Thursday, July 25, 2013


This essay is by Fani Lemken, a friend and mentor of mine. 

I was not prepared for my first encounter with Alzheimer’s. It is my aunt Sarah who has it, and I until I saw her I had only a vague idea of what to expect, mostly informed by made-for-TV movies and people’s characterization that it is a “cruel” disease because it robs people of their history.

So I was apprehensive when I learned that I would be seeing my aunt Sarah during our trip to Greece in June. I remembered her from previous trips; a force of nature, second eldest daughter of a large family. She had survived deportation to Czechoslovakia during World War II, the communist revolution in her new country shortly after that, and an eventual return to Greece during glasnost.

Only slightly taller than my mother, the last time I’d seen her she was a beautiful woman with large brown eyes that sparkled with intelligence and mischief. She was quick witted and kind, but did not suffer fools.  She had turned out children who were intelligent, kind-hearted, and family focused.

Which may be why her sisters did not react to the news when Sarah was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago. Her daughter Stella became the storied bearer of bad news, marring family gatherings with anecdotes of her mother’s increasing forgetfulness, tales that were quickly brushed aside as annoying fairy tales.

Which is why Stella bore the brunt of her mother’s anger alone. She watched her mother, known far and wide for her wit, her sharp mind and kind heart, fight against an enemy that crept along the neural pathways of her brain, randomly destroying bits and pieces of her history, robbing her of words that a moment ago were on the tip of her tongue.

As her caregiver, Stella was the focus of Sarah’s frustration, taking the blame for all manner of mishaps and lost items. She was the target for bursts of unprovoked anger, her buttons pushed, her breathing tight, as she tried to remember that her mother’s illness was real, and the anger was part of the illness.

Stella bore her mother’s anger, and more. When she found a nursing home to care for Sarah, she bore the harsh words of her mother’s sisters, her aunts, who had only ever uttered kind words of praise and pride for their beautiful niece, a doctor, a strong woman who raised brilliant children, physicists and mathematicians.  They forgot why they loved Stella so much, when she told them that she had to find a place to care for her mother while she was at work, because Sarah forgot to turn off the stove burners and burned her arm, and Sarah frequently got lost in their front yard.  Instead, they returned from visiting Sarah and unleashed a torrent of harsh words, their unified voices melting into a cacophony of lament. But they still did not believe it was true.

I saw aunt Sarah for the first time since her diagnosis, in Athens. She came to visit with Stella at our open house, where family gathered to visit the American cousins. They arrived and my heart contracted a little bit, just seeing them standing beyond the rose bushes. I didn't know how I should act. I wanted to show support for Stella, and I loved my aunt. Would she know me? What should I say?

They passed through the gate and we gave our hugs and kisses of greeting. I was saved for the time being from action, my hosting duties paramount. I fetched coffee and cold water, biscuits and fruit. I ran back and forth from the kitchen, carrying plates, cups, glasses. Stella urged me to sit and visit for a while, and I did, jumping up often to refill a glass or refresh a plate of food, or greet newcomers to the gathering.

I hugged my cousins, aunts and uncles as they arrived, and saw that they, too, hesitated before approaching Sarah. They spotted her sitting with her back to the wall of bougainvillea, as she watched the newcomers with no sign of recognition. I wondered if they were thinking, “She’ll remember me, surely?” And then I saw them turn away after the greeting, some faces registering shock, others tearing up. It was real; Sarah was not there – she did not remember them.

Stella watched it all too, her face registering a measure of sadness, mixed with something else. It was finally clear to everyone that she had not been exaggerating, that she had not been lying, but in that instance, I saw her and wondered if she was thinking what I would be thinking, “But I wish I had been.”

As my family greeted each other, it became clear that many of them had not seen each other in quite some time. We got no explanation for why this was the case; more than likely it was the same for them as it is for most families everywhere – days turn to weeks turn to months turn to years when you’re not looking.

The aunts and cousins decided to take this opportunity to discuss a legal matter, which affected most of them. They gathered around the main table to deliberate, leaving my aunt Martha sitting with Sarah at the table against the wall. Martha was straining to hear what was being discussed. It was time – I couldn’t put it off any longer.

“Thia,” I said, “Go sit with the others. I’ll sit with Thia Sarah.”

And that’s how I came to sit next to her. She turned to me and smiled, warmth in her brown eyes.

“You are a beautiful woman,” she told me.
“Thank you Thia.”
“You have a lovely smile.”
I smiled at her. She held my gaze, smiling back.
“Do you have children?” she asked.
“Yes, I do; two boys – Matthew and Peter.”
“May God bless them and fortune shine down on them. May they be healthy and happy all the days of their lives.”
I felt the force of her blessing, a palpable thing, comforting and familiar, but powerful at the same time.
“Thank you Thia.”
She nodded once, still smiling. She glanced at the table, her eyes focusing on a glass of water. She made no move to pick it up.
“Are you thirsty?” I asked.
“This is your water – here.”
She took a long drink and set the glass back down, in the middle of the table. She glanced towards the street. I turned my attention to the group at the table, trying to follow the conversation for a bit. After a minute, I turned back to Sarah. She turned to me too.

“That’s a beautiful color for you,” she said.
“Thank you Thia.”
“You are a beautiful woman.”
“Thank you.”
“And you have a lovely smile.”
I smiled wider.
“May God bless you and your family and bring you everything your heart desires.”
“Thank you Thia.”
Again, that powerful feeling flowed from my aunt, from her thin frame to wash over me.

And so it went. Every few minutes, our conversation would end, we would look away for a minute, and when we reconnected, my aunt would start all over again. But I noticed there was a consistency to her engagement with me – she seemed sincere in her observations and her blessing was always forceful and palpable. In a very real sense, she came from the same place in each interaction. The words were different, but the sentiment was the same. And I got the impression that though she may not remember speaking to me 60 seconds ago, my aunt Sarah  - the essence of my aunt Sarah – was present in our every encounter.

Now let me say that I have met my aunt Sarah only a handful of times in my life, the result of living continents apart. She is real to me in the stories my mother has told us of growing up, of her 6 brothers and sisters, of life during World War II in Greece.
But I don’t have shared personal history with Sarah, so I didn't have as much to lose as the rest of the family, approaching her in my mother’s garden that day in June.

So maybe that’s why I was able to feel that I had found my aunt Sarah, stripped of history, stripped of memories. I encountered the essence of the woman. She was kind and generous, always starting our interaction with kind words. And she gave me her blessing freely – backed by the force of her spirit, and not just as a stream of words casually spoken.

As more relatives arrived, my cousin John came into the yard. He saw aunt Sarah standing in the midst of her family, smiling but not recognizing anyone. He turned a big smile her way and said in a booming voice “Well, do you know who I am?” She turned to him and didn't skip a beat as she responded, “Yes, you are your mother’s son.”

And a funny thing happened. In that instance, with that witty comeback, my cousins relaxed. Her sisters breathed deeply. They saw the essence of Sarah just as I had – they realized that there was something the disease has not been able to take away. And while they know that much of their shared history is gone, they know now that their sister, their aunt is still here.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Grace occurred.

Today's post is from Scott Whisler, friend and sojourner. 
A meditation on Luke 7:36-50

In our passage from Luke Chapter 7, Jesus employs the passive voice to great effect:

            “…her many sins have been forgiven.”

            “Your sins are forgiven.”

This might have been acceptable in the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, and it seems to be thrown about with impunity in New Testament Greek, but just in case you haven’t heard, in English speaking circles, there is and has been an ongoing war against the passive voice for some time. The commanding voices of Field Marshalls Strunk and White have long led the charge: “Use the active voice.”[i] Likely any who have dared submit their writing to editorial review by experts in linguistic nitpicking (e.g., junior high English teachers, college composition professors, any fellow student with a red pencil) will carry scars from this conflict.

Like most wars, this is a silly war. It would seem that the origins of the conflict over the passive voice have been lost to the ages, although some blame George Orwell who, even while he militated against it, was blithely firing it from his own cannons.[ii]

Me, I love me some passive voice for its proper uses. For the speaker or writer, the beauty of the passive voice is that a happening to a person or thing may be described when either (1) we don't care to identify the instigator (the person or thing making the thing happen) or (2) when we don't have that information. Of course, for the hearer or reader, this is also the problem: we are informed of a happening and to what or to whom it has occurred, but we are left then always with the questions, "Yes but who did it?" or "What caused this to occur?"

The classic objection to the passive voice is that it sounds evasive and, in truth, it often is, e.g., “Mistakes were made.” Both politicians and fifth-graders seem to prefer this formulation even though it tends to drive the professional journalists and parents a little nutty. Strunk and White warred against the passive voice for this very reason. To their way of thinking, an expression in active voice was “usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” In this view, “direct and vigorous” is equated with “truth” whereas “passive” is equated with, “She’s hiding something. Why is she lying?”

Yea, verily, “direction” and “vigor” are nice when you can get them. Sometimes, though, “things happen” and that’s all that you can really say about it. You simply don’t have all of the information that might be desired. You are short on specifics, on evidence, on hard facts, sometimes because you haven’t looked hard enough, but also sometimes because the specifics just aren’t available. Or maybe don’t exist?

As a rule, we tend not to like this lack of specifics. We prefer “effects” to have their “causes” available for review and I mean right now, Mister, much like the officers of the law who expect us to produce licenses and registrations when we are called upon to do so.

In Luke Chapter 7, Jesus comments on something as weighty as “the forgiveness of sin” with this breezy failure to specify how such a thing happens. “Sins have been forgiven,” he says.

In effect, grace happens.

Wait…what? How? Who did it? When did that happen? Was it just now? Or, like, a long time ago?

Here’s the story:

While Jesus and his Pharisee host named Simon and other invited guests were sitting around Simon’s table in discussion, an unwelcome woman entered the scene with an alabaster bottle. As the men folk attempted to carry on their conversation, the woman stood behind Jesus and began to weep. Then she bent to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying his feet with her hair, finally soothing his feet with the expensive ointment from her bottle.

Simon wondered to himself why Jesus would allow an unclean woman—a “sinner”—to touch him so.

And, you know, sometimes guys just want some space for a little “man talk” without all the blabbering and hair wringing, for crying out loud.

To Simon’s wonderment, Jesus seemed not the least bothered by the display. So Jesus engaged Simon’s thoughts.

“Simon, I have a word for you.”

“I’m listening, Teacher.”

“Imagine a man who had two debtors, one who owed him a little bit, and one who owed him a heck of a lot. Neither debtor could pay their debts, so the man cancelled both debts. Now: which of the debtors would you think will love the man more?”

“I would guess that the debtor with the greater debt would be more thankful for the cancellation,” Simon answered.

“You are correct, Sir,” Jesus replied. “Now look at this woman here, Simon.”


“I am sitting here under your roof, at your table as your guest, and you did not give me water to wash my feet. And then here she comes, bathing my feet with her tears and drying my feet with her hair.”


“In fact, when I came to your door, you offered me no kiss in greeting, and ever since she showed up she has not stopped kissing my feet.”

“Right, I can see that.”

“Did you anoint my head with oil?”

“No, but….”

“Answer: no. She, on the other hand, brought her own soothing ointment for my feet. Can you see that?”


“Look, Simon, point is this: Yes, she had the much larger debt, which has been cancelled, and thus you see here this immense expression of love.”

“On the other hand,” Jesus said, “from the guy with little to be thankful for, it seems you get only a little love.”

And then, while perhaps the steam issued from Simon’s ears, Jesus turned to the woman and said: “Your signs have been forgiven.”

Of course, Simon and his buddies really had something to talk about after that. “Who does this guy think he is? Now he is forgiving sins?”

And then, in a remarkable turn, in a brilliant turn, in perhaps the greatest coup de grace, Jesus turns the passive expression into an active one, saying to the woman:

“Your faith has saved you. Now go live in peace.”

WHAT?!! Her faith?! What faith is that?

Wait!! What about the rules, the law of sin and death? What about confession? What about repenting, feeling bad, a little guilt, would that kill you? What about keeping the commandments, the wages of sin, the lust of the flesh, falling short, evil thoughts, selfishness, that thing with my neighbor’s wife? What about baptism, confirmation, membership?

Are you telling me faith, just faith, naked plain old faith, can just fix all of that?

It’s like nobody sees it coming.

Perhaps some of us wish we could unsee it.

Most of the time we want the answers to the big questions in a direct, vigorous declaratory statement. For the big stuff, an indirect expression of the state of affairs just does not satisfy our need to know.  So we whine a little about the passive voice. It’s evasive. Why not just say what you mean?

And then we get the news: direct, active, clear, simple.

We have been forgiven.

Our faith has already saved us.

The people with the big debts seem to get it and, great balls of fire, if they sometimes don’t get all kissy and crying and stuff.

Sure, the people with little debts might get a little happy, but mostly they don’t get it. For them, the big demonstration of exuberance might not make much sense. They want to argue with it, deny it, put it on the table and cut it open and kill it so they can study it and argue about it some more.

How can her faith have saved her?
Whatever happened to sin?
Was she saved before she had faith or because she had faith?
When precisely did this happen?
How can she know it happened?

Good questions, all of them. For whatever reason, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time drawing these lines and boxes for us. His message was both pretty murky and pretty fabulous.

Your sins have been forgiven. Passive voice.

Forgiveness happens. Or it has happened.
Grace occurs.

To the intellectually inclined, this passive construction and its lack of precision is possibly a little unsatisfying.

To those with big debts, though, there isn’t anything passive about it.

[i] Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (4th Ed. 2000, p. 18) One admits that S&W’s discussion thereafter is slightly more nuanced on the issue, but nevertheless it is this declaration that leads the section that is remembered and employed by those who would flog others for their sins.
[ii] See G. Pullum’s Language Log, July 18, 2006:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Snowed In

Today's post is by Jim Heynen, from whom I had the wonderful privilege of taking a writing workshop in Iowa City this summer. 

I don’t miss much from my childhood on the farm, but I miss being snowed in.  Being snowed in is not waking in the morning to see that you’ll have to spend a half hour shoveling to your car before the snowplows come and you get towed.  If you’re really snowed in, the snowplows are snowed in.  And being snowed in at a your lakeside cabin where you’ll have to dust off your snowmobile before going out on the frozen lake simply does not count because you went to your cabin in the first place to escape normalcy.  Being truly snowed in means being greeted by an uninvited ravenous guest who swallows your whole day.  If you are truly snowed in, life as you know it comes to a complete standstill.  It means delicious imprisonment.  It means being wrapped in a straight jacket of silence.
            My sweet memories of being snowed in look like this.  It started a few days before the actual event with the dire forecast that a humongous blizzard was lumbering down from Canada.  The forecast did not produce dread.  Quite the opposite, it fueled excitement.   This could be the big one! Bigger than ’36!  Better get your kerosene lamps and candles ready! 
The grocery stores would be packed with people buying flour and sugar.  The hardware store would be packed with people buying batteries and shovels.  The variety store would be packed with people buying Monopoly games and jigsaw puzzles.  Getting ready for the big one generated as much anticipatory excitement as getting ready for Christmas.  Except this preparation was not in anticipation of a congregation of relatives.  It was preparation for a celebration of solitude.
The morning after the big one looked like this.  A wonderland of whiteness.  Snowbanks as high as telephone wires, the only thing moving the blue, wavering smoke from distant farmhouse chimneys.   Even though one family could not drive out to see another family, it was still a grand communal feeling.  We were all in this together, every family in its own survival cubicle.  We never felt more connected, and it would not be fair to say that misery loves company.  We were not miserable.  We were happy to have been chosen by the great mysteries of Midwest Weather.  We were special.  Though the power of all that snow trapped us in one place, we still felt blessed.  It was an awe that stopped just short of worship.
Being totally snowed in started with an awareness of what was outside and then burrowed its way inside us.  The body at first signaled a need to move.  Everybody, including the adults, felt stir-crazy.  Maybe even irritable.  “I’m bored!  But there was no easy resolution to boredom or irritability.  If parents or siblings fought, they had nowhere to escape.  They had no choice but to deal with it.  Nobody dared to do anything so drastic that they’d have to go to the doctor.  You couldn’t go to the doctor even if you needed to.  If you had a knockdown argument with a family member, you couldn’t resolve it by running off to a friend’s house.  You couldn’t even go for a walk.
No matter how much money was spent in anticipation of the snowed-in lock-down, it was still cheap therapy.  By mid morning, all able-bodied persons would have put their hands to the shovel.  On one big snowed-in day, my brother and I had to jump from an upstairs window with snow shovels so we could dig a path to the front door and let the other members of the family out.  We had to dig our way to the barns to make sure the animals were all right.  By mid afternoon, when boredom made its second threat, the board games and jig saw puzzles that were once regarded as themselves mediums of boredom, now called out for attention.  So did those neglected books.  Puzzles got made, books got read, towels got embroidered, socks got darned, pictures got framed, rooms got cleaned, photo albums got sorted, old family stories got told, and—by the time everyone was ready for bed—a good time had been had by all.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hell's Angels

by D. Mark Davis, dabbler in all things, expert in none. 

As a child, I learned the infallible dogma that Satan was the most beautiful angel in all of heaven, who began to imagine himself a rival of God and as a result was cast out of heaven. All of this took place some time between when God created the heavens and the earth and when Satan – taking on the guise of a serpent with legs – tempted Adam and Eve to eat forbidden fruit. That is to say, it was before the invention of calendars, so precision is out the window here. Anyway, the dogma about Satan went on to describe how Satan had a lot of followers who became hell’s angels, although they prefer to be known by the titles “demons,” “devils,” or “evil spirits.” Not being Roman Catholic, and therefore not having access to the Book of Enoch, I needed to crack this code and locate the biblical passage from which this dogma was derived. Sure enough, it is as plain as day that in Genesis 6:1-4 we learn about how these angels went from being heaven’s angels to hell’s angels.  

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

For anyone who can’t make the connection between the “sons of God” getting it on with beautiful women and the tradition of hell’s angels, well, you just don’t understand the logic of dogmatic infallibility. It’s a gift. Pray about it.

For the rest of us, this text makes quite clear that the world is a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, hell below, and the battleground for good and evil in the middle. Heaven is populated with God and those angels who didn’t fall for Satan’s beauty or the beauty of earthly women. Hell is filled with those angels who live according to their base aesthetic desires and not according to higher virtues, such as pure truth, beauty and goodness. Kierkegaard’s analysis of Don Giovanni is the clearest exposition of how this all goes down that I know of. Or maybe Green Eggs and Ham. At any rate, the Bible is clear that hell hath many angels and some of them get to roam the earth on occasion and possess the bodies of people who don’t live properly, where they have been known to contort bodies and evoke evil actions. The ‘take away’ from all of this is that we now have the best explanation yet for Donald Trump’s hair and lifestyle.

We’ll have to save the topic of the “curious coif of the conspicuous consumer’ for another day. Today’s topic is an exploration into the mind of an angel of hell. Rather than simply hating and rebuking these evil angels, like I was taught, I’m aiming for a moment of empathic listening. It can’t be easy being a fallen angel, forsaking the glories of heaven for a tryst with a gorgeous woman, knocking her up, having a father-in-law that hates you for his entire 120 years of life, having a son who is a warrior of renown who carries an oedipal complex around in his quiver, etc. And let’s not even talk about trying to land a job at the local ziggurat plant when all you can put down for ‘previous employer’ is ‘heaven,’ and yet you can’t get a character reference from said employer. You see what I mean by “emphatic listening.” The lustfulness of his young angelhood has left him with responsibilities and dangers in his middle age. It’s tough being this guy.

But, what really intrigues me about hell’s angels – and this would be true of the ones who followed Satan out of heaven or the ones who simply left the heavenly hosts for earthly concupiscence – is the problem of memory. You see, these folks have seen what no earthly eye can contain. They’ve seen glory. Real glory. Glory that is not mediated by non-glory. For human beings, we can only handle glory that is mediated by non-glory, or else we’ll die right there on the spot. For us, things like clouds, fire, storms, winds, idols, temples, even Jesus Christ, are ways that we can see glory that is mediated by something that is not – in itself – glory. And it’s not just physical. Non-physical things like “truth itself” or “pure beauty,” are beyond us. At best we can see pale imitations, which we call ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ because we sense something of the divine, unmediated glory of truth and beauty in them. Face it folks, just like we can’t stare at the emergent rays of a solar eclipse without overloading our optical nerves and going blind, you and I must always encounter glory indirectly. It’s like our whole lives are spent in dark, dark sunglasses and even then we have to look away at just the right moment – not because God is hideous, ugly, or malicious, saying “Don’t look at me!” It’s because we don’t have what it takes to look directly at God’s glory. When Jack Nicholson blares out the dramatic pronouncement, “You can’t handle the truth!” all of us who have averred our eyes for years should respond, “Well, duh! Who can?”

But, hell’s angels have seen glory. We imagine angels as watchers who never have to eat or rest or do any of the concessions that we have to do to survive. We imagine angels as flying, because that is the one skill that any of us would love to have but never will. We imagine angels as living well beyond our allotted 120 years to eternity. We imagine angels as making music because for many folks music as close as we can get to a depth of feeling that mere mortal words cannot express. All of the things that we imagine about angels that make them different from us miss the point. The one true difference between us and angels is they can see glory directly and we cannot. They have seen glory. And they decided – whether they followed the beautiful angel Satan or mated with the beautiful women of old – to exchange God’s radiant glory for a lesser reflection of glory.

So, imagine the angel that left the glory of heaven for a few nights on the town, finding a beautiful woman, settling into a life of cohabitation, raising the young ‘uns, and thinking, on many occasions, “I remember ....” What pain that memory must bring. He hears a sound that others might call ‘beautiful’ and remembers the glory of beauty itself that this tinny little squeak is trying to mimic. He sees a breath-taking sunrise and reads a poem that someone was inspired to write about it, scoffing to himself, “You should see the beauty of the one who created color itself.” He hears a talking head start every other sentence with the hubris, “The truth is ...” and screams at the radio “Stop worshiping your imagination of what truth looks like, you Idiot!” My suspicion is that after the initial infatuation wears off, this guy would be hard to live with, because – having once lived in the presence of glory itself – he would find living anywhere else intolerable.

It’s no wonder, then, that Satan and other of hell’s angels are often depicted as hell-bent on destruction. To some extent, they have a point: The beautiful is really ugly, the truth is really false, the good is really evil – at least when our perceptions of the beautiful, the true, and the good are compared to the glory of beauty, truth, and goodness itself. On the other hand, their destruction is misguided. What hell’s angels don’t get – what some of the old camp meeters called “the song that the angels cannot sing” – is “the song of salvation.” It’s not that angels can’t repent and be forgiven – why wouldn’t that be possible? The difference between us and them is that we who are human only know humanity. We know – at least when we’re thinking clearly – that none of us can behold truth, beauty, or the goodness in all of its glory. But, we are invited to glimpse that glory, even when it comes to us in the guise of non-glory. That invitation – and that alone, actually – is our salvation, the difference between us and hell’s angels. They see human approximations of glory and scoff; we see them and worship. That’s salvation.

So, when hell’s angels see a pale imitation of glory and set out to destroy it, we see that same imitation and give thanks that we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear this foretaste of glory divine. We praise the good and gawk at the beautiful, we argue for the truth and practice religion because we intuit that something utterly unfathomable lies behind it all. Hell’s angels are offended at our pale imitations; people who know salvation give thanks for them.

Thanks be to God. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

That House on Straight Street

Today's entry is by good friend, extraordinary writer, and joyous sojourner, Scott Whisler

The New Testament story of Saul is haunting me now.

In preparation for Pentecost Sunday we studied the rather dramatic story of Saul's Damascus Road meet-up with the well-lit voice of Jesus from the 9th chapter of Acts.

That was weeks ago. We've all moved on. There is a lot more bible to read, right?

But I can't seem to let it go. Or maybe vice versa.

I confess that I had always bought what I had largely been sold about Saul's conversion: that it was a one-off deal, an exceptional event, an experience unique to Saul that was necessary for the invention of the great Apostle Paul.

The more I read it and think about it, though, the less I am inclined to think that Chapter 9 is the story of an unparalleled event. In fact, now that the thing keeps following me around so, and I can't stop thinking about it, I am starting to see wonderful patterns there, ingenious design, even beauty.

There's gold in this story that I never saw before. It makes me thankful that the story never gave up on me.

Like this thing: I had never really noticed that the blinded, dirty, and confused Saul was hand-walked by his buddies into town and checked into a house on Straight Street owned by a guy named Judas.

I had never really noticed that Saul sat there in this guy's house for three days, not eating, not drinking. Just sitting there. Like a lump.

A big, scary, confused, blind, withering lump.

I had never really noticed that there were these three days of darkness and confusion and hunger for Saul, and then a knock on the door, and then there's another guy--Ananias--walking in to whisper his little message from God for Saul.

I had never really noticed that Saul was such a lump and Ananias was just some guy and that all of this was being done in Judas's house.

I had never really noticed, I guess, that God orchestrated all of this in this story so that all of these characters ended up in the same place, under the same roof, for this incredible scene where Ananias forced himself, through his fear of this terrible man, to extend his shaking hands out towards and onto Saul's face so that Saul might see again.

The story is really pretty specific about these names and the places and the times between events. And specific about the place: Judas's place.

A certain house on a certain street.

A house where it was safe to take a dangerous man who probably didn't have many local friends.

A house where it was safe for an important man with a big reputation and lots of power to sit awhile and be helpless and ponder his lot without really knowing anything for sure.

A house where it was safe for enemies to encounter each other.

A house where the hunted can have a hand in healing the hunter.

I guess I had never really thought about this story being a story about a particular kind of house. But it has reminded me of the importance of this particular kind of house.

It has reminded me, I guess, about how a guy’s house can become God’s house.

One summer during my college days I worked as an intern to the music minister at a large Pentecostal church located in a blue-collar Illinois town. The people of this town were struggling to make a go of it as the manufacturing jobs dried up during the 1980's. Even so, the church seemed to keep growing. The church's sanctuary was enormous by my small-town standards, but all three Sunday morning services were filled every week. There were about 150 folks in the choir. By the time I arrived the church had 14 mostly full-time clergy staffing the various departments and ministries of the church. In sum, this church was a sprawling, lively organism. It was all a little overwhelming to me.

These were the first pastoral staff meetings I had ever been privy to. They were as crowded as many of the Sunday morning services I had experienced growing up in my little Iowa church. Once a week we gathered around a large conference table that barely fit into the meeting room, with the senior pastor at the head of the table. 

The senior pastor of that church was a giant man with a deep, resonant voice, a Zen-like golf swing, and a too obvious toupee, but he was also a serious theologian, a deep thinker, and a wonderful writer and, most of all, a true shepherd. 

I felt a little important being there with all of these professional God-people. At the beginning of the first staff meeting I was invited to attend, the senior pastor noted my presence kindly and confirmed my welcome. Right after that, though, his face went all serious and, in a stern voice, and in front of everyone else, he told me that the business that was conducted during those meetings was "pastoral business" and that the things spoken of there were "not to be spoken of elsewhere."

And then he asked that I acknowledge that I understood the import of what he had just said.

Which I did, voice a bit shaky. "Yes, sir," I said.

I got it. "The cone of silence." This was serious stuff.

I didn't say "cone of silence," but I was thinking it. Shakily thinking it.


And then the serious business of pastoring was engaged. And my education in church business began.

Here's what I learned in those meetings:

People who come to church aren't perfect. They have problems.

The pastors who work in churches aren't perfect and they have problems.

The people who sing in the choir, even the ones who have sung faithfully for 20 years or more, they have problems as well, both musical and otherwise.

And this: everybody who comes to church--all the people,

and all kids of all the people, and the parents of the people,

and the preachers,

and the associate pastors who want to preach but don't get to,

and the old preachers who used to preach and probably shouldn't anymore,

and the spouses of the preachers and pastors and old preachers,

and the singers,

and the nice lady at the organ,

and the bashful teenage girls who hide out in the nursery with the unhappy little kids,

and the ushers who sneak out to the parking lot during the sermon for a cigarette--

all the people,

all of them always bring all of their problems with them to the church every time they come to church.

All of them.
All of their problems.
Every. Time.

It turned out that I was the only person in the staff meeting that first day who was unaware of this. As I think back, I wonder if my mouth did not hang open in shock during the entire three hour meeting as the woes of all of the people were laid on the table, pondered, argued, then prayed over.

I really can't say much more specific about it or, you know, the cone of silence….

But I can say that I also learned this from this senior pastor: I learned about "sanctuary".

This being a lesson about "what the church is for."

This senior pastor had a thing about "sanctuary". For him, Sunday morning was not a time for loud hootin' and clanging things. This pastor seemed to have some sort of secret empathetic connection to the cuts and scars and bruises and scabs of his people that was the primary focus of all of his church business. This pastor seemed painfully aware that his people were all week getting let go, turned down, beat up, run over.

In that first meeting, and all of the remaining meetings that summer, and in all of his sermons, and the many books that I learned that he had written and was still writing, the objective appeared to be the creation and maintenance of a place--both physically and figuratively--of safety, of resort, of restoration, of healing.

Mainly, I remember that this guy was deadly serious about the physical sanctuary of the church being an actual "sanctuary" for the souls who showed up there with all of their wounds. That's what God’s house was for.

That's what the songs were for.
That's what the sermon was for.
If any of the songs or sermons or decorations or announcements or furniture were not about making that house safe for the souls, those things were not going to happen in this house.

That’s the kind of house you want to be dropped off at when you have a particularly bad fall on a dirty road and you can’t see straight and you are hearing voices.

That's where you go when you get to the end of the Damascus Road. You get somebody to walk you into town. You take a left on Straight Street. You go down to that third house on the right where Judas lives.

You go to the place where everybody knows your name, even if your name isn't really all that pleasant, you know? You go there because you are allowed to sit there and be quiet and confused and you can refuse to eat if you want. You can fail to see what the point is--that's okay, too.

You can play the lump if you want.

You can wait there, in the dark, and ponder your lot, for three days or for 20 years.

You can wait there until you hear the knock on the door.

And even after that, you can stay. Because it’s safe that way.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Difference Between Different Differences Makes a Big Difference

By Mark Davis, dabbler in many things, expert in none.

There is no secret that the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with many other church bodies, is beset by differences that threaten to undo us. We consider those differences so critical that not even our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is enough to keep us from severing from one another into separate worshiping communities. Many are the analyses and passionate pleas for us to find unity within our differences, to practice a kind of compassion that will help us to overcome our differences, or to tolerate one another despite our differences. However, what we do not often do in times of differences is to differentiate between different kinds of differences. Some differences may require dividing into separate worshiping communities, but most do not. Even the kinds of differences that do seem to warrant separation can contain a hidden grace that may surprise us.

Different Kinds of Differences
Consider these different kinds of differences:
1.    "The difference between night and day."[1] This familiar phrase suggests a kind of oppositional difference where the 'two sides' seem utterly incompatible and their positions irreconcilable. One can argue whether or not the assumption that there are ‘two sides’ is correct in the first place, but this is often the kind of difference that seems to warrant dramatic action such as dividing a worshiping community into separated communities. The tension indicated by this kind of difference is that one cannot have both night and day, but must have one or the other.
2.    "The difference between month and day." Now we're talking about a difference, but not an oppositional difference. There are ways that one might compare a month and a day, since both of them signify ways of marking time. But, when we compare a month and a day, we do not imagine that one must choose between them as incompatible co-existents. At most, their difference is that one is the subset of the other.
3.    "The difference between salt and day." Now we are comparing two categorically different referents, so different in kind that to speak as if their difference means anything is almost akin to speaking nonsense. Salt is one kind of thing and day is simply another. So, while salt and day are indeed different, their differences are both obvious and fairly meaningless.

We've identified three different types of differences. There may be more, but for now the differences between these three different types of difference at least give us pause to consider this question: When we discuss our differences, what kind of differences are we discussing?

To be sure, most of us would presume that the differences that have divided us for some time now are the incompatible, irreconcilable oppositional kind of differences indicated by the phrase "as different as night and day." Marriage is either only between a man and a woman or it is not. The church will either ordain women and men who are engaged in same-sex relationships or it will not. There seems to be no middle ground to consider, so that in the end there must be a 'winner' or a 'loser.' Therefore, as the General Assembly convenes there are pre-Assembly caucuses, mid-Assembly strategy luncheons, and post-Assembly interpretations, most of which reinforce the ‘win or lose’ mentality. What often results is that a process, which should be an act of discerning God’s direction, becomes a process where people from every side and at all points in between experience anger, despair, elation, or knots in their stomachs at the whole process.

To describe these differences with the adjectives, 'incompatible, irreconcilable, and oppositional' may sound a bit strong, but dividing the body of Christ into separate worshiping communities is no small thing. Strong language seems warranted to show the critical seriousness of where our differences have taken us. Indeed, it would be shameful to imagine that a church would sever itself over trivial matters. And so we name our differences starkly: The love of God v. the holiness of God; upholding the marriage covenant v. honoring loving relationship; integrity in ordination standards v. affirming the diversity of the Spirit; etc. While we may not like the terms given to the debates (especially when others do the naming), they are not simply the product of strategic spin-doctoring. The terms are stark because the passions run deep.

If we take for granted that the differences that divide us are "the difference between night and day" kinds of differences, there are reasons to take heart. One thing we might appreciate in one another - especially those with whom we disagree most ardently - is that 'both sides' seem to share a true passion over our differences. We disagree passionately only because we agree that our differences are meaningful differences. In other words, the platform of our differences and what gives passion to them is actually constructed out of the things we hold in common. People matter. Theology matters. Identity matters. Covenant relationships matter. The authority of Scripture matters. How we interpret Scripture matters. Even policies matter. Without this platform of agreements, our differences would be as passion-less as "the difference between salt and day." Different, yes. Meaningful, no. What we hold in common is that our differences matter. They matter precisely because we agree on so much. 

So, even if the differences that divide us are "different as night and day" kind of differences, perhaps we can build on that platform of those things that we share in common in order to explore those places of difference boldly. When we do so, we may find ways to consider those night and day differences other than as utterly incompatible, irreconcilable, and oppositional. Below are three theses that can make our “night and day” differences opportunities for hope.

Night and day need one another to mean anything
When we explore differences that are "as different as night and day," we discover something quite promising. 'Night' and 'day' are partner terms, correlate terms, that need one another in order to make sense. One way that we think of 'night' is that it is 'day' without light. One way we think of 'day' is that it is night with the lights turned on. The oppositional difference between them shows that day and night depend on one another for meaning. That is how oppositional differences work. The contrasting poles of oppositional differences are not two arrival points that have nothing to do with one another. They are only meaningful insofar as they depend on one another. They need one another. They feed on one another and they feed one another.

Even if we believe that that the differences that divide us are "different as night and day" differences, as such, "each side" needs the other to be whole. Tradition needs the emergence of something new, because it is a constitutive part of the Presbyterian tradition that we are "Reformed always being reformed." Emerging ways of being church or of being in covenant relationships need tradition, because it is precisely the tutelage of tradition that prevents an emerging movement from being merely a passing whim and instills in it the notion that 'doing theology' has significance. Any ‘new’ understanding of marriage relies heavily on the ‘old’ existing understanding of marriage to give the word meaning. And so on. What looks at first glance like simple opposition becomes on further reflection an interdependent correlation where ‘both sides’ need one another.

Night and day are not the only possibilities
For those involved in oppositional differences, the opposing sides seem to be the only two options. Think of the oppositional difference between Jews and Samaritans in the New Testament era. When the Samaritan woman at the well poses the question to Jesus, "Should we worship God on our mountain or yours?" she was staking out the 'two sides' that had divided these theological cousins passionately for many years. However, she was also asking a question that only had significance for Jews and Samaritans. The occupying Romans, for example, thought the question was utterly meaningless. As far as they were concerned Rome had thoroughly conquered both mountains, so the question was over two piles of Roman dirt. But, for Samaritans and for Jews, the oppositional difference behind this question of sacred geography warranted enmity strong enough to divide them into separate and rival worshiping communities.

Frankly, Jesus' answer to the Samaritan woman's question of sacred geography has more in common with what a Roman soldier might say than what a Jew or a Samaritan of that day had been trained to say. In answer to the question, "Which mountain, ours or yours?" Jesus says "Neither." Likewise, later in John's gospel Jesus will encounter another question of oppositional difference, "Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?" with the same answer, "Neither." What Jesus' answer suggests is that the Roman soldier may be on to something here - the oppositional difference that provokes us to separate ourselves from one another may be fairly meaningless in the larger view of things. The Roman soldier's jaded view that both mountains are conquered territories actually opens the way for Jesus' beatific view that all mountains can be sacred geography. What is important is not the mountain itself - as hard as it might be for those of us who adhere to one side of the oppositional difference or the other to hear it. What is important is the Spirit that makes geography sacred in the first place - something that both Jews and Samaritans can lose sight of when differing.

When we differ over the question of ordination, for example, we imagine that the ultimate issue is the degree to which we tighten or loosen the ‘standards’ for ordination. Attempts to guard the 'sanctity' of ordination vows are grounded in real conviction that when a church discerns and agrees together about the calling and vocation of its elders, it is practicing the presence of the Spirit. Likewise, attempts to change the requirements surrounding ordination vows feed off of that very same sense of sanctity – that part of practicing the presence of the Spirit is to discern anew how God is calling and leading God's people into ministry in the church and the world. No one 'side' of our differences has a corner on meaning or on the Spirit. Just as Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman suggested for their oppositional difference, the primary matter in ordination, covenant relationships, and other issues that divide us is not the position that we hold. It is the Spirit that holds us.

Night and Day only describe perspective, not essence
There is a riddling question that my dad once asked to break up a long car ride:  "What color is a white house at night?" My brother and I immediately answered "black," to which my dad responded, "No, it's still white, you just can't see the color in the dark." The point of the riddle was to show that the primary differences between night and day were changes in perspective, not changes in things-in-themselves. That riddle has always intrigued me when I hear the phrase “as different as night and day.” What that means is that however stark the differences are, they are differences of perspective, not essence. They are real differences, to be sure, but they are real differences in perspective, not in essence. How liberating and appropriate humbling would it be if all of us who are embroiled in oppositional difference would agree that our differences are differences in perspective. That would not diminish our passion, or compromise our conviction. It would, however, relativize the whole conversation. We cannot presume that we are speaking for God, for all time, for truth itself when we differ as different as night and day. We can only presume that we are speaking for our perspective of God, our best understanding in our moment, and our interpretation of truth.

Red flags warning of “relativism!” will immediately rise at the suggestion that our differences are perspectival and not essential. But, I would argue that those red flags are actually red herrings. Even John Calvin was never presumptuous enough to speak of God ‘in God’s essence,’ but only of God has God has ‘accommodated’ Godself to our understanding. What Calvin rightly understood was that God’s ways are indeed higher than our ways and God’s understanding beyond the reach of our understanding. Any statement we make of God is, to that extent, perspectival. That is why Christian theology must always be grounded in humility, not arrogance. It is not that “everything is relative; nothing is true.” It is that we, qua humans, can only see as far as our eyes are able, can only understand as our minds are able. And God accommodates Godself to that limited entity known as humanity.[2]

When our “night and day” differences collide over the issue of ordination, acknowledging our perspective gives us both courage and humility. We argue over whether we should ordain persons in same-sex relationships or whether we should limit ordination to persons in heterosexual relationships or chastity in singleness. We feel the passion because we agree that ordination is an act of the community that speaks of how God works among us today. We have convictions because we agree that the incarnate presence of the Spirit continues to gift and empower persons for service in a variety of ways. We argue because we disagree over how we most faithfully exercise authority – the act of authorizing persons to practice the leadership role of ruling or teaching elder in the church. Our differences are rooted in how we perceive God working among and calling us to exercise this authorizing role.

If we begin with the assumption that our differences are differences of perspective, we might open ourselves to remembering the wonder that God has invited us to participate in this joy at all. Ordination is, beneath our perspectives of how it is rightly practiced, a gift from God. The candidate for ordination is – first and foremost – called by God’s grace, an act that witnesses to the activity of the Spirit among us. God’s initiating call is then confirmed by the community. That activity is also initiated by God’s grace. Heck, the gathered community itself exists only by the grace of God. The whole presumption of ordination is chock full of grace! As such, there is no room for human presumption or arrogance. What lies beneath our entire act of ordination is the recognition that none of us in worthy of ordaining or of being ordained. Unless our humility in this activity is a feigned humility, we can only engage in ordination as a “debt of gratitude.” Before we ask the question, “Why would God call that kind of person?” we first ask, “Why would God call the likes of us?” And with humility, we can only answer, “Not for any reason other than God’s sheer grace.” In the end, our perspectives on how to exercise the authorizing act of ordination is an indication of how we experience a grace that none of us deserves.

Our differing perspectives, then, are genuine and real. But, they are perspectives that rely on grace. We may not all come to genuine agreement when we begin with that humble starting point. But, at least we might be able to see our way together in the grace that unites us.

[1] I need to note that references to 'night and day,' as well as references to 'black and white,' are often used to connote moral difference, with darkness denoting sin or evil and brightness denoting good. That is not at all how I intend these terms to be understood. I am simply noting that the phrase "as different as night and day" speaks to a presumed oppositional difference, without any assumption that either night or day is superior, preferred, or better. If the history of these terms makes it too difficult to hear them amorally, then I apologize and invite the reader to help me arrive at better terms that make the same point but do not involve the same overtones

[2] This quality of God is what Robert Scharlemann has in mind in his delightfully entitled article, “The Being of God When God is not Being God.”