Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Author: Benjamin White (page 1 of 16)

Long for the Light Like a Marine Iguana Must

My family has a tradition of writing Christmas stories. Here’s one of mine from a few years ago.

Christmas in Cold Blood

Santa Fe Island in the Galapagos 4:48am GALT (GMT -6hrs)
An hour and five minutes before sunrise on December 25, 2011

The sun is rising.  It is still dark but he knows the sun is rising.  Soon the dark horizon will blue at her edge and the lowest stars will begin their daily dim.  The slow breath of his brethren presses against his flanks.  The very slow breath of his very cold brethren can not be heard, only felt under the roar of wave on rock that surrounds them.

He lies there motionless as the darkest hour begins to pass.  Tangled together with the rest in a heap on the rocky shoreline, he anticipates the blood that will flow.  Through his limbs it now trickles but soon it will course.

He understands the light.  He knows to wait.  This takes time.  He cannot rush it.  After all, he has no choice but to wait, but though he is old now, he has not yet grown accustomed to this morning ritual–this longing for first light.  It happens this way always, and yet it happens that he always fears in the final hour.  While all his brothers and sisters sleep in torpor he wakes and waits.  He understands the light, it’s effect on his cold blooded body, but he has also understood the darkness.  He had been created to miss this hour of cold in slumber as his snoozing family brethren always do, but for reasons he does not understand, he always wakes.  He experiences each morning trapped in his frozen body. Fully aware.  So he is the only one who knows that the sun is rising.

“It must” he thinks, “Or I will die.”

As he works through his regular morning anxiety, the earth spins, and the waves crash, and the light grows.  Below the sky’s black melts some blue, and just above the water-lined horizon an orange seeps upward–a very deep, reddish orange that sings in heraldry of great light.

“Aah.  At last!” he sighs to himself.  “It comes.”

But the wait is not over.  The sun is a slow one.  At least to him.  Though it is quite fast in the grand scheme of things, he perceives it as slow because he is trapped in the darkness and has been so all through the long night.  And in the darkest hour, frozen and alone in waiting for his cold death the grand scheme seems irrelevant.  The grand scheme is irrelevant to the one who lays dying.  And, though it happens this way every morning, he has never shaken those death thoughts.  How can he forget with his heart beating this slowly, with his lungs inflating this little, and yet, his mind so alert?

But he understands the light.  He recognizes its effect on his body and he waits for his frozen feet to be warmed.  He waits for the sun to activate his receded self.  The deep orange has now climbed a quarter of the sky.  The blue has taken the rest and only the brightest stars still shine through the veil of dawn.  Below the orange, there is more red and the wisps of clouds high above in the blue reflect back this redness in pink.

Already he is thawing, but the wait is not done.  How he wants to flick his tail, to grip the rock beneath his feet, to be unlocked! He aches for it to be done.  And then, it is.  The sun jumps over the horizon with a dazzle of rays that hit him with a jolt of pleasure.  Each one of his black scales squeals in delight.  He is the first to raise his head to meet the long expected light.  His brethren follow and form a chorus of attentive faces turned to greet the morning.  The long darkness is over and their bodies will soon spring into action.  His core of heart-beating, lung-expanding warmth spreads through him from the center.  The light penetrates him and awakens him fully.  His blood is warming.

Some time basking in the sun passes and his body is now sufficiently warmed for his charge.  He climbs out of the tangle, tromping on heads, shoulders and tails to the edge of the rocky cliff where they have spent the night.  His blood is coursing now.  He’s as hot as he can be–enlivened, fear gone, ready to do what needs to be done, which is to dive into the breakers to forage algae below.  The island is so scarce that the sea bed is the only place for food. Even though it means braving the tumult of waves, the jagged rock, and, worst of all, the freezing ocean current that chills him to the bone., just like the infinite night  He can only withstand ten minutes in the frigid depths before he must fight his way back to shore.  Somehow this cold is invigorating, while the cold of the darkness is frightening.

“I guess it’s because I know it’s right there.” He reflects as he looks over his shoulder at the shining sun and hoists himself back onto the rock.

He lies down spread eagle on the rocks to be re-warmed so he can digest his belly full of food.  He is reassured by the warmth on his spiny back.  He is safe underneath a blue sky lit by a great light.

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
  have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
  a light has dawned.”

Beloved, may you long for the Christ light this year as much as I imagine marine iguanas long for the dawn.  May you understand the Light of the World in your hearts, yes your blood pumping hearts.

Living from the Future

Something terrible happens — you get in a car accident but you’re okay, you lose your job, a loved one gets sick or even dies. In these moments, why do people say, “Everything happens for a reason?” This is a bit of conventional wisdom that has a staying power that we, the Circle of Hope pastors, were exploring in our series of talks on the “Things Jesus Never Said.” My operating principle in designing these talks was to explore the worldly wisdom in contrast with the wisdom of the cross. But I didn’t want to just slam the things everyone says.  I don’t think there is always a direct contrast between the two wisdoms. The wisdom of the cross does not shout down the wisdom of the world; it subverts and transforms it.

What Jesus actually said is often so different that there is no real opportunity for any kind of violent collision of thoughts. Jesus gets at the root of things, the things below the surface that very few people are talking about. Jesus addresses the parts of us that really need to change if we are going to live a transformed life. Jesus comes at things from such a different angle that the people talking to him misunderstood him, some almost completely. In general, I think the Christian Church misunderstands Jesus as much as his contemporaries.

In my message on November 24th, 2019 at Circle of Hope in Pennsauken, NJ, I compared “Everything happens for a reason” to Jesus saying in John 9 that the man born blind from birth was born blind not because he sinned or his parents sinned “but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Jesus’ reasoning is not cause and effect. There is no reason for this blindness. Jesus actually said that the man is being caught up in the inevitability of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. The works of God Jesus goes on to say is to bring light to all who will open their eyes to it with his help. The religious leaders keep their eyes shut and refuse to see Jesus for who he is, because they have their wisdom intact.

Luke Bartolomeo, Circle of Hope’s Communication Manager, turned me on to a podcast called “You have Permission” with Dan Koch that aims to help religious people like the ones who were talking past Jesus in John 9 reconsider their vision.  “You Have Permission” means “we are allowed to talk about this.” It often features the intersection of theology and science. I was blown away by a recent interview Dan did with John Haught, author of The New Cosmic Story, because it confirmed my conclusions from John 9 from a totally different angle.

It seems that we humans, at least the Western minded ones I hang out with the most, are oriented to the past. We interpret the present based on a cause and effect narrative. The disciples ask “What is the reason for this man’s blindness? What cause made this effect? They assume it has something to do with sin and punishment (conventional wisdom echoed throughout the Hebrew scriptures). But Jesus’ answer is oriented to the future. This happened because something is about to happen.

I was amazed when John Haught started telling this same story from a cosmic perspective on the podcast. The unfolding universe is a drama that isn’t finished yet. Scientific discoveries in the past century correspond with this reorientation from the past to the future. The cosmos is heading somewhere and we are caught up in it. I’d encourage you to listen to the whole 90 minute episode.

The part that most intrigued me about Dr. Haught’s argument was the philosophical history that uncovers another big source of our attraction to “Everything happens for a reason.” He tracks it into the first centuries of the church where Greek philosophy and theology was very influential. At the root of the Christian movement our ancestors, because the were steeped in Greek culture and thinking, buried Jesus’ future oriented worldview (or cosmosview) under Greek thinking. Dan Koch’s project on his podcast is to convince us that we have permission to interrogate that. John Haught has been thinking and writing about the intersection of science and religion for a long time and I was very compelled by his description of three views of the cosmos that greatly impact our interpretation of scripture and our own lives.

Archaeonomy combines two Greek words for origin and law. This stance, held by most scientists, breaks down present phenomena into their primordial elements. Thus, it is reductive, deterministic, and physicalist, embracing a materialism both wrong-headed and self-refuting. Haught dubs this a “metaphysics of the past” (59) that leads to “cosmic pessimism” (34) and an “ontology of death” (72).

Analogy tends to ignore science in looking toward a perfect, timeless, transcendent and mysterious realm beyond this world which is praiseworthy only when viewed sacramentally. Haught vigorously separates himself from what was his own earlier posture and, notably, from two of its prime expositors, Augustine and Aquinas. His chief criticism of this standpoint is its unwillingness “to look for meaning in the still unfinished story of a temporal universe” (40). Haught labels it the “metaphysics of the eternal present” (61).

Anticipation fully embraces new discoveries of science along with the uniqueness of human consciousness. It situates religion as the subjective heart, or “interiority,” of the cosmic story, avowing that the unplanned and unfinished universe will gradually manifest “more being, richer meaning and more intense beauty” (154). Thus arises hope not only for the redemption of humans but for the entire cosmos. Consequently, Haught denominates his stance a “metaphysics of the future” (88).

Thanks Charles G. Conway’s helpfully summary in his review of Haught’s book The New Cosmic Story

“Everything happens for a reason” points to the first two views. Archeonomically, we think that if we find out the source of everything, it will all be illuminated. If we can just understand the first few microseconds of the big bang everything will make sense. Scientists do this and see the world as a lifeless series of cause and effect. The universe is not awakening to mind and meaning (and beyond); it is working out the natural consequences of original laws that are brutal and impersonal.  Christians do this kind of thinking when they look back to the beginning and extrapolate all kinds of laws from the story of the garden. We live in service to the past and hope for a return to it. But Jesus has begun the New Creation which anticipates a completion that is still not yet. When we do the works of God we are participating in something new. We are not going back to the garden, we are moving forward with Jesus into something new and science shows that the cosmos is participating in that, and always has been. There is a correlation between how God chose to create us and everything using matter and energy in an ever unfolding and yet unfinished universe and the New Creation that Jesus inaugurates. It all works together so beautifully. God truly is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but this does not mean that our existence is static, or that God is. God has created a universe that is a dramatic revelation of conscious minds in human bodies that were capable of being inhabited by God that we might know face to face where we are heading and who is taking us there.

The analogical view has been the most influential in Christian theology. It’s original, or at least most famous expositor, was Plato. He imagined a world of ideas or “forms” that was somewhere beyond this world. The goal of humanity was to escape the mortal incarceration of our human bodies and this time bound universe to go somewhere else. The animating spark of humanity is the soul and it is part of this other world and longs to return to it. “Everything happens for a reason” corresponds with this view in that sense that even though none of this makes sense some day we will be free of this mess. This same thinking inspired the notion that our souls go to heaven when we die. Matter is corrupted but there is something incorruptible that goes on for ever. So the reason might make sense to some god somewhere else but I don’t know how that applies to me right here and right now. This dualism has been destructive in many ways for Christian theology and the personal faith of many.

The anticipatory  view is what I came to when I read John 9. John Haught finds the unfolding future in the past because it is all part of the same story. The narrative of the cosmos corresponds to the becoming and revealing to which Jesus points in his answer to the disciples. That the works of God should be made manifest in  us. Our hope is in the completion of the story. The universe can’t be complete yet 1) because science shows that it is expanding and 2) the story isn’t over yet. So we see where we are heading and hope with all our hearts. When something new happens, it is happening from the future and pointing us toward our destiny. God is redeeming time in time and making all things new. God may have promised in the past but the direction of the promise is from the future and we are moving toward it together.

This is a major reorientation for me. I have only begun to wrap my mind around it, but it helps me make better sense of suffering. I don’t need to look into the past to know why. I don’t need to look into some other reality to be saved from now. I can look into this unfolding story of the cosmos that began billions of years ago and anticipate the future that God has promised. The synchronicity of giving this talk then hearing this podcast two days later amazed me so I had to try and share some of it with you. HMU with questions!

A New Sonnet: Facing the Eternal Word

Channeling Something True

I’m slowly memorizing 1 John 3. Some scholars doubt that the same person who wrote the Gospel of John also wrote the letter of 1 John. They cite Greek grammar differences for this assertion. Pseudopigraphy is the fancy word for false attribution in ancient texts. It was not uncommon in ancient communities. It is conceivable that some disciple of John the apostle wrote on his behalf to some section of the community he founded. Some think that is the case with 1 John, I do not. Because I feel the connection. As I have these words from 1 John swimming through me, the vitality of the connection is undeniable to me. I suppose this channel of electricity could be conducted through another beloved disciple of the Beloved Disciple, after all it is pulsing through me now, though separated by thousands of years.  Yes, my reasoning is completely subjective. I have no more defense.

My Co-Authors: The Mother Delaware, C.S. Lewis, Joy Davidman, and the Apostles John and Paul

This morning I was sitting at the fishing pier in South Camden looking at the Delaware River, and Philadelphia from that eastern bank, and I wrote the sonnet below. Paul made an appearance in my heart song channeled through C.S. Lewis who we remember today on the Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog. C.S. Lewis died on  November 22, 1963. Till We Have Faces is my favorite novel of his (Though I love so many). It speaks so clearly to humanity’s uncanny capacity to deny ourselves as who we really are. Orual, the main character, literally covers her face for its perceived ugliness. The mask gives her a sense of power that cannot coexist with the love her sister, Psyche, has for a god who can only be seen by faith. Orual’s growth into the lie that she does not and cannot know this god or any god is masterfully chronicled in the first person narrative (shout out to Joy Davidman who helped Lewis develop it!)

Turning Away from Facelessness

1 John 3 assures us in verse 7 that we are connected to Jesus inextricably when we love on another. We are united with Jesus in his righteousness. “Beloved, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous.” Nothing about our true nature is irrevocable. Our love matters and it’s our love that makes us who we are. We can only rebel against our true selves; it is very difficult if not impossible to become our false selves, our masked selves, our faceless selves. Like Orual, we are not stuck in who we make ourselves to be. We can always be who we were made to be. We can embrace our facelessness,  or turn to face the one whose face looks like ours. 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.” In our seeing the face of Jesus we find our true face. We find the heart of all our unmet longing. We find the forgotten and denied things we lost along the way. We find the foundation of every desire, the pulse of every loving heart. 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Yes!

The Sonnet

Facing the Eternal Word
after 1 John 3 and 1 Corinthians 13

You are the Word on the tip of our tongue.
You are the aim of that longing to say,
That word for which we gasp with raspy lungs.
That thought we can’t recall to light all day,
The thing behind the thing behind the thing.
Your raison d’etre brings forth every quest,
Your at-one-ness at-ones our being-known beings
With him whose heartbeat makes us know what’s best
And chest to chest brings rest to restless hearts.
We didn’t know it all but all we’ll find
In your embrace, to trace every word
We could not say now safely held in mind.
For soon we’ll see you as you are right now
But faceless now, we unknow we know how.

……………………………………………………………………………..

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your feedback and stories. Blessings to you today.

The je ne sais quoi of following Jesus (and Tyra Banks)

My wife, Gwyneth, is recently on an early 2000’s nostalgia trip watching America’s Next Top Model on Hulu. Because, why not? And, we’re getting old. There is not a pair of skinny jeans in sight! She usually shows me great love by turning it off when I come home. I occasionally sit down and watch a bit with her, reciprocating her great love.  We do love watching elimination competitions  together because the drama of Tyra Banks (or whoever the judge may be) saying “Sorry, you have to go,” and the subsequent tears and loving farewells is at the same time heart warming and heart wrenching. Don’t @ us! I cannot even come close to understanding the criteria of fashion model judges. All the women are tall, lanky beauties but Tyra seems to have strong feeling about who is a model and who isn’t.  The other day I heard her say  something like, “You’re being pretty, you aren’t modeling.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!? I cannot even begin to try to explain what makes a fashion model photo good and what makes it bad. I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the eye. How do you learn something you don’t understand?

My first Instagram post in 2011

I have taken some photography classes and I’ve been loving me some Instagram for almost 8 years now. So I do think I have an eye for photography, but I don’t think I could explain that to you either. You can study composition and contrast and all kinds of other techniques but there does seem to be something else going on with photography.  There is a je ne sais quoi (french for “I don’t know what”). I think the best way to learn would be to start taking pictures.

As it is in fashion photography and probably every kind of art, the learning is experiential. Some might be better at finding language for it, but most artists I know settle into trusting the je ne sais quoi. It is instinctual, intuitive and mysterious. Most of my Instagram art has to do with noticing the light and the clouds (like my first post in 2011). My discipline is just looking up and not taking it for granted. I’m sure I could learn more technique, but it won’t be the technique that gets me to the je ne sais quoi. I really don’t know what that is.

And so it is with Jesus. We don’t know him in abstraction, we know him as he is. We know him person to person. But so much Christian talk is about him, that the depth of his je ne sais quoi might get lost in the propositions and theories that get so much airtime. I think any talk about Jesus is pretty boring if you aren’t really interested in doing what he said. Something special happens when you get beneath your skepticism and try to live as he lived and taught his disciples to live in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). If you want to really know Jesus, you must try out doing what he said.

I was struck by this again as I read John 7 with some college students at Rowan College of South Jersey.  In John 7, Jesus secretly goes to Jerusalem for a religious festival. He is not sure it is the right time to present himself to the authorities in the seat of power because he is not ready to hand himself over to be killed. He knows they have it out for him so he is cautious. But half way through the festival he goes up to the temple and begins to preach. I imagine him throwing off his cloak and hood in dramatic slow-mo and stepping up onto whatever the first century version of a soapbox is, saying “Ok, fine. I’ll do it!” There is great danger in this.

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him. (John 7:14-18)

Jesus is saying something like this: “What you’re feeling from me — that astonishment — that’s the je ne sais quoi from my father. There is something about me that is attractive, but it’s not me; it’s God. If you want to really test it out. Do what I’m teaching you to do. Try it out. God sent me, and you will know this is true only by doing the same sort of things that God sent me to do. And that’s all I am teaching. You won’t figure it out before you get into it. Everyone has an opinion about me, but the only way to test your opinion is to see how it feels when you follow my lead.”

You don’t need some monumental faith to do it. You only need enough faith to try. Try loving your neighbor. Try feeding the poor. Try forgiving those who hurt you. Try speaking truth to power. And you don’t have to do it alone! Try singing a worship song with the congregation at a Sunday meeting. Try praying with a cell. Try trusting someone with the trouble you are feeling. Try loving someone who is hard for you to love. You’re going to feel it. That is Jesus’ invitation. You’re going to get the je ne sais quoi .

Jesus is advocating for another kind of knowing — one to which the question “Qu’estce que c’est?”/“What is it?” does not really apply.  Like Tyra Banks knows something about fashion photography that I do not, Christians who follow Jesus by actually trying what he says know something about Jesus that others who haven’t tried do not. In fact, they know him personally. If you want to have a relationship with Jesus, it might seem elementary but I say it nonetheless, you have to do what Jesus says. And when you do, you will love him, and you will experience him in ways that I cannot predict — probably in ways I haven’t yet. This mode of knowing is a comfort to me, and may clear some of the obstacles you or the people you know are having when your doubts are at their strongest. You won’t be able to think your way into relationship, you will have to DO your way into it. Which is already true for many of the things we value. To know the je ne sais quoi of following Jesus, you might be tempted to start with “What is it?” But I suggest you begin with “What can I do now?”

It’s ok to say the Bible is unbelievable

At my weekly Bible Study in the cafeteria of Rowan College of South Jersey, a community college near me, we are studying the Gospel of John.  This week we were reading about when Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes. (John 6) It’s a pretty incredible story. And by “incredible” I mean it is not credible –“Credible” as in “credo” — as in “I believe.” This miracle and all of the miracles the gospels record are unbelievable. They cannot be believed, And yet I believe them to be true.

The college students who had gathered around the pepperoni pizza were wondering what to do with this. I agreed that these miracles are indeed unbelievable and yet I still believe them. I asked them what they think. Am I an idiot? Am I just comfortable with being that inconsistent? Am I just okay with the Bible being laughable and weird? 

1) Am I just an idiot?

Well yes, but for other reasons. However, I am comfortable with not knowing all the answers. The word miracle originally had more to do with wonder and mystery than the inexplicable. Around the end of the 19th century Christians by-and-large conceded to an understanding of the world in a dualism of natural and supernatural — explicable and inexplicable. What scientists could describe by means of cause-and-effect was deemed natural; and what they could not was still available for interpretation as miraculous but that space would one day be reduced to nothing. Everything would be explained. The word “belief’ got split on either side of the duality. Scientists believed in theories.  Religious people believed in their God, too. Uh-oh! I think the scientific side became the concensus meaning without too much debate.  So now religious people like me believe as a scientist does, we’re just idiots.

So now, one hundred or so years later, when we ask “Do you believe that Jesus fed five thousand people plus with just five loaves and two fishes?” what does that question mean? The tendency in our group at the Bible Study seemed to lean in two directions.  1) I guess I believe it but I kind of feel like an idiot if I do;  and 2) It’s unbelievable but I suppose if you could explain to me how, I guess I could believe it.

But when I say “I believe it” I confess I mean something not much different than “I have decided to live as if it is true” or even “I want it to be true.” According to the rules of belief largely accepted today, I guess that makes me an idiot. But my heart has something to say to my head. I don’t accept the split in the first place. I believe the miracles because I believe in Jesus. I believe him. I trust him. And if he is a him to trust — if he is a living person with whom I relate — then yeah, I believe what they say about him. I believe he fed five thousand people plus with five loaves and two fishes.

2) Am I just comfortable with being inconsistent?

Well yes, but for other reasons. I don’t have to know everything in an intellectual way for it to be true. I believe Jesus in the present tense because I have experienced Jesus in the present tense.  My heart and soul seem to speak to me. Jesus grabs me by my love and pulls me along. I don’t have it all figured out but it seems that when I say yes to where he is leading me I find enough confirmation along the way.

Can I prove it to you? No. But if you come along, I think you might get what I’m saying. That’s all I’ve got. I can’t prove it to you before you come. There are some parts of the unbelievability that I can clear out of the way for you, but believing is believing, not seeing.

3) Am I just okay with the Bible being laughable and weird?

Well yes, but for different reasons. It’s laughable because it makes me laugh for joy sometimes not because I fear being laughed at for believing it. When I make a connection I hadn’t before, or I learn something new and exciting, or when I’m doing the Bible (and this is the best and most common for me) I laugh for the life I’ve been given and the gifts God delights in me finding. And sometimes I laugh because, yes, the Bible is very weird. This is part of its appeal for me, though. Something in me longs for a different world than the one in which we live. Something in me dreams of a fuller version of myself living in that world. I want both of those things very badly. Of course, they are weird because they are not yet real the way I want them to be. Whenever I get a glimpse or take a step toward that future it does feel strange. The Bible was very weird to those who wrote it because they were recording those sorts of faltering steps. They were stepping into new territory in almost every verse. Ever thought about it that way? It’s so old it’s kind of a head trip to try. But try it!

I’m glad to have found a group of students who want to try it at Rowan College of South Jersey and I’m looking for more.

A Short Story for All Saints Day

Remembering Peter

A short story for All Saints Day

As the elevator door slid open I instinctively started to step off but quickly balked as I realized we were only at the second floor.  I shuffled my forward step sideways and made room for a familiar faced man to sidle into place in the front of the full ride.  He was with a woman whose face did not register in my memory.

The man and I had shared a knowing glance as we nearly collided during my premature move to exit.  He now craned his neck up and over his shoulder to look at me as I greeted him, “Hello, It’s Wesley, right?”

“Yes, great memory,” he replied.

“I guess your Dad’s back, huh?”  I asked with a sigh.

“Yes, we’re on the fifth floor,” he said as the elevator stopped at the third.

I slipped between Wesley and the door as he introduced me to the unknown woman, “This is my wife, Leslie.”

“Nice to meet you,” I waved as the doors began to close.

“Likewise,” she called through a cupped hand and the closing crack of doors.

“That felt good,” I thought to myself as I turned toward the many other doors of my third floor turf.  I had remembered him and his father from very brief but meaningful encounter in room 3231, when his father, Peter Wang, had been in the hospital some months earlier for an infection.  Wesley was quick to tell me about his father’s Methodist faith when we first met and I was quick to point out that Peter had given his son the name of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley.  I only spoke with Wesley for 10 minutes or so as we waited in the hallway for a doctor to arrive and give him an update on his dad’s condition.  I met Peter briefly before we parted.  I shook his hand and wished him well, but the doctor we had been waiting for was on my heels and he needed to examine his patient.  I saw Peter again very briefly the next day with his wife who was not Wesley’s mother and who did not speak English.  Wesley was not around but I saw him in the hall again before his Dad was discharged.  That day, Peter was very kind and tired, resting and not up for an English conversation it seemed to me.

“God bless you.”  I smiled as I left not long after I had arrived.  I would not see him again until the day he died, the day I remembered Wesley, the day Wesley and his whole family remembered their husband, father and grandfather, as they sadly and sweetly let him slip away.

Late night call 

The pager pulled me out of a shallow sleep.  A couple of hours earlier, I had watched a young woman die from an illness that was actually called a “storm.”  It felt like a storm to me too.  Her family swirled in a cloud of anger, sorrow and silence that I could barely withstand.  After escorting them out of the building and recording the ordeals of the evening in the chaplaincy log book I had collapsed in the Pastoral Care office’s recliner.  I called the number on the pager that had woke me. A nurse from the 9th floor Neuro Intensive Care Unit had paged for the Wang family.  They were asking for me.  I stumbled into my clothes and headed for the elevators where Wesley and I had met earlier that day, actually it was now the day before.

When I arrived at the waiting room, I greeted the youngest generation of Wang progeny, two cousins, sons of two of Peter’s daughters.  They each had an incredibly faithful young woman at their sides, especially because they were so young. Teenagers—20 at best, both with girlfriends at their sides in the middle of the night.

“What’s up guys?”  I asked.

“Oh, our family from Maryland just got here and they’re in there with him now.  I think they want you to go in.”  Alex, the elder, answered.

“Oh, okay.  I thought ya’ll were going home though.  Aren’t you exhausted?”  I looked around to all of them.

“Yeah, we are.  But we’ll be alright.  We just wanted to be here with him you know.”  Alex said.

“You’re good kids.”  I touch Alex on the shoulder.  “I’m going to go in and see what’s up in there.”

Earlier in the evening I had been called to an emergency situation in the inpatient radiology suite on the third floor, they called it an RRT — Rapid Response Team.  I was sad and a bit baffled by coincidence that it was Peter Wang whose son I had ran into on the elevator who was in respiratory distress.  As I arrived there was debate between doctors about whether or not he needed to be intubated.  It turned out that his respiratory distress was not as urgent as most RRTs.  These were neurologists who were concerned about his neurological capacity to protect his airway.

“I think he’s DNI/DNR,” said a nurse.

“Are you serious?” asked one of the neurologists.  “Where’s the family?”

Convinced to Operate

Before I really knew what was going on we were headed down the hallway to meet Rachel and Naomi, Peter’s daughters, in the waiting room.  They were visibly upset already and the quick talking doctor’s words upset them further.  We introduced ourselves and I sat next to Rachel in an available chair.  The doctor stood and described the options in a manner that turned out to be nothing if not commendable.  He was quick in an efficient way that left room for them to ask questions and understand what he had said.  These women, however, were not slow to understand.  They were very intelligent, they knew their dad well and they had resources at the ready to help them along.

I listened as they discussed.  Peter’s brain was not draining properly and the resulting pressure was life threatening.  To alleviate the pressure the neurosurgeons could put in a drain, but that would require that he be intubated.  Rachel and Naomi were tearful as they heard the news.  They wanted to honor their father’s wishes—he was 92 years old after all, but they were also hopeful that something could work.  This something that the doctor offered was too good to refuse.  They consulted by telephone with a brother, David, who lived in Maryland.  He seemed to understand exactly what the doctor was saying and thought it was worth a shot.  The doctor assured them that they could observe his improvement for 24 hours and if it wasn’t significant they could extubate him.

The doctor ran off to get the paperwork.  Rachel was still on the phone with David.  Rachel was on the phone with her husband upstairs in Peter’s room. Her husband simultaneously explaine to Peter’s wife, Jun, what they were going to do.  After Rachel hung up with David she was on the phone again to the same room instructing her son to bring Jun downstairs to be with Peter one more time before he was intubated in case it was their last time together.  However, by the time we were headed to the elevators to meet the rest of the family outside the radiology suite we learned that Peter had been taken upstairs already.  He would wait in his room on the fifth floor for a room to open up in the NICU and would not be intubated until he got there.  I escorted them to the fifth floor and promised them I would see them on the ninth.  I was headed there to see another man who was close to death.  What a whirlwind!

Getting back to the body

I had seen them on the ninth floor as they waited for the procedure to be done.  Wesley came to join his sisters.  He brought his wife, who I met again.  I met Naomi’s husband, Ming, Rachel’s husband, Larry, and all their kids, the cousins who would wait all night in that room with their courageous girlfriends.  Most of them had gone home after the procedure was completed, but they were all back when I got to his room.  Newly arrived were David, his wife Amy and their daughter, Chloe.  I thought I was arriving to meet these Marylanders alone, but everyone, the whole family, was gathered in the room.  I wasn’t sure what was going on.  When Rachel saw me she made a smile that quickly faded.  She began to cry again and she stepped toward me to tell me that that the procedure had not worked at all.  The pressure was still increasing, so they were going to withdraw artificial life support.

They asked me to say a prayer.  I had learned earlier that evening that Peter attended Arch Street United Methodist Church, a congregation that seemed formal to me, but probably just for its building and location in Center City.  Nonetheless, I felt compelled to ceremony.  Maybe I wanted to honor what I thought might have been Peter’s tradition, maybe, and probably more likely, I wanted to control the situation more than I had during the last death watch of that shift.

I started with Psalm 139.  I gathered my thoughts as it loaded onto my phone then began deliberately, standing at the foot of the bed, Peter’s body feeling like my pulpit.  “Ever since I met Peter a month or so ago I have heard about him as a man of great faith.  He might enjoy some scripture and we can use this Psalm as a prayer for us too.  It speaks of our inability to flee from God.  I doubt that was something Peter wanted to do, probably the opposite.  But even now, as he goes where we cannot follow him, the psalm promises that God is with him, and that we who are experiencing this darkness of death, can hope for God’s light in the midst of it.”

I read the psalm slowly and dramatically, leaving appropriate pauses and building crescendos.  At the end it seemed to drag.  I edited out the last part about retribution for the psalmist’s enemies, so it ended with “when I awake I am still with you.”

“And now I will add this prayer.  Pray with me if you wish.”

I commended Peter to the Lord and expressed the Christian hope that he will be surrounded by God’s love and experience resurrection when the time came.  I expressed the sadness I felt in the room in the language of the psalm—darkness.  I asked that God make that darkness they were experiencing like the day.  I asked for God’s light to shine. In my language I joined with them with that incredibly powerful word—“we”.  “We are saddened.”  “We hope.”  “We will miss him”…  It felt presumptuous and true.

Extubation

After the prayer I opened it up to everyone, “Would anyone else like to say something?”

They were silent.  I did not let it linger too long.  I didn’t want them to feel like they had to say something.  “That’s okay.  There’s still plenty of time.”

They asked me what would happen next.  They asked each other what they should do.  I described their options.  “Well, once they take the tube out we don’t know what will happen.  He could hang on for a while.”

“Yeah, he’s a tough old bird,” said David.  “He could go a longtime.”

“Yep and you can stay up and keep vigil and tell stories about him all night which would be beautiful, or you can say goodbye, go home and get some rest knowing that he’s resting here.  But whatever you decide to do, as long as you’re here, I’ll be here with you.”

I stepped just outside the door and watch them begin to murmur and edge toward the door.  Some of them thanked me.  The Marylanders greeted me for the first time.  The morphine arrived and there was a traffic jam between staff and family so the family decided to go to the waiting room until he was extubated.  Jun was the last to leave the room, accompanied by Naomi, who was serving as her translator, aided by her China born husband Ming.

I gave them my false impression that it would be a little while until he was extubated.  I thought the morphine always took a while to kick in before they could remove the breathing tube.  But in Peter’s case there was little delay.  After sitting in the waiting room for five to ten minutes, we were told that we could return.

Permission to laugh

After a long and I guess uncomfortable silence Rachel’s husband nervously laughed “This is normally a very gregarious bunch.”

I replied, “Laughter is not inappropriate.  Funny stories are okay too.  I think the honor him just the same, and I’m sure he will feel their warmth.”

This opened up the discussion.  When we returned to the room the mood was grave.  We stared at Peter’s gentle heaving chest for a moment or two until Rachel said that she liked my previous suggestion that others share something.  Wesley spoke up and then Rachel, each of them aiming at eulogizing.  Others, I think were inhibited by pressures to say the thing that seemed right.  The permission I gave them helped them to be themselves.  Stories started to fly.

“Dad loved to fish,”  David explained. “We sort of figured it out together.  It wasn’t like it was in his blood or something.  He grew up in Shanghai, not some fishing village.  I remember this one time we were up in the Adirondacks for a week.  We had done a lot of fishing but not a lot of catching.  Finally we went to this little local bait shop and learned about this particular bait that the fish in that lake liked.  We got some and went out one last time on our last day up there.  As soon as we got our lines down to 100 feet, because that’s where they told us to put them—way down there.  All three of our poles bent right over.  Wesley, you remember this?”

“How could I forget the 20 lb lake trout?!”  Wesley joked.

“Yep, they were big, but as soon as Dad got his in the boat, he was scrambling frantically to get more bait on the hook and his line back in the water.  He was so excited.”

“Granddad was the only one who would ever sing with me.  I love to sing and whenever I broke out in song he would always join me, or make me sing a song that he knew and could sing along to.  Who’s going to sing with me now?”  Alex was on the far side of the bed smiling through some tears.

“He really was a musician,” Rachel chimed in.  “He played the piano and the organ beautifully and he loved to sing.  I remember Larry set up the recording studio for him one time and he had him double miced and everything and he sang a couple of hymns that Larry recorded.”  Looking to me, “Larry’s a sound engineer.”

“And I played them back for him and he was like ‘who is that?’”  Larry added.  “‘That’s you’  I told him.  ‘That’s me?’ he says.  ‘Wow, I’m good!’”

Then Rachel came back in “No, I remember he said something like. ‘I knew I was good, but not that good!’”

They all laughed and Rachel sighed, “No, he wasn’t always the most modest man.”

Naomi then said, “He never stopped singing though.  The women at the nursing home were always saying ‘Oooh I want to be with him today.  He’s so happy.  He’s always singing.’  Even after he lost most of his ability to speak these past few weeks he would still hum.”

“He was humming along to car commercials when he came over to watch football last month,” one of the cousins added.

“He did love football,” Wesley remembered.  “Remember how he used to take us up on the roof to watch the Eagles games in Franklin Field?”

David nodded and smiled.  Wesley continued, “I think he was still working on his Ph.D. when he discovered this.  He got his Ph.D. at Penn and his lab was on 34th and Spruce.  He would take us up on the roof and we’d go to this one corner and from up there—I don’t know how high it was—you could see like two thirds of the field.  So we’d have a radio and we’d be able to see what was going on except for when the plays were all the way at the other end of the field.  That was fun.”

“I don’t remember him ever taking me to the lab to watch football.”  Naomi said, “But I do remember one time he took me there by accident.  He had so many good ideas that sometimes he forgot some of the simpler things.”

“He was a sort of classic absent minded professor,” said Rachel.

“Yeah, ‘cause we were living in Upper Darby and he was supposed to take me to school and I must have been about six or seven.  I was in the back seat just looking out the window and he was driving and driving and I didn’t realize what was happening until we got there—all the way down to Penn.  And he parked the car and started to get out and I was like ‘Dad, I thought we were going to school.’” Naomi did her best imitation of her six year old self.

“And then he looked back and said ‘Oh my God!’  He had forgotten that I was back there.”

“You must have been pretty quiet!”  I said and everyone laughed.

What I remember

I remember leaning my cheek against the cold metal door frame, my hands in my pockets, soaking in the stories.  There were many more.  For at least an hour the room filled with smiles and tears. It felt good.  When the stories had wound down, Peter’s pulse was still beating strongly.  They decided to go home and rest for a while.  The Marylanders were welcomed into homes.  News was exchanged.  Hugs were given.  Folks who had not seen each other for a while were reestablishing relationships and renewing their bonds.  Death often brings families together and here was an example.

They were figuring out logistics as they filed out to the waiting room to collect their things.  I wanted to be right behind them and I told them I would be, but by the time I had made my required note in the medical chart and spoken with Peter’s nurse they had already gone.  I remember thinking in that moment, “So sad—I really liked them.  I doubt if I’ll ever see them again.”

But many years later, I was on an elevator in another building downtown.  A woman next to me kept looking at me askance out of the corner of her eye.  I watched her in the shiny reflective doors but wasn’t sure what to make of it.  The elevator emptied and she touched my forearm in the lobby saying “Excuse me.  Your name isn’t Ben is it?”

I stopped and turned to her. “Yes.”

I’m sure I looked confused.  She went on, “Oh, my God, I know this is probably so weird but I remember you!”

She extended her hand to me shifting her bag to her shoulder and a stack of folders to her left arm.

“I’m Chloe.  You were the chaplain at the hospital when my Grandpa died.”

“Oh wow.”  I said, befuddled.

“Yeah, I remember you.  Thanks for being there.”  She smiled.  I smiled. “Well, I gotta get going.”

“It was nice to see you, Chloe.  Before you go, tell me.  What was your grandfather’s name?”

“Oh, Peter Wang.”

“Peter Wang”  I repeated.

His name on my lips was a key that opened the door to his memory.

“I remember Peter.”  I said.

“And I remember you.” She said.

We Know More Than We Comprehend

I was on retreat trying not to question my instincts too much, because retreats are basically practice for listening to the Spirit and your instincts and the Spirit often sound the same. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” came to mind. I’m a big Gerard Manley Hopkins fan and there are kingfishers on the lake near the place I was retreating. I pulled up the poem and decided to memorize it. I sat in front of a window and watched the sun set into complete darkness as I read and repeated my way through the poem.  By the time I went to sleep that night I had it in my heart.

In the morning I made some coffee and went down to the deck on the lake where the kingfishers live and I recited the poem to the waking day.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This guy describes it so well on Youtube

There was an exhileration to preaching this sermon to the lake, trees, stones and birds who stirred in the early morning. I felt like I was really selfing, as the poem proclaims all mortal things are made to do. I might have even been justicing as the just man, or dare I say Christing as the one in whose face Christ plays. It felt true what John said in the beginning of his gospel; that without Christ, nothing was made that has been made. There is a completion of purpose in enjoying the world as it is — with it’s beautiful sounds resounding in wells, and love resounding in faces. Christ plays through it all. I was feeling that as I recited Gerard Manley Hopkins words and it inspired me to fill my heart up with more.

So I decided to memorize the prologue to John. Only the first 14 verses would fit on the piece of paper on which I neatly wrote it out so I stopped at “Full of grace and truth”

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning;
Through him everything was made.
Without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life,
And that life was the light of humankind.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John
Who came as a witness to testify about the light,
So that through him all might believe.
He himself was not the light;
He came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone
Was coming into the world,
And though the world was made through him
The world did not recognize him.
He came to that which was his own,
And his own did not receive him.

But to those who did receive him —
To those who believed in his name,
He gave the right to become children of God,
Children born not of natural descent
Nor human decision or a man’s will
But born of God!

The word became flesh
And made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory,
The Glory of the one and only son,
Full of grace and truth.

I learned this poem before the thin paper was completely soaked with sweat, as I was holding it in my hand puffing up Mt. Tammany in the Delaware Water Gap as fast as I could. Maybe the heavy breathing and cardio impressed the words deeper into my heart than usual, but it has had a powerful impact on me. It was like I was full of grace and truth too. It was like the glory I was seeing on that beautiful day was the Glory of the one and only son. It was like my body bounding up the rocks was part of it all.

Getting scripture down into me feels more like communion than regular Bible Study. Choosing a passage like John 1:1-14 was probably a good idea because I’m not sure it is best to comprehend. It is designed for an understanding of a different kind. Want to join me in my memorization project. Let’s fill our heads and hearts with the grace and truth God filled Jesus with!

Here are a few other passages I recommend memorizing

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 15:1-17

Genesis 1:1-31

Psalm 23:1-6

Luke 2:46-55

1 John 3:1-24 (I’m working on this one next)

 

A Vocabulary of Blessing

It’s the end of Spiritual gifts month in Circle of Hope; what did we learn?

Many of us learned what spiritual gifts were for the first time. There are 23-25 spiritual gifts described explicitly as gifts  in the New Testament (depending on how you slice it). Circle of Hope Daily Prayer gave us plenty of insight into the nature of each gift. You can read them again at circleofhope.net/dailyprayer by searching “spiritual gifts” in the search bar or you can see them on this google doc.

Personality or Gifting?

This paragraph from the July 30th entry was especially revealing to me:

Many people think considering our personalities is the same as considering our spiritual gifts. But the sorting does not come from the same source. Psychology can be practiced in the Spirit and spirituality can be psychologically informed. But, in general, “personality” is thought of as something coming from the inside out and spiritual gifts come from the outside in. Our personalities are the receptacles and vehicles for the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls us “clay jars”—very humble, everyday dwellings for the glory of God. Be in awe of that miracle.

My personality has historically driven me into much of what I do. I run on high octane conviction about my sense of self and my purpose in the world. Who I am is very important to me. I have submitted my personality in many ways to Jesus over the years. I made Jesus a feature of who I am by becoming a Christian and taking radical discipleship seriously. But this paragraph from the daily prayer hit me at the beginning of the month in that special way. You know what I’m talking about? When you read something and you notice it — maybe you highlight it in a book, read it out loud to your spouse or friend, or post it on your Facebook wall (that’s what I did). I realize, now at the end of the month, how the meaning of this is working itself out for me.

Mariko the Theremin

My lesson is this: Making Jesus a feature of my personality is not the same as receiving Jesus’ Spirit in my heart. I think the latter has happened in my life and the former is not inherently bad, but they are definitely not the same. During spiritual gifts month, that distinction became apparent to me. It happened at 2007 Frankford Ave when Mariko Snook, one of our brilliant Art Directors, was reading our questions.

She had asked us to write down whatever question was resonating with us. My question jumped out of me and felt true when I wrote it down, but when she read it in sequence with the questions of others I was strangely disconnected from what I had asked. This was due in part to the theremin-like vibration of Mariko. She was tremulous in her feeling — in OUR feeling really. It was a communal exercise. The questions of others spoke directly to my own. Our frequencies bounced into harmony. She channeled each person’s heart, reverberating with the vulnerability. Her eyes sparkled with welling tears lit with the great spotlights they have in that space. She brought us with her on that journey, and in the synchronization, I learned that what jumps out of me is not always who I am, even if it feels good coming out.

Later reflecting on the dissonance of that moment, it was the desperation of my question that couldn’t resonate with the deepest part of me. Taking time to pray about it later, I was aware of what had been poured into me. Jesus is firmly seated in my heart. His love did not resonate with the blurted despair of my question, “When is this going to work?!” Which was to say, “When will I get what I want, which i have equated with what You want?” There was no answer to this question, but a clarity about who I really am. Jesus is not a feature of my personality. He is present in my heart in a special way through the gift of faith that the Spirit has poured over me.

Keep asking the right questions

At the Spiritual Gifts Intensive, the Leadership Team formed the core of our mutual discernment. The main agenda at the Saturday morning part of our two day event was group time. We got in a group and they told us what they felt our Spiritual Gifts were, based on their long time understanding of us, or their vague impressions depending on the various pairings of people. Then we did it again with a new group. We were all flexing our discernment and building a common vocabulary of blessing. I hope we keep asking and suggesting, “What has God given you?” and saying “Maybe you have the gift of…” That we might be as pulsing amplifiers of the Spirit for each other.

You can start by answering the 125 questions that make up the sorter we used. Find it here on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net. Thanks to my friend, Joshua, for turning it into an online format. Which spiritual gift corresponds to HTML?

Yo, Mountains Are Big, Even Bigger Than Me

A warped sense of scale and control

People who live most of their lives indoors have a warped sense of scale and control. We who live in cities and towns and spend much of our time outside traveling from one building to another have grown accustomed to an environment that is catered to the shape and size of a human person. Being in a building all the time shapes our minds in ways I don’t always consider. My friend Scott uttered this prophecy just this morning, and like most prophecy it deftly sparked the ready tinder in my own mind and heart. I was excited by this revelation as we sipped coffee on couches in a building on Haddon Ave in Collingswood — a very walkable avenue I’ll have you know — similarly proportioned for ease of use by a human body — prejudiced toward the bodies not encased in air conditioned boxes on wheels to boot.

From Logan Pass

Put simply again, we humans have created safe places in which to live and these places have shaped who we are and how we think. My friend Scott and I knew this to be true again because we were both recently on top of mountains. Scott was hiking Mount Katahdin’s Knife Edge Trail in Maine where at several points the passage is not quite 24 inches wide with shear cliffs on either side. I was on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park which winds across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in a dizzying feat of engineering. Scott is objectively cooler, but I had a five year old in my party, sooo…  Despite the difference in transport, our experience of scale was the same. We were acutely aware at the regular smallness of our usual existence when we found ourselves in wild places where sky and stone are indomitable. We wer resized in our own estimation by the magnitude of inhuman proportions.

We need to get smaller

Even our grandest buildings, museums, skyscrapers and cathedrals are dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible size of many of the mountains in Glacier National Park. This is not news to you, I know, but it is 100% forgettable and thus needs to be news every day in some way. It needs to be felt in your feet — in your lungs — in your eyes — and, I don’t know, in your inner ear. Vertiginous heights are corrective for any human body. We need to stand in the proximity of something really, really big again and again if we will escape the mental encasement residual of our literally sheltered status quo. We must  with some regularity return to the high places, or the wide places where our vision can expand sufficiently to recalibrate our scales.

We need to get smaller. It’s dangerous to be too big. It’s dangerous to live in a human scale mental landscape. The pilgrimage to the big places in my world is made for right sizing, which is to say diminishing me. The physical space of the impossible scale robs me of my illusion of control in a happy way. Tilting at the windmills of control in our hyper-complex, consistently desperate, unrelentingly demanding society burns me out.  The architecture of my life is under-girded by more than the commodious avenues and couches on which I walk and lounge; I am taught to be larger than life and fuller than Google with knowledge and wisdom.

A scrap of my native sky

Two ways to be overwhelmed

Ironically this demand also makes me feel small. It might make you feel smaller than you are. Being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a mountain is helpful because it is concrete enough to be definitive. The mountain requires nothing and our relationship is not debatable. It’s the vagueness of the demand of our societal myth-makers that is so uncomfortably overwhelming.  Living under the spell of my infinitely potential control is exhausting.  I cooperate with this story pretty actively I am discovering. I inadvertently end up consumed by my own power, simultaneously hoping and despairing in another kind of vertigo. But it’s hard to stand across the valley from Jackson Glacier and maintain my own personal aspirational magnitude. In an instant I remember, “No,  I really am small. And that’s okay. I’m small like a sparrow or the hair on my own head.” This incantation produces a momentary vacuum, left from my sudden shrinking, which inhales God’s love instantly. It’s the care of my Creator who made me this size that alone makes my tininess bearable.

Dear God! Look up!

When I can’t take the two week trek to the wilds of America’s west or the slightly closer drive up to the center of Maine for a jagged hike (which is now on my to-do list) I can always just look up. It takes some more concentration for the scraps of sky I always live by to achieve the desired result, but they do the trick. I take pictures to amplify their efficacy. Sharing my sights seems to extend them and with them my precious and ever receding smallness.

 

 

 

Bieber and Sheeran Channel Our Loneliness to Number One

I Don’t Care” is at the top of the billboard charts this week and it’s no wonder. A song about escaping a place you don’t want to be without leaving it ought to be the expected ear worm of August 2019. So many of us long for the power to disappear. Can we just not have to deal with any of these demands? It’s about agency. It’s about loneliness. It’s about apathy. It’s about loss.

Most of my friends who keep up with pop music don’t examine the lyrics too much. They say “I just like the beat,” or “It’s just so catchy”, or, maybe, “I don’t know, I just feel it.” But pop music is regularly very deep. Number one songs regularly channel what everyone is feeling. The lyrics probably matter a lot more than we usually realize. Our ears long for something that resonates. It’s like a body with a vitamin deficiency — something in our animal brain knows what we might not be able to say and we are drawn to Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber (again) saying what we don’t know we want to hear.

“Don’t think I fit in at this party
Everyone’s got so much to say (Yeah)
I always feel like I’m nobody, mmm
Who wants to fit in anyway?”

WE ALL DO, Ed and Justin! WE ALL WANT TO FIT IN! And of course, they know this. That’s why the song works. We are all suffering from this unquenchable longing yet we are all surrounded by other people who we know are just like us. We are all led around by the same thirst. And no one is pouring any water! Everyone is hoarding it in some sort of mass prophetic performance of the future wars we will wage for H20! The scope of togetherness is narrowed to one person, a sexual partner, who is the only one — a classic love song trope.

“I don’t like nobody, but it’s like you’re the only one here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, I don’t care
I don’t like nobody but you, I hate everyone here
I don’t like nobody but you, baby, yeah”

But the 2019 twist is the emphatic apathy. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. The not caring is what shines in the song, not really the connection. I think that’s because the connection is week. As much as we long for water, we mostly want the wanting. It’s maddening. I feel it too. Our eyes, hearts and ears are thoroughly leashed to the search for satisfaction. We can’t connect even with those we are connected because everyone is intermittently available, vaguely present, or drowned out by all the noise.

In an interview by Krista Tippet with Esther Perel on the OnBeing podcast, the guest described this inability to connect as a cultural phenomenon. Borrowing from Paula Boss, she describes the disassociated norms of 2019 as a form of “ambiguous loss”

To explain: ambiguous loss, for example, when a person is still physically present but psychologically gone, as if when they have Alzheimer’s, for example. Or if you have someone who disappeared, they are physically gone but psychologically present. In both cases, you cannot resolve the question of mourning and loss, because you don’t know, are they here, or are they not here?

When people describe to me being put on pause in a conversation or lying next to someone in bed who is scrolling through their Instagram feeds and is physically present but psychologically gone or is having literally another life with their phones, what they’re describing is not the physical isolation of loneliness. They’re describing a loss of trust and social capital that they are experiencing next to the very person with whom they should not be feeling alone. That’s ambiguous loss.

I think Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber found the vein of golden ambiguous loss in the bedrock of the American mind. While they cash in on our loneliness we raise a glass to the anthem of our peculiarly 2019 loneliness.

This is why I’m a Christian. I need more than a good diagnosis of the cultural phenomenon of ambiguous loss (though there is incredible power in properly naming the problem).  I need a solution. Jesus is a reason to connect with the people I am with. Jesus is a reason to pour some water. Jesus is a reason to love the people at the party. Jesus is a reason to put down the phone. And I need a really good reason to do any of that. The tide is so strong. The animal instinct is so  overwhelming at times. I need a rescuer, and a reason to do something different.

I have found that loving others is more fulfilling than satisfying my needs. I am more able to receive love when I love. And my ability to love is easily stunted by refusal to love. It’s like it’s all or nothing — like the tap is on or off. So being at a party feeling like Ed and Justin, would cancel my ability to love anyone, even the ONE who is better than all these around me at the party. I could only take from anyone if I refuse to ever give — if I only embrace my desire — if I chronically control my engagement in any given space. I could only satisfy. I could only drink. And I will consume it all!

Jesus fills me up and sends me out as an overflowing cup instead of an insatiable hole. He is an infinite well, and no one else is.  He is a reason to care, in a world that persistently pulls me, and you, and Justin and Ed, towards “I don’t care.”

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