Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Life in the Eyes

Waiting is not our long suit.  At the very least I am speaking autobiographically, but I think I am not the only one.  Speed is of the essence.  I curse the minute or so it takes for my computer to boot up, and I gnash my teeth at the slower internet connection at our new house.  I can't wait for Christmas, but then once it arrives I rue the endless months between now and the next one.  Even though we apply the query to matters of lesser and lesser consequence, we have made the plaintive cry of Martin Luther King, jr. and the Hebrew prophets our own:  "How long, O Lord, how long?"

I could blame our mounting impatience on technology.  Horses gave way to trains which gave way to automobiles which gave way to propeller-driven airplanes, which in turn gave way to jets.  Dial-up was consumed by DSL, and the U.S. Postal Service is being/has been replaced by e-mail.  We have come to expect that wherever we need to go we can get there quicker; whatever needs to be accomplished can be checked off faster and faster.  We have, in a sense, been trained that way.  Even major life issues we see encountered and resolved within the span of a 30-minute sitcom or at worst an hour-long drama.  Shouldn't our lives work that way as well?

And so the rub when we read one of the texts often scheduled for this Sunday of the year:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:25-34)
Luke doesn't tell us how patiently Simeon had waited; only that he had done so -- presumably for a long, long time.  He had waited.  Day in and day out; watching and waiting.  As a friend pointed out, this isn't really a "waiting" story but rather a "fulfillment" story -- Simeon is finally able to prayerfully exclaim, "OK, now I can die because I have finally seen what I was looking for."  Fulfillment.

But isn't the reason we tell fulfillment stories is to reinforce the significance of the waiting still to be endured?  Not even Simeon, after all, could claim with any honesty the waiting was really over.  Moses, near the end of the Exodus through the wilderness, was finally able to see the Promised Land across the way, but there was still some distance to travel before their feet would actually land there, and that ultimate accomplishment would be beyond Moses' scope.  Simeon looked into the baby's eyes and could see the salvation of his people, but it was looking through a telescope lens not a window.  If it's possible for some to see a world in a grain of sand, it was apparently possible for Simeon to see the culmination of God's desire in a baby's eyes; but there is yet a vast difference between the "seeing" and the "arriving."

And we have not yet arrived.  There is waiting still to be endured for the time when all hungry bellies are full, when all naked backs are clothed, when all lonely hearts are comforted, when all estrangements are reconciled, when every human being is honored, and when all of creation is recognized and revered for the fingerprint of God that it is. 

We have a ways to go.  And so we wait, taking inspiration from the likes of Simeon who somehow managed the suspense and the lengths of days while never ceasing to watch and listen.  Eventually, after all, he recognized the sound and the sight he was after.  If he can do it, well...

     ...perhaps we can, as well.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's the Taste That Finally Matters

Some number of years ago I heard a lecture by Jeremiah Wright, a now-retired African-American scholar and minister from Chicago who had the misfortune of being the pastor to a future President, and the impertinence to read scripture in general and the Hebrew prophets in particular under the delusion that the words might actually have some relevance beyond the ancient Hebrews -- maybe even for Americans, an unforgivable sin that challenged our sacrosanct notions of exceptionalism.  But that's another story. 

The lecture I heard, titled "Different, Not Deficient", described the physiological, evolutionary, linguistic and cultural particularities of people from African descent.  It was a fascinating study, but what has stuck with me in the ensuing years is his observation that insiders can be critical of the "family", but outsiders had better steer clear.  It's funny, he noted, when Eddie Murphy tells jokes about black people -- even employing with impunity words long-since scratched from the pages of decency dictionaries -- while the same jokes told by a white comedian would sound hurtful and racist.  The same is true of deprecating Jewish humor voiced by Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason or Henny Youngman.  Told from the inside, it's funny; from the outside, it is offensive. 

That important pivot came to mind this morning as I finally got around to reading Stephen Bloom's "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life" published earlier this month in The Atlantic Magazine.  Bloom, a Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa for the past two decades, has the advantage or the misfortune of being just such an outsider.  Little wonder, then, that his observations have intruded on Iowans' own sense of exceptionalism; vilified in the state, as a result, because of his characterizations of the towns and traditions and demographics situated between, as he refers to them, the once-great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.  Indeed, an article in today's Des Moines Register reports that Bloom, on leave this year and teaching in Michigan, has essentially gone into hiding for the holidays because of the hate mail he has received. 

Like Bloom I, too, am a transplant, having moved to Iowa about the same time just short of 20 years ago.  My relocation brought me from the "mother of all" exceptionalists -- the great nation of Texas -- where I had been born and reared, and I'll admit that I unpacked with some sense of disoriented trepidation.  Yards were small, houses had a conspicuous absence of brick, overages were stored in basements instead of attics, there seemed to be a notable shortage of jewelry, women's hairstyles were small -- even demur, and of course there was snow.  But life as I have experienced  it in this foreign land has been blessed and good.  There have been opportunities along the way to move, but I have stayed -- not long enough to become an actual "Iowan", of course, but long enough to feel gratefully at home and appreciative of the people and places and sensibilities that surround me.  I like it here.  In fact, I have just sunk an even deeper set of roots here with the purchase of an acreage and a home "on the land."

All that said -- or perhaps because of those details -- I read Bloom's observations a good bit more charitably than most apparently have.  As far as I can tell, he has his facts straight, and of the data essentially speaks the truth.  We may not like having all these dingier details spotlighted for the world to see, but it is hard to argue with the assessment that they are, in fact, our details.  Indeed, I have heard much the same data named and lamented in public and casual conversations as long as I have lived here -- the drying up of small rural towns, the forced consolidation of declining school districts, the declining population, the "brain-drain" that is the departure of our young for "sexier" locales, the deterioration of infrastructures, the departure of manufacturing jobs for cheaper labor south of the border, and of course an often-forbidding climate.  Did Bloom write anything that even the governor himself has not decried, or for that matter virtually every mayor in the state?  Not that I saw.

Bloom, I think, got the facts straight; it is the spirit -- the ethos and the pathos -- he got wrong.  Iowans would contend, I suspect, that they are less defined or described by the data of our circumstances than by the essence of our community.  Frankly, I'm not sure that's different from any other city or state.  We are certainly not less than our demographics or economies or climates, but we are just as certainly more.  Except for the most parochially delusional, Iowans look out across the landscape of their lives and see the same realities as those listed by Professor Bloom, but simply don't recognize themselves in his characterization.  The two dimensions of his altogether dispassionate observation are, I would argue, unassailably accurate; they simply overlook the more revelatory third dimension of social and cultural intercourse that colors and animates the living of a people's life together.  In culinary terms, Bloom accurately listed the ingredients of our cultural recipe; he simply botched the way the finished dish actually tastes. 

The ingredients, to be sure, aren't unimportant; but it is, after all, the taste that one finally remembers. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In the Listening and the Speaking

It was a hospital story that dominated discussion this morning.  Sometimes it is a recent trip or political commentary; recently we delved into the varied nuances of deer hunting regulations at the county level.  Rarely, however, is there silence.  For the past 16 years -- or perhaps 17 or 18, I forget -- most of my Wednesday mornings have begun at 6:30 a.m. with a group of men who have little in common apart from that sausage biscuit, banana, the weekly conversation and our gender.  It isn't a religious group, nor is it therapy even though it was birthed by one of the staff at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center who had a particular interest in men's issues. 

We read a book together from time to time -- about transitions, for example, or gender issues appropriately enough; we have read about soul work and parenting and currently happiness.  But the books and their topics have become less important over the years.  Indeed, a book may last us a year because weeks will go by with the upcoming chapter unacknowledged, sidelined by more important matters.  In the course of our meeting together we have shared the trauma of devastating diagnoses and the physical and emotional swings of subsequent treatments, even singing at the funeral of one of our "members."  We have patiently and presently listened until tears abated long enough to continue a telling about a marital separation or a breathtaking insight or a parental disappointment or a recent and still-stinging grief.  We have buried spouses, been part of foreign adoptions, nurtured the blossoms of budding romance and eventual marriage, counseled retirements and waved goodbye.

We have held each other in our keeping.  For some reason I have been reflecting on the miracle of this community.  In this Twittering Facebook world, there is certainly no absence of information.  We know all manner of detail about friends and family and virtual strangers alike.  We are made privy to political views, personal and sometimes questionable photographs, the details of new tattoos, shopping frustrations and the color of the baby's vomit.  But I'm not sure how much this tsunami of information creates real community.

Churches occasionally get it right, creating moments and spaces for sharing the substance of our joys and concerns.  But just as often congregations are better at advocating for community than they are at building it, worshiping side by side but too easily going our separate ways having shared little more than an attendance register and a common pew.

Genuine community requires a double-edged vulnerability:  we have to be willing to speak out loud about what we find in those nooks and crannies of our being moist enough for real life to germinate; and we have to be patient and available enough to listen as those around us are sharing it.  Of the former, we need be cognizant enough about ourselves to trust in the significance of small and often quiet inner voices.  Of the latter, we must keep in mind that "interesting" and "important" are not always the same.  Community requires a reverence for both the mouth and the ear. 

I'm grateful for this merry band of men who have long since been content to laugh together, cry together, mourn together, argue together, celebrate together, wait together and, above all -- or perhaps it is "through it all" -- to hold one another in our collective keeping.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Worthy and Blessed Adversary

I learned late this week of the death of Loren Cartwright -- a hundred-and-something year old member of First Christian Church.  His is a noteworthy passing, for more reasons than his advanced age.  Loren, whatever his other accomplishments, was a blunt straight-shooter. 

A retired banker, Loren always presented himself as a businessman with a clear grasp of the numbers.  Numbers, he would argue, don't lie.  What I hadn't known about him until a year or so ago, at his last birthday gathering in the private dining room of Scottish Rite Park, was that he had started out as a musician of some talent who had even played one night as a fill-in with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.  "Playing in a band," he recalled, "was the hardest work in the world, and after that night I decided to go back to school and get a regular job."

But it wasn't his resume that impressed me.  It was his aliveness and forthrightness.  Widowed several years ago, Loren kept connected with family and the world through the internet.  I don't know how many computers he went through while at Scottish Rite, but I remember him showing me his new laptop years ago.  He wasn't one to coast.  Knowing that he was thusly "connected" despite being homebound, I emailed him my Christmas sermon a couple of years ago as we were headed out of town, thinking he might appreciate the token.  He emailed me back the next day, thanking me for the thought, but taking issue with the content of the sermon itself.  "I just can't imagine what relevance Al Capone has to the Christmas story," he wrote referring to my opening illustration.  I dutifully wrote back, trying to better explain my thought process.  He, in turn, wrote back; thanking me for my consideration but confessing -- or muttering -- that he "still didn't get it."  The truth, I suspect, was that he "got it," he just didn't approve.

What will always endear Loren to me, however, was his relationship to the sanctuary renovation project the church undertook several years ago.  In short, Loren was against it.  Vigorously.  Noisily.  It was foolishness, he said often and to whomever would listen.  "A total waste of money."  I no longer recall what it was about the project that offended him.  Maybe it was simply the expenditure of money on a room that, as far as he was concerned, was perfectly fine.  Maybe -- and this is likelier -- Loren was pessimistic about the future viability of the congregation and he saw it all as throwing good money after bad.  I don't know.  All I know is that Loren continued to vote against the project at every possible opportunity, even after the workers were well underway.

It isn't his negativity, however, that marks this particular congregational episode.  It is his public repentance.  After the project was completed and the congregation, after the six or eight months of worshiping in Fellowship Hall, had moved back into the "new" space, Loren stood up during the sharing of joys and concerns one Sunday during the service and confessed his mistake.  "I was wholeheartedly against this renovation project," he acknowledged before the congregation, "but I am here to say that I was WRONG" (emphasis his).  "This," he concluded with an arm sweeping around the room, "is WONDERFUL." 

I'll never forget that moment.  Loren didn't suffer fools, was a verbal curmudgeon, and he was never short on certainty.  We often disagreed on what was "certainly" right, and I still think he was wrong about the Al Capone story, but it takes a large person to stand up in a crowd and admit his error.  Despite his rather diminutive stature, at that moment Loren became one of the biggest men I know.

Loren loved life, but I have no doubt he was ready to go.  He never ceased to miss his beloved Ethel, and the world, as far as he was concerned, was getting crazier and crazier.  "Enough," I can almost hear him declare, "with all that." 

Rest, then, you signal centenarian, in peace.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rejoicing Always -- Even Amidst Happy Holidays

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
 This year's popular crusade has become the punishment of stores that commit the unforgivable sin of wishing their customers a "Happy Holiday" instead of Merry Christmas.  Political candidates rail against such diminution of religion.  An internet campaign is pushing a trite little song, sung in part by children, which advocates the boycott of Merry Christmas-less merchants.  "News" pundits decry the tyranny of "political correctness" that strips good old American Christianity from consumeristic discourse.  "It is, after all, about the birth of Jesus" they huff.  

Well, for many of us.  But for many others it is about a wide variety of other affirmations and celebrations and -- yes, it's true -- religious devotions.  Christmas may be the loudest jukebox at the party this time of year, but it isn't the only music playing.  And even Christians have to admit that we sort of pirated this season from an already existing semi-religious observance full in the hearts of many.  Nobody, after all, really believes that Jesus was born on December 25.  I wonder if the druids decried what they must have viewed as the lamentable shift from "Happy Solstice" to "Merry Christmas," and scratched their heads over how to reclaim what, as far as they were concerned, was the "reason for the season"?

I have a hunch that if you asked 10 random retail merchants why they opted for "Happy Holidays" signs in their store instead of ones encouraging a "Merry Christmas" not one of them would mention political correctness.  They would, instead, speak to the need to relate to a wide variety of consumers, only some of whom are Christian.  Especially in this challenging economy, retailers who rely on the goodwill of their customers can't afford to alienate any available constituency.  While Christians ought to feel perfectly comfortable and free to wish the cashiers who serve them a "Merry Christmas" as we leave, surely we can cut the same employee some slack for not choosing to predetermine the faith tradition of the stranger placing a nick knack or a sweater on the counter.  

Why is it that Christians seem always to pick such flimsy fights?  While we are busy fuming over slogans, who is worrying, meanwhile, about the unemployed who, in greater and greater numbers each month, simply give up looking for work because jobs are not to be found -- a statistical fact hidden in the rosier unemployment statistics published every few weeks?  Who is concerned about the long term effects of the shrinking middle class and the consolidation of the citizenry into merely the "ultra rich" and the "ultra poor"?  Just today the Des Moines Area Religious Council's Food Pantry announced that they are reducing the number of canned goods in the bags given to needy families because -- and this truly shameful -- the supply of food received by the Pantry is not keeping up with the escalating need.  I wish a candidate for President would condemn this state of affairs.  Or, I don't know, maybe all this would be instantly fixed if only the Shoe Carnival clerk would wish everyone a "Merry Christmas."

This is not the kind of distraction that ought to be consuming we consumers.  This is not an issue worthy of the church's energies.  The scriptures we purport to read and use for guidance are full of succinct reminders of stronger priorities.  When the prophet Micah recalled that "God has shown you what is good," he wasn't talking about season exclamations.  He went on to enumerate the doing of justice, the love of kindness, and the daily walk, in humility, with God.  When Jesus preached to his hometown congregation, he didn't announce that he had come to police appropriate holiday greetings; he claimed the enjoinder of the prophet Isaiah, acknowledging that "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, ro bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..."  And when Jesus imagined the final judgment and the rubrics for reward and punishment, he didn't name Christmas signage.  He spoke of sharing cool water with the thirsty, sharing food with the hungry, sharing companionship with the lonely, sharing comfort with the mourning and clothing with the naked.  The question of how we greet each other in the marketplace during the month of December is too puny of a windmill for Christians to tilt at.

If I were preaching this Sunday I would focus on the epistle reading out of 1 Thessalonians from the Revised Common Lectionary.  For one thing, the passage strikes me as a powerful and light-filled word for a people living in a fairly dark time.  For another, it focuses our attention where, day in and day out, it ought to be in the first place:  less on judging others as to what we think they ought to be doing, and more on those behaviors and attitudes that we -- as disciples of Jesus -- ought to be exhibiting.