Attending to the Little Deaths

IrishWake_iStock_48838408I was running today, listening to a podcast where they were discussing one of my favorite Buddhist authors, Pema Chodron, and her book When Things Fall Apart.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Chodron’s book has changed my life, and saved many parts of me over and over again.

As the discussion unfolded using the book as a map, the host and guest noted that Chodron’s notion of the Buddhist maras, or “evils,” includes the “fear of death.”  And the guest went on to say, “And that doesn’t just mean the big death. That’s also all the other little deaths.”

And I stopped running.

I stopped running, put my hands on my knees and sighed a big sigh. I just decided to be for a brief moment, huffing and puffing, sweat cascading down my face.  I took a second to honor a little death right then and there: the death of my routine.

Yes, you might think it’s a small thing, but I hadn’t honored it yet.  I have deluded myself, using the drugs of “one day” and “soon” to shove my grief aside, but I have to come to grips with the fact that my routine, the one I knew, is dead.  I have been afraid to honor it because, well, that would mean I’d have to admit it is really dead.

It is.

And for me this is no small thing.  I live and die by the calendar and the clock. For as flexible as my schedule is, I make it inflexible purposefully because I need fences to organize my life.  It’s ironic, really: I don’t like fences when it comes to my thoughts, beliefs, or ideas, but I need them when it comes to my daily rituals.

We must have roots somewhere if we want to grow, right?

And it got me to thinking that all around us, in our homes, in our workplaces (or lack thereof), in our civic engagements (or lack thereof), in our patterns and practices, there are a thousand little deaths at this moment, and so many of us are just “waiting it out.”

But, Beloved, this is a Wake, not a pause.  This is a Wake.

The Wake, especially in my Irish heritage, was where you sat up all night with the body of the deceased, usually laid out on your kitchen table, and you drank, and played cards, and made a ruckus, trying to rouse the dead person from their prone position just in case they might still be alive.  Everyone likes a party, right?  And so if they were “mostly dead” and not “fully dead,” they’d rise to join.

They’d wake.

Well, in March we thought maybe our routines were just “mostly dead.”  But now, in May…well, my friends…it’s time to start organizing the funeral.

We need to honor these little deaths.  We need to stop pretending that things can go back to the way they were.  I mean, even if we wanted them to, and I’m not sure we really do because, let’s be very honest: the system wasn’t working very well for many, right?

But even if we wanted them to, they can’t.  We’ve seen too much.

We’ve seen how quickly the elderly have become expendable.  We’ve seen how fragile our “robust economy” actually was.  We’ve seen how grocery store clerks belong in the same sentence as fire fighters, nurses, and doctors, and we’ve noticed how glaringly other so-called “important professions” are missing from the term “essential worker.”  We’ve seen how our political system and our politicians, with some notable exceptions, will politicize a pandemic.

We’re not waiting out this virus, Beloved.  It’s killing things.  People, yes, but also our illusions, and we have the choice to numb ourselves with platitudes, or we can do the hard thing and no longer shelter our lives from the pain it is causing.

We must honor the little deaths, even if we do so in little ways.

It is freeing for me to say, with such frequency, “I don’t know.”  I say it all the time with my kids now.  My partner and I say it to one another regularly, especially when we talk about things happening in the summer months and next fall.

I don’t know when we’ll get to go to grandma and grandpa’s house again.  I don’t know if we’ll be at our nephew’s graduation party.  I don’t know when we’ll resume swimming lessons.  I don’t know if we’ll keep our jobs.

I just don’t know.

One of the little deaths I’m having to grieve now in this Wake is the death of so much certainty I thought I had, so many plans we had already made.  Like my ancestors at an Irish wake, I raise a glass to that certainty saying, “Cheers.  You had a nice run, old pal.”

Because it’s gone, and in many ways that’s both OK and so not OK, but either way it’s just damn true.

We must attend to the little deaths, Beloved.  We must free ourselves to grieve, to tell stories of what was, and be present in the waiting for what will be.

Frozen 2 Almost Said Something True About Reconciliation…Almost…

34605751714_d713169d14_bFrozen 2, you were so close.

Let’s be honest, this shelter-in-place has given a lot of us the unwanted time (and responsibility?) of watching, and re-watching, a variety of children’s movies over and over and over again.

And after some…lengthy…”research,” it is indeed my estimation that: Frozen 2, you were so close.

While most watchers were dazzled by your exquisite animation (seriously, topnotch…though, can we all agree that everyone’s eyes are about two-sizes, too big?) and your earworm of a musical score (the ode to 1980’s music videos in Kristoff’s ballad had me longing for jams and slap-bracelets again), I was drawn to the story itself.

Because the plot of Frozen 2 is basically a metaphor for racial reconciliation in the United States, both in form and its largely failed outcome.

Yeah, yeah…I know you think it wasn’t meant to be a commentary on contemporary issues, and maybe you even think that I’m reading too much into it all, but I don’t think we should underestimate the subconscious mind’s ability to influence our work and our play.

Quick plot recap, ready?

Something is wrong in Arendelle. The ground is no longer stable, there’s menace in the air, and everything seems to be out of balance.  Elsa and her companions go in search for the reason for all this unrest, leading them to an enchanted forest where they meet a people they’d only heard of, but never actually seen.

And in that new territory where these people are seen and known they find out a terrible truth: the people of the enchanted forest have been oppressed for the benefit of Arendelle.  They were promised parity and equality.  In treaties long ago they had been assured of partnership, ending years of animosity.

And they were lied to.  They, and their way of life, was instead attacked.

I mean, do we need a clearer example of our treatment of First Nations people?  Do we need a more on-the-nose example of the slave trade, of Jim Crow and “separate but equal?”  Do I need to point out how ironic it is that on the streets of America you can drive on Robert E. Lee Lane and pass by Confederate monuments, all while people claim that “we’re past all that…” and act like everything is normal?

Driving on a street named after a General who worked hard to keep you working hard as a slave is a continual attack, in my estimation.

Back to Frozen 2…

This truth is devastating for Elsa and Anna, as they must wrestle with the reality that their beloved grandfather was a liar who participated in, and even instigated, this oppression.

This truth is devastating for Elsa and Anna because they must wrap their heads and their hearts around the fact that their whole world, Arendelle, and their whole way of life, is built on this oppression.

They have overlooked these people, but now that they’ve been seen they can’t unsee them.

The remedy?  They must find the blockage in society and destroy it, allowing the creative forces that they had dammed up to flow freely again.

I mean, I took the plot line out of cartoony language, but can we agree that this is pretty much it?

Up until now I was all in on this movie.  I was like, “Yes!  A Disney film with actual, cultural import!  In Frozen they tackled the misogyny of the traditional princess story, and here they’re going to tackle the hard reality of true reconciliation!”

But they didn’t.  They chose a fairy tale ending.

See, here’s how it went: the earth elements destroyed that oppressive dam that prevented true life from flowing, and as those waters flooded the valley, the result was clear: Arendelle was going to have to be destroyed by the coming tide.

The people of Arendelle were alive, of course. They would live. But they’d have to find a new way to live and be in this world where the truths of oppression had been exposed.

But…that’s not what happened.

In the end Elsa uses her magical powers to spare Arendelle, saving the structures of the society built and sustained on the oppression of the people from the enchanted forest.

And in that moment, the plot was blown.

Because here’s the truth: once the inherent oppression of a society is exposed, once the way the system works to keep the powerful powerful and the disenfranchised largely unseen, you cannot go back to “the way things were.”

You cannot keep the structures in place in the same way.

Arendelle, as they knew it, had to be destroyed.

Or, if it wasn’t, the salvation of the structures could not come from the oppressors, but only with the cooperation and permission of the oppressed.

Because no magic can right this kind of wrong. It takes hard work.

How cool would it have been to see the aftermath of Arendelle’s destruction where the two people come together in actual unity to create a new society not built on subjugation but on an actual dependency on the skills, creativity, and beauty of each other?

Yeah, it’s a fairy tale…I get it.  But, ugh, it could have been so much more.  It could have been a teaching tool for a society who has deluded itself into thinking that just acknowledging the dam that keeps whole people and demographics parched is enough (if we want to continue with this analogy).

It’s not enough to say there is a problem.  And it’s not enough to point to the dam of inequality and racism and wealth disparity.  We can’t just name it!

Acknowledging the dam is step one.  Step two is destroying it and letting it do its thing.

Step three is coming together to rebuild a new way of being that actually repairs what the dam, and the people who built it, destroyed.

See, here’s the thing: I was really thinking that through this film they might get a message, subliminal as it would be, that spoke a deep truth.

Actually, they did…but not like I wanted them to.

They were told the reliable, and unfortunately just as deep, truth that if given the choice, humanity will always choose the fairy tale ending instead of tackling the hard realities that change, justice, and righting wrongs actually requires.

Frozen 2, you were so close.

Channeling the Best Parts of the Greatest Generation

5988555_coronavirus-thumb-img-COVID-01Covid-19 is set to put most everything on hold in the United States, as it is already doing in China, Italy, South Korea, and Norway.

Early on in this cycle, as news started trickling out about the virus and its spread, I was a scoffer.  “We’re overreacting,” I said to my partner.  “This is just crazy.”

And then the deaths started in the United States.  And confirmed cases started rising not by tens, but by hundreds, in a week.

“I’m youngish and healthy,” I thought.  “I’ll be fine.”

Which is a natural thought…but was only looking out for me.  I’m not at risk, but I still have a role to play here.  And so do you.

The tide is coming, and we have a choice as a nation: implement severe caution now in the short-term, or clean up from a deadly disaster in the long-term.  The stakes are pretty clear at this point.

The problem is that the last generation to really tighten their belts and do the hard work of social sacrifice was the Greatest Generation, and most of them have passed on.  Through rubber shortages and food rationing, to the social distancing that was necessitated during the Spanish flu and polio years (they were children then, but certainly felt the sting), that generation understood what it meant to sacrifice for the greater good, and that’s just never really been asked of the United States since, thank God.

Even the draft in Vietnam, while certainly difficult and earth-shaking for many, did not bring the United States to its knees in the way we’re slowly being brought to a stop now.

We’ve been here before in World Wars and epidemics of the past, but for most of us, we’ve never been here before.

And we need to embrace the moment to show that we can do it, and that we understand the risks involved.

In this time we are being called to sacrifice for our neighbors; we’re all being drafted into this, and we must answer the call, hopefully for only a short while.

But if it’s longer, so be it.  We can do this, together.

At its best, Christianity is a religion that mandates (not just encourages, but mandates) that adherents look out first and foremost for “the least of these.”  In this moment, those people are not only the ones who are at most risk of catching and dying from this virus, but also children who will go without food because schools are canceled, families who will scramble to find childcare as that is canceled, workers who rely on mass gathering for their wages, and small businesses with small margins who will see a huge reduction in traffic.

So, what to do?  Here are just some ideas…

-Consider take-out from your favorite place, or buy a gift-certificate to use after the crisis.

-Check on elderly neighbors and offer to go shopping for them for staples (note: toilet paper is a staple, but no one needs a million rolls to get us through this…Covid-19 does not cause diarrhea).

-Give a lump-sum donation to your local food bank, now, to get them over the hump.

-If you go to a church, give your regular offering even if worship is suspended.  Mail in the check, or give online.

-If you are in charge of large gatherings, put them on hold for a few weeks.

-Support local artists who live gig to gig with a Patreon donation or a gift in honor of their creative work.

-If you have predictable income, maybe give a gift to someone who is losing wages because they don’t have paid sick-leave or have been furloughed without pay (which may happen).

-Stay home as much as possible.  Seriously.  And if you do go out, stay away from others as much as possible.

-Offer gift-cards or even meals (as long as no one in your family is sick) to families with nurses, EMTs, police officers, or fire personnel.

-Wash your hands.  A lot. Not just for you, but for others.

-Offer your home to people for whom home isn’t a safe place.  As long as we’re symptom free, small gatherings are not bad.

-Talk on the phone. A lot. Especially to people who may feel extra lonely during these days of social isolation.

We can do this.  Let’s channel the best parts of the Greatest Generation and all do our share (not just fair share, but even extreme share) to make this a footnote in the annals of history.

Marie Kondo for the Soul

blog-image-2Watching Netflix’s new show about tidying up a house the “Marie Kondo way” is fascinating to me.

Part of the fascination is seeing how much fighting the couples featured on the show do about household work.  And it’s not fascinating in an “I can’t relate” sort of way, but more like, fascinating in the way you watch an old video of yourself and notice things you didn’t in the moment.

I relate. A bit too much.

Her now well-known practicing of taking out each thing from each drawer, closet, nook, and cranny, and asking yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” is practiced again and again by weary people just looking for a bit of sanity amidst the clutter.

And it got me to thinking of how freeing it was for these people to give up some things, and how I interact with people every day who wish they could do this same thing with the things they feel bad about in their life.

Like, I talk with people every day, who pick up that memory, that “time I didn’t call my mother back, and she died unexpectedly, and I never got to say goodbye,” and they look at it, the sadness of it, the hurt of it, and they just put it back in the drawer of their soul.

It doesn’t bring them joy, but there it still is.

Or they take out those hateful words they said to their spouse in a fit of rage, the words that put that person over the edge, and they can’t take it back…it’s already been used and there are no returns on words like that.  And they look at it with tears in their eyes, and they put it back.

Or they take out that time someone told them they were lazy, or stupid, or slutty, or no damn good, and they look at it crying, and put it back in the drawer of the soul because they just don’t know how not to believe that after all these years.

And sometimes I’m the person taking the memory out.  The memory of something I said, or was said to me.  Something I did or did not do. And I just lug all of this crap around with me, constantly, and when I pull it out I know it does not bring me joy.

But I put it back in my spiritual closet, anyway.

Why?

The genius of Kondo’s work is not that it’s revolutionary or innovative.  The genius in her work is that she has a system of closure for acknowledging the relationship and usefulness of things in such a way that we can give them up.

The genius is in the ritual goodbye.

And the church has such a system, too.  It’s called “Confession and Forgiveness.”

And it works, by God.  It’s one of the things I’d say the church gets very right.  The system of saying goodbye to the hurts we’ve done or we’ve had inflicted on us, it’s a good way to get rid of them.

Of course we’ve messed up the process a bit.  We’ve said confession blesses God more than it blesses the person, thereby turning it into a demand of guilt rather than an opportunity for healing and wholeness.

But when it’s done right it can be…freeing.

Like giving away things that not only don’t bring you joy, but bring you strife.  Like letting you let go of things you argue with yourself about, replaying a terrible tape of that terrible time as if re-watching it would make anything change…

It doesn’t. It won’t.  Acknowledge you’ve lost your usefulness for that memory, and give it up, by God.

I will admit, there are some times when I’ll pull out a memory, a deep wounding memory, one that I know has lost its usefulness, and I’ll look at it, with tears in my eyes, and slide it back into my heart.

Because I’m just not ready.  For some reason or another I hold on to things that hurt long past their due dates, by choice.  But each time I do, I know the day will come when I will give it up, like that old T-shirt that’s not fit to wear anymore but I just can’t let it go.

Confession is not a fix-all, just like Kondo’s process is not a fix-all.  Honestly, her work exposes a much deeper and more insidious problem than keeping things too long: we buy too much.

Which has a spiritual counterpart, too.  Because too often before I say a hurtful word, or just after someone has said something terrible to me, I’ll decide to keep that memory, to “buy it.”

And I don’t have to. I know I don’t.  Forgiveness gives me permission to say no to carrying it around, to say goodbye to it before I ever grab it and claim it as mine.

If I’ll just do it…if you’ll just do it.

We could all probably use some Marie Kondo in our houses.

And I’m willing to bet we could all use some for our souls, too.

 

One Thought on God and Suffering

For some reason my entry “5where-is-god-suffering Phrases I Think Christians Shouldn’t Say” is getting a lot of traffic again.

And I’m getting a lot of push back because of my thoughts on suffering and “God’s plan.”

So, in an attempt to clarify it all, let me say this:

I will not endorse the notion that it is God’s plan that people get cancer.  I will not endorse the notion that it is part of God’s plan, specific or otherwise, that children die by gunfire.  I will not endorse that Hiroshima was part of God’s big plan.

I cannot do any of these things because I have sat by too many bedsides and buried too many children, even in my short pastorate.

Now, have I seen beauty in death?  Absolutely.  But have I seen senselessness?  Senselessness that goes far beyond any sort of platitude like “God’s wisdom is foolishness” or any other attempt to bend the words of Scripture to make meaning out of the meaningless?

Damn right.

And that’s the thing.  Such theologies that try to put God at the helm of these tragedies or, even worse, try to say that God is a passive bystander, are attempts to make concrete meaning out of meaninglessness.

We all make meaning out of life.  We all do; there’s no escaping it.  I have heard and known people calling their disabilities beautiful tools they use to learn about life.  I have heard people say that the death of their child was instructive for them.

I do not deny that these things are true.

What I deny is that a particular truth was intended to be drawn from them.  What I deny is that a particular truth was in the Divine mind as those tragic events happened.

What I deny is that God is in the dirty pain business.

Now, I think that God has caused me pain; causes me pain. I experience the pain of being wrong all the time (perhaps in this instance, too?).  I experience the pain of having my ego subverted, my best-laid intentions crumbled, my pride blown away, my intellect shattered by a God who speaks a word of grace to me when my greatest desire is for retribution.

But I do not think that God has caused my car accident so that I learn to drive better.  I may thank God for an accident that taught me a life lesson, but I don’t think God was passively watching it.

I think God was in the pit of fear and hell that I was in while going through it.

And that is a theology of the cross that, I think, truly speaks to the crucifixion story and the Good News of God.

The crucifixion story is one that speaks of Jesus’ suffering not as something apart from humanity, but a part of humanity.  I am not one to believe that God caused the crucifixion for some atonement.  I think that when you act and talk like Jesus, you die for it because our power systems (even the power systems that try to make sense out of the senseless) don’t like it.

So, do I think that it is all part of God’s plan that your foot was amputated?  That your brother or sister died in the Iraq war?  That your father has prostate cancer?

No.  I don’t. And we can quibble about philosophical categories for God, and whether God knows all, can do all, is everywhere…all of that.  We can quibble until the end of time, and I don’t think we’ll be any closer to the truth than if we just allowed God to say, “I’m not going to make sense out of senselessness…I’m going to make resurrection.”

Then maybe we can learn to die to our need to make sense of it all, and be resurrected as people who can hold tension well…a tension taught to us by a life that includes suffering, joy, and all in between.