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.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Beware the Omniscient, Righteously Indignant Fan

I know, I know, the New Year is pressing on.  Other events are clamoring for our attention.  There is fresh tension in the Middle East, along with a bizarre standoff in Oregon and racial frustration in Cleveland.  But I am still reflecting on the Alamo Bowl and TCU's stunning come-from-behind victory.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must count myself among those who had given up.  It wasn't until after the fact that I learned of the outcome and heard the details and rushed from the rear to catch up with the bandwagon.  More embarrassingly, count me among those who had counted them out before the game had even begun.  They had no more arrows in their quiver.  One by one the potent athletic weapons had been laid aside by injury or stupidity.  It was, I anticipated, going to be a long night.  On that point -- and on that point alone -- I would prove to be correct, just not in the way I expected.  The length turned out to be literal -- three overtimes.  And the result, at least for TCU fans, was something to savor.

I insist, however, that my pessimism is forgivable, born as it is from long experience with defeat.  I grew up in the days -- and was a student in the days -- when the Horned Frogs simply didn't win; when keeping gridiron opponents out of triple digits was considered to be a victory.  Suffice it to say that back then no one "Feared the Frog.”  It still feels strange for my alma mater to be a contender.

Strange, to be sure, but good.  It's more fun to win than to lose.  Even more fun to win like this, with a team rather than a couple of franchise players; with underdog backup players that the coaching staff tenaciously believed in, replete with heartwarming back stories and due justice.  The team, the coaches and the university behind deserve all the accolades coming their way.

The backseat driving, capriciously moralizing fans?  Not so much.  Throughout the seasons of quarterback Trevone Boykin's stardom, purple fans came out of the woodwork.  We fawned over him, hero-worshipped him, touted him for national awards.  We were ready to name buildings after him, and probably our children.  We were Horned Frog proud.  And then he made a selfishly dumb choice -- hardly the first time a heady 22-year-old bullet-proof college kid made a stupid choice, but a stupid choice nonetheless -- and a line formed at the exit.  Suddenly, erstwhile fans were indignant, offended and “embarrassed to be an alumnus”, never mind that it was a student who had embarrassed himself while the institution and its representatives responded commendably and admirably.  There is nothing quite so mercurial, I observed, as a football fan.

But not to worry.  Embarrassment -- and righteous indignation -- are apparently easily assuaged.  As soon as victory was achieved -- you know, that victory that had been pronounced by fans and “experts” to be “impossible given the circumstances” only hours before -- the world was once more tilting with steadfast Horned Frogs fans awash in their purple who “always knew they had it in them.”

Which leaves me wondering who caused the most whiplash in this wonderful and troubling story:  the team in their win, or the fans in their duplicity.  Let the saviors beware -- and the disciples who clamor for them:  watch your back and lighten up, respectively.  We’re just people here, trying to do the best we know how to do; sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but even then still capable of pulling out a win with some integrity intact.