Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mostly questions

An email from a friend arrives. It has been sent to many people at once. The greeting begins "Dear family and friends," and the writer asks for prayers. Her sister-in-law, 47 years old, has suffered a massive stroke. She is in a coma. The family is making funeral plans. The dying woman has children--a daughter who is only 11, a son who is 20.

What do you say in reply? You say you will pray. You say I am thinking about you. You speak of faith, hope, comfort.

But what do you say to God during the rest of the day, as you move about the house, doing laundry, washing floors, cleaning up the kitchen? I hear very formal words in my mind, the words we would pray in church. Be with them, Lord. Comfort and uphold those who mourn. Receive her into your everlasting care. Your will be done.

Wait. Was this God's will? What is God's will when awful things happen? Just what is the theology of what God wills for me? What clever things have I heard or read for getting around the idea that everything that happens is God's will? Did God will this to happen? And are we talking about a grand and general will of God, or the will of a personal God for every breath, every step, every circumstance of his creatures' lives?

How do you answer such questions? How do you piece together the puzzle of anyone's life and ultimate purpose? These things are so hard to know, so hard to feel certain of. It's impossible, really.

We look to what we do know and have experienced of God: small things--hopeful presence, love shown to us through creation and creatures, God's constancy. Still, these sound like tired cliches from a white-bread, Hallmark-card generic religion. How can a few pretty words stand against sudden and premature death? How can they fill in for a mother, a friend, a real person who is no longer?

Where there is terrible, awful loss, there is also awesome power--divine power. I am convinced of this, just like Paul, who was convinced that even life's most extreme situations will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God is present in great majesty in our suffering, just as in the suffering of Christ on the cross. It is hard to comprehend, hard to recognize while we are wrapped up in fear. Yet in death, in grief, and in going on we can be certain of God's presence and God's good will for us.

Monday, July 16, 2007


I was going to take my coffee and my book outside, because it's summer. It's a cloudy day. I saw a few raindrops about a half hour ago, but they're gone now. The air is soft and even my weedy backyard seems like it could stand in for the lawn at my favorite vacation spot.

However, in front of the house, the street is lined with utility trucks. The workers from the gas company are using a jackhammer to break through the pavement. The noise puts a hard edge on everything. My skin enjoys the cool breeze coming through the open window here by the computer, but the pounding in my ears is putting an edge on this drawn-out summer aftrenoon.

Meanwhile, the coffee is putting an edge on me, or so I hope. I wouldn't be writing this without that caffeine boost. I didn't sleep well last night, so this afternoon was devoted to foggy napping--the kind where you fall asleep and then the phone rings. You answer it, wake up enough to converse, then try to nap some more. From then on, you're never sure if you're awake or asleep.

I read when I'm trying to fall asleep, and sometimes the book merges with the dreams. Sometimes it becomes part of the sleeplessness. Last night, as I was trying to lead my mind away from the personal anxieties that were keeping me awake, I was reading Taylor Branch's At Canaan's Edge. It's the third volume in a detailed history of the civil rights movement. It is packed with short, sharp sentences, every single one of which seems to have involved a different source, a different avenue of research.How did he put this all these details together?

It is difficult to keep track of all the names in this history. The book is like a complicated tapestry. You can follow the threads, but you have to look closely. Most nights, my brain gives up on such intense mental activity and I don't read more than a page or two before falling asleep. Last night, my prickly, worried mind found itself right at home in the violence-spiked story of Martin Luther King's 1966 campaign for fair housing in Chicago. It took a long time to make it over the bump between drowsiness and sound sleep. Rocks were everywhere--hurled at African-American marchers in Marquette Park, lining my path of worries into the future.

The jackhammer sound outside continues, though it has moved to the next block, It seems they're going to have to look down several deep holes in order to fix the problem with the gas pipes under the street.

Would drilling holes into my head fix the mess in there? What is leaking? Caffeine, at least, has brought me back into contact with the life around me. Our black dog sits under my chair, doing her summertime pant, exuding that summer dog smell. The frozen pizza is in the oven for the supper; I will share it with the only child who is home this evening. I have to go rehearse Oklahoma! tonight, and make a list of all the things I need to take care of tomorrow, because I didn't do them today.

Called back to life? Assault the mind with challenges--caffeine-induced jumpiness, the banging of a jackhammer--and it comes out fighting. Perhaps I am not made for languid summer afternoons. Struggling seems more like real life.

Let us run with perseverance the race this is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Twice now, the monitor has put itself to sleep before I have managed to put anythng onscreen for a post. I've made great headway into the bag of potato chips and downed a Moosehead beer, but I haven't thought of anything to write about.

Perhaps you should stop reading right here. Apparently I've got nothing to say. This may be messy.

There is plenty I could sputter about tonight. I could list the ways in which the world would be better if A) people made an effort to understand one another's needs and feelings; B) everyone had access to affordable health care; and C) the U. S. could just get out of Iraq and have that whole mess turn out okay. All three of those topics have plenty of assumptions to question, plenty of twists for an ending.

For the record, my position on C is stop playing politics domestically and get going with diplomacy. On B, I'm for a single-payer system. I've had much less trouble with Medicare than with my HMO.

I don't have a remedy for A, though I like to think acting classes for children and teeens might help. Of course, even when people are pretending to be someone else, they still need imagination and critical thinking to discover that other people's thoughts and feelings may take different turns than their own. Plenty of performances are spoiled by selfishness.

This morning's Gospel lesson was the story of the Good Samaritan. Our pastor's sermon opened with an invitation to envison an imaginary easel, paper and magic marker on which to list the things that are not the way they should be in the world. That could take a good long time. Jesus' story of the Samaritan who cared for the man beaten and robbed on the road after other, more religious men had passed by, announces a new way of doing things in the world. We as Christians, all of us children of God, are called to seek and do good for everyone, even those beyond our own tribal group.

Evolutionary psychologists, behavioral anthropologists, or whatever mixed-discipline scholars study the origins of human behavior have put forth different theories to explain the evolution of altruism. There's the idea that an adult will risk his life to save a daughter or a nephew because that ensures that the family gene pool will continue. Members of a tribe fall into dominant and subservient roles, because social cooperation makes them better able to hunt, gather and fight together. Neither one of these explains the actions of the Samaritan.

Plenty of studies show that humans are naturally mean to outsiders. Of course, that's hardly news. I have observed this behavior in myself. It's everybody else causing my problems. And they're stupid, or less evolved than I am. Sometimes this is my self-centered point of view talking. Sometimes this is objectively true. In the first case, I had better take a deep breath, get over myself, and try to be more generous. In the second case, well, I still need that deep breath and a more generous outlook.

The process of seeing the same dimensions in others that are we know in ourselves requires love and trust. Who loved that Samaritan and nurtured his generous spirit? Christ himself told the story, created the character, and then in giving himself for the sins of the whole world, moved way beyond tribalism and ins and outs. Christ goes before, and we follow.

Our evolutionary competitiveness and our innate tendency to separate insiders from outsiders make this mighty difficult. Other organizing principles make more practical sense--enlightened self-interest, the free market, democracy. Fundamentalist jihad (and not just the Islamic variety) appeals strongly to our need to be right.

Or we can take it on ourselves to care about and minister to those messes by the side of the road.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Oh, freedom

I went to the White Sox game last night with my sons and my sister. The Sox lost to the Baltimore Orioles, 9-6, but that didn’t matter to me. I was there for the fireworks.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be a fireworks designer? To choreograph the explosions with the music? The fireworks I saw last night were beautiful in form, shape, variety and timing. But the music behind them was so much less imaginative. Third-rate lyrics proclaimed freedom this, liberty that, and the determination to “fight for the right to be free.” The only song in the extravaganza that had any sense of history behind it was Neal Diamond’s "America" which celebrates the struggle of immigrants. Yet the irony of playing this just a week after the defeat of immigration reform was, I’m sure, unintended.

My expectations were not high—this was a 21st century ballpark, a place where even pitching changes have commercial sponsors. But I expect more than mindless nationalism from Fourth of July celebrations. The lyrics of one song played during the fireworks talked about “the flag that makes us free.” I wanted to yell, “No, it’s the Constitution that makes you free! Laws and process, not symbols!”

My kids were also disappointed in the music. They wanted to hear Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the U. S. A." Fat chance. That tune’s lyrics are critical of class in America and of American imperialism. Not the right sentiments for a baseball game that began with a “Support the Troops” parade of military veterans and active duty sailors.

I did get a lump in my throat as those scrubbed and white-suited young men and women walked around the field, but I wasn’t thinking of the flag. I was thinking of the mothers of those kids, and of all the parents and families who have given up their young men (and women) to the cause of American freedom. The guys, forever young, who didn’t come back from World War II and Viet Nam. The adventuring young men who left home to join Washington’s army and died of disease and starvation at Valley Forge. The husbands and fathers who return from Iraq physically in one piece, but who will struggle with PTSD for years to come.

The top eight feet of bookshelves above my desk hold the American story--from "Pilgrims at Plymouth" to "All the President's Men." There are biographies of the founders: the evasive Thomas Jefferson; John and Abigail Adams, critical and articulate; the ambitious and iconic George Washington; Benjamin Franklin, scientist, businessman, slippery diplomat. Then there’s "America's Jubilee," which describes the United States fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, when the Marquis de Lafayette toured the country and Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other, forever consecrating the sacred Fourth.

There's a long stretch of books on the Civil War, chronicles of the carnage. There’s a skinny one by James McPherson called "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution." What was revolutionary about Lincoln? He reached back and reinterpreted Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" to include everyone (males, anyway), and said that each man had the right to eat the bread produced by the sweat of his own brow. Seems self-evident, doesn’t it?

Beyond Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction,” the shelf holds Stephen Ambrose's book on the transcontinental railroad ("Nothing Like It in the World"), David McCullough's "The Great Bridge" (a great read), and Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” There are Roosevelt books, books on the Depression and World War II, and "The Fifties" from David Halberstam. Ahead of that is Stanley Karnow's Vietnam, which I will read someday. And there are two of the three Taylor Branch books on the civil rights movement. Later this summer I hope to finish reading the third.

I have been reading American history books since I was seven years old. The heroes of ’76 filled me with pride and curiosity. What would it have been like to be alive then? Would I have sided with the patriots, made bold by what Thomas Paine called the “Common Sense” of the issue? Or would that have seemed too radical, dangerous even? You like to think you’re on the right side of history, the side that is making the world a better place, but it’s important to remember that hindsight is much clearer than the vision of the moment. Power and idealism are uneasy bedfellows. Freedom means freedom for others, not just the people celebrating their own right to be free.

Fireworks displays are not meant to be a forum for ideas. Of course not. Light, dark, color and big booms invite visceral reactions. In our household, the creature most affected by last night’s fireworks was our dog. She was a nervous, clingy wreck.

But still—all those colors, firing off every which way. Sizzle, whistle, zoom and zowie. Big bangs, showers of sparks, soaring colors, and something new to look at every few seconds. Fireworks are powerful, dangerous, beautiful. Like this free country.