Sunday, October 25, 2015

2015.10.25 Addiction. The Body of Christ. The Paschal Mystery.

What? Who? is/are the body of Christ? There may be as many takes on that spiritual question as there are Christians, or antichrists. I don’t know. I just know that when a tragedy happens I need my Christian faith. I need it because at its center is a human person who suffered great injustice and stayed faithful to the God of compassion he preached. We Christians name this pattern of life the Paschal Mystery: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Myself, I would have betrayed God and saved my precious hide if I were as alone as Jesus. But I am not alone, I am part of the mystical body of Christ and the gathered community of Christ on earth. It holds me and saves me and by it I can endure my own paschal mysteries when they come.  

Back in June, 2015, a newly installed Episcopal bishop in Maryland, while driving intoxicated, struck and killed a bicyclist. Then she left the scene of the accident and fled to her home before she returned to the scene where she was arrested.

Publicly in church, I prayed well-established community prayers for the dead, for the suffering and for healing. Personally, I prayed that divine mercy would embrace the grieving family and the disgraced bishop and the whole church reeling from the impact.

Deep down privately, my prayer went something like this: Damn, this bishop is a woman! This could set back the cause of women in the Church and make religion look like a sham to the outside secular world. Damn!  Also help Heather get sober and keep some dignity and faith as she adjusts to her utterly altered life. Get her a merciful judge. And, for Christ’s sake, wallop the General Church with large doses of addiction awareness. Please!

Addiction is a life-threatening, soul-demolishing disease. When left untreated it destroys families, society, and faith. Treatment for it is life-altering, inevitably transformative—and demanding a “greater jihad” which means a very strenuous spiritual effort, mostly internal against temptations too fierce to manage without the help of others and the grace of a good God.   

It struck me, as I’ve prayed about Heather Cook, and the whole tragedy, that the basic ingredients of the Paschal Mystery were present in this situation, and further, that the basic ingredients of this mystery keep on happening over and over— in my life and yours.  
    -sacrificial death accompanied by excruciating suffering: actually two, one biological (cyclist, Tom Palermo, 41, father of two) and the other spiritual (Heather Cook, now deposed from her church office and facing manslaughter charges in the hit-and-run killing of Palermo.) 
    -context of inevitable sacrifice: a system crippled by ignorance, fear, and rigidity, both religious and cultural, in Jesus’ day as in our own. No wonder Jesus talked about the unconditional love of God, and no wonder Pontius Pilate wondered what truth was, and no wonder we today continue to misappropriate both truth and love. 
    -theological distortions: blaming one victim and finding the other innocent, and/or projecting “blame” onto God, who, in Jesus and in each one of us, did die—not for but because of our sins. Is not the whole body of Christ injured and responsible?  The Church betrayed its own body.
    -resurrection: the final ingredient of the paschal mystery offers a glimmer of hope and grace, because it is an act of God no human can imagine or accomplish. In resurrection theology, Heather has a chance to emerge from addictions treatment and imprisonment (sentence of maximum 20 years and minimum 10 years) sober and in her right mind, physically and emotionally.  And the Christian Church has an opportunity to educate itself deeply and, for God’s sake seriously, about the disease of addiction and its partner, co-addiction.

It’s telling, and ironic, that the Bishop retired of Maine, Chilton Knudsen, a recovering alcoholic, has been appointed to be an assisting bishop in Maryland. This is not just to do business as usual but to speak in this diocese, and beyond, about addiction and codependency and the dependency dynamic in the Church. The diocesan bishop of Maryland has already hosted  for all clergy in the diocese a mandatory day of conversation with Bishopn Knudsen.
She began the conference with these words: “The sin of the Episcopal Church is codependency.”
Codependency, defined experientially, is loss of self. It happens when people who are affected by the behavior of active addicts do NOT understand a thing about this disease and consider it a moral choice rather than a treatable disease. Like any disease, treatment requires an addict’s cooperation. Out of well-meaning ignorance and yes, love, codependent people become diseased themselves, exhausted by trying to get the addict to stop drinking or drugging and failing by all means of persuasion or threat. Toxic feelings such as guilt, rage, helplessness, despair, fear, and worst of all, impotent love, consume them. Sometimes they resort to substance abuse to numb painful feelings. They cannot control the addict any more than the addict can control the substance that possesses him or her. (N.B.: The job absenteeism rate for spouses of alcoholics is higher than it is for the addict.)

I lived all these things. I did all these things. I tried all these ways. It took years for me to realize that I was worth saving, and that I wasn’t pathological just because I tried to save. AlAnon was a group where I heard my story with variations—over and over. I felt accompanied. I came away not feeling crazy or alone. There I learned how to detach with love (hardest ethic ever in the world!) and how to take care of myself. Working in an alcohol and drug rehabilitation hospital I learned to listen with compassion to the stories of addicts themselves. I learned as well how to intervene, with love, yes, and with conditions that were not empty threats. I had to discern in myself just what I would live with and what I would not, and what trade-offs I could make. I had to get sober myself. I lived my own paschal mystery.

The Mystery behind the paschal mystery is one of tension: all the ingredients pull against each other; they fight each other, yet all of them are necessary and inevitable for recovery. I tried to have it all without the dying or too much sacrifice. But if all the ingredients are not held in tension, including the hope of resurrection you can’t see, the stability of the whole system (marital, individual, bodily, faith, soul) will implode and die anyway.

Everything is connected and works together for the good. No accident. A grace unearned.

What spiritual/theological issues come to mind for you about addiction, the Body of Christ, the Paschal Mystery?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

2015.10.18 Assumptions? Never!

No assumptions at all. Assumptions, it is said, make an "ass" out of you—and me. Of course I make them all the time, and think I know a thing or two when I'm not sure of a damn thing. 

Just recently, I witnessed two tantrums in our neighborhood—both thrown by small boys, toddler age, and both having to do with the loss of a precious object of affection, devotion and solace, like a teddy bear or blankie (not a binkie……..moms always carry immediately-available extras of these.) The boys were screeching, hysterical to the point of gasping for breath. Mothers frantically tried to comfort and look for the loved object at the same time.

I concluded that soft stuffed animals or other cuddly sources of soothing and comfort were just as important to boys as to girls, and I wondered why so many assume otherwise and how, and why, our culture trained boys that they don’t or shouldn’t have such needs. 

Bella Bond, a two year old girl was found in June, dead in a trash bag, washed up on one of the Boston islands. The tragedy broke my heart. It took a long time, and much diligence, for investigators to discover the little girl’s identity. Those who were supposed to love Bella did not. Children are too often innocent victims of adult insanity. They, over and over, offer, and long for, love, and they sometimes get abuse, which too many assume won’t hurt them because they are so little.

One article reporting on the case of Bella Bond opened this way: “Like so many little girls, (italics mine) Bella clutched her favorite stuffed animals in her tiny two-year old hands.”

The reporter’s natural inclination to identify the need for stuffed toys with girls struck me. I’m not at all critical of this natural identification. I am sad that it came so naturally—an assumption, easier perhaps to make about a little girl than about a little boy.

One of our grandsons has a small bear named Teddy. Teddy is a member of the family and goes everywhere, although for some trips Teddy has been too fragile to travel—aging you know. One Pentecost in our parish we invited people to write their particular prayers on cards which would then be put on prayer flags and hung suspended over the altar in the sanctuary. Children were encouraged  to pen or illustrate their prayers to God. I invited all our grandchildren to do a prayer card if they wished.

Our grandson, when he was about six, proud owner of Teddy, wrote this prayer: “Please God, don’t let Teddy collapse. He is my best friend. I tell him everything.” It is one of the most honest and beautiful prayers I’ve ever read, nothing presumptive or assumptive about it. Children, small mystics that they are, know how to pray their hearts with consistent spontaneity, as if God and Teddy were one. I loved the choice of the word “collapse”. Teddy and his best-friend-from-the start are now 14. Over the years Teddy has collapsed many times and has been sewed and mended by many loving hands with many delicate stitches—every one a small resurrection for Teddy.  Do they bronze teddies?

When I was a child I learned how to pray, in part by talking to my imaginary friends and to my stuffies, particularly a favorite a cat I named Pussy-P-Sandra. No idea why the name.

How ever could I have assumed, as I once did, that men were strong and brave and John Wayne-ish when they are flesh and blood just like me? Sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes both together. What have we done to this primary need for this kind of comfort in men? It doesn’t go away when we grow up. Our culture has conditioned the genders differently, and we wonder why we have gender struggles. Little girls clutch stuffed animals for comfort. So do little boys, and maybe some big ones.

This night I will hug my flesh and blood husband—and one or two of our 18 stuffed animals who live in our bedroom, some on our bed to sleep with us.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

2015.10.11 Go! Set A Watchman

Our world today is in love with pre-everything: pre-order, pre-promote, pre-empt, pre-crastinate ( do today what could wait until tomorrow, or the next day:) , pre-vail, everything but pre-vent. This impulse is geared to satisfy our control needs and also is for our good. It is a bit anxious! Still, we’ve developed a pre-habit: do everything ahead of time and instantly. Is this a wise or thoughtful life strategy? I do it too, and wonder.

Some time ago I read the pre-views of  Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman. This was the book Lee wanted to write, and did in the 1950s. It’s about Jean Louise Finch, a young woman, ablaze with civil rights fervor, whose homecoming to the deep South is bittersweet at best. Lee’s editor told her it would be a better book if she rewrote it to emphasize the child called Scout’s perspective and voice and center the drama on Scout's father, Atticus Finch, who in the 1930s South defended a black man against charges of raping a white woman—and won the hearts of his children and all readers.  The editor was right. Lee wrote a better book, To Kill a Mockingbird, a bestseller still and a film classic.

Lee’s first novel would pale in comparison to Mockingbird, so it was laid to rest. You see, no one ever wanted Scout to grow up. And no one ever wanted her Daddy, Atticus Finch, to be anything but a hero who looked like Gregory Peck and did not let racial prejudice get in the way of his legal responsibility—or his parenting.  (Atticus and Scout in the movie)
When Watchman came out in 2015, having been discovered by a friend of the 88-year-old Harper Lee, a scurry of negative commentary burst forth. Many critics thought that Lee had been duped by a greedy publisher to publish an inferior book just for money. Nothing could ever live up to Mockingbird. But I wondered. Harper Lee, after all, thought Watchman “a pretty decent effort.”  Harper Lee wrote both books.
I re-read Mockingbird and snatched up Watchman. I was looking for Scout and Atticus, Maycomb County, Calpurnia, and all the sweet feelings I remembered from Mockingbird. I was also looking for Scout as Jean Louise Finch at twenty-six and her father Atticus as an aging white southern gentleman.

Initially, the title caught my attention. It is biblical. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah (21:6) wrote an oracle, pronouncing judgment on Babylon, Israel’s captor. The prophet was told by the Lord: “Go, set a watchman, let him announce what he sees.” The watcher saw signs of Babylon's destruction and hope for an end to the suffering of Israel in captivity and exile. (Historically, Babylon, ancient superpower, fell in 539 BCE.) No good will come of all this enmity by which people suffer—says the Lord.

When Jean Louise Finch returned to her “sweet home Alabama” from New York City, her eyes were opened in the way emergent adulthood permits. “I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour .  .  .  to tell me that this is what a man says and this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference, I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.” (p. 222)

I liked Watchman as much as I liked Mockingbird. I disagree with critics who have declared that the beloved image of Atticus Finch suddenly turned racist and bigoted. One angry reader even wrote, “Harper Lee, WTF?” Idols do smash. A good friend and writer wouldn’t read Watchman fearing it would kill Mockingbird’s charm—and her joy. I told her Atticus and Scout were still there—alive and well and true— in Watchman where they originated.
Atticus was present as the mannered southern gentleman with the measured demeanor he always was, living in the context that formed him. He was not racist. Racism involves emotions and awareness. He simply lived in a clearly structured culture he did not think was wrong, simply real. He defended a Negro because he knew that man was innocent. (Incidentally and by comparison, the drama of the trial which was so prominent in Mockingbird was passingly mentioned in Watchman.) Still, in both Atticus did not bow to cultural prejudices of his time, but kept his integrity as an attorney. His young daughter loved his courage—and learned from it.

And Scout was present with the same audacity she had as a child and in many hilarious scenes from her adolescent years. Imagine concocting a detailed plan for suicide over an imagined teen pregnancy for which death was the only logical punishment! Then darn near carrying it out.

Atticus and Jean Louise Finch battled out their differences, just as a father and daughter (or son) do when they experience growing up and being apart and then struggling to get back together again. Jean Louise was furious, precisely and ironically, because her father had NOT told her the “truth”: that whites were superior. And now she didn’t fit in at all. Why had he not married again, a “nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right.” Atticus, “desperately trying,” defended his position as a  Jeffersonian Democrat against his daughter’s newly-minted civil rights activism. 

Jean Louise defended her politics as fiercely as I did, once I discovered them and realized that my father couldn’t stomach FDR and Democrats, scorned those Catholic bishops who dressed in red dresses like satan, and had never even heard of my then hero, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, theologian and medical missionary in Africa. Scandal! I wanted Dad to be the way I’d set him up to be in my adoring child-heart. I don’t think I ever called him a son of a bitch, as Jean Louise called Atticus, but then I wasn’t writing a novel. Nor would my father have said, “That’ll be enough,” as Atticus did. Both fathers would say, and did, “Well, I love you.” Both daughters would come round to it.

To kill a mockingbird is a sin, because all they do is sing their hearts out, making music for us all day long. Watchers? They guide you waking and guard you sleeping—like a maturing conscience, or God.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

2015.10.04 Go With the Flow—Or Against it.

Have you ever been scorned for going against the flow, doing or saying something different from the ways things are going or the way everyone else is behaving? I’m sure most of us have had such an experience.

Yesterday we attended a workshop: Now and At The Hour Of Our Death: Medical Decision Making At The End Of Life. It was led by Episcopal Deacon, Daphne Noyes, and Christine Gryglik, R.N.  I am grateful for the huge packet of resources I came away with. Death is no easy project! There’s lots to do to make sure your dying is, well, sort of in control.

More deeply I’m grateful to feel accompanied by a laughing and loving faith community, all of whom will die. Me too. Just to know you’re not alone is enough to face death with dignity and carry no assumptions about anything,  no matter how many plans you make………..  Oh yes.

When we left I felt disgruntled and irritated and as if I already knew and had done most of this stuff— all sure signs that I was plain scared and pretending not to be. Denial in tow, however, we headed straight to CVS to get flu shots and updates on the latest pneumonia vaccine. It helped. I even wanted a lolly pop to reward my bold effort to grab life for all its worth, which is considerable.

Thanks to the science of physics, about which I know very little,  I know that occasionally something completely random and unpredictable happens to make the word “inevitable” near obsolete.  It make us sit up and take notice. It is when a whirlwind suddenly gets whirled in a new direction—a brief moment when things do swirl back against the flow.

Current popular wisdom consistently advises: Go WITH the flow. I’m lousy at that. I wonder if God makes counter swirls?

The teenager’s room won’t pick itself up, so you do it yourself, out of despairing smoldering rage. It takes less energy than nagging without results. Same thing applies to trying to get someone to stop destroying their life with an addiction. A counter swirl happens when the teen does it herself, without complaint, without being asked and then keeps on doing it week after week. It happens when the addict chooses abstinence, from whatever the substance or behavior of choice is, and can’t tell you precisely how that choice was made. Usually they can cite numbers of factors, none of them governing the exact moment of turning against the expected flow.

Some people call such Mystery moments the grace of God, or a miracle. That’s what my mother called my birth after three miscarriages. I went with the God part and rejected miracle status.

Such events seem to reverse the law of physics which says that energy ever seeks lower levels flowing from more ordered states to disorder, dispersing over time. It’s called entropy and comes form the Greek en (inside) + trope (transformation).

Transformation, ironically, is a powerful and positive word in the field of theology. In the Bible, and other religious scriptures, God is seen as a creative force, a restorer of order, a reverser of entropy from within chaos, often not in ways we can predict. The Christian idea of Resurrection, the transformation of death into new life, is one such example. I rather like it.

Inner transformation, change of heart, is what faithful people seek and pray for, as in the transformation of the inner chaos of addictive disease, mental illness, climate change, patterns of social violence such as we are experiencing right now in America with arbitrary gun violence and deaths of innocent citizens in the absence of laws that would regulate gun purchase and restrict gun use to hunting and sport. Faithful people pray AND write their congressional representatives asking them to craft such legislation.

Things are spinning out of control. Who will dare to initiate a counter spin? Who will dare to spin the current political paralysis in a new direction?  Who will defiantly thrive? It will take sacrifice.

Think of the image of a whirlwind. Meteorologically, a whirlwind is a complex chaotic system suggesting not pure chaos but rather the turbulent emergence of complexity at the edge of chaos. 

Now think of the story of Job in the Bible. It is a story of Job's suffering, supposedly at the hand of God, but clearly having nothing to do with the sufferer’s integrity, faith or character. Job begs God for answers about his suffering and gets none. He spins in a unidirectional whirlwind of moral, spiritual, emotional, and physical pain—unconsoled and with no answers about his plight and God’s refusal to address his grievance.

And yet………..Job does get something. He gets a strong vision and very strong spiritual experience of the divine presence which speaks to him right out of a whirlwind. In his vision, God escorts Job throughout all Creation, wonder by stunning wonder. Job is awestruck, both by the breadth of the vision, by how little he knows, and by the intimacy of the divine Presence at his side. Job is spun in a new direction and is invited to go on with his life in spite of all his losses. To put it in a mundane way, Job gets an entirely new perspective on life and is freed from his OCD panic. We do not know how or why, just what.

Job’s story is symbolic, yet it is so true to most earthly experience that it feels literal, historic. Job’s story is not just about suffering. It tells us, as does Jesus’s story, that there is a God who speaks out of whirlwinds and makes counter swirls.   

Oh Godde, I know you don’t dole out death and illness, but I’m putting in my request anyway for more good years of life—specifically I want my eyesight, most of my hearing, and most of my mind—oh and my fingers to type with.  Intervene with a counter swirl if  you want to. Thanks for listening. Amen.