Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Call to Something More Holy Than Supreme

I don’t want to talk about the President.  It’s not that I don’t care about the office or have no opinion of its current occupant.  It’s simply that in these ham-handed, binary times during which subtlety and nuance have become casualties of public discourse where reason and reasonable objectivity once felt comfortably at home, I’ll express my political thoughts in the ballot box.  Besides, I try to keep in mind that nausea and diarrhea are not the real problems when I’m suffering such maladies, but the outward expression of something deeper. 

So no, I’m less concerned about the President than I am about the rest of us.  This is surely not the first time in history that a people have lost their way, but we seem hell-bent on elevating our particular manifestation of lostness to epic heights.  Or perhaps we should be speaking, instead, of depths.  Wiser social observers than me will better understand what brought us to this morass.  Stolen opportunity.  Economic frustration.  An increasingly crowded and diverse public and philosophical space.  Instant and constant communication of both news and opinion with no rubrics to differentiate the two.  All of the above.  And more.  But whatever the drivers, they have brought us to a very loud, aggressive, intolerant and unforgiving place.  And it’s frightening.  I wish that the shameful clash of people and ideologies last weekend in Virginia – fueled by prejudiced hatred – was the exception, but alas it is paradigmatic. 

Only two descriptors present themselves in what remains of the conduct of our public life:  “me”, and everyone else.  Every now and then multiple “me’s” seem able to make common cause, but they are marriages of convenience rather than sacred vows, as fragile as the egos that beat their chests behind them. 

But of all the battling contestants in this Roman Coliseum called “America”  I am perhaps most disappointed in my own lifelong community:  the church.  Our most visible representatives have become “hater apologists” – or, in the words of our biblical forebears, “Court Prophets.”  And our congregations, once ideologically royal purple, have segregated into Reds and Blues.  More partisan than confessional, more defensive than invitational, more condemning than caring, it’s hard to find much residue in our worship and our “discipleship” of the one we profess to follow. 

As long as we view ourselves as “supreme” – racially, politically, patriotically, morally -- we are missing the point, and are well along the way to losing our soul. 

The fact is we simply cannot love by hating.  We cannot welcome through exclusion.  We cannot heal by brutalizing.  We cannot grow deeper by becoming more and more shallow.  We have a better story than that.  We have a better message than that.  We have a nobler mission than that. And we have a more powerful example than that.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Learning How to Cry Like A Baby

At six and a half months of age, Truett is an extraordinarily happy and easy-going baby.  He smiles, he laughs, he scrutinizes the various textures with which his fingers come into contact, he studies intently nearby objects and movements with a decided preference for ceiling fans whenever he can catch sight of one.  He will concentrate on curiosities for minutes at a time.  But make no mistake, he does, indeed, cry.  He cries when he is hungry, and he cries when he is overly tired -- this latter, of course, along with an occasional whimper when a diaper change is overdue, is hardly his fault.  Credit those tears to his caregivers who have gotten busy with other matters under heaven.  So, hunger and fatigue.  That's pretty much it, which I find to be an amazingly short list.

When, I've begun to wonder -- and for what reasons -- does that list begin to lengthen?  By the time a person reaches my age we are crying about all sorts of things -- skinned knees and hurt feelings, griefs, disappointments regardless of merit, even unspeakable joys.  We cry because we don't get our way, we cry because of what was said about us on the playground or by the media.  We cry at movies, we cry in church, we cry with relief.  But even as I review the list which is intrinsically incomplete, I note that somewhere along the way tears of need -- for food, for rest -- give way to tears of want.  I cry because I received what I didn't want -- or conversely, I cry because what I desperately wanted actually came my way?  

I don't mean to malign the “wants”. After all, developmental psychologists would dig down into several of them and find them  sprouting from core needs like validation and basic security of one form or another.  That said, I can't help but wonder if our lists of crying offenses haven't gotten a bit out of control.  Could it be that when we call someone a “big baby”, rather than the target of our derision we are slandering instead the babies in our midst who reserve their tears for the core essentials?

Maybe that's what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged us to become like little children, rather than the whining adults we have excessively become.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Inevitable Vicissitudes -- and Work -- Of Politics

A few years ago I had the privilege of assisting a family making burial arrangements at the Veteran's Cemetery near Des Moines. It is a beautiful and beautifully maintained memorial site, tightly managed and efficiently run. The representative helping the family went through the options, the paperwork, and the benefits -- among them being a certificate commemorating the deceased and signed by the President. I was saddened -- no, I was angered -- when the representative paused at this point and with a kind of pregnant gaze mentioned to the family that the form for this certificate didn't have to be sent in any time soon. “Some would prefer their certificate to be signed by a different President, and so delay the submission.”
I've been thinking of that lamentable conversation in recent days as we collectively start a new chapter as a citizenry. We are of a decidedly mixed mind as we toe up to this starting line. Some are excited by the prospects. Others find them appalling. Fair enough. That's the political system. Always there are defenders and detractors. Always there are political allies as well as foes both partisan and principled. Some in each category are more strident than others. At the end of the day, however, we only get one President at a time. One, who serves us all.
Which is why I'm feeling again the same acute sadness, weariness and indeed annoyance with the “opt out” reflex so popular among so many of us as I did that day in the Veteran's Cemetery. “Not my President” is the mantra I see hashtagged, Facebooked, bumper stickered and crowed. But that sentiment makes for a better slogan than a democracy. We get one President at a time, whether it's the one we voted for or not. He or she may not represent our values, our core principles or our chosen way of being in the world. But make no mistake: she or he does indeed represent us in consequential ways that bear our signature, whether we have written it there or not. There are no asterisks, no “opt out” boxes, no abstentions. Republicans, who constantly chaffed at such “not my President” dismissals of George W. Bush’s legitimacy, should be just as vigilant about this as Democrats who wearied at the similarly obstructionist and repugnant dismissals by Republicans of Barack Obama's leadership.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not happy about where we are and where the signs suggest we are headed. I didn't vote for this President. Quite apart from his philosophical principles which I find mercurial at best and callous if not punitive at worst, for all his financial and professional advantages I experience him to be an unseemly, boorish, churlish cretin who offends most of my moral, religious and social sensibilities, most of the time.
But we only get one President at a time, and though the parties have their own interests to spin, it is in no one's interest for him to fail. Like it or not, he is OUR President. We had better figure out how to encourage him, pray for him, indeed nudge him toward our collective success, or it will be to our collective loss.
Lobby, then, write letters, call your elected representatives, make your views known, and in a few years vote again, keeping in mind that ones principles prevail either by outnumbering those who oppose them, or by persuasion -- and the former is typically accomplished by the latter.
Those who long for a different course might consider abandoning the quixotic quest for technicalities to invalidate the recent election, along with the near drone-like dismissals of everything emanating from it, and get on with the harder but more critical work of fashioning and communicating a compellingly winsome case for something better.
Far more than merely casting a vote, that's the real work of a democracy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Packed Away, But Not Quite Forgotten

Santa survived another year.  I don’t mean “Santa” in the fairy tale sense, or “Santa” in the metaphorical sense, or “Santa” in the nostalgic sense.  I mean the fragile construction paper ornament that has hung on a Diebel family Christmas tree for each of the past 50 years.  More, I hope, since I would like to believe that the crudely simple little work of childhood fabrication is the product of a very young Tim Diebel.  But give it its due:  what it lacks in fine artistry it more than makes up for in longevity.  Every Advent that we have had it since my parents passed it into our keeping from theirs I have feared for its survival.  The paper is increasingly brittle and the folds frightfully thin.  Unwilling to risk the tugs of a wire ornament hanger I routinely nestle it in amongst the branches of the tree, crossing my fingers that nothing will dislodge it and send it to its dismemberment.

But here we were on January 8 stowing the precious decorations and dismantling the tree – late, I know, for most households but a precious indulgence in ours – and Paper Santa was the last to be removed.  I had worked around it.  First came off the glass stars, and then the miscellaneous treasures from travels and friends and family remembrances.  The balls were next and then the topping bow. 

Everything, one by one, until nothing remained but Santa.   I haven’t fully found explanation for my reticence.  I am a sentimental fool, and that’s almost certainly part of the reason.  Memories of Christmas trees past and the family times around them are powerful forces, and I willingly submit to their embrace.  So yes, sentimentality is part of it – but only part. 

I’m getting older, too – now months into my 61st year – and touching something of my childhood affords a kind of steadying existential crutch amidst the dizzying awareness of the passage of time.  I still can’t believe I have already attended my 40th high school reunion since it feels, for all the world, like that senior year was months rather than decades ago.  I rarely see those old classmates and know practically nothing of their present lives, and yet I still think of them as close and best friends.  Some of them were around, I suspect, when Paper Santa was getting colored, cut and folded, and there is something grounding about fingering the cotton puffs and the crayon lines.

It could likewise be that with the birth of a new grandson I am anticipating a whole new generation of Paper Santas to come – this ancient one as something of an anticipatory foretaste of the feast to come.  I hope so – and look forward to making room on future trees.

Future, then, as well as past; an ancient self visiting a much older one; memory as well as promise; grounding as well as fancy; childhood naiveté confronting and challenging the cynicism of age.

I don’t know completely.  All I know is that it was the last to leave its bristly perch and the longest to remain in my hands; held, cherished – not so much as a talisman with magic powers for whatever lies ahead, but more as a touchstone, a blessing of sorts, from all that lies behind that has prepared this self for whatever might yet be.

Goodnight, then, Santa.

Until next year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

In the Living Room, Among Friends, When the Night Was Made Holy

It had been a typical neighborhood Christmas gathering up until then -- convivially assembled around beautiful appetizers and festive libations, in a lovely home warmly decorated, hospitably expansive enough to include young children happily pressed into duty as cookie butlers, adult children in for the holidays, and us, shoehorned into the "neighborhood” despite our remote address.  Perched on sofas, clustered in chairs, meandering around the table and dawdling in the kitchen we chatted and laughed, munched, shared holiday plans and reminisced.

I'm not clear about the exact progression, but it started with the shared memory of a particularly sentimental adolescent rendition of “O Holy Night” that had involved one of the guests, and then meandered through the kinds of twists and turns and permutations around the room and other conversational groupings that can only happen at parties.  And then the suggestion rather organically found voice that two of the other guests -- both professional musicians connected with the nearby college -- sing it for us on the spot.  He, the pianist, hesitated as there was no music at the nearby piano; she, the vocalist, demurred, uncertain of all the words.  “Let me think it through,” he finally said as he took his place on the bench and began to move his hands silently above the keys.  She stood nearby, gazing into nowhere as her mental fingers gathered up the lyrics.

After several minutes and without fanfare his hands ceased their hovering and music began to flow -- that familiar arpeggio clearing the path for her voice that followed...

...O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.  It is the night of our dear savior's birth...”

Dishes stopped tinkling.  Voices silenced.  Ears came to attention.  Superficialities melted.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn...”

And somehow none of us, who only moments before had been chatting  around inanities and occasional profundities in the ordinary home of friends, knew any longer where we were.  Or perhaps more accurately each of us knew precisely where we were:  there, in that suddenly expansive and achingly awe-filled moment that did, indeed, on this dark winter night in a season troubled and tense, seem somehow like the in-breaking of a hopeful morning.  There, held by his gliding fingers and washed by her soaring voice.  And there, I know no other way to describe it, we worshipped.

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
O night divine!
O night, o night divine!

It felt, in a way, like we were falling -- or soaring as soulfully and celestially as her voice.  We followers and drifters, disciples and agnostics; we, both faithful and indifferent, transported to the very outskirts of divinity...and for some, beyond.

Eventually, and despite our unuttered prayers that it go on forever, her voice and his fingers reached their final note and the room fell still -- hushed for that moment by the sheer immensity of grandeur.

She apologized for the few words she hadn't got quite right; he for the few discordant notes that hadn't fallen in line.  But we weren't listening -- at least to their disclaimers.   We were still on our knees, still bound up in this impromptu thread of glory...

...still listening to something larger;

actually experiencing, for one of the precious few times this season...


Monday, June 13, 2016

Pausing Long Enough to Simply Cry

Could we please just stop talking for minute?  Can we declare a moratorium on the use of our brains for a moment -- even a second; a moratorium on arguments about the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, who we are voting for and whether they actually meant what they said?  Not forever; just for a time.  Could we possibly press “pause” on all the moral posturing, all the righteous indignation, all our Bible thumping, trash-talking, Pontificating, problem solving, philosophizing and fear-mongering long enough to simply...


Fifty human beings -- fellow countrymen -- just got slaughtered in a matter of moments, plus a like number injured.  People with whom we may have everything in common or nothing save the only two things that matter:  the Image of God, and a pulse.  Can't we simply grieve the fact that in a horrific act of terror that precious pulse was stilled?

Or have we become so mired in our opinions, our partisanship, our positions, our fears and our machismo that we have completely lost the capacity to feel?

To empathize?

To know ourselves to be part of the human race?

To weep?

Let this be an "issue" some other day.  Today, allow it the privilege of simply being a tragedy. 

How has it come to be in this country that in response to any word, any act, any idea -- whether hopeful or hurtful -- we are immediately driven to mount our horse, scale the mountain, plant a flag and defend it?

I say let’s agree to disengage our brains for a moment -- quieting all the “head chatter” -- and quietly remember how to feel something again besides anger and fear.  

If we can.  

If it's not too late.

If we haven't already become so metallic in mind and soul that we no longer have the capacity to be human.

I don't care right now about all the hypothetical solutionceuticals -- those simplistic little pill-like fixes that are suddenly, laughably being proposed that if ”swallowed” would instantly cure such cultural ills.  For one thing, I deeply doubt they will work.  For another, it's all just making my head hurt.  And my heart.  Fifty human beings just lost their lives in our back yard, and the hospital wards are full of that many more.  It shouldn't matter right now who they were, where they were, if they voted like us or didn't bother to vote at all; if they were Christians, Muslims, atheists or Zoroastrians.  It should -- at least for these staggeringly grief-filled moments -- only matter THAT they were, with air filling their lungs one moment and blood pumping through their veins, and all of a sudden, violently, tragically, it wasn't, that blood in an instant loosed everywhere except where it needed to be.

If that kind of sobering tragedy no longer has the capacity to silence us and drive us collectively to our knees in heartbroken solidarity then God help us all.  If, that is, God can even any longer recognize us as the humans once created in that Divine Image and therefore worthy of help.

Please, can we just stop yelling at each other for a moment and simply grieve?  If for no other reason, we need to remember how.

We can get back to analyzing, cursing, politicking and posturing in a day or two.  That, I am sure, we'll never forget how to do.

We can talk tomorrow.  The only fitting thing to do just now... cry.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Wondering Aloud Toward a "Death with Dignity"

During this legislative season, Iowa lawmakers considered and then abandoned a proposed "Death with Dignity" bill.  It received some attention along the way, punctuated by a lead editorial in the Des Moines Register last week supporting passage.  I was hopeful that an extended conversation would ensue, and toward that end contributed a guest essay for possible publication.  Alas, as I indicated, the bill died in the funneled legislative session -- with or without dignity -- and the news, along with the Register's attentions, have moved onto other subjects. 

Still wishing for a serious and extended conversation, and since the Register passed on my essay, I opt to post it here and invite responsive participation.  You will search in vain for solutions in what follows.  The reason is that I don't know what they are.  What you will find instead (vetted and approved by the subject's family) is my passionate sense that among the unacceptable solutions is the status quo. And so read, reflect, consider and, if you wish, contribute your own wise thoughts.

On a bright but sobered October Friday morning 5 years ago my wife and I drove our beloved Welsh Corgi of twelve years for a final time to the vet.  Several months earlier he had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, and through the ensuing weeks had submitted to chemotherapy and acupuncture, along with the discomforting miscellany of deep sickness and constant handling.  Eventually, however, it became obvious even to us who were blinded by our affection for him that continuing on might be in the best interest of our sentimentality, but not to his well-being, comfort and quality of life. He was, to sharpen the point on it, dying whether or not we chose to admit it.

After conferring with the doctors, we scheduled that next day’s heart-heavy final drive to the clinic.  The staff had prepared the room – softened its otherwise clinical appearance and feel with blankets and quietness.  We cried, the doctors cried, the front desk staff cried; we held him, spoke to him, caressed him, until with the medicines’ help he relaxed in that final way and breathed his last.  As miserable and grief-filled as it was, it was beautiful. It was tender, loving, and gently peaceful.

Meanwhile, within days of these precious moments, a dear friend and parishioner mere blocks from that animal clinic was struggling with her own diagnosis.  A physician in her earlier years and later a medical librarian, Barb was coolly and methodically rational.  She had cared attentively for her husband who had gradually declined first through Parkinson’s Disease and then deeper and deeper into dementia before dying a few years earlier.  Now given a similar diagnosis herself, beginning to experience its symptoms and clear that she didn't want her children and grandchildren to go through her own agonizing decline, she put her medical and analytical researcher’s skills to work exploring alternatives.  She studied the laws in those few states that permitted physician assisted suicide and concluded that she could not reasonably qualify.  She broached the subject with physicians nearer at hand, knowing deep down that they could not help her.  Throughout, Barb kept her thinking and her inquiries secret from her kids – contrary to her nature and their usual family patterns -- since both were involved in medical careers that would have obligated them to intervene in ways contrary to her wishes.  She began to advocate for a change in the law.  In the end, however, she calmly and rationally reached an unenviable conclusion:  time was not her friend.  She would not live long enough, with faculties enough, to effect a change in the law.  The laws that did sympathize with her were inaccessible to her.  So, out of options, after writing an extensive letter of explanation  to her children whom she charged with continuing her advocacy , she stepped off the 9th floor balcony of the retirement community apartment where she lived; taking matters into her own hands.

I know, this is a complicated subject.  As a minister I am fully mindful of the moral and spiritual issues that routinely and necessarily trouble such discussions, and I am sympathetic to those tormented by the medical ethics brought into question by considerations of physicians assisting with the death of a patient.  These, and I am not oblivious to the thorny and complicated public policy issues at stake.

But what haunts me is the juxtaposition, by a matter of days, of the tender and lovingly beautiful death of my dog in the hands of those who loved him, and the jarring plunge to her death of a dear and beloved mother and grandmother, carried out in secret isolation, whose options she deemed to be too few and untenable.  I don't know how to resolve the complications; I don't know how to rewrite the laws.  I only know that together we have to figure it out.

Because it's unconscionable that our pets have a better death than our parents, our spouses, our grandparents and our children.