Monday, February 19, 2018

Because there Must Be A Better Way

Here we go again.  I’m referring not only to the news of another mass shooting — this time at a Florida high school —but also to the inevitable collision of knee-jerk reactions.  “If only we had stricter gun control laws this kind of tragedy wouldn’t happen.”  “If only more law-abiding citizens carried firearms this kind of tragedy could be contained.”  We trot out these tired, stalemating alternatives, replete with statistics and global comparisons, constitutional protections and religious prohibitions in the aftermath of every such offense against humanity as soon as the ambulances have driven away the bodies.  Churches themselves offer little clarity, having become wholly-owned subsidiaries of one political party or another. There is no real political discourse, our elected representatives little more than shills for vested interests. And so nothing happens. No, that’s not true:  people continue to senselessly die in the course of everyday, benign pursuits like attending concerts, dancing in a nightclub, and going to school.

Even if we cannot agree on a solution to these increasingly common outbreaks of anger, terror and fear, surely we can agree by now that our entrenched ways of responding to them aren’t helping.  Indeed, our deadlocked insistences are only holding open the space for more violence to occur.

It’s time we declare a moratorium on trumpeting these binary alternatives.  Regardless of the hypothetical merits of our respective points of view we are not convincing anyone with our “all” or “none” debates.  Collectively we merely end up frustrated, increasingly estranged and entrenched, and doing nothing, blaming the recalcitrant “other.”  Surely we can demonstrate more creativity than we have thus far brought to the problem. 

Years ago Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, advocated “third alternative” thinking as a way to harness the synergies of conflicted voices.  Neither “my way” nor “your way”, third alternative thinking likewise moves beyond watered down compromises between the two.  Covey held up the belief that when patient, sincere advocates set their minds to possibilities beyond their original convictions third alternative solutions emerge that are better, richer and more resourceful.  Hasn’t the time long-since arrived for us to give the pursuit of a third alternative a try?

So here we are again.  How many times must we return here?  I have my biases and convictions, but I don’t know the solution.  The fact is you don’t either.  I am convinced, however, that somewhere in our collective imagination, honestly and fervently joined, there is one to be found that years from now our children, who have actually lived to ponder the question, will wonder, “What took you so long?”

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Life Remembered, and a Still-Nourishing Meal

It has long been my custom to browse the obituaries each day. It is a practice born neither of morbid curiosity nor to establish, according to the old joke, my own absence there. It is, instead, my dread of failing to note the passing of someone who has graced my days with their own. We are shaped, I learned along the way, at least in part by those we bump up against, and I don't take those caresses and abrasions for granted.

Most days those memorial pages are filled, to my relief, with photographs and names unfamiliar to me. Today, however, my discipline was sadly rewarded. Don, I learned, had passed away, after a brief illness, at 77.

Perhaps it's just the way the universe works — sending out "dog whistles" lost on most ears, but in frequencies registered by those who need to hear them — but I was only recently telling of my acquaintance with Don, at a gathering of friends on New Year's Eve, the day before, as it turns out, he died.

Don Loomis lived across the alley from the church I served, in one of those unfortunate apartments carved out of an old and once prouder house on a weary street in the college neighborhood. Somewhere in or close to his 60's, Don lived happily and independently, despite the fact that he had lived his first 33 in a state institution. That circumstance had more to do with his mother's shortcomings than Don's, and though institutionalization had certainly left its scars, Don made his way without resentment or regrets, funded primarily I suppose by government assistance of one kind or another. Most semesters would find him telling his story dispassionately to sociology students at the university, answering questions, laying his life bare, less to garner sympathy than to proudly note that nevertheless he had thrived.

Every year Don hosted a Thanksgiving feast. As a regular on his social circuit — he would stop by my office to talk — I was routinely invited, but I managed to find exempting excuses. I couldn't imagine a meal in Don's dingy apartment, and, I'm deeply ashamed to admit it, in the company of what I presumed would be Don's dingy friends.

But one year, perhaps 10 years ago, I ran out of excuses. Don had stopped by asking to borrow some tables and chairs for the annual feast, and as it turned out, some money for the turkeys. And then came the inevitable invitation. I caved. I accepted. I grudgingly entered the date and time in my planner. Eventually the dreaded date arrived. With a deep breath and deeper trepidation I picked my way across the alley and located Don's "front door". Inside, several of the guests had already arrived — college students, mostly; and recent college graduates who had developed a fondness for and friendship with Don by living in the neighborhood, in very similar "unfortunate apartments", and sharing previous meals. Some had come back into town for this occasion. Some had brought their parents who were visiting from out of town. Perhaps 20 of us in all, crowded together around worn church tables and peeling card tables, quizzing each other about "how do you know Don," and settling into this unusual hospitality.

Don was meanwhile finishing up the dinner preparations — stirring, carving, ladling. Eventually we were called to attention, I awkwardly offered a Thanksgiving Prayer, and the meal was served. The tables were were covered, decorated, and set with plates and flatware and cups...and at each place setting a brown paper lunch bag enclosing an orange, an apple, and some nuts — a party favor of sorts.

It was a heart-meltingly tender evening: this man of meager means and limited story, the benefactor to fresh-faced, expensively educated twenty-somethings, their affluent parents, and a shame-faced hypocritical pastor he had endearingly befriended. All of us, gathered at Don's table, in each other's keeping and Don's, grateful. It was, in a word, beautiful. Or to choose a better one, it was holy. It was as close to the Kingdom of God — the Feast of Heaven — as I am likely to get in this life.

I drifted out of touch after that. Don returned the tables and chairs, he continued to stop by from time to time, but eventually he moved to western Iowa to be closer to family members. But I've never forgotten that evening — the gift of grace he selflessly and matter-of-factly extended, and the unlikely assortment of people convened there to receive it. And I've often wondered what became of him.

Now I know: he continued to live, continued to thrive, continued to tell his story, and then he died.

In the American narrative, Don's story would scarcely earn a word, let alone mention by name. In the American economy, Don would, by any calculation, be averred a "drain," a "liability".

Math, of course, has never been my strength, but I would add him up very differently — as one, nonplussed, who gave far-better than he got.

And in more ways than one, he fed us.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Past as Prologue

I'm too sentimental for this. And it's only getting worse with age. Annually this is one of my recurring dreaded moments: the inevitable lists of famous people who have died through the course of the year. Pop culture icons. Musicians. Actors. Luminaries. Statesmen. This year the list includes Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Jim Nabors, Joseph Wapner, and Don Rickles; there was Roger Moore who was perhaps my favorite James Bond, and Adam West, the quintessential Batman. There were showmen Jerry Lewis and Monty Hall. Passing musicians in my personal Hall of Fame this year include Al Jarreau, Greg Allman, Chuck Berry, Glen Campbell, Walter Becker, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, and David Cassidy, although plenty will take issue with that last one.

And these are just to name a few. There are certainly others on the list, like Chuck Barris of "Gong Show" fame, and Hugh Hefner of Playboy. Age was the determining factor for many, along with other natural causes. Suicide took more than its share (although I'm not sure what the share of suicide might be). Often The Grim Reaper wielded a sickle in the shape of the Big "C". As it always is, it's a long and diverse list. Some on the list changed history; some changed their particular craft; some didn't change a thing but helpfully entertained. Some simply changed me — or at least provided the soundtrack to the various changes I was undergoing.

And I will admit to the melancholia I feel at the loss of these 2x4's that have formed some part of the background and underlying structure of my years. Their passing confirms the inexorable movement of time — underscoring that the "way things are" is merely a transient movement along the way to whatever next will be. And every other day of the year I celebrate this movement that I pray will eventually be judged "progress." God knows I'm not the least bit interested in this present state of affairs being the culmination of anything to which we collectively aspire.

And yet seeing this long list every year reminds me that there are all kinds of joys along the way — secular "Ebenezers" to borrow a word from scripture and the old hymn; marker stones along the way of something memorable and good (the "Gong Show" notwithstanding).

Most of us will never show up on year-end lists of this sort. The ponds into which we throw our pebbles are much too small and remote. But they are our ponds, nonetheless, and we care about them and the ripples we set in motion. Institutionally we often ask, "if this organization ceased to exist would anyone notice or miss it?" Perhaps the better use of these year-end lists, then, is less to simply lament the passing of memorable personalities and the times in which they flourished, and more to prompt us to toss a few more pebbles with whatever time we have left.

I will miss these departed souls — their shows, their songs, the jokes and the laughs, and the associations I connect with them all. But only for a moment. There are, after all, new songs being written.

Ironic and appropriate, then, that at the very time I've been reading these lists of passing we have been playing with our 1-year-old grandson, celebrating not the past but all that lies ahead…

…in his hands…

…and, even yet, in ours.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Village’s Friendly Reminder


We have been eating into the spirit of the season — or eating ON the spirit of the season, to put a finer point on the matter.  A few weeks ago Lori retrieved from the cabinet downstairs our set of “Thanksgiving dishes” to enjoy in these waning days of autumn.

Called “The Friendly Village”, our little set consists of four place settings of this English China made by Johnson Brothers.  I don’t really know why we think of them as particular to Thanksgiving, lacking as they do the usual cornucopia and turkey iconography.  Perhaps it is the way their quaint brown images artfully and unobtrusively blur the transition between autumn and winter — precisely as late November is prone to do — with their snowy rural scenes encircled by fallen leaves and berries.  They are somehow warming, despite their chilly depictions; sweet and nostalgically bucolic.  They rather "feel like" the season, even if no pilgrims are pictured.

Warming, then, but also bittersweet, which perhaps accounts for their several years of neglect. The set was a gift received early in my ministry in Des Moines.  I don’t recall it to have been a special occasion — a birthday or Christmas or the like; we weren’t, in that way, in the habit of exchanging such gifts between pastor and people.  I rather recall it to have been something of a sunlit intervention in a particularly dark season of my life — a gesture of grace meant to convey sympathetic support.   A kindness more than anything.  But whatever the impetus, into my office one day breezed Evelyn carrying a wrapped box from which I later excavated the dishes.  A gift, as it were, from Harry and Evelyn, although it likely would have been news to Harry.

I had primarily known Harry and Evelyn as pleasant-faced members of the church’s older generation — reliably present among the pews on Sunday but otherwise peripheral to the busyness of congregational life.  They were kindly and implicitly supportive, but hardly the chatty type.  Other than the perfunctory exchanges of social obligation, I doubt we had ever enjoyed a true conversation.  I did not know them well, and yet here she was bearing gifts.

I’ll admit that while I was touched by the thoughtfulness, the dishes themselves left me...well, let’s say “neutral.”  Chalk it up to the superficial snobbery of youth, they didn’t really fit into my “aesthetic”.  Striking me as something more befitting my grandparents’ table than mine, I dutifully used them on seasonal occasions,  but they more generally lived toward the rear of the cabinet.

And then they began to haunt me.  In the years following the gift given and received, I rocked along through my tenure, busy with many things in my personal and professional life.  The church bustled programmatically along, the kids grew up; I got married, and Harry and Evelyn aged.  Eventually Evelyn went into a special care center on the far side of town and, left to his own religious devices, Harry sort of drifted away.  I visited Evelyn a time or two, but her memory issues made for challenging conversations, and I conveniently got lost in the proliferation of many and simpler things.  Or perhaps more truthfully put, Evelyn got lost in my proliferation of those many and simpler things.  The sum of it is that I neglected her —pastorally abandoned her and, by extension, Harry.  They eventually died largely forgotten by the church they had loved, save but one or two attentive friends.  And I grieve that negligence to this day.  

Which explains the bitter-sweetness of pulling out those dishes each year and setting the November table.  Their “aesthetic”, for one thing, is more compatible now — we have become, after all, the grandparents to whom I once consigned them; and God knows a “Friendly Village” is something toward which we can use every encouragement.  But mostly we use them to remember — Harry and Evelyn, to be sure — but more broadly the painful regret of negligent forgetting.  We eat off of these dishes to remind us to notice, to reach out, to be instigators in ways that we are able of precisely that “Friendly Village” in which we long to live; one encircling especially those more present to us who we easily forget or neglect.    

It’s just a small set of four, and we are only two, but whatever their other virtues and value, the dishes remind us that every village starts somewhere, and this one might as well start at our table...

...or yours, for that matter...

...Remembering, and giving thanks.

And reaching out.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Maybe You Cry Too

“I wonder if maybe I had a heart attack sometime without knowing it,” I mused aloud.  “I’ve heard that people get more emotional after heart attacks.”  

Because it seems like I’m awfully emotional these days.  

Now, people who have orbited in my universe for any time at all will no doubt smile at such a speculation.  They would tell you that I’ve never had too much trouble getting emotional.  Despite my most willful intentions tears have leaked through the years into sermons, splashed  onto poignant passages of books and drowned out musical lyrics, while throat lumps interrupted conversation.  It doesn’t take a very deep well to drill into my personal water table.  

That noted, however, my tears these days seem to be ever more readily available.  

It could be, I suppose, that I’m simply and increasingly “losing it” — becoming more and more fragile, unstable and vulnerable to the shifting breezes regardless if they are favorable or deleterious.   I doubt it, but check with my wife who likely has better perspective on this question.

It could also be that there are simply more reasons to cry — a fact virtually indisputable.  
Think Puerto Rico and Houston and Miami and their hurricane-devastated lives.  
Think Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, TX and their bullet-riddled bodies.
Think the record-breaking 24 homicides so far in low-key, middle-of-the-road, heart-beat of the flyover zone Des Moines this year — or is it already 25?
Think Bill Clinton and Donald Trump and Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Riley and Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Louis CK and God knows how many others with their trailing wastelands of despicable behaviors that they somehow viewed, in their oddly dystopian parallel universes, to be normal and acceptable.
And think of the way the rest of us find ourselves interacting with one another, what with our incendiary social media posts and put downs.  

Who is there to listen?  We suddenly find ourselves surrounded by “voices” — “conservative” voices, “progressive” voices, voices “of the people”, and more.  And don’t misunderstand me, I’m not interested in silencing anyone.  Indeed, too many have been silenced for too long and who need, at long last, to be heard.  But therein lies my anguish.  No one is actually hearing them — listening, seeking to understand.  Once upon a time that was the purview of town halls and civic organizations and churches.  But town halls have been politicized, civic organizations, such as still exist, slide into the lowest common programmatic denominators, and churches have become simply one more “voice”, intoned with righteous — or is it sanctimonious? — edge.  

I rather think, moreso than “voices”, we could benefit these days from a few more true, unpretentious and resilient communities in which people take the time to actually listen to voices other than their own; in which “respect” is as much practiced as demanded; in which “wonder” and “curiosity” and “concern” are encouraged and nourished even when they drift into possibilities contrary to my entrenched dogmas; and in which we, who don’t always or ever agree, actually celebrate the sacredness of sharing that relational space — suspecting that the vigilant maintenance of that communal commonwealth may well be more important than whatever it is that we say and hear there.

But we don’t seem to have the time or interest in that, determined instead to over-shout each other, exploit, ignore, use, abuse, disdain or simply shoot each other.

And it makes me want to cry.

But even that, I suppose, is ultimately hopeful.  As Leonard Cohen famously said, "There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in."

Which means that whatever else we are doing with all our fracturing, we are making room for all kinds of light.  

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Long-running Past Into the Future

It was a brief gathering — a few hours that whirred by in a rattle of baby clangs and the chatter of adults. But it happened. We weren't all there — we lamented the relational gaps — but enough of us were present to call it good: four generations, convened in one place for food and visiting and the blessed grace of looking into each other's eyes while convened in the same room, around the same table. For once it wasn't an occasion. No one had died, there were no candles to blow out or graduations to proclaim; there was no holiday to celebrate. We all simply found ourselves proximate and seized the opportunity. 

We don't take such moments for granted; they happen seldom enough given our disparate zip codes — that, and no one can guess how many more chances we will get. Life is unpredictable that way — ultimately ephemeral, and no matter what our ultimate ages inevitably shorter than we'd wish. We see what we get to see, do what we get to do in the days of our pulsing, according to our choosing. And the choosing is key, I reflect to myself, given that we can neither see nor do it all. 

Whatever lies ahead, today we chose to be together, if only for that handful of hours — parents, child, grandchildren, partner and Great-grandchild. We remembered, we caught up, we laughed, we shared a meal, we inhabited the moment — physically this time, rather than telephonically — with our lives and ourselves. And while I'm grateful for the technology that blurs and bends the miles on a more frequent basis, there is something holy and blessed about bodies in one place, sitting close enough enough to feel the warmth of each other's skin and smell the varied colognes. 

The baby helps. Without voicing the reality of it, his crawling and reaching, fascinating and cooing reminds us of the birthings that prefigured this very gathering — of a husband and wife who became parents of babies who grew to become parents whose babies now give birth. Families as gestation and birth writ large and wide. 

While the rest of us were both buoyed by and freighted with memory, baby Truett has only a future into which he reflexively leans and beckons us. Willingly and sluggishly — nostalgically — we follow along. And somehow both the leaning backward and the leaning forward are satisfying; centering even. 

And so it was that we eventually went our separate ways — changed a bit despite the brevity of the moment. Swelled, perhaps, by the largeness — and the largess — of these precious days. 

However many of them we get.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Olive Branches of Multiple Varieties

 Day 14

We walked among the groves on this, our last full day in Spello — morning, and then again afternoon.  We had destinations in mind — a cemetery here, a shrine there — but mostly we felt this need to be out along the paths beyond the village, among the trees.

For centuries olive oil has been, beyond kitchen and the table, the enacted, anointing vocabulary of blessing — the liturgical lubricant of forgiveness, peace and hope.  I haven’t a credible explanation why.  Perhaps in the cultures that gave rise to the scriptures of Jews, Muslims and Christians, olives and their oil represent, by their ubiquity, all that which is foundational, basic and essential — the primal gift and ground of the Holy.  Perhaps it was used ceremonially just to remember our foundations and what is finally important.

Before, then, resuming our place in the routines of our lives; before returning to the hourly news reports of conflicts and threats, storms and terrorist assaults, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the surrounding olive branches, willing, by visceral experience, to take something of their blessing back home to our world in such desperate need of it.

It’s not that Spello is inured to such challenges. As a walled city, danger and threat and tumult are part of its DNA. As victim of two major earthquakes in the past 20 years, the very walls bear scars.  It’s shopkeepers carry the weight of economic downturns.  And it’s people — it’s families and neighbors — are not strangers to the usual abrasions of close social interaction.

But such challenges are muted, more peripheral threads in the overall tapestry of life.  They aren’t ignorant of world affairs, but neither are they glued to television channels continually drenched in their toxicity.  They interact with each other.  The animated and enlivening conversations with the personalities in front of
them are more precious than the swirling political vicissitudes around them.  They are largely pedestrian.  They walk home from work — journeys of a few blocks that may take an hour because they are filled with hellos and pauses for stories exchanged among friends. They are no stranger to the countryside or fresh air.  Connection with each other and their surroundings is daily routine, not special event.

Which is not to say there are not special events.

Which is how it turned out that the olive branches this day would come in more forms than wood.

We were invited to a party.  If there was an occasion, we weren’t aware of it.  It was, as far as we knew, simply a time for friends to be together.  There were the hosts — an Italian professor of the classics and his American artist/professor wife — along with various expats from around the US.  There were Spellani, like the community cultural director and his wife, two restauranteurs, a neighbor or two and also a poet who shared, as a spontaneous climax to the evening, her new publications.  And in the midst of it all there was made a place for us. Over the course of the evening there was discussion of books, of ideas and words and personal stories and creativity and imaginative stimulation.  There was encouragement and curiosity and affirmation.  There was food and thanksgiving and hellos and goodbyes.  In its own way— in lives shared, in Italian, broken but earnest English, and our own welcomed monolinguism — the entire room became an olive branch, heavy with anointing fruit.
“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live in unity!  It is like precious oil on the head...” (Psalm 133:1-2)
How good and pleasant — and hopeful, and enlivening — indeed.

We are mostly packed, and prepared for the journey home — functionally at least.  In truth, there will be parts of us that won’t fit in our bags that will necessarily remain behind in these homes, along these streets, and scattered among these olive groves; partly because there is so much of this place that will accompany us, profoundly enlarged and changed, home.

Perhaps we will find our way here again.