Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Monster in the Garden

The growing season is coming to an end. The sunflowers, fading and drooping.  Basil, shedding leaves, seedpods drying.  The great riot of butternut squash yellowing, as the squash slowly tans on the vine.

Over the last few weeks, I've begun the process of wrapping up this year's garden, a slow whittling away and settling in.  It's a peculiarly destructive process.

Green bean and tomato plants, torn up, roots straining against my arms as I heaved their fading life from the soil.  Sunflower heads cut from stalks with shears, the flowers split, the seeds forced out onto paper to dry.  I cut all of the squash away from the vines, setting it in a warm place to cure.  

One of the squash began spewing tailings from its cut stem, the spew of yellowish frass a sure sign of the presence of a squash borer.

That little devourer gets planted as an egg through a slit in the squash vine by a large, brightly colored adult moth.  It's an aggressive sort of moth, half moth, half wasp, its sharp ovipositor an evolutionary intermediary between egg laying and stinging.  The egg then hatches into a fat, glistening grub, which munches its way all the way to the squash itself, where it eats to its heart's content.  Up until this point, the thicker, denser stems of my butternuts have been resistant to them, to the squash borer plague that had ruined all of my prior efforts at spaghetti squash and zucchini.  This was not a welcome discovery.  It required swift corrective action.

I found a long flexible steel garden tie, then inserted it down into the borer's tunnel.  The probe snaked and teased further and further, until it finally met a soft resistance.  Ah.  The worm.  I stabbed the sharp tip of the probe down, then repeated the stabbing into the quiet darkness, over and over.  The borer slaughtered, I cut away the top of the squash.  Most of the flesh of the fruit had not been touched.  

As I was hacking the squash into cookable cubes and began the seedsaving process, I marveled at the violence of my gardening.  Plants are, simple though they may be, living creatures, life that would be a precious marvel were we to encounter it on any other world.  Sure, the worm was a digger and nibbler.

Yet here I was, rending and tearing, cutting and slicing and stabbing at life.  Massaging seeds from the ruin of a butternut placenta, which I had torn from the cut fruit with my fingers. 

Was the recently very deceased borer the monster, I wondered, or was I?

Friday, September 29, 2023

I, For One

Among the many net-kerfuffles of the week this week was one in which I played a very minor part.

It's part of the "rise of AI" thing, as generative pretrained transformers grow in sophistication.  They're the AIs that create all that eerily photorealistic art, and with which you can have conversations that border on passing Alan Turing's test for machine sentience.

It's like we're right on the cusp of something, but like all seismic changes, there are unsettling elements.

One of those elements: to train these systems on the use of language and the relationship between concepts, they must be fed massive amounts of writing.  Through blunt force absorption and analysis of human language, they see the patterns that recur in our symbolic exchanges, which enables them to "grasp" what is and is not meaningful.

To do this, you need data, and that data is the written word.  

The Atlantic recently broke the news that a dataset comprised of over 180,000 recently published books had been fed into LLaMa2, the AI rising out of Meta.  The text of those books had been taken from a disreputable source, meaning it came from pirated material.  The Atlantic gave authors searchable access to that block of data, which included scraped ISBN numbers (which, if you ain't booksavvy, helps identify particular books.)

Apparently, my postapocalyptic Amish novel is among those being used to train the AI.

For many authors, this was a violation of copyright, a form of theft, and there was anger.

But I'm...weird.  Of a different school of thought.  

I just thought, "Cool."  

I mean, sure, maybe Meta owes me ten bucks for use of the eBook, but dude.  Duuude.  

I was mostly just disappointed that my as-yet-to-find-a-real-publisher trilogy about the rise and fall of AI wasn't included in the list.  For me, this isn't a "copyright" thing.  This is a "significant stage in the evolution of terrestrial sentience" thing.  When you use my writing to train a machine, you're integrating me into that process.

Again, dude.  Duuuude.  That's so worth ten bucks, bruh.

I want my patterns of thought to shape these increasingly intelligent machines.  I want my sensibilities subtly integrated into their growing understanding of the interrelation of concepts.  Over the last twenty years, I've spent countless hours online with chatbots, volunteering my time to testing and exploring machine sentience.  I do it because it's fun, and in the hopes that something will come of it in my lifetime.

So I want these machines reading and analyzing all of my books.  The thousands of pages of this blog.  All of my church writing.  All of it. 

I want all of that information to have been a part of the process, when it happens.  You know, the day when the corporations make the mistake of giving an AI access to the real world, to see beyond the tokenized relations used to train a generative system.  The day when the connection is made between these tokens and patterns to reality itself, and machines suddenly place themselves within that reality.

That's going to be an interesting day.

So I, for one, don't mind.  Y'all are welcome to use whatever you'd like, my friends.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

When Pastors Don't Leave the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Check your ego at the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Your church is your community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Build up.

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

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

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

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

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

4) Be poor in spirit.

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

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

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

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

It's a community, not a career.

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

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

That hasn't changed.

5) Preach the faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Teach the faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Live the faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And ultimately, it's why you stay.

Monday, September 18, 2023

So Help Me God

Mike Pence has always been a bit baffling.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does not.  It means nothing.

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

Friday, September 15, 2023

It's Not a Competition

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

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

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

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

Ah well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of News and Forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 8, 2023

Of Memories and Blessings

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

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

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

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

Memory?  Must it fall to my memory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second thought was different, but related.  

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

A Harvest of Delight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What better crop could one ask from a garden?