A Short Walk

A Short Walk

              I took a break from writing and walked to what we call “the corner,” which is a half block south of our house, and back. I saw a woman walking her dog, then another woman walking her dog, on opposite sides of the street. Were they keeping their dogs apart? Responsibly keeping their potentially covid-laden breath-particles apart? Had they even noticed each other?

              I looked in the window of the new restaurant at the corner, Hippin’ Hops Brewery, and saw several full plastic Kroger bags on a dining table. Is that where they get some of their food? I buy food from Kroger, too, and I don’t charge anything to eat in my house. I noted that their large round metal brew kettles in which they craft beer are very clean and shiny, so scientific looking. The restaurant’s dining room and bar area is small but inviting. Outside, on the elevated, railed, sidewalk, are a row of picnic tables in a space that, pre-pandemic, would have been too narrow for them. But the building was designed and constructed before covid, when that walkway would have been mostly for walking. There is barely room for waiters to ease between the tables and the rail. Yet, now that for two years eating outside is safer than inside and enclosed proximity can be virulent, diners cheerfully shift forward a tad to let a waiter walk by.

              On the stroll back, I checked our Little Free Library (one of the first in Atlanta, which earned our front yard coverage on CNN). Three of the six DVD movies I had placed in there remained. How many passersby are old enough to take a DVD home? I recently re-watched “The Sopranos” from start (when Tony was somewhat slim) to finish (when he may or may not have been whacked), and that show was made when DVDs were a hot new thing, so much so that gangsters would kill three people for a truckful of DVD players. Now, DVD players are donated to thrift stores, who discard many of them after they sit unsold.

              My most recent “Sports Illustrated” was still in there on the bottom shelf. It featured an introduction to the 2022 Winter Olympics. I guess I will place it in the recycling bin soon, as no passersby seem interested.

              As I walked to my front door, I saw daffodils blooming—in February. Tulips were about an inch above the ground. It was 71 degrees—in February.

              Back to work.

Prayer With Noise

Today,

instead of silence,

noise led my prayer,

on the front porch,

fronting a busy road.

Normally an annoying intrusion, noise became a sounding bell, a call to prayer.

The cars rumble by to work, some aroar. I pray each rider balances toil and joy, that their work is meaningful, that their workplace leadership is humane, that they have friends there. I pray they make a living wage.

Trucks pulling large metal landscaping trailers loaded with gas-powered equipment rattle-bang loudly along the uneven road. I pray for the earth, that we shall poison and exploit it less as we are awed by its gracious beauty. I pray the crew is paid a living wage.

Rat-a-tat hammering—nail guns firing—from new townhome construction a half block south jabs through the air. I pray for affordable housing. Instructions are shouted in Spanish. I pray these immigrants feel welcome, that their skills are rewarded aptly.

I hear the dreaded leaf blowers. So often I retreat to the back deck to avoid their shrieking whines. This time I stay. And again pray for the earth, that what we call “yard waste”—so rudely pushed around, eventually, despite being treated as a nuisance, somehow, somewhere—decays its way back into the soil. I pray the leaf blower handlers—their ears muffled from the piercing sound—make a living wage.

I pray these busy people have time for prayer, stillness, contemplation—that they feel God’s healing presence.

Between noises, I hear birds.

I pray that all these sounds impact

how I see

what I hear

how I act.

Jerry Has No Taste: Jerry Sees an Acupuncturist

Jerry Sees An Acupuncturist

If someone tells you it never hurts, don’t believe them.

Does one have to believe in acupuncture for it to work? Or is it just as effective if one simply gives it a try, fingers crossed? When I was a teenager dabbling in charismatic Christianity, we were told if you had faith, you could pray for a sick person to be healed, and, if God willed it, that person would be healed. My charismatic teachers told ecstatic stories about—after fervent prayers—cancer miraculously disappearing and painful backs inexplicably restored to bounding-around-the-room health. (It made a better story if the doctor acted astounded, and if the doctor was an atheist, that was a triple play.)

When they prefaced their instructions with, “If you have faith…,” I never understood whether you had to truly, deep in your heart, believe in miraculous healings before the healing took place, or could you merely pray, hopefully, and it might work. (The “if God willed it,” by the way, gave God a capricious dominion over our health, but I was unwilling to think much about that at the time.) If I were miraculously healed of something after praying for healing, well then, of course, I would believe way down deep, but is that belief a prerequisite?

As my friend Tere Canzoneri once said, quoting the oncologist Bernie Siegal, “In the face of uncertainty, there’s nothing wrong with hope.” Willing myself to be hopeful, to the acupuncturist I went, at the recommendation of a friend who had benefited from his treatment. She added, “I liked what he had to say.”

Hope message on the beach sand.

The acupuncture doctor stressed that acupuncture promotes the body’s ability to heal itself. He didn’t speak of the needles as one would speak of taking medication or getting a surgical procedure—which cure or fix some thing. He told me that acupuncture addresses the energy, or “Qi,” (pronounced “chee”) that flows through the body along 14 stream-like channels called meridians. The needles, when inserted at certain points along the meridians, act sort of like antennas and reprogram the body to a healthier state by restoring the flow of Qi to what it should be. There is much more detail you can read about meridians and acupuncture points (there are lots of them in at least 3 categories).

If the flow of Qi gets blocked (a range of factors—physical, emotional, spiritual— can cause this blockage), the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function, or illness. Acupuncture releases blocked Qi, restores the body’s harmony, and stimulates the body’s natural healing through its own systems. The acupuncturist said modern research has affirmed acupuncture’s effect on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating these systems, acupuncture helps to resolve pain, balance hormones, decrease stress and inflammation, and improve sleep, digestive function, and well-being, he said (to me in person and on his website).

Do I have to believe in Qi and meridians for acupuncture to help me? They won’t appear in an x-ray—or an autopsy— so are they real? Does it matter whether I’m convinced they’re real?

If you want to occupy a few hours (or months), look up “does acupuncture work?” on the internet. You can read passionate, heated arguments in both directions. You will see terms such as “life-saving,” “relief,” “wholistic,” “pseudo-science,” “quackery,” etc. Wikipedia referred to a study in which “placebo acupuncture”—needles inserted here and there in the body, not at official acupuncture points—worked just as well as those placed according to proper acupuncture. Ouch.

When I told him I was there for my loss of taste and smell, he said he had a good success rate with that problem. However, he smiled and said he couldn’t write that on the form he sent to my insurance company because they wouldn’t accept it. He wrote, “For pain.” It’s not totally untrue.

The doctor asked me to remove my shoes and socks and roll up my sleeves, and lie on the table. He felt my pulse using three fingertips, checking for far more than beats per minute. More than 30 pulse conditions have been documented in Chinese medical texts. Each fingertip felt a spot that he said was connected to specific organs. He said he initially felt to see how hard he had to press to feel my pulse, then felt to sense the many nuances of my pulse.

He suggested I swing my arms when I walk or exercise and to sing, especially high notes. He also suggested I sing/hum the “ohm” sound associated with meditation. Ohm is considered by some Eastern religions to be the “primal sound,” God having created sound first and ohm being the “seed sound” of all creation. In this line of thinking, the universe, the gods, and all matter come from the sound “ohm.” My acupuncturist described it is “a primitive sound—like a baby saying ‘mama.’” Repeat it as a mantra, he said. The vibrations are good for my nasal cavity and might stimulate the olfactory nerve.

He pressed on my neck and shoulders and advised me to do neck stretches. And breathing exercises: take 3 seconds to breathe in, then 3 to breathe out. Then 5 seconds, then 10. He said my breathing should be consistently balanced.

Then it was time for the needles to unblock my Qi flow, which he said, based on his reading of my pulse, was low. He inserted them first in my feet, then pressed on and around my stomach, each time asking if it was uncomfortable when he pressed. Sometimes it was, sometimes not. He continued inserting needles in other places. The needles, he said, would also release tension. As he inserted needles, he sometimes said which organ a given acupuncture point was connected to.

He asked if I slept well. I said I usually wake up in the night to pee, and he said we shouldn’t do that, even as we get older. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the flow of Qi through our meridians and organs has a daily schedule, in 2-hour intervals, and interrupting our sleep interrupts the restorative function of Qi during the night. According to one acupuncture website:

“Every two hours the qi is strongest within a particular organ and its functions within the body. And that’s not all – the body, mind and emotions are inseparable in Chinese medicine – meaning that if you have disharmony in your physical body, it is tied to your emotional state. So if you wake up at 3 AM, when Liver energy peaks, you may be suffering from Liver Qi stagnation, which could be related to an unhealthy diet, excess alcohol consumption, unresolved anger or high levels of stress. If you consistently wake at 4 AM, it could be due to an imbalance in your Lungs, which is related to grief and sadness, fatigue, or reduced immune function.”

After inserting the needles, he said it was time for me to rest and let the needles do their restorative work. He left the room for about 20 minutes, then returned and removed them. Sometimes I fell asleep during this rest time—unless some of them hurt—and some did hurt a few times.

In the next visit, he first put two needles in my upper back and said they were “lung points.” He checked my pulse again, put the other needles in the same places as the last time. He pressed my stomach.

He said there are external and internal causes of illness. The interior causes include our emotions. Even happiness, he said, could make us sick, if it is excessive. He said we shouldn’t have too much of any emotions, even if they are emotions we typically enjoy. He advised I balance my emotions and not to go to sleep on my anger. Exterior causes include factors such as heat and wind.

He pressed on my neck and shoulders, to help the flow of spinal fluid between the brain and the spinal cord. He said the proper circulation of spinal fluid throughout the central nervous system is important: “Tensions at the top often mean tensions at the bottom.” 

He said, “God said, ‘I am that I am.’ What name is that? He said he will introduce us to someone who has no name. That means we should empty the self, like Jesus said.”

He asked, “Do you feel fear?”

“No.”

“Do you feel sorrow?”

“No.”

“Do you feel worry?”

“No.”

He asked me to state my name. He asked my age. He asked, “Where you going today?” And, “Are you running late?” He asked about my home.

He pressed on my stomach, to feel for blockage and to ease tension. He said he could feel the tension.  He again pressed on my neck and shoulders. His movements and the pressure felt similar to that of a chiropractor.

He reminded me to breathe balanced, the same length in as out, and to do breathing exercises. He suggested I occasionally think about oranges and lemons and see if those thoughts make me salivate.  He said the color orange stimulates the digestive system.

He recommended a book written by a college friend of his, a Korean, who teaches theology: “The Holy Spirit and Ch’i (Qi).”

He spoke softly and had a gentle demeanor. When he accepted my credit card, he used both hands, almost cradling it. He spoke with an even tone, using the kind of balance he recommended to me regarding emotions and breath.

At a subsequent visit, he said my pulse still showed low energy and low fluid. He advised that I drink more water. He also said my pulse revealed dampness in my body, so I should eat summer fruits such as melons, and corn. He asked if I have a bowel movement daily. “Almost.” He pressed on my stomach again. It seemed less tense to me, but he said he could still feel blockage and tension.  

He pulled on my arms and moved each leg around and pushed, like when professional athletes are stretched by assistants before a game. Toward the end of this session, he pressed on my calves, back, and shoulders. Some of the pressure felt painful. It felt like a combination of massage and chiropractic.

He looked at my tongue each visit and referred to “the map of the tongue.” Once he showed me an illustration of this map on a small poster. In traditional Chinese medicine, different sections of the tongue are connected to specific parts of the body, so examination of the tongue might give the practitioner some clues about what’s going on elsewhere. They also look for the overall condition of the tongue: the color, shape, and coating. He said my tongue indicated my body is under-nourished. Once my tongue had bite marks, and he said that means I’m tired, that my digestive system is working too hard.

After several more visits, he said my pulse was better.

A needle in my toe hurt. He said that’s a powerful point, it can affect your head, like a Newton’s cradle, which has hanging metal balls and only the balls at each end move. A ball strikes one side, and the other end moves.

He gave me a new herb to take. The first one was to stimulate around the nose. This one was to stimulate the blood. He had me smell peppermint, which he said stimulates the olfactory system.

I eventually discontinued acupuncture. It had made no impact on my loss of taste and smell. (Western medicine didn’t either.) However, thanks to him I have reflected thoughtfully on my emotions, sleep patterns, breathing, and nutrition.

And I miss him.

In one session, he asked about my work, and I explained what it is like to be a hospice chaplain: being a non-anxious presence and attentive listener, saying prayers that not only beseech God but also calm the patient, and addressing fears compassionately and hopefully. He listened carefully, without interruption—sort of chaplain-like.

He again pressed on my back and legs. I asked if he was stimulating the spinal cord, and he said, “Yes, and the meridians.”

I knew about the needles and the meridians but not hands. Curious, I asked, “So you stimulate meridians with needles and your hands?”

“Yes. And with my words. Like you do.”

Jerry Has No Taste: Jerry Sees An Acupuncturist But First Gives Western Medicine One Last Try

Traditional western medicine has such an allure. It seems so logical and certain, backed by peer-reviewed studies, meticulously planned experiments, and intimidating scientific jargon spoken by the highly educated—and those authoritative white coats! It’s true that when we have surgery, we sign a form that lists possible bad outcomes, attesting that we are aware of them, but we know that, mostly, none of them happen. The heart starts pumping effectively again; the elbow allows tennis to be played; the tonsils no longer disrupt sleep. Take a problem to a doctor, the doctor diagnoses it, the doctor fixes it, and life goes on.

But then there is a condition like mine. I still recall the just-a-tad-too-long sigh that the nurse practitioner gave at the ENT office when I first told her I couldn’t taste or smell. The kind of sigh—along with that wondering quick look around the room—that gives the speaker an extra couple of seconds to figure out how to tell someone something they don’t want to hear. “That’s tricky,” she said.

Tricky. It’s fun when magicians trick us. Not so fun when our bodies trick us.

According to doctors I saw, I was past the point when my taste and smell might return on its own—perhaps by the olfactory nerve restoring itself—but, regardless, I visited a clinic in another part of the country that specializes in taste and smell problems. I went out of desperation, hoping they would find some something that the others had missed and say, “Aha! Take this pill, and you will savor Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk again.” I knew that wouldn’t happen, but, still, I went.

The first day, a lab clinician sat next to little jars of liquids and solids. The bottles clinked as he pulled them from their slots and when he returned them. I sniffed in alternating nostrils, and I swirled liquids in my mouth, trying to identify smells and tastes. In one test, he had a list of aromas (coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, etc.), and I was to take a sniff of an opened unmarked bottle and choose which one it was. (Eventually, he remarked, “You really like to guess peanut butter, don’t you?”) In another test I was to say if a clear liquid was sweet or sour or salty. I was pretty good at that one, and I was quite keen at identifying sour. These tests went on for two and a half hours.

Mostly, I just guessed, like a 10th grader who forgot to study for a multiple-choice quiz. The olfactory and taste feedback were just so minimal. Although I had been told already that by this time the loss was permanent, the repeated failure on these tests made the reality of the loss sink in even deeper. Each time I sniffed or swirled in vain, the message became clearer.

According to the report on these tests, my left nostril correctly identified baby powder, cinnamon, mothballs, peanut butter, and Ivory soap. The right nostril only got right baby powder, chocolate, and coffee. I believe many of those were lucky guesses. During most of those tests I felt like I had felt in college biology class: bewilderingly ignorant of what was going on.

The next day was a free day. I toured some local historic sites and visited an old friend from my seminary days in the 1980s.

The day after that, I saw two doctors, one who did a complete physical exam and the other, a taste and smell specialist. The first doctor and I chatted about where we liked to snow ski while he conducted his exam. The specialist went over the results of the Wednesday tests and conducted his own exam, including taking a deep look in my nostrils, using what looked like a chopstick to pry each nostril open wider. 

These clinicians never asked me my religious affiliation, but their medical record of me inexplicably, even though I am a practicing Baptist and an ordained minister, says in that category: “NO.” Unless they were sneakily very astute, we never discussed anything outside the taste and smell problem, but in my medical record, under “Constitutional,” it says: “No acute distress. Well nourished. Well developed.” Under “Psychiatric,” it says, among other things: “Not in denial. Not euphoric. Not fearful. No flight of ideas. No grandiosity. Not hopeless. No mood swings. Not paranoid. Normal insight. Normal judgment.” And: “Behavior is appropriate for age.” (I’m not sure about that one; I still like to watch “Green Acres” and “Gilligan’s Island.”) At least I make a good—albeit agnostic—impression.

I have “rightward septal deviation”—a crooked nose, not bad enough to require surgical repair, however. I can breathe OK. I have “mild hypertrophy of turbinates bilaterally” (both nostrils). Turbinates are rollicking little items inside our noses, which humidify, heat, and filter the air we inhale. Our lungs, apparently, are particular. They like their air the way I (used to) like cinnamon rolls: clean, warmed just right, and moist.

Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System web site describes turbinates this way:

“Turbinates are structures located inside the nose, along the sides of the nasal cavities. They are made of bone and are covered by soft tissue known as ‘mucosa.’ Their function is to regulate airflow, and to warm and humidify the air you breathe in….Turbinates achieve this in part by swelling up periodically with increased blood flow, and this process characteristically alternates between sides every few hours (called the ‘nasal cycle’). This results in airflow being temporarily restricted on one side before alternating to the other side. This is one reason patients may feel their nasal obstruction ‘switches sides.’…There are three pairs of turbinates, inferior turbinates being the largest and located lowest in the nose. If the inferior turbinates are too large…they can cause nasal obstruction in one or both sides of the nose.”

So, to sum up what is likely more information than you want about the inside of my nostrils, my turbinates are a little larger than normal but not so much that I can’t breathe well.

(Here’s a fun medical fact: If your turbinates are enlarged enough to require partial removal and the doc accidentally removes too much, you may have “empty nose syndrome,” wherein even though the nostrils are wide open, without the proper mechanism to sense air flow, you will think your airway is obstructed.)

One last roll-out-the-jargon diagnosis: I have “pseudosulcus bilaterally upon examination of hypopharynx and larynx.” Whew.

As a college professor once said, let’s unpack that (or, in this case, have two websites unpack it for us). According to the American Cancer Society, “The hypopharynx is the part of the throat (pharynx) that lies beside and behind your larynx. The hypopharynx is the entrance into the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach). When you swallow foods and liquids, they pass through your mouth and throat, through the hypopharynx and esophagus, and then into your stomach. The hypopharynx is made so that it helps make sure that food goes around the larynx and into the esophagus.”

And per Wiktionary.org: pseudosulcus (plural is pseudosulci) means: “A groove that has the appearance of a sulcus,” which is no help because a sulcus is itself a “groove or furrow,” according to dictionary.com—and they can be in lots of places in our bodies. After many internet searches I gave up on finding a layperson’s definition of pseudosulcus bilaterally upon examination of hypopharynx and larynx. All I know is that it is not relevant to my loss of taste and smell, and it is not a concern of the doctors. I’m just a groovy guy and, in one spot, pseudo-groovy.

They detected signs of acid reflux (the pseudosulcus was one sign), and they recommended diet changes. (I made that change, which did reduce the acid reflux.) According to the Schirmer test, my tears are normal, and according to the Saxon test, my saliva is normal. I can cry and spit just fine. Hallelujah.

I learned that I can smell better in one nostril than the other—something I didn’t know was possible. Apparently, each nostril stays separate from the other longer than I thought, and can function differently. My left nostril has “mild hyposmia,” and the right nostril, the more pitiful smeller of the two, has “severe hyposmia,” hyposmia being a reduced ability to smell and detect odors—less traumatic than anosmia, in which no odors whatsoever can be detected.

They diagnosed “whole mouth hypogeusia without focality.” “Without focality” means there is no spot to point at and say, “There’s your problem, right there.”  Hypogeusia is a diminished loss of taste—which, if one is inclined to look for silver linings, is not as bad as ageusia, the complete loss of taste.

While not having anosmia or ageusia—that unsatisfying and disappointing empty abyss of a gastronomic experience—is good, I suppose, it leaves me in a frustrating middle ground. I can sort of taste a few things if the taste is strong enough. But I can’t taste most things, and, among those that I do, I don’t really taste them in the “oh that’s yummy” way that is the reason we eat delicious food. We don’t robotically say, “I will ingest this fuel that is necessary for functioning. My body will keep what it needs and output the rest.” We salivate; we crave good food.

About those tastes that I can faintly detect, usually, the most I can say is: I know they’re there. Which is not satisfying. Sometimes I can tell what something is by texture, as with an apricot with its specific mushy-chewiness. Blindfolded, I can tell whether coffee I sip has cream added; blindfolded, I can tell if a hamburger has pickles. I can tell they’re there, but that’s about it. It’s like hearing the faint through-the-walls sounds of your favorite music band which your friends are ecstatically enjoying inside the arena while you’re standing outside on the sidewalk, ticketless.

Chocolate is pretty distinct, and I can tell it is sweet. There’s still something in my brain that says, “That’s sweet,” and, according to nutritionist Diana Sugiuchi, “Our brains are biologically programmed to seek out sweets. Eating sweets activates the same receptors in your brain that morphine and heroin do, but it’s easier to get your hands on chocolate.”

So my brain, perhaps desperately addicted, demands sweets and is immediately disappointed by their consumption. Every now and then I’ll eat something sweet (crunchy + gooey can compel me over there) then promptly think, “That was a letdown.”

The clinic, as expected, didn’t provide an answer to why this happened to me. They suspect a “silent viral infection” but don’t rule out a fall I had while skiing.

They suggested I try aroma therapy: sniff 4 or 5 strongly aromatic compounds such as coffee grounds, peppermint, vanilla extract, and peanut butter, 5-10 minutes twice a day. (I tried that—no change.) They said get a gas leak detector and be cautious about spoiled food.

I submitted to the medically specialized tests and observations and opinions that we, usually, count on to save us, but this condition eluded their ability to apprehend and resolve. They drew conclusions about me regarding religion, personality, and psychology without asking me anything personal or engaging me about how I am coping. I didn’t visit the clinic for those reasons, but I found it odd that they included these matters in their conclusions without any related inquiry.

It was time to try something else.

I haven’t much tried alternative medicine (there is a debate about what to call it), not because of disbelief or skepticism but more out of upbringing and habit. I have had friends who scoffed at it and friends who praised it. I haven’t joined the fray. But missing out on the sauteed snow pea leaves, chicken in clay pot, and salt-and-pepper shrimp at our favorite Chinese restaurant was enough to jolt me out of my assumptions and habits. I asked around about acupuncture, and a friend recommended someone she had seen. She said, “He helped me. Plus, I liked what he had to say.” That is next.

A Startling Keepsake of a Poem–And A Prayer

A Startling Keepsake of a Poem–And A Prayer

It was my turn to lead the devotion at the monthly deacon’s meeting at my church, so I turned to the reliably inspiring poetry of Mary Oliver. I found this one:

Alligator Poem

I knelt down

at the edge of the water,

and if the white birds standing

in the tops of the trees whistled any warning,

I didn’t understand.

I drank up to the very moment it came

crashing toward me,

its tail flailing

like a bundle of swords,

slashing the grass,

and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth

gaping,

and rimmed with teeth—

and that’s how I almost died

of foolishness

in beautiful Florida.

But I didn’t.

I leaped aside, and fell,

and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path

as it swept down to the water

and threw itself in,

and, in the end,

this isn’t a poem about foolishness

but about how I rose from the ground

and saw the world as if for the second time,

the way it really is.

The water, that circle of shattered glass,

healed itself with a slow whisper

and lay back

with the back-lit light of polished steel,

and the birds, in the endless waterfalls of the trees,

shook open the snowy pleats of their wings, and drifted away,

while, for a keepsake, and to steady myself,

I reached out,

I picked the wild flowers from the grass around me—

blue stars

and blood-red trumpets

on long green stems—

for hours in my trembling hands they glittered

like fire.

RedTrumpetFlower

BlueStarFlower

This poem inspired me to pray this prayer:

Dear loving, watchful God, may you be the alligator who wakes us up. May your spirit crash through the flora of our complacency and remind us to be vibrantly alive. May we be startled into falling back into your embrace…and…then…pushed back into our lives, with a new awakening, a new vision.

Amen.

GatorEye

Six Words That Changed My Ministry

Jerry Gentry

What is a good opening remark for a hospice chaplain when greeting a patient with a terminal diagnosis? Sometimes my mind habitually—lazily—goes to, “How are you doing?” Whenever I say that, I immediately regret it.

The person is dying.

When my family first moved into our home, we were a half block from a notorious intersection where drug sales and prostitution flourished. Poverty was all around. One evening I walked to that intersection and saw a disheveled man wearily put a large, well-worn bag of his belongings on the sidewalk. Cheerily, I asked, “Howya doin?”

He looked at me hard and said, “How the F–K do you THINK I’m doing?”

How

In everyday use, “How are you doing?” means, “Hello.” No one minds if “How are you?” followed by “I’m fine” works as a greeting, not really as a question and a thoughtful answer. But when I visit a hospice patient, I expect more than that. I hope for some kind of genuine connection, even if it’s wordless and involves only a gentle touch or listening to music together. I do want to know how they’re doing, or at least what’s going on, but I don’t want to begin by placing the burden on them to immediately articulate the status of their health or emotions or spirituality.

I vowed to take a fast from “How are you doing?”

(I did so even though that question once led to a classic zinger. I visited a patient who, though terminally ill, had good mental cognition, and I asked how she was doing. She answered, “I’m livin’ but I ain’t braggin’.” That nugget was an undeserved bonus.)

I can’t, however, walk in there and say nothing. I wanted an opening for when there is no singular remark that the circumstance called for. I wanted something that shows I am there for their benefit, not mine, and that doesn’t imply an obligation on my patient’s part. Something that sets a tone of openness and welcome. Something that says, You don’t necessarily have to say anything.

I chose something very simple—and, you might say, obvious (I’m not going to knock anybody’s socks off here.)—but, for me, that sets a tone and atmosphere that I think is beneficial for my patients. And is calming and centering for me. I chose: “I’m so glad to see you” followed by silence.

listen

Why?

I’m not speaking for anyone but me. In facilities I visit, I hear patronizing talk: “We had fun playing bingo, didn’t we?” Which means: You had fun playing bingo. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. Maybe that’s just all there was to do.

I was at an assisted living facility listening to a visiting singer with a patient of mine, and just after his performance ended, another resident came around the corner from down the hall, pushing her wheeled walker, and she quickly surmised she had just missed a musical performance (guitar, speakers, chairs arranged for an audience). She scowled and said, “There was music in here? And I was down the hall doing that bingo s–t.”

Most of the patients I see have Alzheimer’s or dementia, but I assume that at least some of what is said gets through, so I dropped the talk that is really designed to make me feel better about myself, such as, “Let’s see a nice big smile.” Those are phony soothing words meant to convince me that everything is better than it is, not to communicate something.  If my words to someone else are sneakily trying to relieve me of my anxiety, that is not honest communication.

I’m telling the truth. I am not using a “trick” to get a certain reaction or trying a “technique” that I learned in my training. I am truly glad to see every patient, even the difficult ones (who might glower or shoo me away). I’m glad I’m a hospice chaplain, and I love my ministry. I don’t know how they will respond, but I’m honestly glad to be there in this person’s presence.

A consulting company sent someone to interview employees at my office to get a sense of the culture of the place, and he asked me what surprised me about my work. I replied, “I enjoy being around old people.” For a long time, I had the typical resistance to entering nursing homes. Some, truly, are unpleasant, but I have overcome the discomfort of being around people whose faces sag unattractively, limbs work sporadically if at all, teeth are missing or the replacements askew, and so on. It’s true those sights remind me that someday that will be me, but I have come to appreciate the mutual benefit of being present with these people. Yes, those visits benefit me. (I hope it benefits them, too.) I have learned patience and joy in small things: the rare smile, the look of recognition when hearing a familiar song, the hilarious quip, the “I love you,” the touch of my arm.

So when I enter a room at a nursing home or assisted living facility and say, “I”m so glad to see you,” I mean it. I don’t exaggerate by proclaiming, “You look great” or “We are going to have a great time.” I simply say I’m glad to see them, because I am.

oldwoman

I’m not implying the other person needs to answer. “How are you doing?” usually compels the other person to say they’re doing fine, and I don’t want that dynamic to take place. After I say I’m glad to see a patient, I don’t say anything for a bit. I sit in their presence. Some, of course, are not capable of saying anything and those who are often say gibberish. But that’s irrelevant. “I’m so glad to see you” doesn’t need a response. Some say they’re glad to see me too, and I’m very grateful for that. One woman stared at me after I said I was glad to see her and asked, “Why?” I said, “I just am.” Whatever I get—nonsensical words, sensical words, silence, awkward movements—is a gift.

I’m not implying that the other person has to agree. They might be glad to see me, and they might not. One patient, who the facility staff said needs more company, consistently asks me to leave. I barely get those six words out before he starts waving dismissively, although he never says, “Don’t come back,” and he usually thanks me for coming by. I don’t know if his thanks is genuine or sarcastic, but I use it to try again. I will continue to return for my 45-second visits until he asks me not to. Regardless of his reaction, I truly am glad to see him. He has an interesting life story, and I’m reminded of that when I see him. That’s good enough for me. And one day maybe he will allow me to stay, and when he does I’ll know there’s a good reason, and I’ll be ready.

If I’m visiting an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient, I may get no reply or some jumbled words or perhaps something that actually makes sense. That doesn’t matter. I let my opener sit there. It creates a sacred space where two people are simply together. With these patients, I then engage them verbally as best as is possible with each one’s cognitive abilities, then usually play music that their family has told me they like, and end with a prayer.

With patients who can actually converse, after my opener, I still wait. If nothing else, the waiting helps me resist my innate urge to talk about myself. A man with Parkinson’s disease, after I said I was glad to see him, looked at me for several moments—there was a long silence—then, laboriously, in a whisper, said, “Glad……to……see.…..you…..too.” I’m glad I waited; otherwise, I might have trampled over a beautiful moment of grace. Even with patients who converse, I’m not necessarily looking for a reply, although there usually is one, and I allow that to set the tone of our conversation, which may merely be an act of companionship or may be about how they are dealing with the fact that they’re dying.

As a Christian, I call that waiting a spiritual moment, holy patience. It allows the Spirit to move in the patient and in me. It reinforces in my mind that I’m there solely for that person’s benefit. I don’t feel obligated to fill that silence with my talk. In that waiting, I trust that the other person will find a way to claim what they need, or that the Spirit will eventually jostle something meaningful from our conversation. I trust that the simple, genuine, statement of being glad to see someone has some small healing impact. There is great, subtle power in sharing presence together with no expectation other than gladness.

gladness

A Most Unwelcome Advent

I wrote the following for my church’s 2016 Advent Meditation Booklet. It appeared in early December.

Romans 15:5-7

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

On a visit to see a hospice patient at her home, I, her chaplain, was greeted by her paid sitter, a friendly young woman, who escorted me to the patient’s room, where she was watching television. Her hearing isn’t so great, so the TV volume was LOUD. Her sitter said, “You have a visitor.” Then she shouted, “YOU HAVE A VISITOR!” The sitter used the remote to turn the volume down, and the patient looked away from the TV and at me. She smiled and said, “Oh, hi.”

If I may take a liberty or two with what Paul said in Romans 15, and surrounding passages, where he was trying to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to realize they had more in common than they had differences and that they could sit on the same pew without agreeing on everything, I will say that I was feeling that this patient and I had accepted one another as Christ has accepted us (v. 7). I’m a Baptist Christian, she a Catholic. I’m not terminally ill; she is. Male, female. That’s not the level of difference that Paul and the early Christians dealt with, but, still, all my visits with her were satisfying, at least in part because two different kinds of people shared fellowship in the same room. We usually watched the birds at her feeder, talked about this and that, listened to some classical music, then ended with a prayer. We didn’t solve global warming or figure out how to keep email accounts from being hacked, but we enjoyed one another’s company and thanked God for that.

On this day, I was grateful to be in her company again and anticipating another delightful visit. But, after saying, “Oh, hi,” and still smiling, she said to me sweetly, “I’m not interested in you today.”

Well, that, of course, hurt my feelings at first, but such is the reality of a disease that can lead to personality variances. It also means (perhaps again taking a bit of a liberty) that differences we have with other people don’t always go away. They don’t always flare up into tense confrontation, but, especially if they are deep-seated differences that go to the core of who one is, they lurk around and periodically surface. There’s the family gathering that is friendly enough…until someone mentions abortion or gun rights. And so on. Our own church has had serious, painful conflicts with people of good will and hearts on both sides of issues. And in the visit with this hospice patient, something inside her surfaced and said, “Go away.”

The 2016 presidential election was the most contentious that I remember. Hateful words and actions surfaced, arising from deep-seated, long-simmering fears and anxieties. Many Americans are far, far from being “of one mind and one voice.” I had my convictions, and voted them, hoping my side would win, but I hope and pray that I will never forget that all of us are sometimes wounded and vulnerable, frail, in need. All of us.

I actually wrote this before the presidential election took place, and I wrote that last paragraph about the election looking to the future, as in: “I hope my side wins.” (Our sharp editor rewrote it so that it would make sense when it appeared after the election.)

My side didn’t win.

When I wrote this reflection, I assumed—like everyone else who reads The New York Times—that Hillary Clinton would be elected. When I wrote about being aware all of us are sometimes wounded and vulnerable, I was thinking of Trump voters who would be upset that he lost and that people who vote like me should be sensitive to them as they pondered four years with a president they disliked. I was planning to be the magnanimous victor.

Oops.

Instead, I’m one of those looking in from outside the gate, wondering what to do now that values I hold dear are being discarded regularly and cavalierly in our executive branch. I myself don’t feel vulnerable. I’ll be fine. But many others may not. So many fears—for people, the environment, the economy, international relations, democracy. So many lies thrown at us.

Despite this turnabout, in addition to activism in which I will engage, I still pledge to communicate openly and compassionately with Donald Trump voters, try to understand their motivations and acknowledge valid concerns—as long as they’re not insulting, in which case, I have better things to do.*

As a Jesus-inspired peacemaker, I’m compelled to speak truth as I understand it and listen humanely and kindly, regardless of who is the winner and loser.

 

speaklisten-2

 

 

 

*Check out the Saturday Night Live skit, “Black Jeopardy,” for a clever look at how we can be surprised with whom we share beliefs:

Downhill From Here

Downhill From Here

The only sounds I heard—which were muffled by my goggles and helmet—were my skis cutting through the snow and the creaky grinding/mechanical moaning of the ski lifts. At first, I felt lonely. I’m an extrovert who makes acquaintances easily, and I love being chatty, but this day I intentionally spent in silence. I saw few people because it was a very slow day. On some runs, I might not see another skier at all once I got a bit away from the lift drop-off. It felt strange not seeing more skiers. I missed seeing parents teaching their small children to ski, although I enjoyed freedom to roam unimpeded. I sat alone on ski lift rides. That was hard. So many times in the past I’ve had conversations with strangers on ski lifts, brief talks with people I never saw again, and never will. Those conversations, silly or inconsequential as they are, entertain me and enliven me. (Cashiers all over Atlanta are nodding their heads, or rolling their eyes.) This time, riding alone over and over, I sometimes felt as if I weren’t doing enough to be the kind of person I think I am. “Come on, extrovert, do something social.”

At first.

Eventually, however, the silence took me deeper into myself. I would occasionally stop and take in a view, alone. With no one to whom to say, “Look at that,” I stared across at a distant mountain fronted by a frozen lake, and I smiled, wonderfully, simply, satisfied. I would stop at the top of a run and look down, anticipating the exhilaration, planning my method: quick-turn speed or leisurely wide turns. Speed feels joyful. Wide turns feel sensual. I like them both. Skiing alone, in the silence, I felt the speedy skiing and the sensual skiing all the way through me. I sensed my body’s motions acutely. No one against which to compete or compare, I felt satisfied with however I skied—smoothly or clumsily.

Thickly insulated inside my gear, warming packets in my gloves and boots (I’m a winter weather wimp), I could see the cold—the snow, the vapory breath—but not feel it. The sound of my breathing resonated through my head. The rhythm of breath and the rhythm of skiing were like choreographed dancing. At moments I felt spiritually energized as my movements became a kind of prayer. It was more than looking around and appreciating God’s beauty, although it was that. It was more a sense that the Creator, the beautiful scenery, and I were united as I moved in my isolation and silence down the slopes.

And then, that afternoon, my skis began to cooperate with each other as never before. I have always admired skiers whose skis are always parallel to each other, moving in unison, while mine often seemed to be playing a game with each other: I’ll go this way and see if you can catch up. I tried turning my ankles simultaneously, shifting my hips, slightly shifting my weight upward as I turned—none worked for me, until this day finally it somehow came together. I was shocked and pleased to see and feel my skis being a coordinated tandem. I’m not sure why it happened. Maybe it was the repetition of it all. Over and over, the same thing, like chanting, until my body, mind, and spirit had a breakthrough. Everything felt as one to me. In my solitude and silence, I celebrated simply, by smiling and thanking God. It was a deep soulful gratitude, a prayer with no words, instead that full-body sense of God’s presence. I would have enjoyed celebrating with another person there, but this time the joy percolated within me. The whole full experience was a prayer.

SnowSkiClipArt

Up

I took the MARTA train to the Bruce Springsteen concert, exited at the station next to Philips Arena, and approached the tall escalators that would take me next to Philips. To my right and just ahead of me, two women walked to the bottom of one of the escalators. They were side by side until one stepped on the escalator, and the other remained, frozen in place. She began quivering and shaking her hands nervously. Perhaps intimidated by the escalator’s height, she exclaimed, “I just can’t do it! I can’t!” She stood just before the bottom, refusing to step forward while her friend moved upward, waving her arms encouragingly, saying, “Come on, come on.” But she wouldn’t budge. She continued to shake her arms and speak nervously: “I can’t! I can’t!” Her friend continued to rise.

Escalators

I stepped beside the frightened woman, looked her in the eyes and said, “We’ll do this together.” I took her hand in mine. She smiled and said, “OK.” I said, “We’re going to take this step nice and easy. Let’s go.” We stepped onto it and rode up holding hands. Near the top, I said, “We’re going to step off just like we stepped on. Together. Here we go.” We stepped off the escalator and released our hands. She joined her friend; they went to the right, and I went to the left. They looked back and said, “Thank you.”

HoldingHands

Bruce didn’t sing “Human Touch” that night, but it’s one of my favorites. Here’s how some of it goes:

“Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch.”

and

“You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to
And a little of that human touch.”

The concert was great, and it was a good day.

********************************************

Here’s someone’s recording of “Human Touch”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PqdDMxccWs

Chaos, Order, and Grace: Greg Mobley Makes Sense of the Entire Old Testament

Chaos, Order, and Grace: Greg Mobley Makes Sense of the Entire Old Testament

Greg Mobley and I began seminary at the same time. Naturally enough, we found each other, as well as a cadre of other off-kilter Southern Baptists. Our group could be profane and heretical but harmlessly so. It was in the service of being as true as we could to a transformative, Jesus-loving faith that—by then, we were all painfully aware—had become stiflingly drenched in Southern white culture, embarrassingly anti-intellectual, and mostly blind to social issues. We questioned beliefs, ridiculed prominent Baptists, and wrestled with theological notions. Yes, we could have moved on to another, more highfalutin, astute Christian bunch (some did), but we wanted to be the hipsters bringing funny-wise relevance to the faith of our birth and nurturing. We watched discussion-worthy movies together, celebrated and mourned election results, planned how to end world hunger, marched against militarism and racism. We were a witty, brainy bunch, as we saw it, trying to follow Jesus with intelligence and have loads of fun doing it.

Tall and handsome, Greg was the best basketball player on campus. (You’re thinking, How good do you have to be to beat a bunch of ministers? Yeah, but, still, he was the best.) At parties, where we sang a lot of Springsteen and all manner of rock-n-roll and drank a lot of beer, he knew just about every song. He has a good voice. (When he didn’t know the words to a song, he made them up, seamlessly.) He married one of the smartest women I’ve met. (Now divorced—it happens.) Some of us continued into church ministry, some social work, some academics, chaplaincy, other things. A number of us earned doctorates, but then there was Greg: Some (like me) hung around the same seminary, comfortable with the teachers and routines, but that dude—he went to Harvard. Now he teaches at a Boston-area seminary, Andover Newton, and has two outstanding basketball playing sons and a genius daughter.

And he’s a heck of a writer. This space is devoted to his latest book, The Return of the Chaos Monsters—And Other Backstories of the Bible. I have always used the Old Testament in bits and pieces, overlooking huge chunks of it when I needed something to read for devotion or to prepare a sermon. Seeing and discerning the full sweep and arc of the OT—historically, theologically, narratively—never interested me. Actually, it intimidates me. It’s long and complex, archaic; much of it is boring. And now here’s Greg saying he has a thematic structure that pulls the whole thing together. That alone is admirable. Chaos Monsters is beautifully written, both serious and playful, thoughtful, fun, insightful, with Greg’s own story woven in here and there. He draws from a creative range of sources: scholars, poets (including Wendell Berry from Greg’s home state of Kentucky), TV, quantum physics, American folk songs, Dr. Seuss, and movies.

ChristHoops

“Story” sounds so simplistic and easy, childlike, hardly academically rigorous, but Greg knows that story is how we humans find and express meaning: “Each story leads to another as our minds seek to interpret, connect, and harmonize each new story into that single masterpiece we all author, consciousness’s magnum opus, every soul’s work, the Song of Myself” (p. 6). [Then there’s this exquisite, compact sentence, which managed to take me to three different places: “We are so adept at this meaning-making through narrative that we can do it in our sleep, a dozen times every night, often with bizarre results” (p. 7).] I know I am biased toward him because we are buddies, but I will say that Greg does as fine a job as I have read in explaining the role of narrative, story, in human life and how we make meaning of our lives. Greg explains that story-telling is one of many “registers,” or styles, that we use to communicate, so “We are all multiregisteral polymaths, consciously or unconsciously changing our voices according to circumstance and audience” (p. 54). Story is no less valuable than other registers, such as sermons or academic lectures or essays or poems. Each of those has its appropriate circumstance, which gives them their power, and narrative is a particularly effective way of saying, Here is what God is trying to tell us. Hence, much of the Bible is story.

From studying Hebrew and history, interpreting ancient tales, learning from theologians who had already figured some things out, and gazing inquisitively at human behavior, Greg found seven “backstories” that underlie the OT, with all seven backstories being variations on this theme: “the dynamic interplay of order and chaos.” So across the OT, Greg explains, the backstories give meaning to the various stories, sayings, and prophecies that make up the seven main categories of OT writings. The backstories are themes, motifs, big ideas—concepts that are in the background but help us make sense of what’s in the foreground. Greg describes the categories of OT writings, then illustrates how the backstory of each category plays out in the text, and the reader begins to make sense of this interplay between God and humans. God has a role. Humans have a role. The prophets, well, they have several roles.

God and God’s people need to work together to manage chaos, which can refer to the many awful things that can happen to, and by, humans: hunger, violence, oppression, crime, deceit, you name it. The cooperation between us and God isn’t a simple formula in which everyone who is faithful lives all grapes and ice cream, and the unfaithful languish in agony. Greg knows better. The Bible, thank goodness, knows better, too. But faithfulness by humans is crucial.

The above paragraph is a decent summary of what Greg is saying, but, darn it, he sums it up better: “My main task here is to help you see the big ethical story of the Bible, namely, that humans have been created to be partners with God in managing chaos and preserving the created order. What we do, or don’t do, what we omit or commit: it matters. When we uphold virtue, we make the world more secure; when we trespass, we risk awakening chaos and unleashing destruction.”

OrderChaos

Here are a few of my favorite parts of Greg’s book.

I grew up, as Greg did, being taught that “Jewish law” was a stultifying limitation on the human spirit, an endless, dreary list of do’s and don’t’s, and that Jesus freed us from its strictures with grace and love—if we really, truly believed in Him deep in our hearts. We would then do all the right things because we wanted to, not because a bunch of spirit-encumbering rules told us to. My Christian community used first-century Judaism as a foil, and we hammered away on “law.” Jesus, we boasted, wielded that hammer deftly, and we were following His lead. But Greg beautifully reminds us that Jesus wasn’t, in fact, stepping all over law; he was “playing the game of Torah by its own rules” (p. 37) when he accepted the Torah as authority but reinterpreted it, as did the many wise rabbis recorded in the Jewish Talmud who worked out what it means in day-to-day living to be faithful to the Torah. Those particular demands (or rules) are important for any “grown-up major world religion” (p. 37) that wishes to persist, but some of them look silly to future generations, so there is re-interpretation. This relationship involving humans, God, and chaos is guided by “law” but is dynamic and subject to revision—not because Torah (and the rules drawn from it) was wrong but because it wasn’t meant to be stuck in a long ago era.

Like many people I know (well, pretty much anyone with a Bible), I have quoted Old Testament prophets selectively. When they help me rail against racism, poverty, or oppression, I unleash them and let them wreak their judgment. There is a Top Ten or so of prophetic proclamations that we leftist Christians hang our hats on. That omits scads of material that I find puzzling or uncomfortable. Greg makes me feel better about this, saying the Bible has “epic inconsistencies and ethical incredulities” and is “all over the place” (p. 72) theologically because the history of faith in God is a partnership. The stories in the Bible, and the meanings and beliefs we draw from them, emerge from what humans say and do, not only what (drum roll) God Pronounces. His book doesn’t so much provide beliefs or principles (although it does that broadly) as it describes a method that Greg observes. I don’t have to ignore Biblical ethical incredulities, or other parts that make us cringe, because they are a part of the story along the way. Is the Bible patriarchal? Why, yes. They were. But humans now should know the oppressiveness of patriarchy and, via “the mutual partnership of God and humans in redemption,” work for its diminishment; otherwise, the chaos-consequences of it will make the world less than it can be.

(In the Baptist faith of my youth, saying that the Bible is all over the place and that head-scratchers are in there because humans were in the mix would be a fatal flaw. If it’s not 100% from God but is only 99.9%, well that .1%, we thought, meant it was a false religion. Into the reject pile you go; join us or you’re off to Hell one day.)

If you don’t read anything else in this book, read pp. 72-96, about the method that God and the Latter Prophets use when they are trying to control chaos and keep the faithful faithful. P. 84 lays this out in five steps of a cyclical drama involving God, the prophets, and the community (he calls this a menage a trois—heh heh), but don’t go straight to p. 84; read what leads up to it first. Here is where Greg rescues the prophets from having to be prophets-that-I-approve-of-all-the-time. (There is even a time when God says, “Oops, I was mistaken” p. 80.) In this drama, a prophet may represent God and speak angrily to the community about what they need to do or stop doing, or may represent the community and speak to God, asking God to be merciful despite their deeds. Some of it is manipulative behavior (there’s a fair amount of good cop/bad cop), so you may read this and think this sounds like a dysfunctional family, and maybe it is, but that’s what you get when God doesn’t simply dictate but works with humans to deliver salvation—albeit in fits and starts and clumsily and incompletely. (We may serve an awesome God, but crooks still thieve, oppressors oppress, and sinners sin.) These stories of the prophets aren’t clean fables with clean lessons. They are stories of trying to live out the faith in the real, messy world.

It’s also what you get when our sacred Scriptures are accounts humans compose in order to show, the best they can, God’s presence in our lives. Underlying this drama (and I mean “drama” in both the usual sense of dramatic story and the exasperated sense of “too much drama”), God’s ethical message is still true and good: “of moral cause and effect, of justice and righteousness” (p. 96), and the community of faith should continue to uphold it. The Biblical story of working it out, however, is hardly a straight line from belief to heaven-on-earth, and thanks to Greg’s book, that is inspiring, not disappointing.

Prophet

The chapter on wisdom literature similarly reminds us that the Bible is populated with human beings, not necessarily super-religious higher-level spiritual heroes. Wisdom literature isn’t so keen on saying Israel is different from other cultures and even includes a lot that it has in common with them. This literature isn’t afraid to say other people have good ideas too. It is “the most international of biblical genres.” (Job, in fact, is “a legendary wise man from someone else’s culture,” i.e., a foreigner , p. 119.) Wisdom literature, if I’m following Greg correctly, is in touch with universal concepts that cross cultures and religions. (One problem, of course, is that each religious or cultural perspective thinks they have an exclusive claim on truth, which means we have, oh, The Crusades and ISIS beheadings and such.)

Some wisdom writings are “bewildering, more statements of doubt than of faith” (p. 111). To me, that makes the Bible more accessible to normal people. Greg says the backstory of this literature is that there is a Great Plan that God has in mind for the world and that it is built into creation, but we (and the wisdom writers) grasp it partially, sporadically—then sometimes forget it. We see God’s Great Plan in fragments, and we count on the wise and eloquent ones among us to see the patterns among the fragments and proclaim what they mean. This means the world—human lives and communities—can be unruly even though God is alive and active. God created a world that is “wild” and “free” so that when we do the right thing, it’s because we choose to. When we don’t, here comes chaos again, and real people can get hurt. The message of Job, in fact, is that chaos is a part of our reality, that God’s Great Plan isn’t always carried out. The hoped-for relationship between faithfulness and the good life happens much of the time, but not all the time. That’s the world we have, the Bible tells us.

Please, read about Satan, pp. 131-3. I feel much better about not having a clear picture of what the Bible says about him. He’s not one consistent figure but is an amalgam of characters and stories. One story gets recounted the most these days, but that is thanks to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. When I was a teen, a church friend told me he once invited The Devil to have a talk with him, and he (my friend) said he felt a shiver of instant fear. That’s pretty much what we thought: Satan was a mysterious, evil fiend who sneaked into your life and tricked you into snubbing God’s good ways. Intense prayer kept him at bay. We used to ask God to “bind Satan” from where we were.

Greg reminds us that while we may fear Satan, we love his “miniatures” in stories: “all the portraits of countless fictional criminal masterminds and evil comic book kingpins from Lex Luthor to Doctor Doom” (p. 135).* The narrative precursors of what we would later call Satan are here in apocalyptic literature, during a time when things seemed so hopeless and desperate that stories to inspire the faithful needed to be highly dramatic and fantastical. So perhaps, Greg posits, the Biblical story includes humanity’s Biggest Opponent as a necessary character: “his opposition has benefits, forcing God, the angels, and the saints to bring their best game. Satan makes life easier for theists, giving them a focal point for their frustrations, providing them with a common enemy” (p. 137). Whether that’s literally true is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the Biblical story, using its methods and styles (even if we wish it were some other style, perhaps more straightforward, or with neat bullet points), inspires us to be faithful, feed the hungry, spread God’s love, free the oppressed—or, to use Greg’s terminology, overcome, or at least manage, chaos with good.

(*This way of connecting across the ages is impressive. We tend to project onto the Bible the assumptions and sensibilities of our era, and the result is often a false confidence in our hunches. But Greg shows there is a common humanity (i.e., fascination with dramatic apocalyptic stories as a way of coping) across the ages, and he sets it solidly in the Biblical historical setting and in our setting. That is no easy feat and requires a delicate touch. Push that connection too far, and you’ve reached parody-ville. You’re saying: Because I feel a certain way as I read Psalm 23, that’s how they must have felt. Greg, however, gives the past and the present their own integrity.)

Greg wraps it up, in a brief chapter, with what strikes me as what might have begun as an “aha” inspiration for him during the writing of the bulk of this book, and it percolated and simmered in his mind until the insight emerged: Here’s a backstory to the backstories. (I also suspect this last chapter may grow into a future book.) Greg points to three stories that involve windows and rescues, two from the Old Testament, one from the New, and in all three the male heroes are vulnerable and helpless. They are rescued in two of the stories by women and in the third by an unnamed group of disciples: unsung heroes. This image of emerging through a window in need of help by women brings to mind childbirth, which for every human is the ultimate gift, the beginning of life, over which we have no control, and which calls for total dependence on love. Preach on, Greg: we are all here by grace.

On p. 128, Greg tells briefly of his teenage infatuation with end-of-the-world literature and its fantastical predictions. We haven’t talked about this in detail, but my impression is that his spiritual development is similar to mine: Teenage-naivety-and-zealous-faith followed by tempered-realism/skepticism-shaped-by-the-academic-study-of-the-Bible-in-college, which led to the-onset-of-mature-blossoming-of-a-well-rounded-faith-in-seminary. Something like that. We hit it off as friends in the third phase but probably would have in the other two also. Our like-minded take on Christian faith (and love of basketball) would have drawn us together, I think. This is part of my enjoyment of this book. The content is stimulating, but it is also gratifying to see one of us succeed so well.

HighFive