As I sat at a recent presbytery meeting, it struck me that despair angers me. Seeing it in others evokes the possibility of finding it within me, and I reject it in both locations. It takes only the suggestion that no options remain, the lines are too firmly drawn, the sides too rigidly held, give up, give in . . . and I go to a dark place. I reject the possibility of a world without possibility. The atheist and the pessimist touch a side of me that is pure ugly.
Some might hazard a guess: My frustration arises from my insistence on things being tried my way. I confess that I possess a measure of uncompromisingly narrow conviction (putting it nicely). Yet I also comprehend that I become demanding when others remain stuck in place, and my way - plus a plethora of other ways - have not been attempted because other people are too tired or too cynical: hopeless. I return to my premise: Despair angers me.
I grew up in a homelife that was often rigid, secretive, and shame-based. The distortions of parental despair linger on the fringes of all of my siblings. The despair fostered in those days continues to share bread with me, a dogged companion. When others say it is time to surrender, it urges me to agree. "Go quiet into that good night," it whispers.
I know that despair arises from the array of persons around us. It gained access to me through the familial networks of relational pain heard by me before I ever left the womb. So I know too that the despair experienced by those around me comes also from relationally transmitted poisons. It is not they but the subtle company they keep. In anger I want to shake them - and me - and shout "Hopelessness is not a strategy. There is a way out! There is always a way out!"
If no way becomes clear it is because the forest has blinded us to the space between the trees.
The key ingredient of shame-based systems is silence. For those trapped in it, not abuse but speech constitutes the greatest threat, and fear mutes all of its victims. This means that the antidote lies in verbalization so disturbing that it throws carefully arranged toxicity into chaos.
What those locked in despair often fear most is the the first sign of deliverance: noise, turmoil, turbulence, the unravelling of alliances and understandings that keep power arrangements intact. The apparent menace in the dark forest of rigid relationships is the stuff of a grade B horror movie. Few understand that Jason, masked and bearing a chain saw, is a metaphor for disturbing hope. He cuts uncomfortably across a reality none of us ever should have accepted. He demands that we fight or flee it.
I feel at times that I am Jason, attempting with indiscriminate words that wound to bring a chaos that few welcome but all need. I bring neither opportunity nor light but a diabolical delight in opening space that give others that one in a million chance to make a real, revolutionary difference.
Perhaps a different metaphor serves better. I see friends locked in prison camps of their minds, hearts, and souls. I come to liberate, not to give aid or even life. Yet my goal is the soldier's goal: to allow a future where none lay before. In the end it is up to them to make something of their freedom.
This image suits, like that of an aged knight in a Brecht woodprint. As I sat at the meeting, it struck me that when I die I will feel liberated from responsibility for the choices that others make, good or bad. Then I realized that when I retired I probably would not feel responsible. Then I began to wonder why I feel responsible now, and if I should. So this is what it means that old soldiers never die, I thought. They just fade away. Perhaps this is what happens to the anger when it encounters inexpicable despair one too many times. Never mind that so many wondrous options lie just on the other side of a frightening turbulence: Maybe the day comes when, in the face of puzzling resignation, the anger just fades away.
. . . Is the hand that rules the world, or so the saying goes. Two weeks from now we arrive at Mother's Day, and motherhood haunts me this evening.
After our dog Tulip died, all my losses occurred to me. She was only a dog, and yet a member of the family who I hugged nightly before she would settle down for the evening. I remembered the hugs I have given and received over the years, and this led me back to my mother.
Mom had been raised by a Presbyterian pastor, and she must have been high spirited. That is the only explanation for why he beat her with a cane on more than one occasion. This made mom a strong and brittle woman who never felt comfortable in a family setting. Only after my father died and the dementia first arrived did my mother suddenly find the gift of warmth. I remember my mother slapping my sister Jean once. Jean remembered it for a very long time. Years later, after mom's mind began to go, Jean told me a story: She had been bent over mom, explaining something to her, when mom suddenly reached up and cupped Jean's face in her hands and brought it close. it was such a sweet, healing, endearing act, it transformed my sister. The long years of hurt suddenly lifted, or so it seemed.
I called mom yesterday, and for a long time she could not speak. Finally, she made some sort of repetitive noise when I told her I loved her, and that was it. I then called Susan's stepmother, whose second and last child died last year. In the midst of her recitation of ills lay a constantly repeating theme of loneliness: She had no one left to mother, no one over whom to worry, and so she is left to worry over herself.
My last thought is the one that first occurred to me. I thought of this Zubeidat Tsarnaeva whose sons allegedly perpetrated the Boston bombing. Apparently she once strived to fit into American culture, but after 9/11 increasingly saw the American war in terms of a holy war against Muslims. Whatever explicit relationship lies between mother, sons, and terrorism, she will always wonder what she did or didn't do that caused her children such sorrow and her heart to break. Mothers Day will , if she recognizes its arrival, surely cause her introspection. What it will mean for her one boy left living is hard to say.
On Mothers Day, if we do our duty, we will thank our mothers for giving us life. That is, if they are still living. We will thank them also for giving us the chance to create the lives we now live. I believe my mother is too demented to hear or understand my thanks. Susan's stepmother has no child to call her. I can only speculate concerning the conversation between Tsarnaeva and her remaining son, if they were allowed to have one.
If you have given your mother a reason to be proud, call her and thank her if she lives. If she does not, or can no longer understand you, thank God for her. if your life does not the reflect well on the one who bore you, one more Mothers Day remains for you to change your ways.
I confess that I have managed to avoid almost all zombie movies and television shows. Almost. When Night of the Living Dead made its appearance at the theater in the late '60s, my parents commanded me to avoid it and so I did. I continued to avoid it and all similar types of entertainment, until last Thursday. Then I watched The Walking Dead on Netflix, and I'm sold. The zombies are lame, of course, but I find the drama between the non-zombie actors remarkable. Sharing in their fear of a common threat, persons who prior to the apocalypse would have had no traffic with one another must become friends.
(I once dreamed that I was being attacked by zombies in a grocery store. I was hiding behind the meat case; they were shopping in the organic vegetable aisle. Then they would attack. I defended myself first with a fire hose. When the water stopped flowing, I drop kicked the zombies into the cereal section. That's when Susan awoke me; I had already kicked her a couple of times, and she watched me winding up to make it thrice).
I have imagined zombies to be metaphors. Just as vampires represent the attempt to avoid aging at any price, and ghosts suggest unfinished business, so zombies too seem to be cultural commentary. Mindless, soulless, notably dead to everyone except themselves, and ravenously hungry, I think of the zealous consumer who has taken control of all of us. I number myself among them: Last week lightning struck the neighborhood, shredding bark off trees and frying electronics. It took our television, which is how I ended up at Best Buy last Friday night.
There is something prototypically male about carrying around a television screen, at least that's what I learned. We guys lined up at the Geek Squad, jockeying for position and eye-balling each others screen size for comparison purposes. Undoubtedly we all felt relieved that we outsized the fellow at the end, although his contribution looked suspiciously like a computer monitor.
We were there, of course, because we can't homogenize with each other without our televisions. How can we fathom what to believe politically, where to shop, what to eat and where, who to root for, unless our televisions tell us? Craving our programs, hungry for flickering video, we felt attracted to Best Buy like iron filings to a magnet or zombies to loud sounds. As time passed, the florescent light turned our skin gray, we shuffled forward, we saw with vacant stares, and we grunted at each other and sales clerks: We were zombified.
Zombies don't know they are zombies: They are too busy consuming. I can't say it occurred to me that I might be a zombie until . . . well, until now. Watching the truly living dwell among The Walking Dead, it struck me that to be the church means to live consciously, fleeing mindless and soulless passions, and being aware of our individual differences yet determined to transcend them in order to form community. We are not determined because we desire to survive (here we break with the show). Rather, we transcend because, unlike zombies, we are devoted to the Lord of Life. Life requires us to treat neither people nor things as consumables. Life tells us that there are no zombies, vampires, or ghosts: Just people for whom Jesus Christ died. And that is no zombie resurrected from the tomb.
North Korea's and Iran's dedication to obtaining nuclear weapons has aroused the world's ire. Whereas other nations expect them to live up to the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (Iran remains a signatory officially, although this occurred prior to its revolution; North Korea withdrew in 2003), they flaunt global opinion and press on. It may seem counter-intuitive to the rest of the world, yet we Americans should understand perfectly. Iran and North Korea are exercising their right to bear arms.
It is a particular aspect of the American character that we hold the Bill of Rights so dear, including the one related to automatic weapons that can be emptied into classrooms. When the US Constitution was adopted with a provision for a centralized federal government, state concurrence required the creation of the Bill of Rights. The observation of early Americans of Europe was that individual communities and individuals have little power to resist centralized authority. It takes more than a balance of powers and checks and balances to protect families, civic clubs, and the village idiot and atheist. There must be specific inalienable rights stated and defended. The first battle of the American Revolution, the one at Lexington memorialized as the shot heard 'round the world, was due to the British attempt to confiscate the arms hidden by the local militia. Of course this memory bore fruit in the right to bear arms and its diverging interpretations: Is the right to bear arms the right of individuals? Or is it the right given to local governments to resist centralized governmental power? Does it protect individuals who collect firearms and then have them stolen, only to see them show up on the black market? Or does it give permission for the early renditions of the national guard?
The American mindset romanticizes weapons, and it feeds the fantasy of the solitary individual standing up armed against the world. Sometimes the world is a spouse: Men in particular tend to shoot their wives if they feel the need for the change. Termination from a job can make employers and other employees the world. Sometimes the world is the unluckily placed stranger. Handguns and larger death-dealers encourage Americans to see themselves as somehow separate from the world: Why do we need to create a community, practice forgiveness, and seek justice - learning all the skills to take on the challenges of being a neighbor - if we can shoot the people who irritate us?
So Iran and North Korea might be viewed as nothing other than patriotic Americans with membership in the NRA: Rather than developing the skills to play nicely among the community of nations, they have opted to indulge in the paranoia that weapons allow. I am not suggesting that the world should tolerate weapons of mass destruction held by Iran and North Korea. I am suggesting that we Americans deal with the hypocrisy of our own mindset.
My old dad said that his old dad once said that one reason he believed the virgin birth was a miracle was because female animals can't spontaneously give birth to males. Females can give birth to females without a male partner, but not males. For Mary to conceive and give birth to Jesus meant doing the impossible unless there was divine intervention.
So I stood at the zoo and watched the snake with some fascination. It looked back at me lazily, sticking its tongue in my direction to give me a sniff. I had never really been sold on my dad's dad's definition of the alleged proof of miracle, but now it was all moot because of a mere snake. As surely as a serpent nipped Eve, so this one solitary female reptile trounced my dad and granddad. And I mean solitary. Hiss. It had given birth to a male snake earlier that month, without ever being exposed to a snake of the opposite gender. Apparently this event was highly unlikely, but not impossible. There is to the universe a part that delights in making the wise among us into laughingstocks. Slither. Never say never.
My concern tonight is not the virgin birth, but the resurrection. I have heard it cannot happen, but I know snakes well enough to beg to differ. More importantly, reputable historians point out that something odd happened early that Sunday morning. Every other messiah had stayed dead at Roman hands, and their disciples scattered. The same should have happened to the Jesus bunch. They stayed together, however, and they shared a common explanation: Jesus is raised from the dead, they claimed. An intense visionary experience, some scholars have claimed. A mass delusion, the desperate to find any cause other than the stated one, have claimed.
In my opinion, believing in a resurrection requires no faith, and neither does believing in a virgin birth. Chaos asserts itself, and life happens. Rare, really unlikely, but never, ever impossible. The good news is different: It demands the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead, and this good news has liberating power for the entire creation and so is worth sharing enthusiastically. I know this is true because I have experienced the Risen Christ in my life.
So tonight I drag myself away from the NCAA tournament, shower, shave, and dress. I go to church, and hear the old, old story told again with fresh urgency. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Hallelujah!
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