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.

 

 

Bad Moon Rising–or, “Am I One of the 99%?”

I don’t understand the debates going on about wealth and taxes.  People aren’t asking THE question–am I one of the 1% and why not?  If you want a seriously disturbing thought about this, listen to the NPR story yesterday by Tim Dickinson.  If you want an unseriously disturbing thought, stay with me.

I don’twant to be one of the 99%, because even in the Bible, the only 99 mentioned is sheep left in the sheepfold.  And, as we know, all we like sheep have gone astray.  I want to be a 1% if they get all the good stuff.  But I have a sinking feeling–since my entire ancestry, W-2s and resume would indicate otherwise, I thought I would help us 99 per centers know when we’re about to get to THE worst place–the 1% on the BOTTOM.  Signs to look for:

  1. Your get Christmas cards from a local bail-bondsman, two social workers, a psychiatrist and a debt specialist.  You have never met any of them.
  2. Occupy Wall Street protesters create a new hand signal during your presentation to the group about your concerns that means, “Take down his tent and get him outta here–NOW!”
  3. You keep getting advance discount coupons from the local funeral home with a hand-penned note from the director that says, “Saw you at Rotary Club Monday and it reminded me I had meant to send these to you.”
  4. You walk into work and everyone turns and looks at you with their heads turned slightly sideways and sad smiles on their faces.  The last time you saw that look, your mom and dad came back from taking Old Yeller to the vet and didn’t bring him home.  Someone says, “The boss wants to see you.”
  5. Your neighbor stops telling you about his militia meetings, saying they have a certain image to maintain.
  6. Your string of investments are clipped up on the bulletin board at the investment firm next to the Dilbert cartoons.
  7. Your auto mechanic always talks to you like he’s your oncologist.  He always starts off by saying, “Gary, you just don’t know how much I hate to tell you this, but we tried replacing the fan belt.  We were sooo hoping that would do it.  But no.  I’m as upset to tell you this as you are to hear it…”
  8. The Tea Party returned your membership application, citing that your views are too far out of the mainstream.
  9. Steve Croft of 60 minutes leaves a message on your phone and asks if you happen to have the cell number of your mortgage broker for a story he’s doing on the foreclosure crisis.
  10. Your children were foreclosed and laid off so you offered to let them come back home to live and they declined, saying they already had a nice arrangement with the Salvation Army.

Stewards on a Sinking Ship?

I have committed, as a writer, to undertake the serious discipline of writing during the month of July each year.  This is a little confusing, because I write all the time in my work, as a songwriter, just about everyday as a facebook citizen (won’t find me with those loathsome mundanities like how much mustard was on my sandwich or my farmville situation.  I try to write something short and worthwhile, except when i don’t, of course.  Which is why I like “like.”  Cuts to the chase, and you can “unlike.”).  I mean, though, that I have committed to myself to use my gift, whether anyone reads it or not.  Writing, the very act of committing words to sequence, has a power.

Anyway, I have dozens of book ideas, but most of them are still in my computer.  I’m one of those people Dorothy Sayers talked about in The Mind of the Maker when she said that  all artistic failures correspond to defects in trinitarian theology.  All artistic work begins as idea, “becomes flesh” in the act of writing (or painting, or making music) and then achieves fulness in becoming an experienced reality by those who read it, watch it or listen to it.  A work of art is not complete without this fullness of being–it’s fine that you have an idea, and many people, she said, say “My book is finished.  I have only to write it down.”  But until you write it, it is not complete. So, if you are a writer, you don’t wait for a contract or just think about ideas.  You write.

I have pondered about three projects I have in various stages of completion (whatever I do with them), but the one I have strong feelings about is “stewardship.”  It’s an odd phrase, usually associated in churches with fundraising and subscribing the budget, but it has an interesting history as a word.  According to the website “word origins” (http://www.word-origins.com/definition/steward.html), in Old English, where this word originated in about the 15th century, a steward was literally “in charge of a sty.”  This was either connected with the word “stigweard,” a compound from “stig” (hall or house) and “weard,” meaning a guardian  or keeper, thus, “keeper of the hall.”  It may have been from the word “sty,”, the place where the pigs were kept.  I will admit that in the current political moment someone who takes care of something dirty and unglamorous without credit is indeed, “Weard.”

Was a steward originally the guy who took care of the hogs?  Interesting thought.  Stewardship has a lowly dimension to it.  “Taking care” of things is not glamorous, appreciated, or always understood by much of our throwaway culture.  Our children may be changed by the recession we seem to be still in the midst of, but we are yet to see if it makes our children more fearful about wasting things or more attentive to taking care of what they have.

Where stewardship matters is its sense of one being responsible for many things and, presumably many other people.  If the steward doesn’t do his or her job, the hogs get out, money is lost, the house runs down, and chaos results.

Stewardship has relevance to all aspects of life.  It is the most powerful image I can think of for where we are in our current global situation.  We sit on a fragile planet with abundant resources, but finite ones.  How we treat that planet will not affect its survival in the universe, but it may have a lot to say about whether we’ll be on it for a long time.  Politics, relationships, economic life, culture, food and water, all are affected by our sense of (or lack thereof) of a sense of “stewardship.”

We watch the global economy halted by our politicians’ endless manipulations, who can never seem to answer each direct question with a simple “Yes” or “No”, posturing, accusing, projecting, blaming, offering excuses, and generally carrying on what sometimes feels like the old “bull sessions” in the dorm late at night in college.  Except their bull sessions affect people’s lives.  And in it all, the sense of stewardship can be lost amid the tantalizing seductions of power, fame and money, the Unholy Trinity of our particular moment win out.

It is a very dangerous time, a time that more than ever asks for servants but always gives in to seducers, wasters, magicians and promisers of fantasy.  Yet if they did tell the truth, give us the bad news, admit the pain that it would take to fix it, would we accept it?  It costs to be a steward.  No fame, no vast fortune, just this unrelenting sense of taking care of something that someone entrusted to us, because that responsibility is more important than all the pleasures to be immediately had by turning from it.

My prayer is for the rebirth of stewardship in the world–parents, families, stockbrokers, bankers, neighbors, policemen, company presidents and CEOs, workers, teachers, artists, politicians.  Without that sense that something is always asked of me for the sake of the other, that something that says, “It can never be only about you,” this ship will sink.  Every good ship has an officer called a “steward.”  The steward is not the captain.  No ship can sail with all captains.  The ship steward looks after the passengers’ comfort and wellbeing, and sees after the supplies and food.

Long live the stewards.  May their tribe increase.  But if we merely delegate this to certain poor souls who are left to tend the hogs while we all watch cable, we will sink.  As a steward of writing gifts, however small they might be, I must reject my own excuses and write as though the world depended on me.  Mothering, fathering, taking care of someone else’s money, churches, schools, neighborhoods, aging parents, the poor among us–we are all called to some great and unavoidable stewardships.  And if we evade them, not only might the ship run out of food or sink, we will never once before we die manage to be who we came here to become.  And that is a loss of incalculable measure.