Wednesday, October 28, 2009

All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again

Here's an odd convergence of readings. First, from the prophet Haggai:

The word of the LORD came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: "Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I will shake the heavens and the earth. I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.

" 'On that day,' declares the LORD Almighty, 'I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,' declares the LORD, 'and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,' declares the LORD Almighty."


And from the poet T. S. Eliot, in his play "Murder in the Cathedral":

You are the Archbishop who was made by the King; whom he
set in your place to carry out his command.
You are his servant, his tool, and his jack,
You wore his favours on your back,
You had your honours all from his hand; from him you had the
power, the seal and the ring.


Two signet rings--one from the king, given to the archbishop; the other from God, given to the governor. But they signify very different things: the ring of God is a reminder of his earlier covenant promise, a reminder that God yet abides with this people. The ring of the king, Eliot reveals, is an act of tyranny, a power play asserting the primacy of the king over the church. God tells his people earlier in Haggai "In this place I will grant peace" (Haggai 2:9); Archbishop Thomas effectively labels the behavior of the king as a way of the world: "Petty politicians in your endless adventure!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Trouble with Laughter

I like to laugh. I also like to make people laugh. When I was a kid my brother and sister and I, inspired by a TV game show, would play "Make Me Laugh: The Home Game" during quiet moments. They're both very funny.

Sharing emotions can be a really powerful experience: to laugh or cry or rage together is to declare ourselves in solidarity, common cause, with one another. It's the sort of moment you don't soon forget, the sort of moment you associate with that person or those people from that point onward. We feel understood and understanding when we share emotions. But eventually the way parts for us, and our sense of solidarity yields to an uncomfortable consciousness of our differences.

T. S. Eliot describes such an incident in his "Hysteria," which I read recently and haven't yet shaken:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her thoat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: "If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden . . ." I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.


Some emotions are, simply, ultimately, inscrutable. We can't know from whence they come or why they linger as long as they do. We're inclined to hurry people through their laughter or tears, and then when it's our turn to laugh or cry we wonder why people are so unsympathetic. There's a certain conspiracy of deceit, I think, that pervades all public emotion. We are allowed brief display but taught and encouraged and even coerced to retreat inside ourselves before our emotions have run their full course. To laugh too long, to cry too loudly, is unseemly.

I wonder how life would be different if we were freed of this conspiracy, if we were allowed to laugh and cry freely, if we were taught and encouraged and even coerced not to stifle ourselves but to encourage and support one another through each expression of feeling. It might be chaos, I suppose. But really, it might not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We Celebrate the Sense of Each Other: Jonah, Pt. 3

I’m going to sing a song for you that once upon a time I thought I would never hear the end of, but recently realized I hadn’t heard in years: “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.

Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)
Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)

There's a party goin' on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times, and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you

Come on now

Celebration
Let's all celebrate and have a good time
Celebration
We gonna celebrate and have a good time

It's time to come together
It's up to you, what's your pleasure

Everyone around the world
Come on!


I used to hear this at every wedding, every bar mitzvah, every block party, everywhere two or more were gathered. It was the eighties—those were heady times. Now I don’t hear it so much, probably because when you get right down to it, the song says almost nothing. It’s nothing more than a suggestion: Come on—let’s celebrate.

But the song didn’t die because people no longer believed its message; it died because people discovered they no longer needed it. Celebration is almost instinctual: when people gather, when people congregate, their first instinct is to face one another, to engage one another.

That instinct makes some people uncomfortable. Some because they’re introverted and too much face time with too many people drains their energy out of them. Some are uncomfortable because they’ve not been trained in social graces and realize that they don’t know how to begin, sustain or gracefully exit such times of socialization. Some are so affected by their circumstances that their ability to enjoy a crowd is at the mercy of the day they’ve had, or the day they’re anticipating tomorrow. Some are so driven by social politics that they can’t simply enjoy the people around them without worrying if this crowd will erode their social capital, or wondering if there’s another crowd nearby that could make them more popular.

There are a million things that make gathering together challenging, even sometimes emotionally exhausting. And yet our first instinct remains to engage with the people we find ourselves with. That’s what people do, duh. It’s ingrained in us: we intuitively recognize that there’s something that binds us to one another.
Maybe it’s that we share genetic distinctions that give us more in common with each other than we would have with, for example, a cat or a squirrel or a snake. Maybe it’s that there’s ultimately so little variety in human physical features that each person we see reminds us in some imperceptible way of someone we’ve always known—a parent or grandparent, a sibling or a childhood friend. Maybe—and I think this is really the crux of it—it’s because we intuitively recognize that these other beings, like us, were made from the dust of the earth and given life by the spirit of God; that they, like us, are made in the image of God and bear the same privileges and responsibilities that we ourselves carry, as God’s image bearers. We instinctually engage (or feel the need to engage) one another because we recognize the miracle, the gloriousness, inherent in each other that in turn reminds us of the miracle, the gloriousness, inherent in us.

I like that instinct. It’s one of God’s gifts to us; one of his first. Before his benediction to the newly created Adam and Eve—“go forth and multiply, live long and prosper,” whatever—God recognized that being made in the image of God and being filled with the Spirit of God isn’t enough: “it’s not good for the man,” he said, “to be alone.” So his first gift to humankind—I mean, besides the whole of creation—was one another—the end of our aloneness. Sufjan Stevens hints at this special, yet common, grace in his song “The Man from Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”:

“We celebrate the sense of each other. We have a lot to give one another.”


It doesn’t take much, however, and it doesn’t take long, to ruin this sense of celebration that’s rooted in our very existence. All it takes is a concentration on what distinguishes us from each other and a deliberate decision to disregard one another. That’s what we see Jonah doing.

Jonah is not what you might call a celebratory fellow. While we see him in the company of two groups of people—his shipmates on the way to Tarshish, the Ninevites he’s prophesying against—he’s never really with any of them. His shipmates are fighting the storm; he’s below deck, enjoying a nap. The Ninevites are repenting of their sin and enjoying the mercy of God; he’s outside the gates, whining. Given a choice, Jonah prefers to be away from people—so much so that he goes in the opposite direction of Nineveh, leaves the city when he might be honored as the city’s deliverer, and asks to be thrown overboard rather than struggle for survival with his shipmates. Jonah is, you might say, a misanthrope. You might even be inclined to think of him as a sociopath.

So much gets in our way of celebrating the sense of each other. Some of them are clearly wicked: we’ve decided that we’re better than these other folks, and so we only tolerate them until we find something else that entertains us more or irritates us less. Sociologist Christopher Lasch declared contemporary society a “culture of narcissism” and demonstrated that a pervasive sense of entitlement and self-promotion or self-centeredness has brought us to a place where “even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation.” Marriage researcher John Gottman has recognized that a key factor in the success or failure of a marriage is the pattern of turning toward one another versus turning away from one another: couples who consistently take opportunities to engage each other are on the right track, but couples who neglect, ignore or show disdain for one another are in deep doo doo.

Jonah shows us that this is not just a contemporary problem. He sees his shipmates not as fellow bearers of the image of God but as means to an end, his ticket from point A to point B. He sees the Ninevites not as sheep without a shepherd but as irritants, competition for the earth’s limited resources. Jonah shows us that Lasch is right, that if even a prophet can be a self-absorbed jerk, then all of us had better beware of ourselves.

But we have to look past the manifestation of this self-absorption, this misanthropy, to its root causes. Why is Jonah like this? Why are we like this?
For one thing, it’s far too easy to be alone. Direct TV and downloadable movies keep us even from seeking entertainment outside our homes. In new home construction, fences go up while sidewalks never get laid down. Houses are castles, complete with virtual moat. By our living patterns we declare our independence; we have no need of one another.

Pastor and media critic Shane Hipps suggests that what we often call “community” today—in virtual or physical settings—is more accurately described as assemblies or collectives. We’re not facing each other, even in church—we’re facing the backs of each other’s heads. We’re not engaging one another, even in “social media”; we’re stalking and spying on one another, while occasionally tagging one another’s walls with our own graffiti. Our relationships too easily devolve into mere drive-by commitment.

I don’t say this to dog on Facebook or to challenge the way churches organize themselves. I’m suggesting that truly, consistently celebrating one another is as difficult as it is fundamental to who we are. Remember, God said “It’s not good for the man to be alone.” The psalmist, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognized “how good and pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity.” When Jesus describes the world’s happy ending, he describes it not as an assembly or as drive-by relationships but as a party, a banquet.

Jonah is a cautionary tale. Even God’s last words to him are words of caution to him and to us:
“Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”


Jonah sees a crowd and imagines them to be idiots, and he sighs in exasperation. God sees a crowd, knowing their fundamental flaws, takes pity on them and calls them great. As bearers of God’s image, may we go and do likewise.

Three Kinds of Alone: Jonah, Pt. 2

I think it’s worth considering, as we read the book of Jonah, that the prophet didn’t know that God would send a fish to swallow him up. Nothing in the text indicates that he did: He didn’t say “If you could just drop me by that big ole fish over there . . .” No, “Throw me into the water,” he tells his shipmates, and he and they alike fully expected that he was being thrown to his death. Jonah assumed he would die in defiance of God’s call on him to go to Nineveh.

I wonder how Jonah’s tombstone would read. “Here lies Jonah—he kept to himself”? “Here Lies Jonah—alone at last”? However it might read, Jonah would be remembered in death as a prophet who refused to prophesy, who would rather be left alone, thank you very much.

There are, I think, at least three ways of being alone. There’s circumstantial aloneness—we find ourselves alone, as when my wife has to work late or all our friends have other plans. I have a friend who lives by himself and doesn’t want to; he goes to sleep alone every night and wakes up alone every morning, and in between he goes about his business. But he wishes he were married; he finds himself alone, but he’s not happy about it. Another friend of mine is unmarried and perfectly content: she goes to sleep alone and wakes up alone, and in between she goes about her business, and she’s happy with her life. Aloneness as a circumstance is a perfectly legitimate way to be, but it’s not the kind of aloneness that we’re considering in the curious case of Jonah.

Another way of being alone is more assertive. We hit our limit in our interactions with other people—coworkers whose demands on our time become tiresome, or children who never stop needing us, or friends, neighbors and church members whose quirkinesses gradually morph into nettlesome annoyances—and declare “me-time.” With me-time we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t just cogs in a machine but distinct persons; we may rediscover ourselves from time to time by getting away from everyone else. In some cases this can be healthy: Folk singer Dar Williams wrote of her therapy sessions—a sort of guided me-time—“Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.” In some cases, of course, me-time can devolve into something tragic, when we start to believe the insidious notion that we have no need of anyone else, when we forget to remember that the other people around us aren’t just annoying or needy drains on our energy but themselves distinct persons who deserve our honor and respect.

But in any case, like circumstantial aloneness, assertive aloneness is not the type of aloneness under consideration here. No, we look at Jonah as a case study in a third type of aloneness: solitude.

“But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.” The aloneness Jonah enters into here is orchestrated by God, making it something of a sacramental experience. Henri Nouwen, the late great writer on Christian spirituality, called solitude the “furnace of transformation” because, among other reasons, solitude is uncomfortable. In solitude God puts us to the test.

In solitude the trappings we accumulate, for our protection, for our self-assertion, for our self-indulgence, all are put to the test. We find out which of our everyday accoutrements has slid from mere comfortable accessory to potential idol. We find out in solitude which relationships have dredged up in us an unhealthy dependency or given us license to behave in ways that are unseemly or destructive. In the belly of this fish Jonah comes to terms with his failure to respond to the call God has placed on him. In solitude we are judged by God and brought to a place of understanding that judgment.

But solitude—this sacramental aloneness that we find in Jonah—takes us beyond the judgment of God to the grace of God. “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,” we recall, not as a death sentence but as a deliverance. Jonah’s prayer in chapter two acknowledges the death that awaited him when he went overboard and the grace that sustained him as he came to terms with his failure to live out his calling. God shows Jonah, and us with him, that even in our failures God is still near, and even in our desperation God still offers deliverance.

Solitude strips us of what we’ve come to depend on, in order that we can be reminded that we depend ultimately on God alone. But it’s not some accident that we stumble into. We may find ourselves alone with God, like Moses and the burning bush or Jacob and the ladder to heaven, but solitude is qualitatively different: it’s a sacramental kind of discipline that we enter into by our own volition. As such, solitude takes us beyond circumstance and assertion into the category of sacred practice, part of our everyday call to live out our faith.

And yet, solitude isn’t something that we go hunting for, as if God is a genie in a bottle that we need only to rub. Solitude is itself an act of grace, an invitation extended to us. In that respect, solitude is not so much an act of obedience as it is an act of faith. In that sense solitude is like the act of communion, in which we receive the elements and are reminded of our failings but also of our deliverance, reminded of our shortcomings but also of our salvation. We’re reminded that we haven’t solved our own problems, but that we’ve had the great fortune of entering into relationship with a loving God.

So solitude is different—dramatically different—from the aloneness we find ourselves in or the aloneness we demand for ourselves. In some circumstances we find ourselves alone; in other circumstances we declare ourselves alone. But in solitude we are reminded by the God of the universe and the lover of our souls that we are never alone, and we remember that this fact in and of itself changes everything.

Service Sucks: Jonah, Pt. 1

Here’s a dirty little secret no one tells you about service: it sucks.

Service invariably involves disruption, discomfort, dissatisfaction. You are “serving” when you’re doing something that nothing in your life requires you to do, but something in someone else’s life requires that it be done, and they can’t do it by or for themselves.

How’s that for a calculation, huh? I’m reminded of the scene in The Break-Up where the dinner party is over, but the dishes are still there. Vince Vaughan wants to chill; Jennifer Aniston wants him to help.

VAUGHAN: Fine, I’ll do the dishes.
ANISTON: No, that’s not what I want.
VAUGHAN: You just said you want me to help do the dishes.
ANISTON: I want you to want to help do the dishes.
VAUGHAN: Why would anyone want to do dishes?!?

Why would anyone want to do dishes? Those dishes, by the way, are his; he ate off them that night, and he’s going to need them for his Fruit Loops tomorrow morning. Imagine now being Vince Vaughan’s next door neighbor, and asking him to walk your dog and scoop its poop while you’re out of town. Why would anyone want to scoop poop? The further removed an act of service is from our self-interest, the more it sucks.

Service sucks. It sucks time out of your life. It sucks comfort out of your time. It sucks energy out of your imagination. Part of you—no matter how small—will enter into any time of service with a nagging thought about what else could be occupying your time.

And yet service is the heart of the golden rule, which Jesus imports into his teaching from the Levitical law:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.


My aunt sent me this poster recently that shows how all the world’s religions include some variation on this golden rule that Jesus preaches. Service is the heart of the golden rule, which is the heart of the intended order of the universe. This world thrives on interdependence, which means that it depends on all of us helping each other out. To serve is to love, because love in a material world is made manifest in service.

Here’s the thing though. The intended order of the universe is that all of us help each other out, and that extends well beyond doing our girlfriend’s dishes or scooping our neighbor dog’s poop or listening to our crazy grandfather’s long-winded story about sock hops for the fifty millionth time. Jesus puts this frustratingly clearly: “Love your enemies.” He even mocks the logic of loving only your loved ones: “Do not even pagans do that?”

No, the intended order of the universe is that we love everyone—even, and perhaps especially, our enemies—the way we wish to be loved. And that sucks.

This kind of sucky, enemy-loving service is at the core of the story of Jonah. God, who ordered the universe, intends for Jonah to serve the Ninevites, whom Jonah hates, by telling them the truth about their wickedness and showing them the way to reconciliation with God. Here’s what Nahum, another minor prophet in the Old Testament, had to say about Nineveh:

“city of blood
full of lies,
full of plunder,
never without victims! . . .
who has not felt your endless cruelty?”


Whatever Nineveh is, it is not Jonah’s friend. And yet God calls on Jonah to love Nineveh, to go and serve Nineveh in this most material way. And Jonah turns tail and runs, because this call from God sucks.

And yet what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if it were not Nineveh but Israel, not the pagan people of Assyria but the covenant people of God, who had allowed themselves to become consumed with blood and lies and plunder and victimization and cruelty? What if Jonah were not the victim but the victimizer? What if God called on someone to save Jonah from himself? What would Jonah want then?

What would we want? It’s a fundamental precept of Christianity that we are victims of our own making, that it’s the sin of the world, compounding itself, propagating itself, cultivating itself in each and every human heart, that leads inevitably to this place where we desperately need rescue, where creation itself groans under the weight of our wrongdoing. You and I, we’re like Jonah in that we don’t like what we see around us, and we don’t want to associate ourselves with what we don’t like. But you and I are also like these Ninevites, who God tells us cannot tell their right hand from their left.

The notion that God might love the Ninevites is shocking to Jonah, as shocking as the command that Jonah himself go and love the Ninevites. But it should be no less shocking that God loves Jonah, that God loves us. And so this love, which God wove into us at the creation, which God weaves into the order of the universe, is the way of life that we are called to, the vision for how we—friends and enemies, loved ones and those who are difficult to love—are meant to live.

Love in a material world such as ours means service, and service is a habit we must be trained into. If we can love our friends, love strangers and even enemies, then we find ourselves walking in step with the God who created us out of love, who created us for love, who himself loved us supremely through a service that sucked the life out of him. Service may suck in all kinds of ways, but it’s what we were made for, and ultimately, we’ll find, it’s what makes life worth living.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Should I Not Be Concerned? Prologue to a Weekend; Postlude to a Prophet

This weekend I'm speaking at a retreat being put on by a friend of mine. Originally he and I both thought I would simply hawk my books, and then the rest of the retreat would work itself out. But the rest of the retreat has become a significant point of reflection for me, so my books will have to hawk themselves, I'm afraid.

Here's the basic structure of the retreat: Friday night we arrive, and we're treated to a one-man dramatic recitation of the book of Jonah--the guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish; the rest of the weekend is a collage of three ideas--(1) service, (2) solitude and (3) celebration. If I were hawking my book, we might call point (3) "sell-abration" and accomplish the dual feat of (a) having three points that all begin with the same letter and (b) making me heaps of money. But that seemed crass.

Anyway, I started thinking about how these three themes come through in the book of Jonah, and it seems to me that all three come through negatively--not that the Bible is down on service, solitude and celebration (it's a little down on sell-abration), but that Jonah is forced into each, against his instincts.

I'll probably post my comments from each discussion once the weekend is over, but for now I thought I'd draw attention to one scene in Jonah 4, where Jonah displays a sense of narcissistic entitlement that would fit comfortably into twenty-first century Western culture.

"Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" God asks Jonah, regarding a vine that had provided him shade but withered overnight.

"I do," Jonah replies. "I am angry enough to die."

Jonah makes the category error of assuming that his visceral feelings are justified by circumstance. The death of the vine has made him angry because it no longer provides him comfort, and he takes his newfound discomfort as a personal affront.

God clears that nonsense right up. "You did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight." This vine has virtually nothing to do with Jonah, and more to the point, Jonah has nothing to do with the vine. Jonah is not a cultivator or creator; Jonah is a consumer, a user. And when he is frustrated in his exploitation of this serendipitous vine, he makes the mistake of thinking the vine--or worse, God--has it in for him. In what universe does it make sense that the death of a random plant should make someone "angry enough to die"?

Meanwhile, Jonah had completed his mission to Nineveh, albeit under duress. The moral collapse of this city has caused Jonah no concern; in fact, Jonah had been angry enough to die at the thought that this city he hated would be delivered from destruction. Nineveh, his neighbor, didn't know their right from their left, and Jonah would have them put to death for it. He loves a vine and hates his neighbor. Nonsense.

God feels differently, however. These Ninevites, who have offended him directly, were made to grow and tended by God, who sends his rain on the just and unjust alike. God is invested in Nineveh, and not for his own sake--because they offer him some service, like shade against the heat or a place to lay his head--but because they are his creation and his cultivation, and they need his help. The Ninevites are God's neighbors, and he loves them as he loves himself.

***

For more on narcissistic entitlement and the alternate path God calls us to, take up and read Deliver Us from Me-Ville by yours truly. There--consider yourself hawked.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

David Letterman Can Do Wrong


I like to think that if an anthropologist traveled from home to home in my extended family, she would readily observe the influence of David Letterman. My brother makes jokes like him. My uncle tells stories like him. We all repeat stories and jokes well past their shelf life. We are, by and large, Letterman people.

It's not surprising that Letterman would have that much influence on my family's sense of humor--or any family's sense of humor, for that matter. Whether you consider yourself a fan or not, Letterman has had almost unparalleled influence on American comedy culture. Giants of comedy readily acknowledge his influence. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences regularly nominates and awards him Emmys for his work. He's closing in on the thirtieth anniversary of his first eponymous television program, a morning show that was eventually replaced by his late-night shows, putting him in front of millions of people five nights a week. And beyond his own show, he's produced critical and financial successes such as Everybody Loves Raymond. If you've noticed the gradual uptick of irony and absurdity in American humor since 1980, you have Letterman to thank--at least in part.

Beyond Letterman's influential approach to humor, over thirty years he's developed a particular rapport with his audience, both in audience and at home. Letterman's audience is for him, and he occasionally lays aside the veneer of showbiz to speak frankly and seriously with them. I remember his return to the air after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that took place just down the road from his studios; he better than anyone returned to comedy by first addressing the attacks in full seriousness and contagious defiance. He spoke frankly and seriously again last week when he announced that a person had been arrested for blackmailing him over his sexual affairs with women on staff at his show.

Now, admitting an affair is an entirely different enterprise from ushering in the return to normalcy after a historic, catastrophic event. The difference was plainly evident: Letterman's post-9/11 address was delivered before a silent audience; his confession this week was delivered to awkward spurts of applause and nervous laughter. The audience didn't know what was coming, and each detail sent them in a slightly different direction. The disturbing details of how Letterman's blackmailer approached him; the unfamiliar protocols for reporting and investigating extortion; the ultimate disclosure of the nature of Letterman's indiscretions. Audience members didn't know whether to laugh, clap or--could it be--boo?

David Letterman is a public figure. As such, the details of his private life, once made known, become public information. We prayed for Letterman during his bypass surgery and during his recovery. We celebrated with Letterman when his son was born and, earlier this year, when he married his longtime partner. How then, ought we to respond when we learn of his infidelity?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that David Letterman's job is to make us laugh. Every minute without a laugh is a production problem, and every production problem is Letterman's to solve. If infidelity is Letterman's private sin, dead air is his most pressing public failure. So even when he's disclosing something embarrassing and private, he's constrained by the relationship he's developed with us to give us jokes. And even when we should be lamenting Letterman's abuse of power and the distress he's brought to his family and company, we're counting the moments until our next opportunity to laugh.

David Letterman has done something regrettable, something he should grieve and we should lament. But we've been exposed as well: we are more prepared to consume humor than confront wrongdoing. Even when we should lament, we prefer to laugh.