Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Blast From The Past Tour

The things of the past are never viewed in their true perspective or receive their just value; but value and perspective change with the individual or the nation that is looking back on its past. - Friedrich Nietzsche
[W]e need to distinguish between nostalgia and the reassuring memory of happy times, which serves to link the present to the past and to provide a sense of continuity. The emotional appeal of happy memories does not depend on disparagement of the present, the hallmark of the nostalgic attitude. Nostalgia appeals to the feeling that the past offered delights no longer obtainable. Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irretrievably lost and for that reason timeless and unchanging. Strictly speaking, nostalgia does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside time, frozen in unchanging perfection. Memory too may idealize the past, but not in order to condemn the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present, and future as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us. - Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, pp. 82-83
This is a special year for our family.  For that reason, we are taking a vacation this summer that I have dubbed "The Blast From The Past" vacation.  30 years ago this June, I graduated from high school, so my class is having a reunion.  After that, we are driving from my hometown down to the nation's capital where we will spend a few days touristing around.  Lisa and I will also be showing our daughters some of the places we went, and places that became special to us during our courtship and first year of marriage.

The whole memory versus nostalgia thing; the way memory works and doesn't work; the way our memories, and our thoughts about those memories, change over time; the way impressions we carry with us for so much of our lives can be wrong; all this and so much more is a fascinating topic for me.  My wife often remarks that I have an uncanny memory; she insists that I can give not only the year, but the month and date and day of the week a particular event occurred; I can recall whether it was sunny or cloudy, what I and others were wearing, and what song was playing on the radio.  The fact of the matter is this is true, for the most part.  I do have that kind of memory.  The thing is, however, it isn't comprehensive, nor does it escape the trap of them being my memories.

No matter how detailed a recollection might be, no matter the vivid colors and smells recalled from a walk through a field on a summer afternoon, or the sound of a lover's breathing while sleeping beside you, these are, for all their life-likeness, partial, a snapshot rather than a panorama.  For all that I can recall events and people and places with a particular kind of accuracy, I rarely rely on these memories because they are just that: my memories.

Furthermore, while the sensory information is complete down to the small tear in an item of clothing or that it occurred on a hot rather than just warm day, because I can remember the feel of the sweat on my face, a crucial aspect of these events is lost forever: the emotional backdrop against which they occurred.  Thus, for example, I can recall, say, being at a dance in the Junior High Gymnasium back when I was in high school; I cannot nor will I ever be able to recall what I was thinking and how I was feeling at any of those particular events.  What I and others did, how we looked, what we said - all that is there.  Why we did these things and not others; how we felt when we asked this girl to dance and were turned down, or when that girl asked us to dance and we said yes, beyond the assumption that the former felt bad while the latter felt good, how is it possible to recall the roller-coaster of emotions that is adolescence?  How is it possible, to delve back a bit further, to recall the emotional life of preadolescence?  I can remember events from when I was 7, 8, even younger; I cannot, nor should any claim that I could do so be accepted with any credibility, recall at all what it felt like to be such an age.

The fact is, I find it difficult to reconstruct the emotional weather of my life two or three years ago; ten years ago; twenty years?  Hardly.  So it is that I plan on spending some time with people and in places from my past.  By and large, this won't be in service either of nostalgia or memory.  I'm attending my high school reunion not because of who any of the people were; rather, I want to celebrate who we've become, now that we've reached what I call the safe shore of middle age.  So, too, while Lisa and I will share stories and places with our daughters while in DC, we will also be enjoying all the changes that have occurred there over the years, seeing the sights and visiting the museums and such because they are enjoyable in and for themselves.  Memory will help; nostalgia, too, won't be a horrible guide because, as Lasch says, it freezes moments in time.  As such, I should be able to navigate a confusing city without too much effort because I have a fondness - one might say even rose-colored - for the mess of north/south and east/west streets intercut by the angular state-named avenues.

I hope I never forget the limits of memory, even one that works as well as mine seems.  I also hope I never forget the difference between real memory, which includes the horrible and the boring and the mundane, and nostalgia.  Even as we take nine or ten days and revisit the past, I want it to be in the service of the present.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Last Enemy

Elements of the gospel which I had always thought would console did not. They did something else, something important, but not that. It did not console me to be reminded of the hope of resurrection. If I had forgotten that hope, then it would indeed have brought light into my life to be reminded of it. But I did not think of death as a bottomless pit. I did not grieve as one who has no hope. Yet Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. - Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. - 1 Cor. 15:20-26
There are few things more pleasing than discovering a new thing that surprises at its beauty and power.  So it is that my occasional reading of the blog Eclectic Orthodoxy has turned to awe as the blog's author, Fr. Aidan Kimel, exposes the never-to-heal wound of his son's suicide for the world.
This is Holy Week for those of us in the Orthodox Church. I had intended to provide daily patristic citations from Holy Wednesday through Easter Sunday. But I have changed my mind.
This morning I drove past the parking lot from which my son Aaron jumped to his death on 15 June 2012. I began to weep. When I got home I found myself sobbing on the floor for twenty minutes. I had not cried like this for several months.
In his inaugural blog post, he is up front about how blogging and the death of his son are related:
There is one other reason I have decided to begin blogging again—for the sake of my sanity. On June 15th my second son Aaron died by suicide. His death has shattered my life and the lives of my wife and children. On June 22nd I preached his funeral homily and prayed the committal over his casket. Aaron’s death has changed and traumatized me at the core of my being, in ways that I have not yet begun to fathom. On most days I am overwhelmed by sorrow and grief. Curiously, only two things seem to provide some measure of respite—walking my dog, Tiriel, and theological reading. And so I continue to read St Gregory, for my sake and for the sake of my beloved son, Aaron Edward Kimel. Memory eternal.
 A bit further above this paragraph, Fr. Kimel writes the following:
I used to read theology ravenously. I had even reached a point where I thought I was fairly fluent in the language of faith. For a few years I wrote a now defunct blog, Pontifications. Through the culpable negligence of those who hosted it, the original Pontifications has been lost; but some of the constructive pieces that I wrote for it have been archived at a resurrected Pontifications. But God has broken me. The Pontificator is dead. Much of what I thought I once knew has been, quite literally, stripped from me. Five years ago I became incapable of reading theology of any sort. When I tried to read a theological article or book, the words did not make sense. I almost lost my faith.  Six months ago this began to change. Suddenly I had a desire to read theology again. It was as if a cloud slowly lifted from my mind and I could finally make sense, at least a bit, of the theological reflections and arguments of others. My brain has not returned to its previous level of functioning, but I am finally enjoying theology again.(emphasis added)
Many people believe the great un-talked-about issue in the Christian churches is sex.  I do not believe that is the case.  We talk about it, just not very well, or clearly, or honestly.  I am of a mind that the real elephant in the sanctuary is death.  When we speak of it at all, we limit our talk to those special worship services called funerals.  We skirt around the matter of Jesus' death on Good Friday, consoling ourselves that Easter is coming so as to mitigate our reflection on the possibility of death being taken up in to the life of God.

I do not exempt myself from this.  On the contrary, I think I have by and large avoided the topic, or been far too glib, perhaps even thoughtless, on what rare occasions I did write about it.  Part of the reason for that is fear.  What Christian wants to admit fear of death?  After all, aren't we supposed to face death without fear?  As we read or hear the words of the twenty-third Psalm, aren't we reminded that even in the valley of the shadow of death, the LORD is with us?

Last year, while leading the Christian Believer class, we had a discussion of death in the section dealing with "eschatology", or "the last things".  Death itself, for all we try to manage it - the whole "stages of grief" business that, while real enough, makes death something to get through rather than an event in the lives of families and communities - or wish it away or fantasize about either clouds of joy and streets of gold or lakes of fire; for all that, the experience here and now for far too many people is this: death is a monster.  The deepest faith, the calmest mind and heart in the face of the death of a loved one, cannot shield anyone from the gaping jaws of death.  Never satisfied with a single life, it works its way in to our lives, destroying joy and sense and hope.

Death will rip apart families, even whole communities.  It has, on occasion, grabbed hold of whole nations, making a meal of millions of lives before something, some Other from outside with the power to bring death to heel, cries, "Stop".  From my own family's history, I know the terrible toll death will wreak when it strikes a child.  I have watched adults break under the weight of grief death heaps upon them when a parent passes, even when that death was long in coming and a final rest from suffering.

Talking about death is considered "morbid" in our society.  For some reason, it is a social faux pas to admit that a final end comes to all of us, to all things; it is declasse to admit that our peculiar, human reality as creatures both social and communicative, create a situation in which death can spread like a virus, engulfing us in waves of sorrow and emptiness and even terror.

I long for the day when the last enemy lies under the boot of God.  I hope and pray for the courage and strength to face the inevitable deaths of my family and friends without allowing death's insidious hunger to touch me before I am ready.   Along with hope and faith, or perhaps a part of them, is the honest communication to others the toll death takes upon us.  For that reason, I invite you to travel through the Orthodox Holy Week with Fr. Kimel, as he shares his own pain, using the words of Wolterstorff to say what he wishes he could but cannot say.  One would need to be heartless not to be moved by the power of Wolterstorff's honesty, and know the silent tears Fr. Kimel sheds as he shares his grief with the world.  In our turn, all we can do is demonstrate to them and all those who know that monster death far too well that they are heard, and that we grieve with them.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

No Worries

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. -1 Corinthians 10:23
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. - Galatians 5:1
If I have a theme for my life, it's my oft-repeated "It's not about me".  Whether or not I'm happy on any given day; whether or not my wife says or does something that makes me sad or angry or happy; whether or not my children are or are becoming the people I want them to be; whether or not the world conforms to my wish or demand that it be a certain way; these things, even any one of them, would be an indication I was in need of some kind of therapeutic intervention.

The same is true when it comes to my faith.  The whole Christian story, the person and work of Jesus on the cross and the empty tomb, the movement of the Holy Spirit through my life in the body of Christ and the friends and loved ones who have made a difference for me - none of it took place with me in mind; none of it would be any less real, any less true if I didn't exist, or if I refused to believe it.  Were I to utter the words, "God does not exist.  I am in no need of the salvation wrought in Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection.  The Church is a group of deluded fools pouring money down a rat hole," it would be as meaningless as claiming I danced on the Moon with Gene Kelly.  The great mistake, the great sin, is the insistence that our professed beliefs make any difference.

It is with this in mind that I find Mike Lindstrom's musings at United Methodist Insight more than a bit disturbing.
In my life I began to realize that God wasn’t trying to control my actions, God was trying to capture my heart. God didn’t want me to figure out the best way to be a “good” Christian; God wanted me to spend my life with Him. I began to see it more like a marriage or a friendship. Instead of asking my wife: “what can I do to make certain you don’t divorce me?” I ask: “What can I do to honor you and love you?” Instead of asking my friend: “what can I do so you’re not mad at me when I call every few months?” I ask: “What can I do to make your life better or help you accomplish your goals?”
For me, the question had to change. If I wanted to have a relationship with God in Jesus Christ and through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, if I wanted to know the love and peace and strength of God in my life then the question had to change. Instead of ”Why can’t I____?” or “Can I____?” My question has become: “What would you have me do?”
First of all, I cringe whenever I hear or read the words similar to "God was trying to capture my heart." Even as metaphor, this is an epic fail.  The heart is a pump.  God doesn't want a pump.  God isn't interested in any of our internal organs.  God has zero interest in Mike Lindstrom's or Geoffrey Kruse-Safford's "emotional center", as if somehow it were a "thing" that, should we just allow Divine access, then things like "salvation" and "new creation" will follow for us regardless of other circumstances in our lives and the world.

Second, the phrasing here - "God was trying to capture . . ." - is more than problematic.  Really?  God was trying to capture your heart, Mike, but kept failing for some reason?  What about the power of the Holy Spirit, moving through the lives of the faithful around you, and the testimony of the witnesses to the Passion as the once-for-all Divine work of salvation for the world?  All that, yet something in you or about you managed to prevent God "capturing" your "heart"?

Finally, and no disrespect to Mike, I a quite sure he is, as are all of us Christians, living his life as faithfully as he can, I can only wonder about the constant first-person pronoun.  Part of the freedom granted us through the Spirit in the Son for the Father is the freedom from ourselves.  From that peculiarly American obsession with what "I" say or do or think.  The Christian story, the event of salvation for the broken, sinful world, is not our story.  It is first, last, and middle God's story.  Whether or not Mike Lindstrom prays every morning, or every other morning; whether or not my wife and I give eight-and-a-half percent of our income or ten percent of our income; whether or not someone somewhere says just the right words about who God is; these are all evidence we are still trying, desperately and rooted in love to be sure yet nevertheless also a broken, sinful love, to earn the salvation that has come to the world freely in Jesus Christ.

Living in the light of that event, in the light of the salvation granted all of us, the judgment that is pardon frees us - or should, anyway - from worrying about ourselves.  Freedom, real freedom, the kind of freedom Paul writes about in Galatians, then clarifies and qualifies in 2 Corinthians, is the freedom from fear that we might be doing something wrong.  We have been granted our lives.  Our lives for God.

The dichotomy "Religion versus Relationship", like most dichotomies, is wrong precisely because it assumes itself the answer to a question that isn't even asked; furthermore that every question has only one right answer.  Thus the spiral down the rabbit hole of "I", which is much like Nietszche's abyss.

We are free.  We are free by God, for God.  It isn't about me, so I neither worry nor care whether or how I live will be pleasing or acceptable because that is no different than trying to perform all the works of the Law and earn salvation.  The only thing God wants from me is praise in and through a life lived with and for others to make known the simple message of the Gospel, summarized in 1 John: God is love.  The rest, to quote St. Thomas, is all straw.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

He Doesn't Like This World We're Making

Why I clicked the link at this post at Feministe I don't know.  I knew it went to National Review Online, specifically to a rant by Victor Davis Hanson about how our world is going to hell in a smart car because . . . Actually, after reading Hanson's thingy, I'm still not quite sure what he's on about.  He's upset that fake sex in film is OK but real sexual harassment is now bad.  He's upset that birth-control is available for girls and women who are sexually active, but wished our military leaders actually followed the UCMJ, which makes it a dischargeable offense to commit adultery?  Apparently, some of that traditional morality included winking and smiling at some folk's marital indiscretions.

Hanson seems to be whining and moaning that things are different.  Well, sure they are.  In some ways they're worse.  In other ways, they're better.  We haven't eliminated the things that are bad; what we have done is registered our social displeasure at certain behaviors, such as harassing women in the work place, while recognizing certain other realities as in need of a certain kind of intervention, i.e., that girls sometimes get pregnant and are in need of emergency contraception.  This help the girls and young women, it helps society - they would be pregnant whether the emergency contraception was available or not; making it available is the whole ounce of prevention thing - and it demonstrates that we are, if nothing else, a grudgingly compassionate society toward some in need.

If I didn't know better, I'd swear that Hanson is upset that some people who had an expectation of a certain kind of social deference no longer do.  Isn't that . . . could it be . . . is Hanson writing about a sense of . . . entitlement?

How silly of me.  Of course he is.

I have said it before and I will say it again.  Despite the many things wrong in our world, in many ways our times are better, with more people willing to work to make it even better than it is, than any other historical moment.  These are good things.  The folks moving forward can look at the Victor Davis Hansons of the world, sitting in the corner holding their breath until they turn blue, and feel sad they cannot celebrate the good things about our place and time.  There's also pointing and laughing involved, and that's OK, too.

Virtual Tin Cup

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