Thursday, December 31, 2009

Losses of Meaning

I was in a large store with our daughter, yesterday. I asked our check-out clerk how she was, and her response was "not good. not good. My baby girl ain't doing too well." She nodded her head toward someone behind me. I turned but didn't see a little girl. "Who?" I asked. "My baby girl - her cousin committed suicide on Christmas. She's right there at the next counter." (another nod) Again, I turned, and saw the young woman who was running the next check-out line was crying as she worked. Another store employee was hovering over her.

I told our clerk that I was a chaplain, and asked her if she thought I might be able to help. She immediately called to the young woman who had been relieved of her duty and was walking toward the Employees Only area, "Sarah, Sarah, come here, girl." She gave Sarah a hug, introduced me, and Sarah walked with me to a table nearby. She continued weeping quietly. My daughter went nearby to get lunch and ate at another table to give us quiet time.

Sarah (not her real name) told me about her cousin's suicide, her aunt's loss and pain and her own feelings of devastation, grief and anger, and questions why her cousin (only 17 years old) hadn't called her. "I've always been there for her, why didn't she call me? I thought she was doing ok. This came totally out of nowhere." We spoke for almost half an hour.

Many of her questions are impossible to answer. Why? Why didn't I see this coming? Why did she leave my auntie in agony because they'd just had an argument, and my auntie had left the house?

I've been reminded as I've prayed for Sarah, her aunt, and her whole family of the movie about Virginia Woolf, The Hours, in which Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep had leading roles.

The Hours began with one suicide and ended with another. In the character of Mrs. Dalloway, Meryl Streep, posed a question to Richard who was suffering with AIDS, which I recall as essentially asking: "Isn't that what we live for - one another?" Richard had been bemoaning the meaninglessness of all his life and his life's work, and was feeling life was all worthless and nothing. The disjuncture between her affirmation of meaning in relationships and his loss of meaning in his work is stark.

There are usually nuggets truth behind our trite generalizations. Men do find meaning in their work and women do find meaning in their relationships. That doesn't mean, however, that loss in one area can't be softened by presence of hope in the other! Loss of either or both can cripple our hearts and darken our lives and visions of hopeful future. I've noticed that in times of deep, personal pain and self-doubt, people may frequently throw off the ties of intimate relationships because those ties feel like bondage, instead of like hope and love.

This leaves the space of heartache & emptiness, or a space suffused with faith & hope in God. Let me be really clear, here, that space suffused with faith and hope in God doesn't FEEL good to us. That space may feel more despairing than good. It may feel like we're hanging onto hope in God and to one another "for dear life"! In fact, the dearness of life itself may be in question.

But, before giving up, I hope every and anyone of us will ask ourselves the hard questions of what we leave behind. From Sarah's perspective, her anger at her cousin's apparent self-centeredness & selfishness is really hard to bear. While recognizing her cousin's despair, Sarah struggled with deep anger that her cousin checked out on the family who loved her. Only God can enter that space of heartache and despair when someone is at that point of crisis. Will we turn toward God, hope, faith and future or damn those who love us to the present hell of doubt, anger, grief and pain? The saddest part of suicide is that we fail to be God-with-us to our families and friends, and we rob them of the opportunity to be God-with-us to us, too. May we live out what it means to be the Body of Christ in our worlds, today!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rediscovering Values, by Jim Wallis

Check out the first chapter of Wallis' new book, available by download at Sojourners website: Rediscovering Values.

All of us need to act and re-act appropriately if we truly do want the Change that was promised us by Pres. Obama. This isn't a one person play, but a drama with every one of us on the stage, acting in partnership with one another, or in opposition to each other to aggrandize ourselves. Serving, not hoarding and accumulating, is the only way out of this recession.

I believe that the answer to Wallis' question is YES! "So do Christians have a responsibility to turn over the tables of an unjust market?" (p.20)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Laws of Science and Everything Else But...

As someone who always is interested in the view of the forest, and less so in the examination of the twigs and bark of individual trees, there are times when I get a new glimpse from another angle that piques my curiosity.

Have you noticed, as I have, that the Laws of the physical sciences are increasingly acceptable to and accepted by the majority of people, at the same time that the societal mores governing personal behavioral choices of language, sexuality, courtesy, thoughtfulness, and caring words and interactions are increasingly unacceptable and probably unenforceable, unless physical harm is caused and studies are conducted to back up the obvious. (For instance, that text-messaging while driving is discourteous, at the least, because of inattention to other drivers, and dangerous to others on the road, at worst. Until danger was proven, discourtesy is insufficient grounding for laws.)

One could say that we brought the economic collapse upon ourselves, by each maximizing our individual profits and disregarding the serving of our neighbors who lost the money that began to line our pockets. The vortex of the tornado of pocket lining, of course, is Wall Street. However, various satellite vortices exist as well, in Washington DC, and in every city center near you and me. It's useless to blame one vortex as more at fault than another (Repubs blame DC and Dems blame NYC, in my experience). The hard facts remain that our vaunting of individual pursuit of happiness (i.e., money, stuff, and freedom to do whatever we choose) destroys our love for neighbor, and the trust we need to build and maintain healthy communities.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dealing with Criticism

Our natural responses to criticism are related to our god-like views of ourselves and an inner perception we may hold that our purity is unassailable. Only one who is humble and convinced of his/her own inadequacies (or sinfulness) can honestly assess criticism, ignore the feeling of woundedness to step back and take the spiritual view of what s/he may have said or done to elicit such critique.

It's crucial for us to know ourselves -- I chuckled at one blogger's quoting Edwin Friedman (the late author & speaker on emotional processes within family/ congregational systems) as telling him to "Define the hell out of yourself." If we don't humbly understand and seek understanding about ourselves from both our own interior view and the exterior views of how others perceive us we simply cannot know what criticism is valid or invalid when someone or some group blows us out of the water with their criticism-bombs.

As most of
those who've lived long enough probably have had, I've had plenty of painful opportunities to deal with others' harsh criticisms. Words are frequently spoken and written about others to tear them down, not to build up, not to help them mature, not to edify, but to "finalize" them in judgment (as Arthur Frank noted). Friedman also said, "...if you are a leader, expect sabotage." I'd add another insight to his that being a leader is not simply indicated by one's position or title! I've often wondered what the reactions of Jesus' teachers were when they realized that their student was more gifted, insightful and wise than they were. Many teachers and people with positional authority will sabotage their own students or subordinates who threaten them and their illusion of their own superiority or "greatness."

Tim Keller quoted John Newton as saying,

"Whatever...makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit."

Keller's blog ends with another quote appropriate to our task as Christians:

"A man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature, and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others."

May we always look to the Lord, being wary of the pride within, and seeking to emulate the humility and service of Christ himself.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Does the Cross Matter in This Conflicted World?

Both self-proclaimed atheists and practical atheists believe the cross is irrelevant to the daily difficulties in life. There are countless "practical atheists" who attend church religiously, wear religious symbols, follow religious traditions, and observe religious days. When it comes to following Christ, however, practical atheists avoid the cross like the plague, rationalize and justify their unrighteous choices, behavior in the marketplace and the home, and their damaging words toward others. The Church is called to be the Body of Christ, made up by individuals who have "been crucified with Christ" and are bonded together in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only through dying to ourselves in order that Christ may live in us and through us, do Christ-followers know that we do and will experience reconciliation here and now.

My answer is to this video is Yes!