Thursday, August 31, 2023

How One Is Doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I was doing, and the doing was easy.

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

It felt good, to be doing that.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Grief and Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet still, he doesn't feel gone.

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

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

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

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

Not lost.  Just...completed.

The Names We Are Given

Funny, the titles we take on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

A Peculiar Day

Sunday was a peculiar day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was so...calm.  Peculiar.

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Call About Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Dad.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Of Enemies and Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

A New Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Age, Duty, and Transactional Self Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 7, 2023

Age, Foolishness, and Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word for that culture? "Sophomoric."  

Friday, August 4, 2023

Age and Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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