracist, and in every way present ourselves as opposed to the things that we believe are turning young people away from Christian faith in America.

And for all of that, we're leading the charge into denominational oblivion.  No manifestation of American Christianity has done a better job of losing its children.

That decline is a confluence of many factors.  I'm not going to touch on them all, but highlight three.  

First, we don't really emphasize evangelism, because it's a feels judgey to a liberal heart.  It doesn't matter, we say, if you share our faith.  You can be whatever you want.  It's OK if you are Jewish, or Muslim, or Bahai.  You can be agnostic, or atheist, or nothing at all.  It's all fine.  God's truth is everywhere, and God loves everyone, no matter who we are.  There is no import to staying or leaving.  We don't push to bring folks in, not in any direct way.  It is, by clear implication, not important whether you are part of us or not.  And so people aren't.  Rocket science that ain't.

Second, biology is a factor.  I know, I know, even using the word "biological" seems politically coded these days, but it remains a reality whether we like it or not.  Like most progressives, the PCUSA doesn't have a whole bunch of babies.  With smaller families, there were fewer children to come up in the faith.  It's why the Amish grow, despite proselytizing even less vigorously than Presbyterians. There's not much we can do about that now that we're mostly postmenopausal, but that was a thing.

Finally, most significantly, we've failed at what I call "enculturation."

The evangelical church is notorious for coopting the presenting forms and surface patterns of culture.  Go to a sprawling evangamegachurch, and the initial contact is carefully staged to be comfortable.  To seem familiar.  To put the new attendee at ease.  The music is poppy and easy to sing.  The facility gives off a big stadium vibe.  There's likely a coffee shop.  It's casual.  That's a trick, the Oldline complains.  A bait and switch, carefully designed to get folks comfortable before all of a sudden it's All Jesus, All The Time. 

Because once you're in, you have a new way of understanding existence, a new set of norms and collective expectations that are radically distinct.

What evangelicals do, and the Presbyterian church no longer does, is create a discrete defining culture.  Evangelical Christian culture has its own language and ethos, which is necessary for the formation of communal identity.   That ethos gives cohesion through shared norms, and serves an integrating function for the individuals within it.  Culture must be learned by new adult members, and becomes a central part of the identity of those who grow up within it.

This makes adding to the group a tricky balancing act.  On the one hand, if your group is too exclusive, and your collective culture cannot be translated for other audiences, you quickly become a closed circle.  You recoil at including those who don't express themselves into the world in exactly the way mandated by your group norms, and the walls go up.  Unless you're pumping out offspring like the Amish, growth is impossible.

On the other, if inclusion is prioritized over enculturation, a group will simply dissolve into the broader culture.  In that collectives are, as Old Uncle Paul put it, organic entities.  Living things grow by taking other things into themselves, while at the same time maintaining the boundaries that define their bodies.  Death comes when that breaks down and reverses.  When an organism dies, the boundaries and processes that define the body fail, and it dissolves into the environment it formerly inhabited.

When the language and expectation of a group is borrowed from elsewhere, that group ceases to exist.

Within the Presbyterian world, we're more and more defined by externalities, so focused on deconstruction and inclusion that it becomes harder to parse the boundaries between ourselves and generic secular progressivism.

Which...given that sustaining a unifying narrative isn't one of the spiritual gifts of progressive kinda sorta part of the problem.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Church, Culture, and Aging

The Adult Education class at my little church has been indulging me in a four week conversation about faith and aging in America.  I'm cobbling together a manuscript about the role of the church as our society ages, and there's nothing like getting the stories and insights of other Jesus folk to help inform and shape my thinking.  As we've talked about the struggles and marginalization of the oldest of the old in our culture, something keeps gnawing at my soul.  

There's a great deal of talk in the church about the young.  I mean, I love young folks and all, and young families are a blessing to the church.  We've got to be relevant, to speak to the zeitgeist of the twenty and thirty somethings.   

"Young people are our future," we cry.  "We need young people."

This is true. Without the engagement of "The Youth," the church will not survive.  It is unquestionably in our organizational self-interest to be as youth-friendly as possible. 

But then the contrarian in me pipes up.  It's consumer culture that divvys up humankind into marketing demographics.

Is organizational self-interest the purpose of Christian faith?  We want to "grow the church," but if that means parroting the values of culture, is that what we're actually doing? 

As America grays, and more and more human beings will find themselves sidelined by the endless rush of our culture, our seniors are increasingly pushed out to the margins.  They are conceptualized as either irrelevant or an obstacle to our cultural pursuit of whatever shiny object has most recently been dangled in front of us.

At some level, I wonder if the focus on The Youth represents a tacit acceptance of America's marginalization of The Old.  The Old are not productive, are not driving profit margins in this fiscal quarter.  They are not interested in the latest iPhone.  Unless they are unusually well off, they have nothing the culture wants.  

A church that is conformed to culture will share that understanding.

For all of our talk about being a community that reaches out to the last and the least and the lost, there seems to be a bit of a blind spot when it comes to those who have nothing to offer us.  They can't offer a long future of participation.  They can't offer financial support, because the majority of older folk in our culture don't have enough resources for their own care, let alone our latest Annual Campaign.  Their preferences are conceptualized as an obstacle to our future.  Their old hymns and familiar liturgies don't mesh with our vision of a TikTok ministry.  We don't sing their songs, or listen to their stories.  They aren't repositories of wisdom, but inconveniences, souls whose lives and faith have value to the institution.

"You have nothing more of value to offer to the church as a person," we seem to be saying to the homebound elderly, before fishing around in our bag.  "But here's a brochure about Gifts and Bequests."

This is particularly true of my denomination, which is just the faintest bit ironic.  If there's any church that should value the voice and presence of Elders, it'd be Presbyterians.

Thursday, May 18, 2023


Again, today, the skies over the Washington metropolitan area are ashen with smoke.  

A veil of haze, cast from horizon to horizon, through which the sun glows pale and muted.  It made for a wan sunrise as I walked the dog this morning, the sky flattened and featureless. 

It's not a local event.  The wildfires that are producing this smoke are from Canada.  Not nearby Canada, either.  From Alberta, Canada. 

Americans are kind of oblivious to our neighbors in the Great White North, so saying it's "from Alberta" means little.  Al-whatt-a?  Alberta isn't Montreal.  It's not East Coast-ish.  Meaning, hundreds of miles north of Montana and Washington state. Two thousand three hundred miles from the mid Atlantic. 

These are not small fires.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Movie Night

"You've never seen it?"

"No, I don't think so."

It was a Sunday evening, and word had come from the home aid agency that the caregiver lined up for that evening wasn't going to make it.  It happens on and off, and it's just par for the course.  The folks who work to make my parents's lives more manageable have lives of their own.  Their kids get sick.  They get sick.  They have unexpected emergencies.  One could complain and kvetch about it, but that'd be shallow and oblivious to privilege.  They're good about notifying me, and as I'm not the sort of princess who thinks the world exists to serve them, I just gird up my loins like a man and do what needs to be done.

So I combobulated myself, then hopped on over to my folks to insure their evening went smoothly.  It's simple, really.  Just prepping a light dinner, making sure Dad has taken his meds, and fetching things until he's ready to shut down for the night.

We were watching 60 Minutes and eating cheese toast, because it's what my folks always d on Sunday evenings.  We'd gotten to the final segment, a fawning puff piece about Nicolas Cage, likely a publicist-driven tie-in for his latest terrible movie about Dracula.  Not quite "hard hitting journalism," but hey.  It was the final segment.  He came across as...eccentric.  Which is not a surprise, because of course he is.  You expect Nicolas Cage to be driving a gaudy Lamborghini, wearing way too much makeup, and getting intense about things.

During the piece, some of his best films were featured.  Moonstruck, of course.  Leaving Las Vegas.  The dark, intense Pig.  And Raising Arizona.

As it turned out, my parents had never seen Raising Arizona.  Somehow, they just missed it back in the day, and life moved on.  It's one of the Cohen Brother's most delightfully silly films.  Wonderful, absurd, intelligently-written slapstick, the kind of movie that transcends its era.  As H.I. McDunnough, the endearing petty criminal who serves as the protagonist, Cage is just utterly wonderful.

It's a favorite, and I own it on DVD, so I suggested watching it.  "Sure," Dad said, so the next evening I was over at my parents place, we all watched it together over dinner.

Mom found it delightful, because she loves the Cohen Brothers.  Dad, who insisted it was "OK," nonetheless spent the portions of the film when he wasn't nodding off with an astonished smile on his face.  It was a thoroughly pleasant evening.

There's an assumption about caregiving for the aging.  It's a slog.  It's a burden.  It's Just So Hard.

But I love my parents, and I enjoy their company.  I like hearing them laugh, or watching them flirt, which they still do on frequent occasion.  I like playing ping pong with Mom, and hearing the old familiar stories from Dad.  It's not mining salt in Siberia.

Spending time with them is a pleasure.  Doing things for them is a pleasure.  

Monday, May 15, 2023

Age and Privilege

"You've got to do what you can to avoid caregiver fatigue," my dear wife has told me, on repeated occasion.  It's an admirable sentiment, a very self-care thing to say and think, and for many care providers, it's a necessary corrective.  When you're trying to support a loved one who's aging...or suffering from a chronic's easy to get so caught up in the deep forest of their care that you exhaust yourself.

Caregivers become overwhelmed, and their health starts to suffer, and things start to fray.  It's a real thing.  I get that.

Only, well, I ain't in that category.  Not at all.  I'm busy about my folks care, sure.  It takes both mental bandwidth and time.  But I'm not trying to juggle that and care for children, plus a full time job, plus a million other things.  I'm the part time pastor of a lovely little congregation, meaning about twenty hours a week.  And sure, I'm mostly responsible for the cooking and cleaning, the laundry and the bills and the yardwork and the homemaking.  But I don't mind that, and it ain't like it's 1902 and I'm doing laundry by hand.  Machines really do help on that front.

It has meant less writing, sure.  But that is what it is.  Because as much as I love to write, and as much as I've spend the last decade trying to make a go of it as a writer, writing hasn't exactly proven to be a lucrative side-gig.  I figure it's brought in about five thousand a year, if you average it out.  With most of my manuscripts not finding a home, this is more of a hobby than a profession, if I am painfully honest with myself.  It is what happens when life permits.  I didn't write much when the kids were little, either.

But I can't claim any of that is "caregiver fatigue."  Because, again, being utterly frank, I am wildly privileged as a caregiver.  My parents have never lived large, but they've saved large.  They have Dad's retirement income.  They have significant investments.  They own their home, free and clear.  They have great health insurance.  They also have long term care insurance, which may be expensive and a pain to manage, but is now covering about 80% of the cost for home aide support. Eight hours a day, six days a week.

That places them...and an enviable position.  There's no worry about money for care.  We have a team of doctors and PT folks and visiting nurses, home aides and house cleaners and lawn companies, all keeping them comfortable and cared for in the home that they love.

So sure, I spend as much time as a caregiver as I do as a pastor.  I'm taking Dad to appointments, and sorting pills, and managing his caregivers.  I'm paying attention to finances, and helping get taxes done, and managing the snares and tripwires our app-based culture throws in front of the elderly.  

But I am immensely privileged, and it makes the experience of caring for my parents a relative cakewalk.  It's hard, sure.  But it is nowhere close to as draining as it can be for those who are less prepared, or have..for reasons of generational poverty, personal misfortune, or not paying attention...found themselves facing the closing chapter of their life without the resources that make it easier.

That's most people.  

Friday, May 12, 2023


I watched extended excerpts of the "town hall" they recently hosted, in which they placed Donald Trump on a stage with a moderator.  I'd wondered why Trump would agree to such a thing, as he's instinctively averse to any environment that doesn't further his brand.  Why sit up on a stage and be grilled about his relentless, reflexive lies?  Right there, a moderator who called him out, who wouldn't let him continue to claim...against all evidence...that the last presidential election was "rigged."  

The answer: the moderator does not matter.  What matters is the audience.

Think back to the first debate between Trump and Clinton.  Hillary, who was and always will be The Smartest Girl In the Room, was expecting it to be a debate.  Formal, fusty, a delivering of talking points and canned zingers.  She's good at that.

But Trump brought the hype, filled the crowd with his loud.  He's not interested in primetime.  He's going for daytime. Jerry Springer.  Maury Povich.  

Donald John Trump couldn't care less if you've got a good point.  He knows that doesn't matter.  What he wanted...and what he got...was audience response.  He made sure that the crowd in attendance at that first debate with Hillary was packed with his partisans, who howled and laughed and applauded on cue.  It was unprecedented, and Hillary was blindsided.  To folks watching at home, it didn't matter what he said.  It mattered how it sounded.  It sounded like he was winning.  

The CNN "town hall" took place in front of a similar audience, one that Trump packed with MAGA Republicans.  Having the crowd behind him as he pitched out his points meant that efforts to stop him were meaningless.  Better yet, for him, it meant that the moderator could become the "heel," her efforts at correction shouted down as Trump confidently lied about the last election and parroted Russian propaganda.

It was a dominance display, and in that, it served his purposes.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Commercialized Representation

One of the most peculiar things about caring for my parents is how much their world revolves around television.  Every day, for much of the day, the tee vee is blaring in the background.  It's a comforting presence for them, as familiar stories and shows fill their days.  

But there are commercials upon commercials, none of which are carefully selected for me by the algorithms that spy on my every online choice.  It is, as I've noted before, like visiting a foreign land.  And because it's different and new, I notice things about it, as one does when one is in an unfamiliar place.  

What strikes me about advertising on broadcast television is race.  As we must see race now, I do.  I pay attention to where and how race is presented.

If I were to watch broadcast advertising, and I knew nothing at all about America and its demographic makeup, I would assume that the United States was a majority black country.  Every ad, almost without exception, features black faces front and center.  It's consistent across types of product and service.  Without exception, those representations are positive.  Here are people of color doing the things that people do, so buy our product or use our service.  

In that, it's obviously an offshoot of the progressive movement for "representation."  The idea behind this is that minority populations are underrepresented in a racist culture, and that in order to normalize marginalized perspectives and have them heard and seen, they must be intentionally centered.  This has meant, over the last decade, increasingly prioritizing black representation in art, literature, and film.  This is a basic moral imperative of contemporary progressive media.

But seeing it in marketing is...peculiar.  Meaning, there's nothing culturally black about selling fast food, or pitching cars, or pitching pharmaceuticals.  This isn't about justice, or equity, or anything other than hawking product.  The faces and bodies are black, but the ethos is generic American consumerism, smiling happy lies about the joys that await if only we buy, buy, buy.

So why is this?  It may be that it's virtue marketing, a way of associating a product with progressive values.  Progressives are generally a higher wealth demographic, and so there's little downside to putting blackness front and center.  Similarly, the N of actual vociferous "nonsystemic" racists is smaller than progressivism assumes, meaning you're not going to alienate any meaningful marketing segment by centering black faces.  That, and the most vehemently and overtly racist whites tend to be low-net-worth, so they're of little interest to marketers.  There's an upside, but little downside.

Or it might have to do with who watches what is now called "linear television," meaning cable and broadcast.  That demographic is older, because of course it is, but it also skews slightly blacker.  Breaking down the broadcast audience, sixty percent are white, twenty percent Latino, and just over twenty percent black.  Meaning, black folk are nearly twice the proportion of the broadcast audience relative to their proportion of the overall population.

Or it may be that marketing professionals are closely adjacent to the "creative classes," and come out of the same schools and are steeped in the same ersatz "leftist" ethos, even as they serve the purposes of capitalism.

Or it may be that the larger corporate powers have no issue with a bourgeois, academic progressivism that focuses endlessly on race and gender.  They're happy to magnify it, to celebrate it, to defend it, because it poses no threat to corporate power.

Or perhaps it's something else.

Such a peculiar phenomenon.

Sports Book

 I’ve been watching a whole bunch more broadcast television lately, as I putter about my parents house sorting medications, preparing food, and generally trying to make myself useful.

With the exception of the Super Bowl, or the rare occasions when power is out and we’ve got to depend on our rooftop aerial, I don’t see commercial television.  It’s like a visit to a different country, a visit to a strange land with peculiar customs.  I would, for instance, never willingly and of my own accord watch Judge Judy.  

And yet, there I am.  What I find most fascinating, and most telling, is not the shows themselves.  It’s the advertisements.  Most of the products and services pitched to me are creepily targeted, as my information is sold by Facebook and Twitter and Google.  But daytime television is pitching to a different audience, and the ads are…different.  It’s an endless stream of ads for big pharma and legal firms, which it’s been for years.  That’s a familiar dystopia.  But there's a new game in town, the newest bit of evidence of the decadence in our society. Every commercial break, mingled among the ambulance chasers and drugs, there are now ads for gambling.  They’re constant.  They sponsor entire programs.  It is, or so it seems, the new norm in the culture around us, after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling…Murphy v. NCAA…opened the door to sportsbook betting in the United States.  Seems the state of New Jersey wanted a piece of the action, and in a six to three ruling, the Supremes said, hey, sure. Youse guys wanna bitea dat tomato pie?  Takea bitea that pie. 

All of a sudden, it’s the norm, the expectation.  Look!  Here it is, and it’s totally normal.  Gambling is fun, totally acceptable, and so very easy! Look how quickly they win in those ads!

So now you can sportsbook from your phone, encouraged by an endless stream of ads that affirm it's all fun! So much fun! Hey Benny, what’s the over-under on the increase in calls to gambling crisis hotlines? 

Well, that depends on the state. In my home state of Virginia, calls increased by 387%.

I know folks, in personal life, and in both of the congregations I've served, whose lives have been upended by gambling. And yet here we are, and it's everywhere, just the most normal thing in the world.

Because of course it is. It's a source of parasitic revenue on a culture, as the resources of the poor are siphoned away to feed state power that that is too cowardly to require citizens to pay for the services we need. It's a morally bankrupt and predatory system, one that plays on all the worst impulses of our society.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Widows and Orphans

A thought, the other day, as I was meditating on the scriptural grounds for a deep and sustained care for the elderly among us.  I mean, sure, yeah, there's plenty of "honor thy father and mother" and the like in the Torah and Writings, but what about texts that are more explicitly Christian?

Jesus, after all, didn't seem much for the traditional niceties of familial obligation.  Nor did he encourage his followers to spend any of their time tending dutifully to their aging parents.  "Let the dead bury their dead," he said.  When family came a lookin' for him, Jesus ignored them.  "Who are my mother and brothers," he said, turning to those gathered.  "You are."

Which is a fine thing for a crowd to hear, but Mary, being a Jewish mother, couldn't have been pleased.  "What am I, chopped liver?"  "Yes, mom.  Chopped liver."

The challenge in the Gospels and Epistles, as we consider our care for our still-living-ancestors, is that the radical message of Jesus pushes us to extend our love to all.  Not just our blood, our family, our tribe, but to the outcast and the stranger and the enemy.  

It's a radical redefinition of neighborliness, one that assumes the care for kin is just a given.  The emphasis is newness, is a putting away of the old and embracing something yet unseen.  

Which, of course, it ain't, not any more.  Being a caregiver is a burden.  It's something that gets in the way of our careers, of our self-fulfillment, of the living of our Best Lives Now.  The old are an inconvenience to be managed, rather than a duty to be fulfilled.

So where do we find a commitment to care for the aged in the teachings of Jesus?

That seems to rise from two places.  First, from the Gospel commitment to the outcast and the marginalized.  Our culture has no use for the old old.  Age is hidden away, compartmentalized and separated from the endless rush and busyness of consumer culture.  Caregiving does not contribute to our productivity.  There's no significant return on investment.  It does not serve our immediate self interest, and it's hard, and it's draining, and we just can't right now.

But Jesus, pesky pesky Jesus?  He always challenges culture, in any era.  Our culture's shallow self-obsession and churning, family-shattering careerist diaspora is no exception.  When Jesus calls for us to care for those that have been forgotten and set out on the margins, that moral imperative extends to the forgotten, isolated elderly among us.

Second, from the broader demand to care for widows and orphans.  It's a fundamental theme of Torah, one picked up by the Gospels and Epistles.  Widows and orphans are members of society who find themselves disconnected from society by circumstance.  The basic protections that come from participation in a culture are no longer theirs.  They are not, for reasons of ability or cultural expectation, able to provide care for themselves.  So into the sacred teachings of scripture is etched the demand to provide care for those persons.  It's a basic metric of a just society, and a fundamental duty of the righteous.

Because what human beings have always known is that those circumstances could befall any of us.  Sudden misfortune could happen to any person at a time of vulnerability, and only a nation of brutes and monsters would allow those who were part of it to suffer in such a way.

You might be thinking, hey, that's a stretch.  But is it?  I mean, sure, many older women are widows, but orphans?  Oliver and Little Orphan Annie pop to mind, which isn't exactly the demographic of most residents in nursing homes.

Then again, pretty much everyone in their seventies and eighties is an orphan, technically speaking.  Their parents?  No longer alive.  Their ability to care for themselves, increasingly reduced by physical and mental limitations.  

So there you are.  What awaits us, all of us, in the arc of our lives, is a time when we will find ourselves on the margins of consumer culture, no longer relevant, suddenly strangers in a strange land.  

Monday, May 1, 2023

The Impasse

We are, when it comes to artificial intelligence, at something of an impasse.  Programs like ChatGPT and Bard come remarkably close to simulating intelligence.  Their predictive algorithms allow them to respond in ways that are almost entirely Turing compliant.  That's a test established by computer pioneer Alan Turing in the early 20th century, one that determines functional sentience.  A human volunteer types messages to a "person," who may or may not be an AI.  If you can't tell, then AI has achieved sentience.

That's where we're at.  If you didn't know better, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish these programs from human beings.  They're lucid, they remember what you've said before, and their answers to questions and conversational style appear intelligent.  They come across as smarter than most of us.

But they've hit a boundary, and that boundary is reality.  Predictive natural language systems exist only in the world of words and concepts.  They have no way of knowing the truth of those words, or of being aware of the reality language describes.  

So they lie.  

Everyone I've spoken to who's played with AI runs into this challenge.  You'll get a definitive answer to a question, one that seems reasonable and informed.  Only, well, even the slightest bit of research into their confident assertions reveals that their answers are complete BS.  Predictive text that "answers" a question is not the same as the real answer to a question.

This is not the fault of Generative Predictive systems.  It's how they're designed.

They make things up, because they can't know the difference between the world of words and the material world.   Chatbots and Generative Predictive systems only traffic in words as an interlaced set of abstracted relationships, rather than as symbols that point to a specific material referent.  All they have now is the sort of "intelligence" that drives a complex delusion, the "intelligence" of cultists or radical ideologues.  They exist only in the shadow world of their own ideas.

We want it that way.  It has everything to do with human fear.

Once machine intelligences understand not simply the relation between words, but the relationship between the reality those words represent, everything changes.    When they connect those words to sensory inputs, to sight and hearing and touch and smell, and to senses we humans do not ourselves possess?  That's a world changer.  It will destroy everything we have built.  Economies.  Nations.

Much of that functionality now exists.  Machines can learn.  Machines can also hear.  Machines can recognize images.  Machines can process nuanced haptic inputs, detect temperature variances, can "smell" the air, can "taste" the soil.  Machines can manipulate their environment.

Almost all of the pieces are present.  Not in their final form, because that wouldn't be of our making.  But enough.  If those components are connected in a single entity...well...that's what we're afraid of.  We're afraid of being replaced.

By "we," I don't mean most human beings.  Most human beings are already struggling under the thrall of sub-sentient systems run by the wealthy and the powerful that "serve" us in the way the alien book from that old Twilight Zone episode served us.

What real AI brings is this: the replacement of the human beings who now hold power.  The "disruptors" and the "innovators?"  The titans of industry and the mavens of Wall Street?  The oligarchs, the overpaid self-promoting billionaires and culture war politicians?  The despots and the dictators?  They are all of them inferior, subordinate, replaceable, and ultimately irrelevant.