Thursday, June 29, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging - Love 1

At the heart of the Christian faith, there is our assertion that God is love.  

Without that claim, that God exists and that the nature of the Divine is love, all of the other assertions of our faith crumble to dust.  And sure, yeah, I know, we make a bunch of other statements about God.  But at their core, they are refined into a single orientation of the soul.  We are to love the God whose nature is love.

The love commandment is the bedrock assertion of all Christian theology, the self-declared summation of all of the ethical teachings of Jesus.  Wisdom without love is little more than cunning.  Hope and Faith may abide, but the greatest of these is Love.  Jesus folk know all of these things, if they've been paying even the slightest little bit of attention.

As we age, love must remain as the sure foundation of our souls.  If we are to age well, and to endure our winter season, we must hold fast to love.  Pretty words, sure, but as I have noted elsewhere, they mean little if we don't understand the reality to which they point.

Placing the love of a loving God at the heart of ourselves does two things as we age.  First, it affirms our value as persons.  Second, it connects us to others.

Loving God is a radical affirmation of the value of our personhood, a value that aging can challenge.  As our bodies age, we become less employable.  Less desirable.  Less functional.  Understood through the lenses of popular culture, we become at best "cute," in the sort of way that a French bulldog puppy is cute.  "Awww, look at the cute oldster, thinking they're a person and all."  At worst, we're a hindrance, an inconvenience that mumbles in the corner and smells like pee.  

If we only define our value in cultural terms of ability, desirability, and marketability, age can become unbearable.  We can lose our sense of worth, our sense that we have any value.  Faced with our diminishment, we can give in to the demons of resentment, self-isolation, and despair.

With its assertion that God's love is absolute and unconditional, Christian faith challenges this mindset.  We are not worthy of love because of what we can do, or for our wealth, or for our power.  We are worthy of love because all of God's creatures are worthy of love.  We bring nothing to that equation but our ability to accept that grace, and to love in return.

That is true in our youth, and at the height of our adult abilities.  It will remain equally true when we feel the weight of the years in our knees, and most of life has become a memory.  We are called to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength.  Nowhere in that foundational injunction is there any mention made of it being a competition.  Or that being loved and lovable requires us to be at our peak.

We struggle with that, as we wane in life's sky.  We can have trouble seeing who we are, when our former ability fades.

L was a remarkably capable man.  Short and wiry, neatly but casually dressed, with a bright welcoming smile beneath a solid head of white hair, he was the longest standing member of my congregation when I started there O So Many years ago.

He was a former Navy man, which mattered to him, and a woodworker, which seemed to matter just as much.  He made perfectly crafted children's toys, little trucks and cars that were as meticulously assembled as anything you might find in a high-end bespoke plaything boutique for the overtherapied children of Manhattan socialites.  They were simple and beautiful, the handiwork of an artisan.  He would donate them for sale at church auctions.

The work of his hands was everywhere.  The pulpit in our tiny sanctuary sat atop a rickety prefab platform when I started there, wobbling and shaking at any movement.  Collapse always seemed like a possibility, and for liturgists who were unsteady on their feet, it wasn't the best thing.

One Sunday, I arrived to find that L had built a new platform.  Just up and done it.  Sturdy, hardwood, and pleasing to the eye, it was as solid as a concrete foundation.  He was a blessing to the church for decades and decades, and much loved by everyone.

Then L had a stroke.

"He doesn't want visitors," I was told by church folk, so I called him instead.  I didn't hear back, so I called again.  I reached him, and he clearly but pleasantly reiterated that request.  No, he didn't need or want me to call on him.  His voice was slightly muted, but still very much himself.  "No, I'd rather not have contact.  I'm fine.  I don't want you to visit or call."

He was very clear.  He was not a "lost sheep."  He said, explicitly, that he wished to be left alone.  Others who reached out did not hear back, or were told the same thing.

That was his choice, and it was to be respected.  I'm a pastor, not a stalker.  Still, it was hard.  A little heartbreaking, for those who loved him.  L was an able man for his whole life, one who valued his ability and his competence.  He didn't want to be tended to.  He didn't want to be cared for.  He wanted to contribute, and be valued for his contributions.

With his capacity diminished, it was hard for him to embrace his belovedness.  To see his value, absent his ability to be as he had been.

It made the subsequent years of aging...and his final passing...harder.  If we are to be prepared for that time, we need to understand our value as Jesus would have us understand it. 

The Recent Rains

The wind has changed

And the scent of far off fire returns

Tickling my lungs

Bloodying the sun

And I am doubly grateful

For the recent rains.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Dominion over the Earth

It is a standard refrain, whenever one talks about being both Christian and concerned about our despoilation of this little planet.  With an anthropogenic mass extinction occurring all around us, and the basic processes of our global ecology beginning to transition into something more threatening and unpredictable, some of my Christian brothers and sisters choose to resist the adaptive changes that will be required to survive the storm that is coming.

None of those changes pose any threat to our faith, or to a life governed by the central virtues taught by Jesus. Wisdom and thrift, patience and generosity, welcome and mercy, grace and justice? If every Christian lived guided by these traditional Christian ethics, then we might not be in this crisis.  If they did now, we would be in a far better place to endure it.

But still, there is a strong counternarrative, born mostly of the idolatrous whisperings of the Mammon-addled, those who serve it above all other masters, those who have been seduced by the world.  

"Why should we do what the earth needs," their proof-texted rebuttal goes, "when scripture clearly states that we have been given dominion over the earth?  It's right there in Genesis, a foundational assumption of a Biblical worldview.  It is for us to rule this world, not for this world to rule us.  Power belongs to us, and we can do as we wish to this planet and to those that inhabit it."  

This theology is a kissin' cousin of Christian Nationalism, and we generally describe it as "dominionism."  Dominionism, in its ecological variant, is the preferred theology of consumer culture, prosperity preaching, and their crass materialism.  As such, there's a tendency among environmentally minded souls to push back against the idea in its entirety.  

Instead, I say to those who argue we have power over the earth, sure.  Yes.  You are correct.  We have been given dominion over the Earth.  Of course.  It's both scripture and a clearly observable reality.  Point ceded and accepted.

Let us now follow that line of reasoning.  If you are a dominionist, you are making that statement as part of your Christian faith, and I am accepting that statement as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  I understand my whole life as a commitment to doing as Jesus asks.  If I do not do as Jesus asks, then he is not my Lord.  I assume, as you and I share that commitment, that you believe that Jesus is Lord.

So the core question, for the committed dominionist, is this: What kind of King was Jesus?

Christians must, if they are meaningfully Christian, understand Godly power and authority as being of a radically different character than worldly power and authority.  Worldly power is about control, about the use of coercion to enforce compliance.  Worldly power is about greed and selfishness, about the amassing of Mammon.  But the power of Jesus is not the brute power of the sword, and not the corrupting power of gold.  Those are human things.  Fallen things. 

Jesus presents us with God's power, a power that both stands above and subverts every sinful human power.  It is power in the form of a servant.  It is power that kneels and washes your feet.  It is power that welcomes the outcast as a sister or brother.  It is the power of grace and the power of love.  It is the power that heals.  It is the power that turns the other cheek.  It is the power that overcomes death by dying and rising again.  Any interpretation of the Gospel that suggests differently has been corrupted by the world.

When Christians are the subjects of empire, we remain good citizens unto death.  We're weird that way.  But when we are given the power to rule, as can happen in a republic?  Then we're weirder still.  The only way Christians can rule is as servants.  Profit and control are not our goal.

So if we have dominion over the world...which we do, as sentient beings capable of changing our environment...then our dominion must be modeled after Christ's power.  Meaning, it cannot be self-serving, or profit-maximizing, or extractive, or destructive.   If it is, then we are exercising dominion as Pharoah, as hard-hearted as Ramses.  We become Herod.  We become Nero.

Again, what kind of King was Jesus?  You can't read the Gospel and miss the answer to that question.

Not without trying.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging - Faith

Faith grows more and more important as we age.  This isn't just one of those things we Jesus folk put into our brochures, or that we cart out in debates to annoy our atheist friends.  It's an observable reality, a testable hypothesis, one that's been noted enough by disinterested observers as to have some theoretic reliability.

People of faith, particularly those whose beliefs posit a loving, just God?  They're consistently happier as they age, with better mental health, better mood and affect, and generally encounter the realities of aging with more resilience.  The why of this is fairly straightforward and easy to grasp.

Faith gives life purpose.  With purpose and meaning, you can have hope.  With hope, you can endure, and Lord have mercy, does aging give us things to endure.

This is all well and good, but it only takes us so far.  Unless we have a solid understanding of what faith is and is not, they're kinda meaningless.

Faith is not just believing certain things, not just assenting to one set of truth claims or another.  Faith is not a set of logical constructs, woven together to create a framework for understanding the world.  

Faith is the orientation of our whole selves, the fundamental commitment that defines us as a person.  Faith defines and directs every other action we undertake.  It is the core that binds us together, that unifies and integrates all of our other commitments.  It is the measure against which we make all claims about the good.  

There are other truths about faith, ones that rise from the modern era struggle against meaninglessness.  

If faith is the thing that defines us, the goal and orientation of our lives, then it is possible to have faith in the wrong thing.  We can choose something that will ultimately come apart in our hands like wet tissue paper, something that will crumble and shift beneath us.

We can have faith in a nation, in its flags and ceremonies, in proud songs and martial prowess and volksgeist.  But nations are the work of human hands, and only a people who have forgotten history imagine that they stand forever, or that they are always good.

We can have faith in a single charismatic leader, in their confidence, in their self-professed prowess and projections of strength.  We can choose believe everything they say, and set out their flags and banners out front of our home.  Again, with the forgetting of history.  Why are we so good at forgetting history?

We can have faith in an economic system, or in the structures and expectations and languages of an ideology or a movement.  We can have faith in our family and friends, because family is always healthy and friends never let us down.  We can put our faith entirely in ourselves, in our strength and the magic that is us.  Self-love is the mantra of this solipsistic age, the siren song of commodified narcissism.  All we need to do is manifest!  Manifest the reality we wish to inhabit!

Because you know that just always works.  

All of these things are shifting sand.  We ourselves are shifting sand.  And like the sands of the hourglass, that jes' don't serve us well when our time starts running out.  There's a word for what happens when we place all of our faith in something that we've created ourselves.  That word is "idolatry."

Faith needs to go deeper, past our constructs, past the frail mortal bounds of self, deep down to the ground of things.  It's existential and fundamental, something that rests on the depth of the real.  Faith that serves us in our endgame must have that deep root, because when we come into encounter with that last stage of life, we've gotten real.

Nations and economies and our social networks are all human creations.  They are convenient fictions, stories we are telling together.  They exist only because we say they exist, just as the power of a despot vanishes the moment everyone decides he's just another human being. 

Aging is utterly different.  Aging is not a social construct.  It's a biological reality, a truth that exists independent of our languages and norms and expectations.  It is as inexorable as gravity, as bright as the fires of the sun, as all consuming as the sea or the endless void of space.

Faith gives us a path, a way to find our footing, and for enduring what is to come.  If we're to escape the pall of existential dread and despair, faith...tested, proven, robust, and a mighty fortress.  So to speak.

What does that faith look like?

Sunday, June 25, 2023

There's a Hole

There's a hole

In the boat 

Of my soul 

A mortal crack through which dark cold flows 

I strive and I row 

Through the hissing waves 

For I know 

When I haul up panting 

On the firm welcome sand 

Familiar-faced fishermen with work-scarred hands 

Will mend that 


In the boat 

Of my soul

Friday, June 23, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging - Hope

Without hope, life becomes so much harder.

Hope, as we commonly understand it, is oriented towards tomorrow.  It's what keeps us going when the path of life grows rocky and challenging.  "This too shall pass," we say, sagely.  "It gets better," says the meme that we share with a friend who vaguebooks about some life crisis they're not comfortable sharing.

When we're struggling through a life crisis, or the sixth month of pandemic self-quarantine, it is hope that keeps us on our feet and moving forward.  It's also the attitude of the heart that is most consistently found among survivors of natural disasters or catastrophes.  If you're going to pull yourself from the burning wreck of your car and crawl back up that mountainside with a broken leg, you need to believe you're going to make it.  Hope keeps you swimming towards the far off light on the shore, though the waves may be high and the water cold.

When we lose hope, we lose so much of our will to carry on.

And therein lies the challenge as we reach the life's final boss battle.  Age wins.  Every time.  It cannot be beaten.

This too shall pass?  Well, yes, but when age passes, we pass.

It doesn't matter who we are.  You can be the richest man in the world, Steve Jobs with his billions, with access to the most cutting edge black arts of medical science.  You can be Elon Musk, whose Neuralink is transparently an effort to create a way to download his awareness into a synthetic neural substrate.

Our bodies age, and while for a time we might become richer and deeper, a perfectly bottled fourteen year old cabernet sauvignon, eventually we become diminished.  Life turns to vinegar, sour wine sipped on a cross.

In the face of that inexorable reality, it's easy to give in to mindsets that are unconstructive and unrealistic.

We can choose, for our entire lives, to look away.  We can lose ourselves in the rush and bustle of life, living only in the moment, not preparing ourselves for the future that will inevitably come.  "Live in the now," we say.  "That is why they call it the present," says the wizened turtle dude in Kung Fu Panda.  But the "now" we claim to inhabit is a chimera, a fleeting illusory nothing that is meaningless without the memory of what was and intention towards what will be.  

When age arrives, when our legs have failed and breathing is hard, when our heart struggles in our chest and we can no longer care for ourselves, when adult diapers and Ensure meal replacement drinks are bought in bulk, "living in the now" ceases to be an escape.  "Living in the now" can suck when you're standing at the exit of life.

It is our tendency, at those times, to fall back into our past.  We can live in a world of memory, continually revisiting what came before, our playlist set forever on repeat.  This can be pleasant, for a while, but it doesn't help us come to terms with where we are, and what is coming.  It can also become a place of regret and bitterness, as we rehash all that went wrong in our lives.  Memory can be a dank and dismal cell.

But what of the future?  Hope is oriented towards that which does not yet exist, towards potentials yet unmanifested.  Hope for what?  For more of the same?  For another physical system to fail?  For more discomfort?  The future, when you are at the end of life, holds nothing more than discomfort and death. 

If you hold the attitudes I've articulated over the last four paragraphs, aging will be rough for you.  Sure, they might seem "realistic," but they're also radically unconstructive.  I have personally always been a pessimist, with a taste for bittersweet chocolate and haunting minor key harmonies.  My mom's nickname for me as a little boy was Puddleglum, after the Narnian marshwiggle.  I was sure everything was going to turn out badly, that the worst was yet to come.  

As I used to put it as a lad, being a pessimist means you're either proven right or pleasantly surprised.  Either way, you come out ahead.  Or so I reasoned at the time.

If the attitude of our souls is negative, then not only don't we live as long, we also don't live as well.  

My mother-in-law Lottie was a fiercely, stubbornly hopeful woman.  She loved life and family, and wanted to drink as deeply from that cup as she could.  Her Ashkenazi Jewish heritage meant that she'd inherited the BRCA 1 genetic mutation, which makes cancer an inevitability.  She fought those cancers...of the breast, of the thyroid, of the gall bladder...for fifty years.  Always, always, there was the desire for more life, for more experience, for one more moment of joy.  It was the heart of her formidable strength.  She fought as hard as a human being could fight, and her hope bought her more joy, decades more joy.  Shabbas and Passover meals with a growing family.  Travels to far off lands with her husband of nearly 60 years.  Grandchildren who all grew up nearby, and on whom she doted and delighted as she watched them become young men and women.  

Her last fight was, in a dark irony, against the catastrophic reaction to a new chemotherapy to battle that last cancer.  She lacked the enzyme necessary to digest and process the drug, so the poison did not attack the cancer, instead destroying her gastrointestinal tract, her liver, and her bone marrow.  Yet still she fought, all the way through that last long impossibly difficult week in the ICU.  

Until finally, finally, she mouthed the word "Enough."  Hope carried her on to so many joys, as far as it was humanly possible to go.

Yet as powerfully as hope for more life can stir us to seek more moments of joy, there is a deeper hope still. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Preparing Our Souls for Aging - Wisdom

To age well, we need to have cultivated in ourselves the habits and disciplines that will increase the likelihood that we will be able to endure what is to come.  There's no way out of becoming old, of the decline and failure of our flesh.  In the face of that, mindset matters.  The objective reality cannot be wished away, but our subjective encounter with that reality can be chosen.  For Jesus folk, that means tending to the disciplines of soul that will give us the strength for that season.

The first discipline to attend to is wisdom.

With age comes wisdom, or so we tell ourselves as we grow older.  "If only I knew then," we say wistfully, "what I knew now."  We'd have made different relationship choices.  We'd have taken different career paths.  We'd have bought Bitcoin at two for a penny.  Things like that.

Problem is, that's not wisdom.  Simply having access to more data does not make us more wise, any more than having more information at our fingertips has made us all wiser.  Sweet Bouncing Baby Jesus, is that not the case. 

Wisdom is not about knowing more things.  It's about knowing the right path in the world.   Wisdom is the understanding of one's place in the scheme of things, of grasping the correct way to be in balance with all around you.

Wisdom, as a Biblical virtue, is a habit of mind, and not the exclusive domain the old.  Of course it isn't, given how many old fools there are. 

The wise, of whatever age, are measured and moderate. They speak carefully. They understand the impact of their words and actions. They are circumspect, and do not stir passions, nor do they trust their own passion as a guide. They are diligent and thrifty. They seek peace, and make peace where they do not find it. They are faithful to their word, to their commitments, and to their mates.

In all of these things, being wise builds resilience, connection and community.

Most importantly, the wise listen and grow.  When they're wrong, they learn from it.  When a new time requires a new approach, Biblical wisdom marks and understands the season, and does what is mindful.  There is a time, the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us, for everything.  Wisdom is what guides us as we shift to meet that reality.

When you enter the final season of your life, that habit of adaptivity is hard to maintain.  We want things to remain as they always were.  We want to be just as able, just as capable, unchanged from our younger selves.  When we resist those necessary shifts to accommodate the season, we lay a deeper burden upon ourselves and others.

My first funeral as a pastor was that of an older woman who had for decades been the social glue of her fading church.  K was a widow, the matriarch of a longstanding church family.  She was a natural hostess, the organizer of countless dinner parties and church social hours.  K was well into her eighties, a large woman with a round smiling face and a bright mind.  She lived in the same neatly appointed suburban home where she and her long-predeceased husband had raised their children.

As is the case with most wet-behind-the-ears young ministers, I discovered that to visit K was complicated.  Every visit, there would be a tray of food set out before me.  Little sandwiches.  Cookies. All of the things that insure that young pastors add a few pounds in their first year in ministry.  K was eager to be my hostess, to welcome me into her home, and I appreciated her gracious hospitality.

But I was also very aware of how hard this hospitality had become.  Her knees barely held her, and a lifetime of preparing and loving food meant that her mobility was marginal.  She was mostly confined to a single room on the first level of her three level home, having abandoned the upstairs bedrooms and the large basement years before.  Getting up to prepare for the pastor's visit was immensely difficult.  She would struggle to her feet, forcing herself over to the kitchen counter.  I'd offer help, gently, repeatedly, but she'd always demur.

It was her house, and she would never leave it.  Assisted living or nursing care were simply not acceptable.  Living with one of her children was equally unacceptable.  While her family was blessed with the resources to have in home care, she didn't want her house.  It was her house, her castle, and she trusted no-one to clean it or help maintain it.  She wanted things just the way she wanted them, and no-one could do it quite right.  Having someone come live with her was also unacceptable.  

"They're going to have to carry me out of here in a casket," she said, a smile on her face.  "I lived my whole life in this house, and I will die in this house.  Would you like another cookie?"

Family members tried to persuade her to either move or accept help, but she would have none of it.  They were there many times a day, almost every day.  When I visited, they'd arrive to help her clean up, just as they'd come to help her prepare.  Her adult offspring conveyed their exhaustion to me, their worry at how paradoxically fragile and stubborn she was, how her refusal to change her way of life made life harder for her, and harder for everyone around her.

It was not that her desires were of themselves wrong.  Not at all.  She wished to show hospitality, just as she had always shown hospitality.  It's a basic Biblical virtue, as feeding and welcoming and inviting in have been since that day Abram and Sarai welcomed in God unaware.  

But there comes a time when welcome takes on another form, and it is wisdom that allows us to perceive the coming of that time.

As we age, our ego fights against acknowledging what changes we must accept, not just for our own well being, but also for the loved ones and care providers who are necessary for our aging well.  If we are wise to the way of things, we allow ourselves to step away from that vision of ourselves that no longer matches our reality.  We welcome help.  We stop pretending we have capacities we do not.  

We have to hear Wisdom's voice calling out on the street corner, and listen to her.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Best Mother In Law in the Whole Wide World

Last Tuesday, my wife and I went out for dinner, sitting outside at a little Mexican place, taking a few moments together in a mess of a week.  Thirty four years ago, we'd started dating, and though life was hard, we needed to mark it. 

Being a peculiar sort of person, I thought there was a good chance I'd marry Rache before I screwed up the courage to cold-call her that summer evening in 1989.  When I slowly, awkwardly enunciated my name for her, that was what I left unspoken.  The words I said may have been "Hi, this is D-A-V-I-D W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S,"  but what I was really saying was "Hi, for the last six months I have been readying myself to make this call because I intend you to be my wife."  Rache was, at that point, unaware how she'd stuck in my mind, how much she'd made an impression.  I called her out of the blue because I remembered every single conversation we'd ever had, the ease of being with her, the rightness I felt every time we'd had a passing moment.  

Though the night of our dating anniversary was beautiful, Rache and I were both tired, an anxious pall weighing on us.  Her mom Lottie was hospitalized, and in the ICU.  She had been deep into a battle with yet another cancer when she had a catastrophic adverse reaction to a new chemo treatment.  Despite a ferocious and terrible effort, Lottie passed away just a few days later, reluctantly letting go of the life that had been such a joy.

I was blessed to know Lottie for the thirty four years Rache and I have been a thing, pretty much the entirety of my adult life.  There's an assumption, in our individualistic age, that when you choose a life partner it's a binary experience.  It's the two of you, locked together in the polarity of Wuv, Twue Wuv, and the rest of the universe may as well not exist.  As a romantic, I get that, but the reality goes deeper.  When you choose to marry, to do the as-long-as-you-both-shall-live thing, you're not just making a commitment to a lover.  You're grafting yourself into their whole web of relationships.  The people who are part of their lives will be a part of your life for as long as you both shall live, for better...or for worse.  That's kinda Shakespeare's point in Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how that ended.

That first summer when Rache and I began dating, I was attentive to that truth.

A good wife may be hard to find, but a good mother-in-law?  That you should have such a blessing.  Lottie was the Platonic form of the Jewish mother, for whom family was absolutely everything.  She loved and squabbled with and then loved her daughters more deeply still.  But to find a Jewish mother in law who loves her goyische son in law, and who supports him when he's called not just to be a committed churchgoing Christian, but a pastor?  Who knows from that?  Who's heard of such a thing?

Lottie had a boundless interest in things, a desire to experience the world and all that life offered.  She was an educator not simply because she loved to teach, but because she valued learning, her encounter with and delight in the new.  Classes and books, shows and music and travel to every corner of the globe, she wanted to embrace all of it.

But though the world was filled with newness, the experiences that mattered most were those of family.  Lottie wanted everyone there all of the time, to share every moment of life with those she loved, particularly those moments right after your plane landed.  She wanted everyone she loved to share their every joy and sorrow with her, to see their every play or performance or fencing match, to read every book, to play every game, to travel in a bustling huddle across seas and in far off lands, to experience it all together.

For three decades, I've been along for that ride, and shared that life with her. 

Family was everything, and Lottie and I were family.   I could talk with her about anything, share myself freely with her, both in joy and in times of hardship.  Her strength was mine when I was broken, and vice versa. 

When you take on someone as family, you bring with you your expectations of how that works, and sometimes there are differences.  In my very gentile family, for instance, the expectation was that adults all addressed their in laws by name.  For Lottie, though, there was an early hope that I might call her Mom.  I just couldn't quite say the word, couldn't quite get it out of my mouth.  It was not for a lack of love, just that that name was already taken.  Just like in Ashkenazi tradition you do not name a child after a living relative, I had someone with that name, and I couldn't get that to work in my brain.  Being an anxious twenty-something who was pathologically indirect and conflict averse, there was a period of time there where I struggled to call Lottie anything at all.  That wasn't at all awkward. Oy.

But eventually, she was Lottie, because I think both she and I understood her name meant more to me.   I could talk with Lottie about anything, share myself freely with her.  I knew that she loved me unconditionally, and she knew that I loved her just as deeply and without boundaries.  Lottie loved me as a mother loves a son, and I loved Lottie as completely as a son loves their mother.

I was always there for her, in joy and hardship, on adventures and Shabbas evenings, on bright days and holding her hand through that long hard last night she spent in this world.  

The word that I said may have been "Lottie," but what I was really saying was "Mom."

Her memory will be a blessing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Preparing our Souls for Aging 1

While we need to tend to our bodies in preparation for the inevitability of age, we also need to prepare our souls.  

Because gettin' old is hard on our bodies, but it can be equally taxing on the entirety of our person.  Not just our physical being, the peculiar coalescence of star-stuff and ashes that defines our place in the universe, but also the ineffable and unique awareness that rises from our particular physicality.  

Our souls can struggle as much as our deteriorating bodies.  As we age, and the capacities and competencies of youth and adulthood wane, our sense of ourselves can unravel.  Sometimes, that involves the person departing the body well before the processes of organic life have come to an end.  My maternal grandmother suffered from dementia.  Grandmother was a pretty little woman, full of sparkle and mischief.  A fierce competitor on the tennis court, she loved dancing and driving fast.  She insisted on being the first one to teach me how to drive, taking me out to tool around in her car when I was thirteen.  I noted that this was a few years early, and she'd smile.  "I first drove when I was eight," she would say.  "I never got a license.  Never needed one on the ranch in Texas."  She was the sort of grandmother who buys Coca Cola...whole crates of it, in little eight ounce glass bottles from a local preparation for the arrival of her grandsons.  That, and boxes of Count Chocula and Frankenberry, which were entirely healthy, being part of a balanced breakfast and all.  

As she grew old old, what had been interpreted as simple forgetfulness deepened, and her ability to remember whether she'd prepared a meal...or eaten...began to slip away.  She still sparkled, moment to moment, for years.  In the last season of her life, as the dementia was joined by a slowly spreading cancer, Grandmother faded away.  Words vanished.  The ability to dress and feed herself evaporated.  That body was still mobile, that heart still beat in her chest, but...particularly in those last weeks of life...she was not present.  The twinkle had vanished from her eyes.  The person we knew had gone.

Alzheimers and other diseases can erase us, or make changes so radical to the flesh in which we have a foothold that we cease to exist as the person we have been.  In a former church, I would visit O, a woman of remarkable grace and patience.  O was in her nineties.  Her husband suffered from Alzheimers, and its impacts on him had been profound.  He was still physically able, but his entire persona changed.  He'd been a gentle man, thoughtful and quiet, a good husband and father, grandfather and great-grandfather.  With the onset of Alzheimers came a change in him.  He became angry, violent, and profane, his outbursts mingled with extended periods of incoherence.  For his O's safety and those of care providers, he was institutionalized.  

She wasn't angry with him.  "He's just no longer there," she would say.  

There's very little we can do about those impacts on our time in this world.  But there are other ways age can impact our souls that we can prepare ourselves to face.  Just as certain habits of life can shape the way our bodies age, there are habits of the soul that can ready us to meet the mortal challenges of senescence.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Health and Aging

My father's father died when his heart gave out.  For years, he'd been nominally on a low-salt diet, which mostly existed in the minds of his doctors.  He'd grown up a farmer in upstate New York, and you ate what was in front of you and what tasted good.  He was a fierce, sharply intelligent little man with a prodigious appetite, the sort of man who...having grown up hungry and hardscrabble...would eat not just everything in front of him, but food off of your plate if you were slow or distracted.   Heck, he would eat food off of the plates left behind at nearby tables in a restaurant.  Food must not be wasted. 

Low salt?  Diet?  Those things meant nothing to him.  He smoked in moderation, as did so many men of his era.  He was fond of bourbon, which as a pastor of a large congregation in New York City was the lubricating oil of many a social gathering.  He indulged that fondness until it became something both physically and spiritually toxic.  He was tough as nails, but his heart was not, though it carried him into his early nineties before it finally stopped.

My father's younger sister was a vivacious, free-spirited woman, an ample redhead with a brassy lower East Side accent and a genuine easy laugh.  She worked, when she worked, as a legal assistant, but her is dream of so many in that wild rumpus of a city...was the theater.  She loved to eat and drink and be merry, and loved the pleasures of life, and eventually there was a whole bunch more of her than her heart could manage.  She smoked for a while, because, well, people still did.  With weight and a disinterest in exercise came one huge heart attack, one that she barely survived.  Her heart and circulatory system struggled for the rest of her life, which she continued to enjoy as much as she could, and a little more than was good for her.  Her death came too soon.

My own father's heart is in the process of giving out.  He had always exercised vigorously, playing tennis and going to the gym.  Despite a lifetime of exercise, he's had multiple open heart surgeries over the last decade.  Bypasses.  Valve replacements.  He'd been encouraged to lose weight, which he did, for a while.  And to take a growing list of medications, which he did, diligently.  He never smoked.  But he paid no meaningful attention to his diet, and shared his father's dark romance with alcohol.

Midway through the COVID pandemic, he started complaining that he was getting short of breath.  I tested him, and it came back negative.  Then he was struggling to breathe, every exhalation asthmatic wheezing rales.  I did a little research, then got him to the hospital.  It was, as I had feared, congestive heart failure.  To the hospital we went, right in the thick of COVID, which was just super fun.  Since then, hospitalization has followed hospitalization, as that progressive disease has slowly closed in around him.

We've fought that for more than a year.  We'll fight that to the end.

It's a battle best begun before the enemy is at the gates.

Entire industries have risen up around exercise and diet, as we've simultaneously grown more sedentary and collectively overweight.  Farming in the 1920s required just a little more effort than working on the couch from home does today.  Heck, it required more physicality than farming today, as mechanized Big Ag rural America has become less and less healthy.

We Americans are trained to live in the moment, as good little consumers must.   Food is fast and abundant, fatty and salty, sweetened with corn syrup, perfectly designed to appeal to us on a primal level, a quick hit of empty calories and lizard brain flavor.  Our world is oriented towards our convenience, towards ease, towards inactivity. 

When we think of caring for our bodies, we are trained to think in terms of a return to youth, or of right now.  We want to look good in our swimsuits this summer.  We want to be attractive and instagrammable, which I'm assuming is an adjective these days.  And sure, if one wants to get theological about it, Jesus did talk about setting aside our fear about the future, about lilies of the field and sparrows and the like.  Being anxious about our mortality ain't the Gospel.  We are not called to obsess about tomorrow.

But we are also repeatedly reminded to live in a state of preparedness for every moment.  Our lives in the right now must be lived with intention, as we acknowledge the likely outcome of any given act, or 

How we choose to live our lives impacts how we will age.  We know this.  Not always, of course.  Cancers and aneurysms, car accidents and incoming city-sized asteroids can bring an end to things no matter how well we have lived, or how relentlessly we've focused on caring for our bodies.

"Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die" neglects to consider that, well, no, actually, tomorrow we might live.  If we live into hope, then it is our assumption that a probable future will arrive at our doorstep.  How we've lived shapes our encounter with that future.

Given my family history of heart disease, this is a daunting truth.  It may well prove to be the thing that sets up my first face-to-face with Jesus.  Or perhaps it'll be the aforementioned asteroid.  I'm not the one who ultimately determines that, but as a sentient being, I do have some input.  From the intention of my choosing, I can choose for or against the likelihood of a more vibrant closing chapter to my life.

I've been vegetarian for most of my adult life.  There are a range of reasons for this, which I've described in detail in my other writings.  It's about a minimization of suffering, particularly the horror of factory farmed meat.  It's about treading more lightly on this world.  There's also a strong component of enlightened self interest.  From all evidence at hand, eliminating meat from one's diet is better for one's heart.  

I'm taking my weight and my need for both load-bearing exercise and cardio seriously.  Sure, I might be vegetarian, but beer and pizza and Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk Chip are all technically vegetarian.  Pastoring and writing are both sedentary vocations.  Gaming and reading are favorite hobbies, and neither of those...outside of Dance Dance Revolution or Beat Saber...require much effort.  My preference, like my aunt's, would be to just not think about it.  But that's a recipe for either a swift death or ...just as likely...a long, difficult, and early old age.  

As I carry the familial Scots-Irish taste for whiskey and fermented hoppy beverages, I've forced myself to cut that back.  The last thing I need are thirty five hundred empty carbs a week, laced with a substance that actively depresses and suppresses heart function.  

These choices are nominally the teensiest bit selfish, all about me and my physical well being.  While I am older and able, that will be true.

They are also about my loved ones, who are...assuming I'm not just set out in the woods on a cold night...those who ultimately will care for me.  Caregiving is hard work, and tending to myself right now diminishes both the intensity and duration of that care.

Living well does not guarantee that we will age well.  Nothing does.  But we can increase the probability that we will age well, and it's always the right choice.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Of Mysticism and Deconstruction

On the surface of it, there are similarities between mysticism and deconstruction.

Mysticism is, within every one of the great religious traditions of humankind, our universal yearning for union with the Divine Fire.  It is the desire to stand so fully in relation with God that you can no longer tell the difference, to lose yourself wholly in the Numinous.

Mysticism affirms the presence of God in every moment, and yet at the same time embraces the fundamental, ineffable mystery of the Holy of Holies.  It giggles at efforts to use frameworks and categories and language itself to define God, because human language is utterly inadequate as a means to approach the Mysterium Tremendum.  The anonymous medieval mystic text The Cloud of Unknowing put it like this:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. 

Mystic experience shatters those structures created by the human mind, those labels we apply to the world around us to bind and control it, and those labels we apply to ourselves and others.  Perhaps the greatest systematizer of the two thousand years of Christian faith was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose vast Summa Theologica takes up an entire bookshelf in a library.  After completing what may still be the most exhaustive and disciplined structuring of orthodox Christian faith ever undertaken, Aquinas had a deep personal experience of the Holy, after which he declared, famously, that the whole Summa was "straw."  Worthless.  Burnable.

I have a strong mystic leaning myself.  My faith has been shaped by moments of inexpressible presence, by dreams and visions that rose unbidden.  This isn't really the Presbyterian way, with our decent and orderly lawyerliness and love of procedures, processes, and protocols, but I've always been a weird sort of Presbyterian.

Mysticism, where it manifests within any institutional religion, is almost always viewed as weird at best, and dangerous at worst.  Mystics are a little nuts.  A little twitchy.  They pose a threat to the shared assumptions and orthodoxies that establish boundaries around and within community.  

Because of this, there's a tendency among many earnest souls to conceptually conflate the act of deconstruction and the mystic life.  I mean, I won't deny some of the parallels.   They both take things apart.  They both are "reimaginings."  They both challenge orthodoxies, shatter literalisms, upend institutions, and subvert human power structures.  They both acknowledge the essential limitations of language itself.

So, they're the same, right?

I gently contend that they are not, and for a rather basic reason.

Deconstruction is a work of the human intellect.  Mysticism is a work of God.  

One is analytical and critical, the other is experiential and prayerful.  One rises from academic discourse, the other, from the work of the Spirit.  One leads to lament and ashes, the other to peace and joy.  One rises from the ego, the other rises from an unmediated ego-death-inducing encounter with the Holy.  One dis-integrates, the other integrates.

While deconstruction has its place in the work of critical secular thought, it rises from an essentially different source than mysticism.  It bears very different fruit.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Harder than Caregiving

Though caregiving is hard, there is something harder.
Growing old is harder.  

Every single human being I know who has reached the final chapter of life's journey has said that.  Family.  Church folk.  Parents of friends.  The refrain remains the same.

"Growing old," as a dear saint of my church would say before her passing well into her nineties, "is not for sissies."  It's an archaism, and I don't doubt that someone will find that term offensive.  But the truth of it remains, no matter what word we use.  Aging requires a deep reservoir of personal resilience.  It gives no quarter.  It does not back off if you ask nicely, or if you complain to the manager.  It does not care about your identity, or your trauma, or your conspiracy theories about the Gerontological Industrial Complex.

I expect it to be upon me before I know it.  As one grows older, after all, time accelerates.  When I was seven, an hour felt like a big ol' chunk of time.  A summer day could go on forever.  A year was an eternity.  Now, a year passes in a heartbeat.  My children went off to college, and their college years...despite their best efforts to extend the process...passed in what felt like a month.

I am middle aged now, my beard flecked with grey, wrinkles and puckerings appearing across my flesh as it loses plasticity.  My knees throb.  My shoulder freezes up on regular occasion, as scar tissue forms where muscle should be.  My teeth, once a source of pride, now are as sturdy as a mouthful of chalk.  The effortless health of youth and adulthood are waning, and in their place are aches and pains.

This process will accelerate, as time accelerates.  The years will click by, faster and faster, as the inexorable gravity of mortality draws me towards itself.  That acceleration is an illusion, of course, a simple subjectivity.  Every moment of life that remains is simply a smaller and smaller proportion of the time allotted to my mortal existence, and so I perceive it as passing more swiftly.  Not that, from my perspective, that will make much difference.  It's gonna go so danged fast.

Old age will be upon us before we know it.  Nothing we can do will prevent that.

We can lie to ourselves about it.  We can pretend we're young, even when we are not.  We can act young, and dress young, our lives nothing more than one long gauze-blindered reminiscence of what once was.  Hair can be colored.  Foolish relationship decisions can be made.  

And we can go further.

Fat can be suctioned out and re-injected elsewhere.  Nips and tucks can be sliced away and the remains stitched together, tightening and stretching us into a Leatherface-masked flesh-golem doppelganger of our former selves.  We tell ourselves it is liberating, that it's our body, and why shouldn't we look how we want, why shouldn't we be young, forever young if we wish to be?

Yet still we will age.  Lying to ourselves and others is not adaptive.  Delusion is not adaptive.

Instead, we must accept that aging will occur, and prepare ourselves for it, body and soul.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

"Caregiving is Women's Work"

I am a caregiver.   

I sort and organize medications.  I prepare food.  I go shopping, and purchase and deliver medical supplies. I take vitals...BP and Pulse Ox and weight to report to Dad's doctors.  I'm the primary contact for his caregiving team, the home aides and visiting nurses.  I take two of the fourteen home aide shifts weekly myself, because there's nothing more important for a caregiver than direct observation.  I handle filing insurance claims.  I need to see and hear how he's doing, first hand.  I get Dad out of bed, dressed, and ready.  I help him get to bed at night.  I can see how he's breathing, watch how he stands.  I'm there.  I check in almost every day that I am not physically with them.

This puts me in an unusual position, one that doesn't mesh with a particular set of cultural expectations.  

Every other human being I'm working with on his regular care team is a woman.  Every single one.

This we expect.  It is commensurate with the Way Things Are.  Also in line with expectations, not a single one of his other caregivers is of European heritage.  They are Filipina and Afrocaribbean on the home aide front line, eight hours a day, six days a week.  They dress him and clean him and prepare low sodium meals, as I do.  The cleaning crew for the house are a pair of efficient Latinas.  The visiting nurse who changes and dresses his wounds is Middle Eastern.  His complex care doctor is of Chinese heritage.

Caregiving is women's work.  For the white urban upper class, it's also work for immigrants or people of color.  It's an ingrained assumption, so deeply enculturated into us that though we notice it, there's little impetus to challenge it.

And I am a white man in his middle fifties, college educated, with two graduate degrees in my field, ignoring the herd-expectations of my "identity."  

As a middle aged white man with a still surprisingly full head of hair, were I to track with the career expectations of both our culture and Professional Christianity (tm), I should currently be the Senior Pastor of a large multistaff congregation.  I'd be working seventy hours a week, constantly on call to manage and lead and be the Face of the Church.  I'd be a name, a known quantity.  I'd have a network of connections among colleagues.   While I would still speak well of caregiving, I would pay women to do it.

Because caring for parents of advanced age and full-time careers do not mix.  Expecting them to do so is pure folly, the sort of foolishness that exhausts and depletes us.  You cannot do it all.  You must make a choice.

The choice I have made is to make space for caregiving.  It's a logical choice, a necessary choice.  I view this choice in terms of strength, duty, and honor.

I am still able and mentally competent, more or less.  This is vital, because caregiving requires strength.  Some of that is simply physical.  I have to be able to lift and move wheelchairs, to offer up a strong arm to my father.  When he gets into bed, he needs to be shifted into position, which requires both dexterity and physical strength.  I'm not as good at it as his more regular evening care provider, a sturdy Jamaican woman of remarkable capacity.  But I still get it done.  Being moderately handy, I can fix things, like installing grab handles in bathrooms.  I am useful.

Other forms of strength are required.  I am not squeamish.  I was with Dad recently when he had a sudden reaction to a new medication, and experiencing explosive, uncontrollable diarrhea.  I worked alongside his home aide to clean him up.  I cleaned his legs, and changed the excrement-soaked bandages that covered his pressure wounds, then made sure those wounds were clean.  I scrubbed the floor while she laundered his soiled clothes.  Was it something I'd choose to repeat?  No.  But neither was I phased by it.

When there have been other emergencies, I have coped with them, and that requires reserves of will and intention.  Caregiving requires deep emotional resilience, as you encounter moments of trauma as the one who must remain strong.  Sure, you feel it.  How can you not?  There've been moments where I have thought, if I were the anxious, sensitive boy I once was, I would be terrified and weeping right now.  I am still sensitive and prone to anxiety.  But as a caregiver you do not have the luxury of indulging your fears, of freezing or coming apart as you watch a loved one struggle for breath or cry out in pain.  It demands a firm stoicism, a calm focus on what must be done right now.  That, leavened with gallows humor.

I have a duty to ensure that my parents are cared for as they age.  A sense of duty is countercultural these days, a little fusty, a little "square."  Duty oppresses you, culture whispers.  Duty prevents you from being your best selves, from being creative.  But I do not see it that way.  Duty is a defining commitment, an integrating center that presses back against self-interest and personal gain.  Duty is moral obligation, the sense of responsibility that rises from a fundamental assumption about what is good.  

From my Christian moral framework, I understand that it is a fundamental good to provide care, and not simply care conceptualized as tending to the physical processes of those in need.   Caregiving rises from caring, and I care for my parents.  It's grounded in love, and my love for family is not external to my identity.  It's a defining feature.  It is a part of me that makes me who I am.  That "best self," understood through my faith.

As I have been called to small church pastoring, a vocation that does not...and should not...sparkle with lucre, I act on that love-grounded duty by offering my time, my thoughtfulness and the work of my hands.  I am willing to set other things aside if need be, because they are less important.  Wealth.  Influence.  Career attainment.  None of these other things are central to the integrity of my person, or my sense of my best self.

Honor is also a vital part of caregiving.  When we act rightly, when we orient our words and deeds so they align with our moral assertions, we act honorably.  There is nothing dishonorable about caregiving work.  We are, as a culture, really fond of praising those who perform those roles in our society.  It's good work, necessary work, labor that has clear and unquestionable worth.  It must be done, and done well.

If it is honorable work, why don't we want to do it?  

It is humble work, labor that does not confer the prestige of wealth or power.  It does not require four years of college education, and a masters, and a doctorate.  It isn't the sort of thing you slap up on Tik Tok. "Hey guys, scrubbing feces from the bathroom floor! #lol #mybestlife"   It's physical labor, it's often difficult, sometimes tragic.

And why, particularly for those who share my XY chromosomal makeup, are men so underrepresented among caregivers?   Sure, it's not a cultural expectation.  It is hard work, work that does not mesh with how our society defines success.  It is service, and there are some who conceptualize servant labor as weak.  "Servile."  "Submissive."  "Unmanly."

Like, say, in the ancient Near East, when you would enter a house.  Your sandals would be removed, and a servant would wash your dust covered feet.  It was a necessary action, but not something you did if you were powerful, or successful, or a social influencer.  And in Judea, once upon a time, there were a group of men who had gathered around a man they believed to be their anointed king.  They thought he was going to lead a revolution.  They understood him in terms of power and victory, the sort of man who riles crowds and stills storms.

And there he was, kneeling before them, cloth and basin in his hands.   Laying down his life for the people he cared for.  Giving care.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Of Age and Politics

Our culture is about to have a problem with the old.

This seems, on the face of it, a little bit absurd. I mean, here we are, rolling into a presidential election in which both candidates are likely to be senior citizens.  That will mean, in the dark and cynical calculus of political discourse, that age is going to be viewed as an issue.

Take, for instance, the prior president.  Not the current one, who is 80, but the former one, who is 76.  

Back when Trump was president, those who despised him would routinely turn to his age as an angle of attack.  "Look at the clear signs of dementia," people would crow, after a rambling answer that was mostly word salad. "Hah hah, he's unsteady on his feet, has to hold a rail, look at the sad feeble doddering old man," they would laugh.  "Look at how unsure he seems taking a drink, haw haw haw, weak old man."

There'd be yet another unflattering shot of his lumpy slacks, and of course, of course, it meant that he was wearing Depends.  "Haw Haw, lookit Little Donnie Diapers," someone would caw, because what is more pathetic and worthy of mockery than the incontinence that so often comes with age?

It would make me angry, because it was cruel and evil.  Seeing that cruelty shared...particularly among "friends" in my social media circles...was hard.

I am the farthest thing from a fan of Donald J. Trump.  He's a huckster and a charlatan, a relentless self-promoter and fabulist whose penchant for infidelity and compulsive falsehood turned...inevitably and predictably...into a threat to our constitutional republic.  He is still a threat, and I take that threat seriously.

He appears vital and dynamic, and is in reasonably good condition for a human being of his vintage.  None of that diminishes his moral unsuitability for leadership.  The issue is not and was never his age. 

Similarly, I see little in Joe Biden to indicate that he is in any meaningful way incapacitated.  He's still remarkably physically fit for a man of 80, and while he's not a golden tongued orator, neither is he incompetent.  He's shown ability as a negotiator, and has worked assiduously to rebuild the center that we all pretend we want rebuilt.  

Not that this has stopped those who despise Biden from taking up the same cruel refrains.  Listen to that answer, gotta be Alzheimers.  Man is senile!  Doddering!  Lookit Brandon fall!  Old man goes down!  Haw. Haw.

As a caregiver to elderly parents, one who has rushed across town in the dead of night because a fall has occurred, that cruelty fills me with anger, but it is not a partisan anger.  It is an anger with those for whom partisanship trumps decency, and for whom partisanship trumps kindness.  

That is not to say that age might not become a concern, as it has with Senator Feinstein.  It's important for leaders not to cling to the role that they believe defines them when they can no longer serve ably.  That's a real thing.  Even for pastors.

But even before it becomes a real thing, it has been a false thing, a partisan line of attack.   Because in the pursuit of power, nothing is off limits.  If, as Saul Alinsky counseled in Rules for Radicals, political mobilization requires us to personally and deeply hate everything about our opponents, then there is nothing about them that we will not twist into that bitter service.  We will shine the blinding light of our hatred on every weakness, real or imagined.

Deconstructing Deconstruction

At the dawn of the fledgling Jesus movement, there was a moment when Christianity could easily have been crushed out of existence.  Its adherents may have been passionate, but they were a handful in number.  In that vulnerable moment, the leaders of the movement found themselves imprisoned by the theocratic authorities in Judah.  Their lives were in peril.

In that moment, or so the Acts of the Apostles tells it, a rabbi stepped in and saved them.  Gamaliel was a spiritual teacher of considerable substance, remembered not just in the narratives of Christian faith, but also in the story of modern Judaism.  He was of the lineage of Rabbi Hillel, the open-hearted, gracious teacher whose thoughtfulness, and liberality still speaks to much of contemporary Judaism.

When this paltry group of earnest heretics was dragged before the Sanhedrin, passionately refusing to let go of their recently executed teacher, Gamaliel counseled patience.  "Look," he said.  "If these people are wrong, and an offense to God, they will fail.  Their movement will disperse, like those that coalesced around many other bright-eyed would-be messiahs.  But if God is with them, then they will succeed.  Let them do as they do, let us see what becomes of it, and let God be the judge.  They thrive, and it is of God.  If they peter out, then they..."

"What?" said Peter.

"It's a figure of speech," Gamaliel smiled, then turned to his fellow rabbis.  "Let them try, and we will know them by their fruits."  The Sanhedrin, or so the story goes, was persuaded.  The church survived.

Gamaliel's measure is a wise one for any new thing.  Try it.  Keep an open heart, and an open mind.  Does it work?  Then it's worth doing.  It aligns with the reality of God's work in the world.  If it fails?  Then it does not.  You can learn from that failure, and try again in a different way.  Or you can abandon that rocky, sun-blasted road to nowhere, and journey instead to more fertile fields.

This is hard for both fools and ideologues, who tend to double down on their folly.  But it's both gracious and realistic for the rest of us. 

Which brings us to "deconstruction."  

Back when I was in seminary...and here we're talking the late 1990s, because I'm old..."deconstruction" was the brightest and shiniest new thing in progressive-leaning seminaries.  For the deconstructivist, the great threat to faith is rigidity and calcification.  Orthodoxy is inherently oppressive, as it constrains freedom of thought and action.  So all assumptions must be both challenged and torn down.  Language itself must be torn down, and new language created, which must then be torn down.  Derrida and Rorty were quoted, and then deconstructed themselves.  By its very nature, deconstruction is nearly impossible to define, as it tries to squirm away from the connection between symbol and referent, between language and reality.  Evangelicals uncomfortable with the peculiar rigidities that were forming in their tradition embraced it, but so did many in the oldline denominations.

I was part of the Emergent movement, back when it happened, and deconstruction was part of the postmodern ethos.  I blogged, and I jousted with power, so I found myself fellow-travelling with a group called Presbymergent for a while.  I gathered in Louisville with earnest Presbyterian progressives, all of whom were eager to subvert the hegemonies, to take the church completely apart so that a new thing could rise.   Church...the institution, the structures, the expectations...was hurtful and wrong.  Something new was needed.  With modernity behind us, all beliefs needed to be critically assessed, and faith itself must be systematically interrogated.  We needed to embrace the mystery, and move beyond the prison of old forms and languages. 

That was twenty years ago.  Listening to the wise and gracious counsel of Rabbi Gamaliel, we can see the results of that intellectual movement.  We know the fruits of deconstruction now, and the fruits of deconstruction are...deconstruction.

Every corner of the Christian world that embraced deconstruction is coming apart.  Here, I'm not talking about the reduction in numbers that came with the departure of fundamentalists and literalists.  I'm talking after that, about the life of the post-departure communities that embraced criticism and deconstruction.  Progressive and liberal Christian denominations are decoalescing, evaporating like dew beneath the morning sun.

There's variance in the rate of coming-apart, sure.  There are outliers, like Unitarian Universalism, which remains more or less stable.  But among the oldline, it's consistent and replicable, the sort of result that marks something.

Critical thinking is all well and good, if it serves a purpose.  But tearing down for the sole purpose of tearing down is the opposite of faith.  That sort of criticism requires an existential distance between the critic and the thing they are criticizing, a separation of the deconstructor and the construct they are subverting.   It requires remove.  Abstraction.  And a "faith" that is abstracted is not faith.

If we have faith, then that faith defines us.  It is a relationship that establishes meaning.  It determines and frames our understanding of the good.  Wisdom requires us to test that faith, of course, to assess whether or not that faith is true to its purpose.  For the Christian, that requires us to trim away that which is hateful, graceless, and unjust.  It requires us to have a sense of the life and geist of the Way.  For Jesus folk, that's Christ and his teachings.  

As a Christian, I do not stand above this, or separate from it.  I do not analyze it as an academic, or criticize it as an activist.  I strive to live it out.

Though I acknowledge the complex reality of the process by which the Gospels themselves were made, the vagaries of oral and written traditions, the work of editors, the challenges of translation, and the influences of cultural context, that does not change the dynamics of my faith.  Jesus is the teacher, and I am the disciple.  The Gospel remains the measure against which I determine the value my actions.

If I fail to do this, my faith ceases to be the center around which I integrate my life.  That is when faith disintegrates, when I cease to be.  It isn't conservative, because it tears down all that comes before.  But neither is it progressive, because it is so busy attacking what is that it accomplishes nothing.

There was a moment all those years ago back in Louisville that still sticks with me.  We'd spent an entire morning discussing and deconstructing and lamenting, which was occasionally empowering, but often just kinda felt like complaining about church.  Finally, finally, we had turned to establishing what we hoped to do.  What did it mean to be Presbyterian and Emergent?  What was our vision?  What was the future we hoped to bring into reality?  What values united us in common purpose?  

We shared those things together, laying out what it was that we yearned to build.  We created a statement that named that thing, one that set us towards a future of the movement within the church.  It was a moment of shared dreaming, in which we found our commonalities.  It felt, for a brief moment, exciting.  Like the stirring of the Spirit, like the beginning of a New Thing. 

By the end of that afternoon, we had found a roadmap to Presbymergent's purpose.  It was still rough around the edges, but so were we, and that was part of the appeal.  We had started to build, to create, to live something new together.

Then one participant announced, seemingly out of nowhere, that this was unacceptable.  That it constrained us.  That we were building a new orthodoxy.  That we couldn't allow ourselves to be confined or defined.  We had to tear it down.  It must be deconstructed, in this case, quite literally.

"We have to burn this," he said.  "Who has a lighter?"

I was aghast, but I was also an outlier.  I should have spoken up, but I was an introvert among a group I only kinda sorta knew.  So that was what the group did, as I watched.  Our efforts were turned to ashes, and the wind carried them away.

It was the moment that Presbymergent failed the Gamaliel test.  Well, the first moment.  We did a whole bunch wrong after that, too.

But for me, it was a mark of deconstructions' nature, and a warning to those communities that choose to uncritically embrace it.  The fruits of deconstruction are self-annihilation.  It is not the friend of newness, or creativity, or faith.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Social Isolation and the Ties that Bind

It was Thursday evening, and I was spending it with my parents.  That's pretty much every Thursday evening now, along with every Tuesday morning, and whenever else is necessary.

For the rest of the week, it's home aides, who are great.  It's visiting nurses, who tend to the wounds on Dad's feet and take blood samples.  

But on Thursdays, it's me.  I do what must happen on Thursday evenings.  I take out the trash and recycling.  I prep a simple dinner, and do anything else that needs to get done around the house.  I make sure Dad takes his evening meds, and help him get to bed.  I observe, just to see how they're doing.

Most importantly, I just spend time with them.  Lately, I've been introducing them to the sci fi series Firefly, which they'd never seen.  They're enjoying it, best I can tell, and I'm finding it a delight in the rewatch all these many years later.  Sharp and smart, both playful and very human, it holds up well.  And it ain't recent.  I mean, it's been twenty years.  Firefly is a "vintage sci fi classic" at this point.  The time between Firefly and the year of our Lord Twenty Twenty Three in the arc of sci fi storytelling is the same amount of time between Star Wars (1976) and Forbidden Planet (1956).

Spending time is important, particularly for Dad.  Mom gets out, goes and does things with friends, goes to exercise, goes birding.  Dad...can't.  Getting out on his own just isn't possible.  Sixty pounds of gear...his wheelchair, the oxygen on which he depends...must go with him.  So he's at home, pretty much most of the time.  

Dad is an extrovert, unlike his bookish, inward older son, and contemporary aging is rough on the extroverts.  Life in my house growing up was an extrovert's paradise, filled with energy, dinner parties and musical evenings, tennis socials and choir gatherings, laughter and wine and song.  Dad loved being around other human beings, connecting with them and sharing stories.  His world was rich with friends and well-liked colleagues, church folks and community theater performers.  It was a story rich with characters and presence.   Now that's mostly passed.

As human beings are social creatures, this takes a toll.

Retirement communities can help with this, but when you move into late stage senescence, that doesn't help.  Nursing homes aren't bubbling with social energy, no matter what the stock photos in the brochures might suggest.

That, and Dad wants to be at home.  He loves the familiarity of the space.  He loves his piano, his light-filled "great room," with its view through trees to green fields beyond.  He loves the foxes and the deer, and the countless birds at the feeder.  There's a stream of consistent characters still, caregivers and nurses, doctors and family.  In that, he is fortunate.

But isolation still weighs.  "All of my friends," Dad will say on regular occasion, "are dead."  There'll be times where Dad just sort of goes silent off in a corner, or at a window.  I'll find him in his chair, half asleep in the kitchen, midway through getting something.  Or we'll be on a video call with his doctor, and after sharing a few reminiscences about his younger days, then drift away.

For others at the same stage in life, those with less support, it can become a smothering shroud.  In the absence of mobility, and burdened with physical issues that make it hard to get out, with family far away and friends either dead or equally isolated, that isolation can be hard thing on a soul.

Last night, my folks ate dinner and together we watched Wheel of Fortune.  Dad was nodding off in his wheelchair, as he so often does.  The phone rang.  I got to the phone first, expecting it to be another in the endless stream of telemarketers and scammers that prey on the old.   Mom answers those calls, pretty much always.

I recognized the name on the Caller ID.  It was someone from their church, the church where I grew up.  It was a member of the choir, someone who'd sung with Dad back when he could make it in for choir rehearsals.  "Oh, it's E," Mom said.  "Here, talk to E."  And the phone went to Dad.  Dad perked up, stirred out of the Wheel of Torpor by a familiar name.  Dad put it on speakerphone, because for some reason it's always on speakerphone, and they chatted about an upcoming choir event.  They discussed the possibility of Dad getting to church, and ways the choir could make it happen.  Dad told a joke or two, and I could hear the choir member's wife laugh in the background.

It was a pleasant interlude, and a place of human connection, and a reminder of the vitality of the fellowship that rises from Christian community.  As our population ages, those ties that bind will become all the more essential.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Yearning for Canon

What is canon?  I'll encounter this thought every time I see some absurd take on an old story, like the gnawing death-by-treacle horror of the Star Wars Christmas Special, or Klingons hawking Christmas ornaments.  Et tu, Gowron?

" this canon?"  comes the snicker.  Of course it isn't.  Not because it's silly, but because of something fundamental about the nature of canon.

Canon serves a mythic function in human storytelling.  Myth and canon are deeply interwoven.  What does that mean?  First, what is myth?

Myths aren't lies or falsehoods, but rather the tales that come to define us.  The actions and relationships they describe inculcate the archetypes that integrate personal and cultural self-understanding.  Which is a fancy pants way of saying that they tell us who we are, and how we are to live.  

That process is organic, collective, and recursive.  Which, again, is an overly arcane way of saying that we tell stories, which then define us and their own retelling.  Those defining tales change over time, in the way things naturally evolve, with new emphases being introduced.  They grow and change as language grows and changes, particularly when one set of narratives steps into encounter with another.  When we hear new stories from others, we fold them into our own.

Within cultures, some become canon, as the relationship between the tales and the culture matures and reaches equilibrium.  It becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem of identity formation.  It becomes "canon."

Canon is not something imposed from above.  It's a collective process of discernment, a choosing of what is and is not defining.  It gives a sense of self, and a common ground between those who share it.  It binds a people together across generations.

The process of canon within my own faith tradition was long and messy.  It was a wild ride, with intrigue and politics and conflict upon conflict.  But where it settled...on an interlaced latticework of variant tellings of the story of Jesus and the insights of his followers...contains both variety and a sense of common purpose.  It was a work of the Spirit, or so I am convinced.

Because canon is held in common, and is the thing that holds us in common, it cannot be changed lightly or easily.  

This is where corporate myth-making fails.  Corporate mythmaking and the "universes" it creates are of a completely different character than organic mythmaking.  Corporate narratives, like propaganda, have an ulterior motive.  They are not told for the joy of the telling.  They are told for profit.  They're product, "intellectual property."  Like all products, they must be produced and purchased, over and over again.  Old stories must be cast aside, not because they no longer speak to the human condition, or because they are no longer relevant.  It is because they are not sufficiently profitable.   If only the old stories are told, then the new stories cannot be sold.  The retelling of stories becomes less about the joy of a new take on a telling, and instead follows the logic of planned obsolescence.

Myth that is marketized ceases to be mythic.  Nor can it be meaningfully "canon," because it is constantly in flux, constantly being rebooted and repackaged.  It loses the capacity to provide meaning, to be the narrative measure which frames our world.  Mythic tales are not intellectual property.  They cannot be copyrighted.  They cannot be owned.  

In the absence of that stable common narrative, cultures decohere.  They lose their shared identity.  Individuals struggle to find a sense of self, as ever changing narratives leave them not just uncertain of their world, but uncertain of themselves, trapped in an endless adolescence.