Monthly Archives: May 2012

RETREAT!

It is the day after Memorial Day.  I get way too many emails, but I’m 57.  I’m trying to withdraw from the world without getting fired or retired (sometimes you retire.  Other times you GET retired.  See “getting fired.”

Anyway, I find myself, more and more, saying to a television screen, “That’s the wrong question” and “neither of the above.”  Since we’ve quit reading anything longer than a few sentences, ah, I won’t go there today.

Few weeks ago I went on a retreat to Cullman, Alabama.  I stayed with a dozen pastor buddies at the St. Bernard Retreat Center.  It was a lovely setting.  The last time I “retreated” at St. Bernard’s I stayed actually in the monastery with the brothers, who treated me well, but it was not air-conditioned, and it was August in Alabama.  I had a small window, a box fan to blow hot air, and the last vestiges of a stomach virus.  Didn’t make it through the night and drove off in the Great Silence searching for a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.

Over the past few weeks, I have watched Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” all the way through.  Something I always wanted to do, but never had before.  So I did it.  Glorious, insightful, even after all these years.  And “retreat” came to be more meaningful.  You retreat when your forces are being obliterated.  A “strategic retreat” is one you do to preserve yourself for another fight (“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”)  But sometimes you just run for your life.  Cannons to the left of you, cannons to the right of you, manure under your feet and bayonets coming at you.  No strategic about it, just run, dummy.

Spiritual retreats, honestly, are a little like that.  Living in this world is too much like Antietam and Gettysburg, to tell you the truth.  There’s foolishness and then there’s what we have now.  What can you do?  Burns says desertion, draft-dodging by the rich, protests, all of that happened then.  Lincoln was trying to get re-elected while the Confederate army kept coming into Maryland to kill him.  It’s hard to run a campaign in such times.

RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!

So maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But this is a crazy time, too.  Just yesterday on the news, a man ate another man’s face, and it was reported that a Southern Baptist Leader announced a new coalition in which “Catholics and Southern Baptists have joined forces with Orthodox Jews and Mormons to oppose a ‘secular theocracy driven by a full-blown pagan understanding of human sexuality.’”  I don’t even know how you can HAVE a secular theocracy with no Theo.  And let’s not talk about the independent preacher in North Carolina and his electrified wall.   A school system in New York can’t fire a teacher who couldn’t get hired to pick up road kill for the county if she didn’t have tenure.  We don’t have civil war, but we don’t exactly have civil conversation either.

So, all in all, retreating is not so bad.  I still know too many people looking for work.  I want my grandbaby to have a decent job someday.  I want homeless people to sleep out of the rain, and I want everyone to pitch in and help make things better.  No one is asking me to sacrifice and telling me how.  No one is saying, “Even if I don’t get re-elected, let’s fix this deficit now.  Elections can wait.”  No one is saying, “that’s not news.  It’s stupid.  Get that off there and put something better on for us to talk about.”

Sound the retreat!

As I drove into lovely Cullman, Alabama for my “retreat,” I saw the most wonderful signs here and there.  They’re having an election, too, and a Judge Lust is running for re-election.  Try running a campaign against lust and see how it goes.  Another sign said, Unity Baptist Church.  Oxymoron?

One church had one of those changeable signs that must come with a book of clever clichés for preachers.  You know, PRAYER: WIRELESS ACCESS TO GOT WITH NO ROAMING FEE and THE FAMILY THAT PRAYS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER and WALMART IS NOT THE ONLY SAVING PLACE. This one was pretty good.  It said, COME AS YOU ARE BUT BE PREPARED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING.  Yeah, I thought, I like that.

Then the best of all—obviously, I was lost by this time, having driven past my turnoff and into the country.  But it was worth it.  A glorious sign that said, “NORTH ALABAMA BULL EVALUATION CENTER.”  Hallelujah!  At last!

Alas, to my disappointment, it was about cattle.  I turned around and headed the other way. The next morning, I was sitting in the Abbey Church listening to monks chanting and praying for the world.  Not so bad.

RETREAT!  RUN AWAY!

The Songs Remember When Part II by Gary Furr

…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.

In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory.  A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.

Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists.  Some believe that  “there is no self or soul.  We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”

But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.  Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms.  Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.

I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method.  It is this:  you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know.  And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right.  I give up.”  Why do you do this?”  What is it that you DO believe?

Then I heard something fresh.  “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.”  There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so.  Wonder.  Amazement.  Delight.  Joy.  They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah.  But why do they exist at all?

On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia.  Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality.  Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities.  He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.

Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed.  He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana.  I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan,  what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.

He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence.  He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion.  This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words.  They said it was Alzheimer’s.

One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service.  As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.”    As we began to sing, something came over Tige.  He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me.  Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home.  I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.

He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me.  There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song.   When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.

Then he went back to his seat.  When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life.  Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn.   Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything.  We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion.  Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something.   Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.

Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience.  There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions.  Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life.  Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:

Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.

 The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP.  But institutional religion can commit the same sin.  People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us.  This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be.  The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.

I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand.  In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?”  We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged.  This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery.  There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us.  And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity.  That is enough.  To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.

 

 

The Songs Remember When: Part I

“The Lord…gave me these sounds.” 

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a British-born neurologist whose maverick investigations inspired the Academy-Award winning movie, “Awakenings” and who gained notoriety for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of unusual cases of mental and emotional issues.  He is, as his website puts it, “physician, a best-selling author, and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center,” even being named the first Columbia University artist forhis contributions to the arts.  In his book Musicophilia, “Dr. Sacks investigates the power of music to move us, to heal and to haunt us.”

In his “Music and Memory Project,” Dr. Sacks collected and investigates the power of music on memory.  It is tempting, and I have even said this sometimes myself in thinking about identity, that when memory goes, so does our sense of identity and self.  Who am I when I can’t remember any more.  So often in my vocation I hear people say, “Mom left us long ago.”  In Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, an individual descends into a solitary cocoon of long-term memories, and then finally into silence before death.  Where did what we knew as “the person” go?

A friend recently shared a very moving video posted on YouTube of Sacks’ project.   CLICK HERE TO VIEW    It is a remarkable record of a man named who has debilitating case of Parkinson’s disease which rendered him inert and lifeless most of the time.  They learned from his family about some of his favorite music from Cab Calloway and others early in his life and put it on an MP3 player and put on the ear phones.  The transformation is remarkable.  He is alive again, eyes bright and he begins to move to the rhythm and sing along.  A glow of life continues after the music is taken away.

He says, at the end, “The Lord…gave me these sounds.”  There is something remembered in our bodies, our minds, our selves, deep and irreplaceable.  Human beings and the earth God made are sacred, all of it.  We should treat it that way. Read the rest of this entry

The Artist and the Editor

There is a time for the Artist and a time for the Editor

The Editor worries about the audience, sales and attracting attention to the finished product

The Artist tries to listen to the deep, deep truth within, unfiltered and unfettered

The Editor wants it to be the best it can be and to have a chance to be heard.

The Artist wants the work to be true to what it was the first time she heard it

The Editor is outside the Artists heart and mind and often doesn’t “get” the artist’s vision

The Artist cannot leave himself and struggles to know how it will connect to others and sometimes what makes sense to the Artist doesn’t make sense to anyone else

The Editor is finally responsible to the publisher and the audience

The Artist is finally responsible to his Judge and Maker and himself and his art

The Editor respects the artist, may even be one herself, so it is not about bad and good.

The Artist respects the Editor, and understands that it is not just about money or pleasing others.  It is also about belonging to the community and the world and being heard

Sometimes they clash and tears are shed.

The Artist’s matters of conscience can turn into stubbornness and pride

The Editor’s insistence on practicality, marketability and being liked by large numbers of people can mask a desire to please and the willingness to sacrifice integrity for success.  They both labor with the burden of ego and control.

They always have to talk and pray about it and listen to each other for the best thing to happen, even when the Editor and the author live inside one person.

A Mother Is a Miracle

A mother is a miracle, certainly why any of us were born,

and the main reason most of us have survived to tell about it.

A mother is a miracle, certainly why any of us were born, and the main reason most of us have survived to tell about it.  We are among the weakest of all creatures when you think how long it takes us to live on our own.  We have to have nurture and protection long after being  (spoiler alert) hatched/delivered.  Each mom devotes nine months to getting us safely here, nine months  of her life, bodily resources, and emotional stability.   They eat for us, drink for us, and carry us.

My mother, holding brother Greg and me by the hand, 1957

When we arrive we become the center of their life energy for years to come and a source of worry and anxiety for our happiness until the day they die or lose their faculties for good.  There are bad mothers, mean mothers, damaged goods mothers and mentally ill mothers, but the adjectives merely beg the case.  “Mother” without a descriptor automatically assumes what we know—that God endowed nature to give us one who would delight forever in our mere being and be there for us in our stumbles.  They are the first and most lasting transmitters of human culture and spiritual values.

There are those whose loss of motherhood before it began will be their deepest source of sadness and loss.  Today is a hard, hard day for them, for there is in their heart and mind the longing that has left such crushing disappointment.  So the task of life is to redirect this most powerful and radiant energy to other acts of love—toward nephews and nieces, neighbors and orphans, teaching and doting upon the children of the world.  The world needs mothering.  It doesn’t have to be one on one.

I have been born once on this earth and was fortunate to have a mother who always wanted the best for her children, celebrated our victories and took our side with utter and unrelenting bias in every conflict.  Today in America many whose mothers have died will shed a tear and smile more than once to remember someone who was forever their home base when “it” came to get them.  When Mom passed away, the shelter over their head was gone forever and they took her place.

Join me in gratitude for mothers, each and every one, those who birthed and raised us, those who helped fill the void by loving us if a mother didn’t or couldn’t.  Mothering is pure grace.  A good mother loved you from the first stirrings inside.  She recognized you the moment your eyes met.  And if, per chance, your mother did no more than give you life, celebrate that and look around.  If you’re still standing, some Mother Life somehow got to you—by a Mom who chose you, a family member who took care of you, a teacher or a neighbor who took you under wing and helped.

To the women in our lives whose obsession is to take care of all of us and teach us how to take care of ourselves and each other, thank you.

 

Dangling Participles: News at 6

The 24-7 news cycle has changed our lives and made even

the most meaningless information a way to waste time on the planet.

A story on the morning news recentlywas about a local election in Arizona.  The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a law this week that banned a woman who could not speak English proficiently from running in a local city council race.  The

BREAKING NEWS

point of those who sued to remove her was that a certain level of sophistication in the English language was essential to being an elected official.  Who in the world came up with THAT?

The woman, who spoke in elemental English, was actually given a hearing in which she was examined for her language skills.  A clip on the news showed a lawyer asking the following:

            Lawyer: “And when did you go to high school?”

            Woman: “In the 1980s.”

            Lawyer: “And where was that at?”

Excuse me?  Buddy, you just dangled a participle.  My old-school English teachers would be all over you.  If you can be a lawyer without proficiency in grammar, it seems reasonable that you could run for office and let the voters decide.

It is the silliest of seasons, that is, an election year.  Actually, “election year” has followed the 24-7 news cycle to become a 24-7 political season.  Pols immediately begin re-election campaigns the day after they get elected now.  Since there are only about 18 minutes of actual newsworthy occurrences each day and the major news networks only cover about 11 of that, it leaves a lot of time to fill.  Fortunately, tomfoolery and goofiness fills the void.

There are now three major forms of commentators that have evolved in this present environment.  First, there are the pioneers, the radio partisans and their television counterparts.

“Momma, there’s something wrong with that man…”:

The  Wingnuts of every kind dominate here.  The form is simple:  you go on the air/television and talk ceaselessly to an imaginary person for hours.  You would never respond to an enraged man walking down the street like this, fuming and talking to an imaginary person..  You would call 911 and report him so the state hospital could come pick him up before he hurts himself or someone else.

The second form is more sophisticated.  People sit together and argue about politics in front of everyone watching.  There is more value perhaps, but still, not much is left to say after, oh, about four minutes on a particular item.

C. S. Lewis said in his autobiography that his father and their friends would often sit and discuss politics.  He and his brother concluded that nothing very interesting ever came of these discussions.  Their real passion was the world of imagination and ideas.  So at least we have politics to thank for Narnia and The Great Divorce.  A great thesis for some Oxford young don:  “Boredom’s Contribution to the Imaginative Work of C. S. Lewis.”

The third, of course, is comedy politics.  Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have cornered the market here.  Colbert is the more sophisticated—he pretends to be the very things he ridicules and takes it to hyperbolic excess.  He exaggerates, too.  One has to observe, this is too easy. Read the rest of this entry