Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017.01.22 Breakdown/Breakthrough?

Often a breakdown is a necessary precursor to a breakthrough.

We know this in personal experience, and we see it in the Biblical stories, in which there is a regular pattern of breakdown and breakthrough. Remember Peter, the putative “pope”?  He denied knowing Jesus, let alone following him. Jesus predicted this,  signaled by the old cock crow, cock-a-doodle-do times three. At the cock crowed Peter broke down. Peter was a disciple who thought he had solid faith and did not.

Judas Iscariot, on the other hand, thought he had no faith, abandoned the Jesus movement, and left.  After Jesus died and stories arose of his resurrection, Judas discovered faith. He was a disciple who thought he had no faith at all and did. In one account he took his own life in remorse. 

Both men had a breakdown to have a breakthrough. Both of their stories live on; both  characters live in each one of us; both are integral parts of a whole gospel proclamation of divine love ever-evolving toward cosmic wholeness. 

I am assured that the story of Jesus lives on, and that its message is still heard today by people who think they have faith and don’t AND by those who think they don’t have faith and do.

Peter’s breakthrough took time. He experienced visions, wept himself back to life, and joined with Paul to use his gifts to make sure that what Jesus had envisioned did not die. One could argue that the institutionalization of the gospel was not such a good thing. OR . . . one could grin and realize that that’s the way things are preserved—until the next breakdown and breakthrough.

Are we now living in breakdown/breakthrough times?  The irony is that what looks like breakdown to many feels to others like breakthrough into light.  In the time of discerning directions, I look to my Christian faith. I also look for small lights.  

Our new president in his inaugural address called America a wasteland of carnage —a harsh assessment. Is there anything good here? The speech was a set-up for Trump to step in and offer himself as the savior. What upset me the most however was that he guaranteed that God would protect America (that means North America, note…) ALWAYS—helped by the people and the military, just in case. America first and only as a sign of divine will is idolatrous, painfully exclusive, and a sign of patriotism run wild. Where is humility? Where is grace?

Still, this culture was on the way to such self-idolatry anyway with its consumerism and its win/win/me/win attitudes.

    I did see some bright spots in the inaugural events.
    -I noticed that Melania Trump quietly went over to Hillary Clinton and gave her a small box nicely gift wrapped. I could not help but see this as a woman-to-woman gesture.
    -And then good old W. Bush got Hillary laughing with a hug and a chuckle—a very compassionate in-house gesture.
    -At the luncheon Trump did invite the Clintons to stand, and they got a standing ovation. I just wished he could have said something in his campaign-ish speech.
    -The Rabbi who offered a closing benediction used a phrase that stood out: “Any nation is blessed by its values not its vaults.” Amen. I pray that our “vaults” of corporate wealth will be opened and shared.
    -The January 22 Women’s March was enacted all over the world in cities. It was a massive demonstration of solidarity in favor of equality for ALL. To me it felt like a return of second wave feminism —this time as a tidal wave with potential to sweep away patriarchal assumptions and rank-ordering systems of social organization that defy our constitutional principles. A breakthrough.

Do you remember the movie Awakening?  It was based on a book by Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), a physician who had a deeply traumatic childhood, predictive of many painful physical and emotional effects. The miracle is that there are always sound medical and psychological predictions and some come true, but there are no prescriptions for what the human soul will do. None.

Sacks made schmutz of his medical career as a lab researcher. They told him to get out. “Go see patients. They matter less.”  A breakdown!  He also bumbled at his writing, until the poet W.H Auden suggested to him that he be “metaphorical, mythical, whatever you need.” ( Not such a bad approach to holy scriptures.) Sacks began to see illness as metaphor and myth. It lead to his taking risks with catatonia and a new medication for Parkinson’s disease. The medication gave some life to the all-but-dead. A breakthrough.

Watching the movie, I was entranced at what happened when these zombie-like people awoke. It was resurrection. One scene sticks in my memory. Sacks was tossing a ball to catatonic patients, hoping that someone would wake up to its movement, when suddenly a woman lifted her arm and caught the ball. Sacks tried it over and over and each time the woman caught the ball in her right hand. “Mrs. XX you caught the ball!” Sacks began to dance about with joy. Eventually, so did Mrs. XX.  An apparent near-complete breakdown became the breakthrough for at least partial return to health—new life. For Sacks as well. Resurrection.

What was required was close and careful observation, listening to all the patients first, the ones deemed by the research labs to “matter less.” It took intense empathy,  devotion and creative imagination. It took a passionate awareness of what it was like to feel destitute, terrorized, alone. It took enormous faith, hope and love. And then, as Sacks wrote in 1973: “To use a biblical term, I would ‘bear witness’ to their condition.” Is that not holy scripture? 

All it took was daring to follow a new idea.

What are your own new ideas? Do you voice them or keep silent? Do you deceive yourself about your own worth? About God’s love? Do you give up as Sacks might easily and expectedly have? 
In times of breakdown where are your breakthroughs?  How do you bear witness?

I confess to a kind of catatonia in the face of the crisis of culture we are in and the denial about its depth. The death throes of patriarchy are painful and necessary. It hurts me to listen to a leader who styles himself as THE savior, the agent of breakthrough. Yet that too is necessary.

At a recent meeting of our deanery clergy I said something about needing a breakdown to breakthrough, and a colleague replied a bit cynically, “Yes, but sometimes there is a collapse.” Isn’t that what a true breakdown is?

Blaming and shaming keep me paralyzed and negative—catatonic. Holocaust memoirist Etty Hillesum wrote to God: “Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.”   (Essential Writings Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2009 p. 59)

Theology calls this perspective, this practice, deep incarnation—deep reaching into the soul. 

The only way this works for me is to get brutally honest with myself and with God. Like Etty did about God’s nature and her own. Sacks, too, didn’t kid himself about the state of his patients. Abraham didn’t kid himself about his advanced age, his sexual impotence, and Sarah’s. He said:  Well, let’s get food for these angels and listen to what they have to say. Sarah, bless her, laughed at the idea of a pregnancy. And Jesus didn’t play games with the conditions of his time. He knew the risks of bearing witness to limitless love without condition versus limitless power without condition.

We may have to maladjust, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to Trump’s  ME # 1/AMERICA FIRST/GOD-BLESSED ALWAYS vision. Exceptional in some areas we may be. Superior in all areas we are not. This vision goes beyond jobs, education, healthcare immigration reform. It wraps our souls up in a hubris that is disastrous—a spiritual breakdown.

Our new president could be kidding himself, and us too, but he can’t kid God, whose Love within us breaks through—no matter what.