The national outpouring of gratitude and mourning over the death of Andy Griffith goes on. It has spawned a jillion tribute video clips on YouTube and endless comments below each one about the comfort and familiarity each one brings. So here’s one of my favorites.
I have been plowing through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Save the World, which isn’t about Andy Griffith, but about culture and faith. It is nearly 400 pages, and reads like a scholar summing up his work to me. Mostly it is about the misguided foray of the church into politics over the past few generations—but also a recognition of the reduction of everything in our culture right now to national politics. Davison laments this, for cultures hold together by so much more than elections and news cycles.
He argues that we misunderstand the deepest work before us—to move the culture toward the divine vision of a kingdom that comes not through weapons, kings and coercion but through the power of persuasive love in human lives, ethos and story. It is a vision large enough, rightly conceived, to make a place for those who disagree with us without the need to punish, coerce and control them. This life we talk about begins with a man named Jesus and the character and depth that resonates out of stories and teachings that keep stirring up our thinking 20 centuries later.
Those stories in the Bible, like all stories worth reading, and like good acting, convey something that leaps from the core of the speaker and connects to us, resonates deep inside and keeps speaking long after we read it or see it. There is nothing like a life lived with its energies concentrated to something good and meaningful.
One of the tenets of Christianity is that we gain life by resignation from the egocentric self. In other words, while an “ego” is a normal part of human life, an egocentric life, obsessed with its own security, safety and control, can be quite destructive to the person and the people around them. This lives out large in the Stalins and Hitlers of history, but also in everyday life.
David Mace, the found of marriage enrichment, said at the end of his life that after all those years of talking about communication, money and sex with couples that success in marriage came down to one key—the ability to deal creatively and redemptively with one’s own anger. After 33 years as a professional minister, counseling, listening to troubled people, and coaching young newlyweds-to-be I believe he was right.
There is one key about the anger we have—the capacity to step back away from ourselves and take ourselves with less than ultimate seriousness. “Getting my way” is second to “getting it right,” don’t you think? But the egocentric self says, “It has to be my way or all is lost!” And you know what comes next.
I am watching “Andy Griffith” reruns with my wife in the evenings. Since they are recorded you can watch one n about 18 minutes when you take out the commercials. So when the news looks repetitive (as in EVERY night) or so dreary, or when we just don’t want to watch one of our history or biography programs, we pull up an Andy Griffith from the DVR and soothe ourselves.
This week, we watched one of our favorite episodes, “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.” It was written by Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who wrote many of the great “Mash” episodes and for many great comedy shows (a great blog about them here by Ken Levine CLICK
Opie finds a stray little dog, who disappears and comes back with some doggie friends. Andy and Barney are expecting an inspector from the state, so they have to get the dogs out of sight. They try sending them home with Otis Campbell, the town drunk, but they come back with more. Finally Barney drives them out into the country and dumps the dogs in a field to run and play. Opie becomes anxious when a thunderstorm begins, worried about their safety. Barney tries to explain that they will be okay, and in the course of his explanation hits of my favorite lines of all time. Dogs are not like giraffes, Barney says. They take care of their own, and they are low to the ground. Not giraffes. “Boy, giraffes are selfish. Just running around, looking out for #1 and getting struck by lightning.”
A marriage, a neighborhood, a church or synagogue, a club or a nation can only abide a certain quota of giraffes. Now dogs? More the merrier. I’d say Barney was exactly right.
So it is Thanksgiving Eve. If Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) can be an elaborate anticipation of the solemnity of All Saints’ Day and Fat Tuesday a wild and wooly welcome to the austerity of Lent, there should be a similar welcome mat to Turkey Day, something to usher it in, not stomp it out a la “Black Friday.”
Thanksgiving Eve should be something of an antonym to carry true to “Eve-ness” (Christmas Eve, naturally, being the all-time great, with it’s dark sense of Herodian murder plots, shivering shepherds, and wandering wise men). It should be a day of shameful reminders of ingratitude, self-absorption and congratulations that can be followed with humble rejoicing and remembering the next day that nothing was deserved in the first place.
Any holiday that began with Europeans almost starving to death and depending on the kindness of the poor natives they would eventually wipe out or addict to alcohol on reservations should not be one in which the self-congratulating is mixed with feasts and football. It just doesn’t seem right. Better to blow out the egotism and delusions on the eve and then wake up to something like, “My gosh, we don’t have anything to eat. How will we make it?” Then have your neighbors bring something over and re-enact the whole helplessness. How did it get to be, “Boy, are we ever BLESSED.”
There is something about powerlessness, helplessness, vulnerability and fear that drive you to important truths. I think about the Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw’s book, having endured a childhood in the Great Depression and Coming of Age on Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. No wonder they came home and were glad just to have a little house in a new suburb and work the same job for 45 years and retire still married to the same woman. And maybe this same absence of profound deprivation has left us unable to genuinely “feel” Thanksgiving as it is meant to be.
Could be, of course, that the past few years are getting us a little closer to the truth. 9% unemployment has unleashed predictable politics–all we need is a new president, throw the bums out of congress, shoot lobbyists, and so on. What I never hear is, “Life is hard. We better pull together and help one another. Hey, I don’t have to have my whole bonus this year. Let’s figure out how to keep Jim employed–he’s got three kids at home.”
We’ve got a grand opportunity to remember something that we seem determined to forget. I think about this while I hold my nine-month-old granddaughter. She is so precious and full of life, and I am terrified for the world she is growing up into, terrified into prayers and more prayers. I am helpless to prevent that world or fix it, so I am humbled terribly on this day. I won’t be here for her whole life, God willing, so it will go beyond me. You love a grandbaby this much, and suddenly you feel this helplessness again, like you haven’t felt in forever. It drives you to a different gratitude, one not rooted in your importance or competence or being the World’s Latest Big Deal. It is purely, powerfully helplessness that does it.
So let’s consider the Wednesday Before Thanksgiving as Self-Reliance Day. We can wear giant inflated heads and have Big Shot Parades, football games and overeating as though it was our destiny. Then, as is appropriate, consider a day of forgiveness, humble gratitude, reconciliation and remembering that without the rest of us, none of us is worth a dime, and don’t forget it. So while there are some hours left in Wednesday, put on you Big Head. Thanksgiving is coming. Act like a selfish jerk for a few more hours. Then come to yourself and remember what your life is really about.