Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

More on Context

September 22, 2018

We were sitting this morning as a family around the breakfast table.  We’re reading a book together,  The Life of Fred: Financial Choices  .  It is a source of great conversation, laughter and thought for all of us, not just the kids.  The author is clearly a very goal-oriented, disciplined kinda guy (or at least projects that persona).  I find this an admirable trait, though not one I can claim to share beyond a certain extent.

The chapter this morning focused on instant gratification vs. long-term rewards, and the author dutifully notes that these ways of thinking apply to all of life, not just financial decisions.  The author is very clearly in favor of long-term reward thinking and planning.  He speaks very dismissively about instant gratification, even as he tries to remain balanced and accepting of some instant gratification.

It’s true that very few people possess the discipline for long-term goal setting.  It makes those who are both admirable and probably more often than not more successful.  My wife and I were in a follow-up conversation about it after breakfast, talking about how some people just seem to be wired more towards long-term thinking.  They know what they want to accomplish – often from a very young age – and are nearly single-minded in their determination to accomplish it.

My wife mentioned the girl who sailed solo around the world at age 16 (this girl, I assume), and related how at one point she ran away from home for fear her parents might not let her pursue her dreams (not sure if this is an actual biographical detail or not, but we’ll assume it is for the purpose of our conversation).

It reminded me of my musings a few days ago.  It struck me that we admire these people when they’re successful.  We hold them up as examples of human capability.  They are inspiring and become models that we point to for our kids and grandkids.  But if she had failed and died in the attempt, we wouldn’t glorify her.  We’d likely vilify her parents for not doing their job to guide and look after her.

Again the issue of context becomes critical.  Goal-setting is important and valuable but it requires a context within which to function both healthily and safely.  Without such a context, it can become actually dangerous both personally and relationally.  It appears that Laura Dekker’s parents (or at least one of them) was pretty supportive of her efforts.  But we could easily understand if they had not been.  And at that point, Laura faces a decision – reject her parents’ duty and authority to pursue her goal, or abide by their guidance.

Sounds like the plot context for a movie-of-the-week.

I want my kids to be happy and successful but more than this I want them contextualized, embedded in a larger understanding – a meta-context – that helps them define what these terms even mean and could look like.  Without that, the definitions become slippery and evasive, potentially even damaging to themselves and those around them.

This is part of what faith in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible does.  I don’t simply adopt it or teach it to them as a means to an end of personal fulfillment.  I believe it is true, and because it is true, it will have these side benefits of providing a healthy context for my life and my children’s lives.  It doesn’t mean it will always be easy to remain consistent to this faith, this meta-context.  But it provides a means for doing so, and those means by and large seem very consistent with my personal experience and the experience of those I know both personally and historically.  There will be anomalies, and those might be inspiring, but only if we also acknowledge the real costs involved, the real risks that remain whether that person succeeds or fails.

Long-range planning isn’t enough on its own – it requires a context to function within.

Context matters.  Authority matters.  What’s yours?

Advertisements

A Luxury Denied

September 21, 2018

I’m an introvert.  A quiet person.  I don’t like crowds.  I prefer one-on-one interactions.  I dislike small talk.  I’m very private and not very expressive of my emotions.  The idea of people looking at me is uncomfortable.

I’m also a pastor.  And this means that despite my preferences, I don’t always get things they way I want them.  People are always looking at me.  I am expected to deal with large groups of people as necessary.  My quietness and privateness needs to be tempered with the understanding that my parishioners need to know me at some level.  My vocation requires that I give up some of my preferences because of the role I serve in my faith community.

This sounds easy enough until it comes to the issue of grieving and loss.

A colleague of mine suffered a tragic and unexpected loss this week.  His wife died unexpectedly.  She was on life-support for a few  days but it was apparent that it was the machines keeping her alive after her accident and that no recovery was to be expected.  When they took her off the machines she died.

It was three days before the other pastors in our area knew about the situation.  The information came from another associate that works closely with this person, and came with the tag line we hear often – the family asks that everyone would respect their privacy during this difficult time.

That’s not-so-secret code for don’t call, don’t e-mail, don’t inquire, don’t offer help,  don’t stop by.  It’s the equivalent of a No Soliciting sign on a front door, intended to keep others away.

I understand the motivation.  I understand the desire to hunker down alone to sort things out and come to grips with a situation.  It will be my instinct as well.

But it’s an instinct my vocation requires me to fight, as I think this brother should as well.

Ministers serve a public role.  One of the aspects of that role is to serve people in times of grief, in times when they deal with the loss of a loved one whether expected or unexpectedly.  We’re expected to be there in whatever way the family can allow us to be, as a source of comfort not in and of ourselves but in who we represent.  It’s one of those times when a Christian minister is supposed to embody the presence of Christ.  It’s a palpable reminder that they aren’t alone, and that by the grace of God the deceased is not alone either.

And as such we need to recognize it is our responsibility to model this when we ourselves suffer.  We aren’t superheroes who don’t need the comfort of others.  We aren’t omniscient and perfectly and always aware of the presence and love of Christ.  We aren’t immune to the agonizing desire to know why, or the brutal accusations  of the conscience or our Enemy, telling us if only we had done such-and-such, or not done such-and-such, this wouldn’t have happened.  The deceased would still be alive.  We would not be aching.

We need to model an openness in times of grief and loss, even (or perhaps especially) when it is counter-intuitive.  We need to model a grief that allows itself to be embraced by the community of faith, supported in prayer and in presence.  If we want our people to understand this and to commit  themselves to this for themselves and their loved ones, we need to show  that we aren’t above it either.  We need it just as much.

I grieve for my brother and his loss, but have no way to express it.  That’s difficult.  And as an introvert (as I think he is as well) I recognize that he doesn’t want those expressions.  Might not be able to handle them.  Has no response for them.  That’s fine.  A response isn’t necessary and we need to accept this.  A perfectly composed reception is not necessary or expected.  But I need to be willing to allow people to grieve with me and for me in my loss.

I encourage you not to try and keep others at arms length in the midst of grief and loss and tragedy.  I understand why you’re inclined to.  Truly, I do.  I see it a lot.  But struggle against it, to find a way to allow others into and alongside your grief.

And I pray for the grace and strength of God the Holy Spirit to follow this advice myself if and when it becomes applicable.

 

 

 

Contextualizing Advertising

September 20, 2018

Despite a much-delayed and oft-sidetracked undergraduate career spanning 13 years, I did eventually graduate from Arizona State University.  It’s an accomplishment I am proud enough of but typically stoic and realistic about.  Going back to university at nearly 30 to complete a degree you gave up on years earlier because of a lack of direction or motivation is difficult, and I acknowledge that.  But what credit there is to be taken for that lies in me (by the grace of God), and not so much my alma mater.  I know folks from my high school that are die-hard fans of the universities they graduated from, and constantly sport the clothes, tail-gate parties, and hand signs of those institutions.

I’m not one of those folks, and anyone who knows me probably isn’t very surprised by this.

To be fair, I don’t feel an unusual attachment to any other institution I’ve ever attended, whether primary, secondary, or graduate.  It’s just not in my genes.

But that doesn’t stop these institutions from sending me their magazines every quarter, hopeful no doubt that perhaps I’ve improved my situation in life markedly from my earlier years and am looking for a place to devote some of my wealth.

I’m not one of those folks either, sorry.

But as I was quickly flipping through my alma mater’s most recent magazine, the only thing that really caught my eye was the back page and an advertisement from Starbucks.  An attractive and undoubtedly upwardly-mobile-minded female barista smiles glowingly at the reader, hands on hips in a pose of confidence.  The tag line, which claims to be a quote from her, reads:

Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions.

But if news these days is to be believed, this is the fundamental problem  in our culture.  People pushing for what they want.  The news is decidedly anti-male these days, highlighting a cavalcade of men past and present who followed the above mantra fully and are now paying the consequences for it.  I doubt anyone would recognize this mantra as appropriate in the context of allegations about Brett Kavanaugh.  Or Bill Cosby.  Or Harvey Weinstein.  For that matter would people agree with this mantra in the context of Trump and his tariff policies, or Obama and his health-care reform?  Would liberals agree with this in terms of who gets confirmed as a Supreme Court judge?  For that matter would conservatives?

Our culture is in the throes of chaos precisely because of people who follow this mantra.

It doesn’t sound like a bad mantra though, does it?  Doesn’t it sound warm and glowing and awesome?  Isn’t it inspiring and confidence-building?  Doesn’t it reek of the go-get-it attitude that once characterized America?

Yet on the other hand, we could argue this mantra is destructive, evil, patently bad advice.

How can this be?

Because this mantra, this slogan – as with any mantra or slogan – needs a context.  It needs a larger background within which it fits, and which determines how it is  applied.  Only a fool would assume  that marketing companies and companies should be dictating human behavior in any given country, right?  That would be chaos, with norms and expectations and standards changing every time a new, more compelling slogan or mantra came out.

It’s terrifying to think that for many people this is exactly what is happening.

It isn’t that mantras and slogans are new.  They’ve been around for centuries, and we all can think about the most successful of them.  Be all that you can be.  Just do it.  Have a Coke and smile.  Have it your way.  There’s a common theme in them – they’re all applied to the individual and designed to encourage the individual to activity, engagement, and eventually or ultimately consumption of one form or another.

As marketing campaigns these were wildly successful.  But as rules for living your life?  Not so much.  And over and over again we are reminded that while it sounds like a good idea to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passionsin reality this isn’t something that we should always do.  By a long shot.  Or perhaps ever do.  Because society is going to determine what is acceptable to push for, what is acceptable to love, and what sorts of passions are acceptable.  It may decide these things in retrospect years down the road.  It may change its mind about them.

What these mantras and slogans need is a context.  An overarching understanding of how one is to live their lives that makes sense of these urges or prompts, determining when they are acceptable or appropriate and when they are not.  And I think this meta-context is what our culture has discarded in the last half-century.

I suggest that the meta-context that used to be in place was Biblically based and easy to remember.  Love your neighbor.  While not everyone might know or agree with the person this meta-context is associated with (Jesus), they understood the basic concept.  It’s a concept that – on its own and out of the fuller context of how He said it and what else He said – isn’t even strictly Judeo-Christian.  It could be argued that this idea is implicit in all of the great religions and even philosophies of the world.  Of course each will define the terms and parameters slightly (or radically) differently, the basic underlying idea remains.

So then I’m free to Always push for what you want, what you love, and your passions, as long as it doesn’t cause me to cease loving my neighbor.  As long as I’m anchored in this larger meta-context, I can apply the mantras and slogans of the day in a limited fashion.  And of course the meta-context also provided the criteria to know what was loving my neighbor and what wasn’t, since we all tend to define this in ways that are easier or more convenient for us.

It’s not a perfect system, of  course.  There will still be anomalies and violations.  But we could at least identify them as such and deal with them as such.

Now, it’s a lot harder.  Oftentimes it seems to come down to who yells the loudest as to what constitutes a proper or  improper application of the mantras and slogans around us.  There was an effort a few years ago to come up with a new meta-context for life in our culture – tolerance.  It didn’t work so well.  It continues to not work very well.  And now we’re being told that in some situations, tolerance is actually the equivalent of refusal – which anyone with half a brain would have recognized right away.

So be careful what advertising or marketing mantra or slogan you grab on to.  Be careful what you quote to your kids or grandkids as inspirational and life-guiding advice.  They might just listen.  And they might just discover that it’s really not very good advice.  Not without something deeper and more reliable behind it.  Something not prone to the whims and waves of public opinion at any given moment (driven so often by slogans and mantras as well).  Maybe you should consider passing on something much deeper, and more  reliable.

For that matter, maybe you ought to consider adopting it for yourself.

 

 

Confusing

September 4, 2018

I was at my Sunday morning coffee shop for my weekly tea and bagel Sunday morning.  The barista is the new regular on Sunday mornings.  She worked there several years ago before disappearing.  Now that she’s back working here again, she refers to her former self as a degenerate, but hasn’t elaborated much beyond that.  There probably isn’t need to.

Most recently, she announced to me that she’s pregnant, and explained that she is letting people in on it now that she’s about three months along.  She doesn’t want people to think she’s getting fat.

My first thought wasn’t that she was fat, or that she isn’t fat (she isn’t).  My first thought was terror.  Should I be happy for her announcement?  Was this a good thing or not?  I gleaned from earlier conversations that she had a boyfriend she seemed serious about.  But these days, the announcement of a pregnancy can be a nail-biting moment.  For some folks it’s fantastic news.  For others it’s a source of worry or concern.  Sometimes the guy is happy about it, sometimes not.  Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes (like this one) it isn’t.

The fact is that our culture’s insistence on tossing sexuality up into the air as a free-for-all results directly in this confusion.  Once upon a time, while a pregnancy might be a surprise, it would generally not have been entirely unexpected, and even if unexpected, there was a reasonable certainty that the pregnancy occurred within a marriage and that they would all muddle through somehow together.  Now women are instructed they don’t need a man to raise a child, and the media continues to demonstrate to men and women alike that men shouldn’t be expected to settle down and support a family.  All of which makes pregnancy a complicated thing.

Culturally we’re still trying to figure out how to make everything less confusing, but by and large we’re failing.  There’s a lot of hope that we’ll figure it out, though, and not surprisingly the biggest hope is in the arena of education.  But educating about sexuality  that is open and permissive between literally anyone – except if one person doesn’t really want it – is tricky business.

Our culture wants sex to be easy and painless and consequence-less but the reality is that it isn’t any of those things.  It’s inherently difficult, full of potential pain, and designed with myriad consequences.  The message is everyone should just have a good time sexxualy whenever they feel like it and with whomever is down for it but never ever make anyone do anything they don’t really want to do whether they can articulate that or not or are clear about it or really don’t decide until afterwards that they didn’t want to do it.  Sex is fun and wonderful until it isn’t.  Until the hesitancy is determined to be non-consent, or inadequate consent.  Until people change their minds.  Until the flush of the moment is replaced with repulsion for the person in the moments or weeks or years after.  Until someone decides that it isn’t or wasn’t fun, isn’t or wasn’t welcome.  Definitions shift and flux in time, but what is at stake is literally life changing for everyone involved.

And all that is without considering the very real possibility of children, which is kind of what sex was designed for.

Compared to the simple idea that sex is special and sacred not because it is shared with anyone but because it is only shared with one person to whom you’re bound in a lifetime covenant of trust and love, our modern notions are pure insanity.  The create infinite more problems than the outdated problem of  love and marriage they claim to solve.  The idea that if you aren’t married to someone, then sex isn’t an option is  so simple.  Not fool-proof, of course, but certainly a lot simpler than trying to write and re-write the rules of courtship or invent the rules of hooking up.   In the meantime, lives are being destroyed.  Women continue to be victimized, but now by generations of boys and men raised on ubiquitous porn that promises that every woman really wants sex.  Victimized by generations of boys and men who can’t handle rejection because they don’t believe it should exist because rejection doesn’t exist in porn.

Men in turn are victimized, taught that their interest in the opposite sex is somehow sick and twisted and perverse instead of a natural and God-given interest that needs rules and boundaries in order to keep both men and women safe.  Yet we’re all supposed to sexually liberated.  The media pushes out the message today that boys and men are broken somehow, that women are superior and must take over because they can do things right that men can’t – sexually and otherwise.  Yet at the same time women are supposed to be free to dress and act in ways that are suggestive to men – to say the least – yet shocked and offended when men respond.  Talk about confusing messages.

What are your kids being taught about sexuality in school?  Their own or how they should relate to someone elses?  What are you talking about with them on this topic?  Lord knows they’re going to need all the help they can get, including whether to be happy or not when they’re told someone is pregnant.

 

 

 

Well Said

August 11, 2018

A good reminder of just one of the differences between God-as-a-djinni, who basically just wants to be rid of us and left alone and so gives us what we want (or what we think we want, or not really what we want but what we say we want, etc.), and God-as-God, who is committed to our perfection in Christ.  Thanks for the pointer, Janelle!

 

The Unexpected Tithe

July 22, 2018

I’m on vacation this week.  Which means I’m not leading worship and not writing out our weekly tithe check.  Part of me feels bad about this.  I try to fight against this part of me.  Not because I don’t value tithing but because I don’t like the legalistic guilt it inspires in me if I happen to miss a week.  If my comfort comes from putting a certain amount in the collection plate I’m sorely and dangerously mistaken.  I prefer the feeling of uncertainty that reminds me that my life and all I have belongs to the God who created and saved me and lives within me striving to make me holy.  Taking that reality for granted, as though I could pay off God with a certain amount each week is dangerous.  Deadly dangerous.

I walked out of my hotel about 1:30pm today.  I slept in – a Sunday luxury I very rarely have.  Again, the faint tug of guilt about not finding a church to attend.  Church is not my salvation,  though.  Christ is.  The Church points me to Christ and therefore the Church is beautiful and necessary and critical, but it is not in and of itself the answer, as though checking off an attendance box can put my soul at ease.  It shouldn’t, but it often tries to.

She was sitting by the entrance to the hotel I’m staying in.   I noticed one of the employees handing her a handful of granola bars as I searched for a newspaper, to no avail.  I exited the building, saying hi to her as she opened the granola bar.

Why was I thinking about her?  I crossed half the parking lot but there she was,  still in my mind.

Young-ish, but not too young.  Blonde hair showing brunette roots.

I turned around and went back to her. Are you hungry?   She nodded.  I’m heading to Denny’s, you can come with me and I’ll buy you a meal.

We walked the few hundred feet to Denny’s.   It was crowded.  She had a hospital bracelet on her arm and a taped pad to her upper arm from some sort of injection or blood withdrawal.  People watched us as we came in and waited.   I suppose that’s pretty impressive for a place like Vegas, where you assume people  have seen pretty much everything.  But here was something a bit out of place a few miles off the strip, this man in his slacks and this young woman in her shorts.  She pulled a long-sleeve white shirt on that covered the bandage.

So began the next four hours.

I don’t know if any of what she told me was true.  I pray I know someday.  We ate a breakfast lunch at Denny’s before walking a few blocks in 100+ degree heat to the CVS to fill her prescription for antibiotics for the kidney infection she had been discharged with this morning.  Food and coffee helped perk her up a bit for the walk.

Over breakfast-for-lunch it emerged that home, such as it was, is Reno.  Vegas is where she served a jail term, got her first job (at 28 years old), and been homeless for the past two months.  She’s been doing drugs for  15 years, with meth being her current choice.   I Googled and tried to figure out options.  The Greyhound for Reno left at 5:30pm.  It was 2:30 pm when we got out of the CVS with a prescription and enough snacks and necessity to tide her over on the nearly 24-hour bus ride to Reno, through LA and other parts in between.

The Greyhound folks weren’t encouraging.  We Ubered to the main bus station.  Along the way we picked up a couple from a now-famous pawn shop.  In town from Florida for a few days.  Complaining about a few meth-heads in the pawn shop,  and gushing about their gourmet meal the night before.  Jamie laughed along as we squeezed into the small car together.  I doubt the couple realized she was a meth-head.  I wonder what they would have said or thought?  At the Greyhound station we were told the bus was sold out, but we could try and get on it if someone didn’t show up.  We had two hours to kill at this point.  She ate half a Subway chicken sandwich and a McDonald’s shake and we sat.

And sat.  And sat.

Food and sugar had livened her up, and she was very talkative.  In the course of four hours she never asked a single question of me, inquired as to any aspect of my life.  I presume none of that mattered.  I was the source of free food and the possibility of a bus ticket out of Vegas.  What more did she need to know?  What more  could possibly matter to a young woman with three children from three different fathers, all of whom were adopted out?  Did I actually expect her to make polite conversation?  I was a sucker.  She was willing to go along with it for as long as the gravy train lasted, or until I said or did something she didn’t like, at which point I  have no doubt she would have cursed me out and stalked off in righteous indignation.

But we sat, and sat, and sat.  I didn’t say much, and she didn’t seem to mind.

She went off for a smoke and took all her gear with her.  I didn’t  really expect her to show back up, but she did a few minutes later.  We walked the block to the bus station and bought a ticket for the 7:30pm bus.   She could try to get on the 5:30pm bus after all the other passengers boarded, and if the driver said he still had room.   Everything she owned was in a single small bag given her the night before by a church whose name she couldn’t remember.  We sat in the lobby, waiting the last 15 minutes to the bus departure.

If we had been back home I could have connected her to resources.   I half considered sending her that way anyways, calling on some people I know to see if they would be willing to admit her to a long-term recovery program.  But there were no guarantees.  No guarantees the residential program would have space at the moment.  No guarantee that she would be willing to try it.  No guarantees at all.

At 5:25 I shook her  hand.  Either she was going to get a seat on that 5:30 bus or she would have to wait for the 7:30 bus.  She had what she needed to get home, where she felt she had a support system of sorts.  A better chance than she stood in Vegas.

I prefer to think she got on that 5:30 bus.  That she’s en route to Reno right now.  That by tomorrow, she’ll be with people who know her.  That there might be a chance that she’ll get help.  That life can be different tomorrow than it was this morning when she had nothing to look forward to but getting through a day in triple-digit  heat with a prescription she couldn’t pay to fill.

I don’t know that for sure, but I prefer to think so, and pray so.  It’s no more in my control than what happens to the check I write on Sunday mornings.  But it sure looked and felt a lot different.

 

Simon & Garfunkel’s Bus Experiences

July 22, 2018

I grew up loving Simon & Garfunkel.  I inherited the love listening to some of my parents’ albums, and their stories of the world and the country, of life and of the individual experience were formative for me.

I think I connected with their sense of adventure, of a wider world beyond the narrow boundaries of youth and adolescence.  One of their haunting songs I’ve always loved is America, a story of journeys both internal and external, personal and interpersonal.  And it centers around a bus journey of exploration.  It starts with boarding a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh with a girl named with Kathy.

It seemed so beautiful and simple.  Jump on a Greyhound bus and the country opens before you.  It sounds so simple.  You just buy a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner Pies and you head off to discover America.

Have you ever been to a Greyhound bus station?  In a big city?  Perhaps like Pittsburgh?  Or Las Vegas?  Not so romantic.

Not at all.

Security was preventing an intoxicated woman from re-entering when I first arrived.  While a woman shouted nearly incomprehensibly into a public address system and I waited to conclude my question to the customer service agent less than 3 feet away from me, a guy ran in to ask him to charge his cell phone.  You know we’re not responsible for this? he said as he plugged it in.  When we returned two hours later the police were there on an unrelated incident.  Security was present but polite.  The looks they gave the two of us clearly indicated that their politeness was mostly due to me.

I pray she’s on the bus.  I wish I could have done more, but I know that the options were limited at best.

Please be on the bus, Jamie.  Please be going home.  To your brother and a support system and social services network that might be able to save you.

 

Book Review – Confessions of a Pool Hustler

July 12, 2018

Confessions of a Pool Hustler by Robert LeBlanc

I like to play pool.  It’s my hobby, and one I’ve enjoyed for over 30 years.  I picked this book up on a lark, a signed hardback cover in the local billiards supply store.  I didn’t know Robert LeBlanc before I started reading it.  A third of the way through, I think I know all I need to.

Robert makes it clear that he insisted on telling his story in his own words, and that those who helped him, editorially, did so with this key goal in mind.  I suspect that they succeeded.  The book is a collection of stories and anecdotes from Robert’s life on the road playing pool.  He comes off as a stellar player who survived more in his life than dozens of the rest of us ever would.  Fights, robberies, death threats, wild women – if you felt like pool was a seedy business to be involved with, this book would certainly confirm all of your worst fears and stereotypes.

Unfortunately, while insisting on telling his own story his own way, LeBlanc just isn’t a very good storyteller.  After a while the anecdotes all start sounding the same.  There’s no real progression in the story beyond a loose chronological one.  He drops a lot of names.  I don’t know any of them.  I play the game, I don’t spend much time learning all of the big names in the sport.  If you have a good handle on the great players of the last 50 years or so, perhaps this book will be more entertaining to you.  It was lost on me.

I’ll keep playing the game, but I won’t be finishing the book.  I’ll also be grateful that it’s possible to play and love the game of pool without living the kind of life LeBlanc chose to.  Undoubtedly my pool life is a lot more boring than LeBlanc’s, but I can live with that!

Death and Dignity

July 8, 2018

As euthanasia gains traction in Western culture, people are finding it harder to locate alternative forms of end-of-life care and treatment, or palliative care.

Palliative care aims at keeping a patient comfortable as they approach death.  Active treatment of whatever conditions have brought them to this point are discontinued, acknowledging that nothing more can be done medically to save the person.  Instead emphasis is placed on keeping them comfortable.  Sometimes this can involve heavy pain killers and sedatives such as morphine.  But the intent, medically, is not to cause death, but allow the patient’s own condition to bring them to death.

It may seem like a small distinction these days, but traditionally it is anything but.  The Hippocratic Oath specifically forbids doctors from actively assisting their patients to die, a tenet that has stood the test of time for over 2300 years, but now is considered outdated.  Why bother keeping someone comfortable and allowing them to die naturally when you can expedite the process?  Why allow someone to die when you can kill them more efficiently, on a scheduled time-table, and with very little medical knowledge or patient care and counseling?

It would seem that the right to die, adopted under the pretext of allowing people to choose to die with dignity, is actually preventing people from dying naturally with dignity.  Rather than adding another option for people with terminal disease, it may actually be reducing the number of options for such people.  Especially when insurance gets more active in the game.  Why bother paying for days or weeks of palliative care when someone who is obviously going to die anyways could die much sooner, and therefore much more  economically?

Your freedoms, right?  Or are they?

Death and Comfy Chairs

May 9, 2018

Today I got to sit down with Chuck.

Every Wednesday I’m privileged to sit down with Chuck for about an hour.  We meet in his study, where I sit on a lovely leather love seat and he in his office chair, his dog oftentimes expectantly moving back and forth between us as we talk without rush.  We are comfortable as we sit, remembering and laughing and talking about past, present and the future.  Especially the future.

Chuck is dying.  He knows this better than anyone, and I think it affords him in the midst of this process a clarity of thought which is breathtaking at times even as it is heartbreaking and jubilant.  As a follower of Jesus Christ death is an unpleasant visitor but neither completely unexpected nor totally to be feared.  He won’t, after all, be the final visitor.  He comes and we go  and then we part company with him again, never to have to share his cold congeniality ever again.  Chuck trusts this.  And as he sits in his comfy chair he is comfortable thinking about the future both individually and on a larger scale, and taking the stance of one who is curious, not cowardly.

Comfy chairs have not been a major part of Chuck’s life until recently.  More often pick up trucks and chain saws.  Shuffling ordnance off the coast of Vietnam during heavy shelling.  Chuck and death have crossed paths on more than one occasion, as he’s happy to admit with a twinkle in his eye that defies the ravages of illness in his body.  He has time and need of comfy chairs now, at the last.

We talked about the future, about the decisions that congregations are sometimes called to make about the future and how to approach it, and I know such conversations are no stranger to Chuck either.  He’s spent his life trying to help people make decisions about life and death, individually and on a larger scale.  He knows firsthand the difficulty of such a decision, and all the amazing blessings that can flow from it.

We talked about drug and alcohol recovery.  How hard it is to start.  How much harder it can be to maintain it.  The statistics are sobering (pun intended).  Chuck ran a special program for inmates at the county jail to help put them on the path to real recovery.  That program won all sorts of accolades from people local and statewide for the impressive statistics racked up, particularly the percentage of graduates who were still clean and sober five years later.  The interesting aspect of today’s conversation was that long-term recovery is harder for women than for men, when I would have thought it just the opposite.  Even in his prestigious program, only 39-41% of the men were still clean and sober five years later.  But only 31-32% of the women were.

One of the reasons for that is  that women often have children.  Children, who were taken away by the courts at some point because of Mom’s addiction and related issues.  Once Mom has completed a requisite or voluntary treatment program, she wants to get her kids back, and the courts are eager to give them to her.  The problem is now she has left the program (often times a residential program) and now has her kids with her.  How is she as a single mom (which the majority are effectively, if not actually) going to get a job as well as a place to live while watching her kids or ensuring that they are getting to and from school?  Is she going to make enough to feed all of them and pay rent?  The pressures mount.  It’s easy to slide from an apartment after not making rent into a pay by the week or day hotel which is even more expensive.  Maybe you start selling dope again to help pay the bills.  Maybe you have a few drinks to try and sleep at night because you’re so worried about all of this.  Maybe you prostitute yourself.  In any event you’re back in environments that foster addiction and substance abuse.

The only real option for people entering recovery is half-way houses or sober living houses.  But these are often not much cheaper than other housing options, and kids aren’t allowed to live on site so that makes it undesirable for a woman trying to reunite with her kids.

We talked about how wonderful it would be if there was a place that a woman could go to after completing residential rehab.  Rent would be free for a period of time to help give her time to lock in a job and start earning money.  She would  be able to have her kids come and live with her.  And in exchange for the free rent, there would be requirements – attending regular recovery meetings, regular drug/alcohol checks, curfews, limitations on who can be on site.  But also required classes on parenting and other life skills.  Bible studies and required church attendance.  And ideally a strong Christian on site not simply keeping watch on everyone but also building relationships with the ladies and helping to connect them to their church family.  After a period of time fractional rent would be paid each month, incrementing gradually to full rent, and perhaps to a decision to move out into fully independent living.  He spoke with amazement, and I could see lists of organizations flitting through his mind, all the people who understand what needs to be done and could be done and the many beautiful things that could come out of it, but don’t have anyone to share that vision with and no way to bring it to fruition themselves.  All the people who would gladly lend a hand or even a few dollars to make it real.

In the span of 20 minutes or so, this beautiful vision sprang into being.  It started with a need as well as a desire, and sprouted out as we tried to think of how not simply to meet a need, but to meet the ultimate need that all people have, which is to be anchored in relationship with the God who created them and died for them and offers them hope and strength and comfort not just temporarily but eternally.  A beautiful vision of what could be rather than fearful worry about what might be.  A looking forward to something different rather than an obsessing about the past or the familiar, but which grounds itself both in the past and the familiar as the only means of making something new and different possible.  Within short order we had a rough, verbal sketch of what this all could look like and incorporate.

Of course a sketch isn’t a finished product, but it’s something that you can hang up on the refrigerator, or pass between friends in comfy chairs to help start sharing a dream or a vision, to help see areas that need a bit more thought or other options that could be included.  Eventually it requires getting up out of comfy chairs to start working with pencils and calculators.  It requires the hard work of determining what it would take to reach this dream, and further, determining what each person is willing to contribute towards realizing it.

Dreams and visions often start in easy chairs, in quiet contemplation.  Some start from the perspicuity of a life drawing to an end; new vistas opening up and familiar terrain suddenly transformed and illuminated in their light.  Visions can start in easy chairs but will eventually require the dreamers to stand up and stand together to determine if this is a way forward they’re willing to pursue and encourage and support others in as well, or if it’s a good idea but not the right idea for this particular time and place.  But by that point we’re up out of our chairs and on the back patio or in the office and we might as well look around to see what other visions are being discussed and find out if perhaps one of them is right.

Because comfy chairs, like death itself, should never be permanent.