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

Coyote Birds

Coyote Birds

On a recent morning, as I drove into my office complex, the morning sky was nearly covered with pewter clouds, the kind that look like a lid to the world. On one side there was a small opening in the clouds through which the low morning sun shone, almost horizontal to the ground. The sun’s rays made the clouds look regal, illuminating their gray/silver. My eye caught a flock of birds, maybe 40 or so, flitting in a formation that was unformed enough to appear random, but in sync enough to be a non-designed design made cooperatively, literally on the fly, each bird having a mind of its own but committed to the flock. The flock moved in rapid tandem, this way and that, unpredictable. They were too far away for me to tell what kind of birds they were. The breast side of their bodies was white, and as they angled and turned in the sky, whenever their white faced the sun, they looked like gleaming porcelain bejeweling a magnificent gray medallion in the sky. I stopped my car and stared, admiring the lovely handiwork given to me that morning. They flew out of my eyesight, behind some trees, so I drove to a different parking lot to get a better view.

I thought of a poem I had read that morning:

The Coyote
by Alan Feldman

If you stripped a dog of its social eagerness,
gave it a loping indifference to human presence
and starved it, you’d have a coyote,
stalking like a shadow among the garbage cans
at the top of Pearl Street, near the Fine Arts Work Center.
We’re heading back to our car through a fine mist,
the streetlights haloing amid the black trees,
and we stop, watching him appear and disappear
gaunt as a Giacometti. He’s nothing
like a dog bounding into the street.
Does he care if this is a street?-or just a hard place
under his paws. Ever since childhood
I’ve tried to be alert to what people are up to,
but why not see the coyote’s point of view?-
how he prefers to ignore them,
following his own track through the darkness.

I drove around the parking lot, looking for a good spot to see them again. I had only seen them for a few seconds, but I was already enamored and wanted more. That configuration of sky, sun, and birds—and time of day—would never happen to me again, I knew, so I sought it hungrily. It didn’t seem right to tease me with that scene and so quickly take it away forever. But it was too late. They were gone. The clouds eventually moved. And the earth turned.

Another coyote doing its own thing, oblivious to me.

 

coyote

Jerry Has No Taste: Jerry Quits Alcohol

Jerry Quits Alcohol

My mother’s parents were alcoholics. My mother detests alcohol. I have heard from other family that her parents sometimes had loud angry arguments when inebriated. Her father, “Papa Lou,” left the family in Memphis, Tennessee, temporarily, when my mother was a child so he could learn a trade. He went to California, learned photography, and got sober. He returned to Memphis and provided for his family as a free-lance photographer. He took photos for publications around town, including the two major newspapers, and for the Memphis police department. He took one famous publicity picture of Elvis Presley signing a management contract with Bob Neal, who managed Elvis before Colonel Parker. Elvis is sitting at a desk in my grandparents’ living room, pen in hand. On one side stands Sun Records owner Sam Phillips and on the other Neal. Prominently on the wall behind Elvis’s head is a large picture of my mother, taken by my grandfather when my mother became engaged to my father. Thanks to that, I can say honestly, “My mother is in a picture with Elvis in Rolling Stone magazine.”

My grandmother, “Mama Lou,” kept drinking. We visited Memphis often, but I don’t recall any evidence of her alcoholism, not that I would have known what to look for. I’m sure it was there, however. Once when Mama Lou visited us in Clinton, Mississippi, my brother and I—being nosy children—looked in her suitcase and found a small bottle of whiskey. We showed it to Mom, who poured it down the kitchen sink.

My Dad told me that he tried wine once when he visited Jerusalem (which we called “The Holy Land” whenever a Christian traveled there to walk where Jesus walked). He was a Baptist pastor in Clinton and, of course, never touched alcohol. His tour group had communion on a hill where Jesus was thought to be crucified, and he said he liked the wine and could get accustomed to drinking it. However, he knew that would never be approved at any church that he would be interested in serving. He might as well smoke pot and snort coke. And rob the elderly.

As a teenager, I never tried alcohol. I don’t even remember being offered it. I ran with a straight-laced church-going crowd. (I was so naïve I thought Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” was merely about girls who smoked and cursed.) At one high school reunion some classmates were speaking of someone who had started drugs in high school, and I said I had known nothing of it. They looked at each other. “Uh, Jerry, there were some things we didn’t tell certain people.” Oh, OK, I guess I was one of those people. So I’m sure I missed out on many crazy, memorable adventures that my other friends had, but I don’t regret the experiences that I did have. Yeah, we were nerdy and lame, but we had fun and treated each other well.

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I tried beer for the first time while I attended Mississippi College, a small Baptist school where alcohol was forbidden (as was dancing—and, for a while, short pants on women outside their dorm). Sometime during my senior year, I was with some guys in my dorm who had Coors beer in their small refrigerator. I was the Floor Counselor, which meant I was there to enforce the school’s rules and should have reported them or at least insisted they get rid of it, but I was a senior and ready to throw good-boy-Baptist caution to the wind. (Well, maybe not throw caution, perhaps a gentle underhand toss.) Coors, at the time, was not sold in Mississippi or anywhere east of the Mississippi River and could only be bought by traveling to a state that allowed its sale and bringing it back. Hence, there was a mystique about Coors. I heard teenage boys talking about it as though it were the holy grail of beer. Once I asked a high school classmate what was the big deal about Coors, and he replied, “It goes down like water, but you can still get smashed.” Shockingly, that didn’t entice me to drive to Colorado and down a few. But, on this occasion in college, I decided to try it. Finally, my curiosity would be satisfied. I was not aware that one should not try to enjoy beer immediately after brushing one’s teeth. I took a swig, the beer and mint clashed disgustingly, and I thought, “No wonder my Mom hates this stuff.”

I tried alcohol again at a bachelor’s party for my older brother, Mark, who said, “Jerry, I want you to try this booze.” (He quit drinking soon after that and still doesn’t.) His tone, as I recall, seemed to say, “You need to loosen up.” It was fruit punch with I don’t know what in it, but it messed up the taste of the punch. It seemed harsh, not sweet. I liked my punch sweet.

Concerning alcohol, that was that for a good while.

Until I got to seminary.

For some young Southern Baptists with an eye on a career in ministry, seminary was a final chance to go a little crazy before becoming a fuddy-duddy minister. I didn’t go crazy, but I began drinking beer and wine at parties. It was a way to say, “Look, I’m a liberated Baptist. I’m hip.” It was a phase many my age had already gone through in high school. I got tipsy from time to time and enjoyed acting goofy. That was about it.

I drank more after we moved to Atlanta and I declared myself a free-lance writer. I didn’t glorify the alcoholic writer or consider myself a kindred spirit of Faulkner or Hemingway; I simply enjoyed alcohol, and wanted to be a with-it grown-up. I learned about types of beer and wine and drank because I enjoyed the different flavors and textures. Every now and then, I’d have a rum and Coke, white Russian, or whatever. For the longest time I bought whatever beer was on sale, then I learned about lagers, wheat beer, pale ales, bitterness, and so on. I learned there were more wine distinctions than just “red” and “white.” I was not a connoisseur of either wine or beer, but I enjoyed trying them and trying to notice the differences. I went to two wine tastings, and I enjoyed them, but I can’t say I understood it all. I got good at working up a facial expression that said, “Hmmm, interesting.”

(According to Adam Rogers in his book, “Proof: The Science of Booze,” I might not have been far off with my feigned knowledge. He describes many studies and experiments to systematize the art/science of identifying wine tastes and aromas, none of which were very conclusive. He doesn’t say the expert opinions about wine are a hoax, but he comes pretty close. In one study, subjects tasted, then described, the qualities of a red wine and a white wine, then they were given two glasses of that same white wine but with one having a tasteless red coloring added. They appeared to, once again, have a red and a white, and they described that second “red wine” in the same terms they had used to describe the real red wine. They described what they expected. In another experiment, subjects tried to identify wine aromas only (not taste), and the subjects included trained sommeliers, sommeliers-in-training, and amateurs. As expected, the amateurs scored the lowest. But not by much. It turns out that two primary factors that impact our enjoyment of wine, separate from what’s in the bottle, are expectations and context. If a bottle is expensive, you will praise it more.)

winesplash

 

My drinking to that point was all pretty harmless, as drinking goes. But I took a dangerous turn when I discovered alcohol as an escape.

I believe it started when I was in my early 30s and I had submitted a short story to a literary journal, about which I had great hope, and it was rejected. My wife had to work late that night, so I was alone, and I moped around at home. Sometime in the evening, I started drinking rum. After I got drunk enough to stagger, I ambled across the street to a house rented by two young women in their mid-twenties. They were fun and cool, outgoing, sweet-hearted, but they weren’t home. So I sat in their porch swing and waited, bottle in hand. They eventually arrived and stared at me. I slurred, “My story was rejected.”

When I was their age, if I had been in their place, I would have been shocked and bewildered, not sure what to do—as if I had found an alien creature at my house, who sold cocaine to children, then ate them, and used foul language. They, however, were calm and matter-of-fact. They had had the kind of college life where having a drunk person at their home was sort of like me having a Bible in the room—no big deal, and routine. That was the type of college (or teenage) experience that I had missed completely. The wildest things I ever did would barely register as a little bit bad, by certain standards.

One of the women said she was sorry about my story (she had an artist boyfriend). They helped me back to my house, plopped me down at my toilet, watch me throw up for a while, debated whether to make coffee, then decided I was safe lying there, nearly asleep. They said good-bye and left.

(Later on, I told a therapist about this incident, and he said “That was manipulative.” He was right. I wanted sympathy, and I found a way to get it.)

That was not, however, the first time I got drunk and vomited. It was the first time I got drunk with the intention of escaping a bad feeling. I got drunk and vomited 5 other times. I remember each place precisely. Four times were at my home; the other was in New Orleans after a night at Pat O’Brien’s bar and more-than-one sickly sweet Hurricane. After each episode I said to myself, “I will NEVER do that again.” Before I threw up, my head and my stomach would spin. I would close my eyes to try to stop the spinning, but that only made it worse. I eventually was able to tell when I was drunk enough, on a given occasion, to throw up and when I had stopped drinking just before getting to that point. I could tell by how fast my head and stomach were spinning—just so and I was a goner. Prior to that I felt terrible, but I wouldn’t throw up. I’m not exactly proud of that skill—it’s not like, say, being able to juggle—but it did come in handy.

Eventually, there was a last time for post-alcohol vomiting, but I didn’t stop drinking.

PorchSwing

 

Occasionally, I would drink enough to get a buzz so that perhaps I could avoid interacting with someone, perhaps at a party or some gathering, or to avoid feeling a certain way, or to avoid making a decision (too fuzzy-headed for that, maybe next week). For a little while, alcohol allowed me to be out of touch with….what? Well, just life. If I’m loopy-headed, I can’t think about anything serious, can’t let any recent anxieties (Will I ever be published again? Will I ever stop trying to live up to outlandish personal expectations? Will I ever clip my toenails correctly?) settle into clearheaded thought. I have never been high on pot or dope, but I’ve heard that they make you euphoric. Alcohol did not do that for me. I was sort of floating around, but it was more being ungrounded than being lifted up in ecstasy.

That is a strange feeling: being in someone’s presence, staring at them, hearing them, but my thoughts drifting amongst their words, rather than connecting with them. There is pleasure in the early phase of getting drunk: the lightheadedness, giddiness, numbness in my face, easy laughs, loud talk, letting things slip out. But at some point I no longer stopped at that phase. And there was no longer much pleasure.

As previously noted, in Rogers’s book “Proof,” he cites evidence that the way alcohol affects a person is in large part determined by what one expects to happen. People who expect positive or negative outcomes from drinking usually get just that. In one study, subjects were given alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks that tasted and looked the same. They were told it was a “taste study.” There were four groups: Some were told the drink had alcohol, and it did. Some were told it had alcohol, and it didn’t. Some were told it had no alcohol, and it didn’t. Some were told it had no alcohol, and it did. (It must be OK to lie in the name of science.) Out of all four groups, only those who expected their drinks to have alcohol (whether they did or not) acted drunk. And self-identified alcoholics drank no more than others if they were told their drink had no alcohol but did. Alcohol definitely affects the brain physiologically (Rogers has a whole chapter on that), but context makes a big difference in how so. He concludes, “What happens to people when they drink, then—even at moderate, ‘social’ levels—is highly individualized, multifactorial, and dependent on cultural rules and references as well as contextual influences like setting and timing.”

As I reflect on this, I think my own expectations for drinking, other than the taste, included: that pleasant floating feeling, camaraderie (drinking with friends), escape or avoidance, and sophistication (knowing what to drink). Eventually, it just became a daily habit, and, regardless of my expectations, my enjoyment was half-hearted and short-lived and came only from seeing it and downing it. That enjoyment disappeared quickly each time.

(Hangovers—scientific name, veisalgia—by the way, have received little research attention—some people think because the FDA isn’t sure there should be a hangover cure because the research required to obtain it would involve instructing subjects to drink excessively, and because, if such a study led to a cure, the drug might encourage people to drink more. “Don’t worry, honey, I got my pill right here in my pocket.” Rogers says that the best theory for the cause of hangovers is that they “are an inflammatory response, like what happens when we get an infection.” If you abuse your body, it fights back.)

I can’t recall precisely when I changed from drinking because I liked the taste to drinking every day to excess, but there I eventually landed. It got worse after I lost my taste and smell. Red wine became disgusting, but I could sort of enjoy chilled white wine and cold wheat beer with lime. The cold felt nice, and I could slightly taste the citrus. (“Taste” isn’t really the right word, more a tangy feeling than a taste.) One might think I would quit alcohol for the same reason I quit sweets: what’s the point? Perhaps I was making up for the loss of taste with an overload of buzz, then wanted a little more—and more and more. I would go to a party and head straight for the drinks. I would come home from work and drink a six-pack of beer or an entire bottle of chilled white wine in an hour and a half. On weekends I would start drinking at 1:00pm—or maybe noon. I attended a few church committee meetings after drinking too much. (Once I drove the mile to church while finishing a glass of wine.) I sent a couple of snarky emails that I later regretted. Fortunately, I never wrecked a car, and I didn’t turn violent. I never drank before or during work.

I teach an in-service on workplace burnout, and I give a list of symptoms that could mean something is amiss in one’s life, and one is excessive drinking. I say that drinking isn’t necessarily dangerous, but if you frequently find yourself driving home, thinking about drinking when you get there, you might want to think about that. Well, that was me.

It took me a while to realize that my drinking was not sustainable without disastrous consequences—for me and others. How soon before I start hiding alcohol around the house and denying that I am drinking? I began to wonder if I would end up in my own church’s recovery program, where I once taught a creative writing class.

One thing that helped me quit was that after a while the buzz didn’t last long and it turned into a headache. My head would feel squeezed and pulled. (The most likely culprit for that, according to Rogers, is a molecule in alcoholic drinks called the congener. A vicious rascal.) My thoughts quit floating around jauntily and seemed to be going through a maze of barbed wire. I don’t recall if I became more irritable at home, but I knew I had to quit, and that I couldn’t revert to “drinking in moderation.” It was too late for that.

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So I just quit. I didn’t have to enter a program or go to meetings. For that, I feel fortunate. I hear of alcoholics who try rehab after rehab before one finally works, but I simply stopped one day. Early on, twice, I made the mistake of leaving a few beers cold in the fridge after having friends over, and later downed them, which I immediately regretted, and I now don’t keep them cold in the house. I’ll sip a bit of champagne at the occasional celebration, but that’s it.

I didn’t have withdrawals, but I do miss it. I went to the Tour Championship golf tournament near my house on a hot day, and I stared longingly at those cold beers in others’ hands passing by while I sipped $3 water. There is a new wine store nearby where my wife sometimes attends tastings with friends, and I stay home. That’s a drag, but watching others enjoy it would be worse. A new craft beer store is also nearby, where I would love to be able to try different kinds of beer.

I wish I could say that quitting alcohol has opened up something new and pure in me, that I feel fresh mental energy or have a new outlook on life—or something like that—but none of that is true. I don’t have a more intense focus on important matters. I don’t have the feeling that I’m freshly awake from a hazy slow dream. I don’t have revelatory clarity. I’m pleased that I made a smart decision about my habits, but I feel more that I have kept my life from careening into disaster and not so much that I have made life more meaningful. But that’s good enough for now.

 

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Walking and Talking with a Stranger

Walking and Talking With A Stranger

My 15-year-old daughter, Jacy, and I attended an Atlanta Dream game in downtown Atlanta, and while walking back to the car, we passed a woman sitting on the steps of The Tabernacle, a mid-size music venue. She called to me, and I kept walking. People beg for money often in certain parts of town, and I usually don’t feel threatened or bothered. I frequently interact but don’t always. I’ve met homeless people near my house, and I almost always talk with them. Elsewhere, if I have the time, I will sometimes stop and speak—or not. I might give some money, and I might not. I don’t claim that I do what is best, or that I always know what is best. I try to be, basically, nice, and treat everyone with dignity, but I am aware of the self-destructive ways many people use money. We have taught Jacy about not judging people by their appearance and about the effects of poverty. In this case, I didn’t stop—until:

Jacy stopped in front of her and called me to join her. The woman had a small pile of belongings behind her. Like many people asking for a handout, she also had a story. She was homeless and pregnant (she pulled up her shirt a bit to prove it). She had a terrible childhood, a crackhead mother. She needed $10 to spend the night at a shelter. She said she was 35 and asked if she looked that age. I said no, she looked younger, and she smiled broadly, thanked me, and shook my hand. She had a pretty smile and was engagingly friendly. I glanced at Jacy a few times and saw she was listening intently.

When the woman said she was adopted, Jacy smiled and said, “I’m adopted.” The woman and my daughter hugged excitedly. The woman said they now have a special relationship. She ended her story and asked if we could help her. I looked at Jacy and asked, “What do you think?” Jacy nodded, and I gave the woman $20. She thanked us and said she had a song for us. She sang a song about how everyone needs Jesus in their life. I looked at Jacy again, and she was beaming.

 

BeatitudesOnSteps

 

As we walked away, Jacy enumerated the reasons she thought we did the right thing by giving her the money: She was pregnant. “I saw it.” She needed a place to sleep. “Look, Dad, she’s walking, so she’s not just sitting there asking the next person for money. She’s finding a place to sleep.” She was nice. She sang to us.

Once when I was walking Jacy home from the 3rd grade, a woman that I knew would spend any money I gave her on crack cocaine asked for money, and I told her no. As we walked away, Jacy told me I was selfish. (When Jacy has an opinion, she can be a pistol.) I explained my reason for not giving her anything, and Jacy just looked at me.

I’m omitting a lot in this tale: causes of homelessness and poverty, personal issues of homeless individuals, critiques of governmental approaches to homelessness, and others, and that’s OK for now. This is just a little story about a little walk we had.

There are reasons to not give money to panhandlers. Some reasons are mean-spirited, and some are reasonable. A very few times, I have given money, to individuals and organizations, that I later regretted. I had good reason to be skeptical of some of this woman’s story. Was that bulge really a pregnancy? I don’t think homeless shelters charge for a bed, but I do know they fill up fast and some other place may charge. That “Do I look 35?” could have been an oft-used ploy. But I no longer get hung up on whether to “believe” a panhandler’s story. I figure that even if someone is truly in need and will use the money wisely, it’s probably a good idea to have a story that works, whether it’s all true or not.

Jacy will eventually learn from experience some of the nuances, risks, and tough choices related to charity. She will have to learn how to answer people who ask for favors, make a judgment, then decide. For now, I’ll take that act of sweet kindness as well worth the $20.

 

BeKindToOneAnother

On Glen Stassen and Making Peace With Church

On Glen Stassen and Making Peace With Church

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1980s, was a place of welcome, challenge, stimulation, and healing. I arrived in August, 1980, and asked around about teachers, and one very smart student advised me against taking Glen Stassen for ethics because his tests were tough. “He asks hard, picky questions,” he warned.

Lucky for me, I asked other people, most of whom said, “You MUST take Glen Stassen for ethics.” I was a little nervous taking him for the first time because of the warning about his tests, but by the time I had completed two degrees nine years later, Glen had become my favorite teacher, my dissertation advisor, inspiration, friend, and mentor. He was the first professor whom I called by his first name. It helped that people who steered me toward Glen, like me, were seminary students with an ambivalent relationship with the Southern Baptist church. Many around us at SBTS zealously awaited graduation day so they could become ministers and lead people to Christ so they could avoid going to hell. We were not like that.

I fell off the church bandwagon in 1977, when I was in college and my father, a traditional, though not fundamentalist, Baptist minister, had a wrenching experience with a church, and he escaped it all by secretly fleeing to some place out west without telling anyone–his family included. We only knew, from notes he left behind, that he was fed up with the church, hoped to get a job, and would send for his family. (Foolish, I know, but he was desperately in need of escape.) He returned home in a couple of weeks, worked non-church jobs for a while, then eventually returned to being a pastor.

But, for me, the damage was done, especially when I learned that his primary antagonists at that church were also my spiritual heroes and guides. I attended fervent prayer sessions with them, walked around with them evangelizing passersby, and held earnest Bible studies with them. This hotshot Christian who had “dedicated his life to full-time Christian service,” as we called it, said to himself, “Hold on a minute. Maybe I’ve been hasty. All is not good news in Christendom,” as I had let myself believe. (More on that another day.) Off to seminary I went after college but with a skeptical, cynical attitude. I needed a place where my skepticism and doubts were welcomed and where my soul could begin to heal, and SBTS was that place, thanks to empathetic, supportive friends and teachers like Glen Stassen.

 

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Glen, who died this year, helped me see that I could believe in God and Jesus, even remain a Baptist, and not feel like a duped fool, which is what I sometimes felt like. He did that mainly by rooting his social activism, which I admired, in mostly traditional Baptist beliefs, which I no longer admired and could have easily tossed aside. This is my tribute to him.

Glen believed a Christian should engage the world transformatively. He didn’t care for a debate between a “vertical” faith (aimed only upwards at God) and a “horizontal” faith (aimed only at the world around us). He said Christian faith should be “horizitical.” (He was funny, too.) He wanted Christians to see Jesus’ words as having a practical real-life impact, not only on their personal conduct (be nice, helpful, polite), but also on social justice (how to figure out how to make the worlds systems and structures more just and fair for all). He didn’t debate whether we should follow pacifism or just war theory (although he valued both); he wanted the world’s people to take initiatives to make violence less likely.

He was a national leader in several efforts to decrease the number of nuclear weapons and to decrease the likelihood they would be used, including the Nuclear Freeze movement and the campaign against putting cruise missiles in east Europe, aimed at the Soviet Union. He was at the 1968 March on Washington. (He liked to point at a white dot in a picture showing the huge crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial and say, “See that bald spot? That’s me.”) He helped create and lead the Louisville Council on Peacemaking and Religion. (The original name was the Council on Religion and Peacemaking, but the acronym would have been CRAP.) I attended marches and demonstrations for social justice with him and other friends. I could go on, but you get the picture. On issues large and small, he cared and took practical steps to create goodwill and justice.

And all that was grounded in his Christian faith.

Intellectually, he could be intimidating. He was a Reinhold Niebhur scholar who could explain complicated ideas to make them understandable. He had a reputation on campus as a teacher who “talked about peace all the time,” and some students avoided his classes for that reason, but he could talk intelligently about a wide range of issues: abortion, economic theory, world hunger, racism, sexual ethics, etc. I recall him explaining an atmospheric phenomenon in the 1980s which later everyone called “global warming,” long before this became a well-known term or issue. When Glen held up a book he had read, it usually had some worn scrap paper sticking out. As he read a book, he took notes and kept those hand-written pages crammed inside, for quick reference. I began doing the same and was very glad I did when it came time to study all those books for my comprehensive exams. I had my own homemade Cliff Notes, tailored to my study interest.

He believed strongly in the power of small groups of people coming together to motivate each other to create change. I was in a “peacemaker group” with him and others at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, and for several of us this was our real “church,” where we felt the presence of God most strongly and tried to discern how to live faithfully. We learned how to affirm each other’s talents and strengths and learned how to speak honestly when needed. We read and discussed books, planned social change strategy, expressed our frustrations, attended rallies, wrote letters to the editor, and celebrated events large and small. We prayed sincerely. While this group had no official leader, Glen was the pivotal person. We usually read whatever book he recommended and went to whatever event he suggested.

 

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Glen helped me keep connected to the Bible by grounding so much of his ethics in it and the life of Jesus. He interpreted The Sermon on the Mount, for example, not as an idealistic group of sayings that a Christian might aspire to but never hope to actually enact but as practical ways of living. He wrote in the introduction to his book, Journey Into Peacemaking,

Jesus doesn’t teach simply non-retaliation or non-resistance or non-violence or non-anything. He teaches positive transforming initiatives: “Go talk with your brother,” “Make friends quickly with your accuser,” “Give to him who begs,” “Love your enemy and pray for him.” These are not commands not to do something. They are surprising, transforming initiatives.

Then:

The good news of Christian peacemaking is not merely a protest against war or withdrawal. Nor is it merely a justified compromise with war. The good news of Christian peacemaking is a transforming initiative, loving, acting, and redeeming in the midst of enmity. It is a “yes” to positive steps of peace-making. That, in fact, is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings. And you and I can participate in His transforming peacemaking initiatives.

Yes, he could be overly optimistic, but it was an optimism based on realistic hopefulness. In the quotations above, note that he assumes that there will be enemies and enmity. He didn’t envision an idealistic utopia or think violence would disappear, but he wanted Christians to feel that they have practical tools to make it less likely.

In his writing and teaching, he liked to give historical examples of initiatives “in the midst of enmity” that helped reduce tensions. He said, for example, that the treaty banning atmospheric nuclear bomb tests came about because President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the U.S. would discontinue such tests for a year and would extend that ban if the Soviet Union reciprocated.

I learned recently that after Nelson Mandela was released from the Robben Island prison in South Africa, in one of his first meetings, as representative of the African National Congress, with leaders of the white South African government, to begin negotiating the change of power from minority- to majority-rule, Mandela began the meeting by recounting his knowledge of the Afrikaan’s experience in the region. He said he appreciated their history and struggles. This was an extraordinarily gracious first step—to show both knowledge and empathy for his enemy, an enemy that had cruelly oppressed his people and harshly sentenced him to prison for fighting for freedom. Glen would surely call this a surprising initiative that set a tone of reconciliation rather than antagonism.

 

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Throughout Glen’s writing and speaking, he took concepts such as “Christian love,” which are often described in idealistic, airy terms, or as some future unattainable goal, and made them concrete and do-able. “Going the second mile” with a Roman soldier was a surprising thing to do, and it was an act of Christian peacemaking with an actual enemy.

Glen worked out a system of ethical decision-making that looked complicated in graph form, with its several boxes filled with text and arrows that showed how different elements connected. But as one reads through the explanation, it becomes clear. It is rooted in a sophisticated awareness of human nature as well as deep faith in Christian love. One component of it is “information integrity,” and one implication of that was that you represent fairly and accurately a point of view different from your own. It’s tempting to caricature an opposing view, or describe only selective parts of it in order to boost one’s own view and make the other view look foolish. Glen wanted his students to both be able to defend an ethical position and, when disagreeing with someone, fairly describe their view. Like everyone, I usually hang with people who agree with me, but I enjoy having friends and family with opinions different from my own. That is another impact Glen had on me.

Glen also took a personal interest in his students. Soon after I began the Ph.D. program in ethics, he gave me a ride home one day and talked to me about being more involved in class. He said he knew I was capable of doing doctoral work and that I shouldn’t feel inferior to students who were further along in the program. His confidence in me and his encouragement motivated me to prepare well for class and participate meaningfully. When I began my dissertation, he knew that a student usually feels overwhelmed at some point, so he told me, “Writing a dissertation is like eating an elephant. It seems impossible, but, one bite at a time, eventually you finish it.” He had mastered the art of teaching on two levels at the same time: He was the expert who knew more than his students, but he was also a learner and encourager alongside his students.

Glen was one of the most hopeful people I have known. As the Southern Baptist fundamentalists accomplished their plan of taking over all the boards that ran the institutions that made up the SBC (including the seminaries), he held onto the hope that he could cooperate with the fundamentalists and co-exist. Other professors at SBTS saw what was coming and moved on to other positions, but Glen held out longer than most anyone else until even he finally realized there is no compromising with them. They take over and rule with an iron fist. So eventually Glen Stassen moved on to a place more suited to his beliefs. Some people chuckled and scoffed at his optimism, but his faith in the power of reconciliation through talking and working things out, seeing common interests, guided his whole life.

I scoffed a little myself (internally) one year when he proposed our peacemaker group host a breakfast at the annual SBC gathering for all Baptists in attendance who were interested in Christian peacemaking. I was doubtful that we could pull it off or that many people would attend, but, propelled along by his energy, optimism, and enthusiasm, we had the breakfast, and it was a success. I helped serve scrambled eggs and looked out over the crowd, pleased at the result and glad I had not given up. Sometimes when I am planning an event and feel discouraged, I remember that Baptist peacemaker breakfast and press on.

Glen pressed on and on with a steady, firm belief in the transformative power of faith and to the end he was gathering people to enact that transformation. I am grateful I was with him part of the way.

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An Ordinary Tree

An Ordinary Tree

I was in the stands at Turner Field in 1998 when Atlanta Braves pitcher Mark Wohlers tried to become a pitcher again. He had been an outstanding closer for the Braves and was pitching when they made the final out against Cleveland to win the 1995 World Series. (In 1991, he and two other Braves pitchers accomplished a no-hit game. It is not in the record books as a no-hitter because that requires only one pitcher the whole game.) In ’98, however, something happened mentally, and he lost control of his pitches. He wasn’t simply wild. Many pitches hit the ground a little over halfway to home plate. The Braves sent him to the minor leagues for a while, hoping he would find his control. I was at the game when he returned to the majors for the first time since being sent down, and we cheered wildly for him when he entered the game, trying to will him to throw good pitches via our noise and enthusiasm. Alas, he again threw the ball into the ground. We ached for him. I assumed he felt terribly embarrassed and frustrated. He was an accomplished athlete whose body was as capable as ever, but whose mind failed him—in front of thousands of expectant, hopeful fans.

Perhaps, on the way to the mound, he confidently assured himself that he was capable, that he had done it before, that if he relaxed, he could do it again. Something like that—a positive-attitude mantra. It must have seemed so doable, and for us spectators it was a painful spectacle. Failing privately is tough—publicly must be demoralizing.

Now I know something of what he felt.

On a Sunday late last year, I had a small assignment in church: for two minutes say some words of gratitude for an interim minister whose term had ended, and who had been a good influence on my teenage daughter. I have preached and given speeches many times, beginning with my first sermon as a 17-year-old, and I am considered a good speaker. I’m always a little nervous before speaking, but not debilitatingly so; it’s the kind of nervousness that keeps a speaker alert. When I saw on the order of service that three youth would be baptized that morning, I thought I might be in trouble, but I remained calm. As I strode to the pulpit (perhaps like Wohlers) I said to myself, “You can do this, you can do this, you can do this. It’s a mere page and a half.” I breathed deeply, relaxed, thought positive thoughts.

My mantra was not to convince myself that I could give a talk—I can do that—but that I could speak without sobbing uncontrollably. And I failed. In front of everybody.

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I’ve always been fairly open with my emotions, but since I became a father, I sometimes weep with little provocation. On a recent Friday, I wept twice in the same day. First, when I read the following poem by Mary Oliver:

Today

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

I read this poem early, before I got out of bed. It was sent to me via email by Inward/Outward, a daily reflection service of The Church of the Savior in Washington, DC (inwardoutward.org). The line, “I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance,” touched me with its implication that sitting and reflecting can be a rich and exciting experience, even if from a passerby’s perspective one is doing nothing. The last stanza then knocked me over with its evocation of the sacred and the image of entering a door to a temple while being still—again, seemingly doing nothing.

I lay in bed after I read it and felt my eyes well up, perhaps out of envy that I no longer use most of my time writing, or perhaps out of joy for Mary Oliver (who gets to do what I envy), and out of gratitude that her “flying low” moved me so. We live a thousand miles apart, yet I sensed her in her place and felt my emotions connected to hers. That’s plenty to make me cry.

I wept again at about 7:25 that morning when my daughter exited my car to go to school, took a couple of steps, turned back towards me, and waved good-bye. That’s all. On the drive to school, I had removed my stud earring from my pants pocket, placed it in the cupholder between our seats, and said, “Now I’ll be ready to put it in when I get off work this afternoon.” I don’t wear my earring at work but usually do on weekends, and come 5:00 Friday I’m ready to become Jerry-who-sports-an-earring.

My daughter chuckled and said, “Oh my gosh, Dad, you are so….my Dad.”

That exchange is the most precious thing on earth. Maybe I exaggerate out of doting-daddy-ness, but doesn’t every parent cherish those moments—sometimes a tiny almost unnoticed moment— when the parent-child relationship is sensed so fully. In that little exchange, I relived—in a flash—every significant moment of my life as her Dad. She revealed the web of entanglement that is our relationship—the ways I have shaped her and the ways she has shaped me. I knew that she knew a bond had been formed—and is still being formed—between us that is beautiful and established, yet also being re-created each time we interact. So, of course, I wept.

(Before I became a Dad, I would have considered the preceding paragraph a pile of sentimental mush. Maybe you do. That’s fine.)

Before I became a Dad, I was irritated by parents who acted as if the specialness of their special tike was somehow extra special, beyond and above the specialness of everyone else’s. Now I’m one of those people.

The first time I wept in the pulpit, I knew it would happen and simply made it part of the sermon. The lectionary included a verse about us being adopted by God, so I told the story of adopting our daughter, which included some heartache as well as joy. I used that story to explain how much God loves us. I announced at the beginning of the sermon that I would cry most of my way through it and asked for patience. I asked for some supportive vocal response from the congregation, and they did well (for a mostly white church). The story is emotionally charged and deeply meaningful to me. I didn’t feel embarrassed that time because I expected it to happen, and I asked the congregation to indulge me.

After it was over, I thought, OK, I got that out of the way, and now I can be a normal person and complete sentences without falling apart. I thought that was that.

But then things got out of hand. In certain situations, I couldn’t not cry, no matter how hard I tried. I preached a sermon about lessons I had learned as a hospice chaplain, and I thought: Jerry, this one is about death, for goodness’ sake (and not about the death of anyone close to me). It’s about work, not family, certainly not about my daughter. It didn’t matter. I didn’t weep all the way through it, but still I sobbed. Another time I preached about God wanting us to appreciate the physical world God created (beauty, food, sounds, etc.), and I told the story of seeing a curled magnolia leaf pooled with water, reflecting the sky and clouds and trees. I said I posted the picture on Facebook, and a friend in another state, Holli Rainwater, wrote a beautiful haiku about it. I couldn’t help but weep as I told that story. The way that leaf connected me to a friend I haven’t seen in years via poetry was emotionally moving. That was a sacred, inspired moment.

Kate Hauk, a friend whose teenage son died years ago, asked me to read a poem I wrote about his memorial service during a church service about grief, and I knew that was risky, but it’s a short poem, and I love Kate, so I gave it a shot. I barely made it through it through my sobs. (I did read the same poem at a 100th anniversary celebration of our church without sobbing—a rare feat.)

Don’t join me to watch a movie about a girl who overcomes the odds unless you want to hear me bawl. “Whale Rider.” “Akeelah and the Bee.” I have seen those several times, and I cry the same every time. (Ask my embarrassed daughter.)

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My Dad rarely showed emotion. Once when I came home from seminary to visit, he welcomed me at his house with, “I won’t hug you, but I’ll shake your hand.” Don’t judge; that was just him. He loved me as much as any other father loves a son. Blame it on his generation of workaholic, grin-and-bear-it men, or whatever, but that’s the way he was. (We all have our ways.) If he felt an urge to cry in public, he could pause and halt it, then proceed—smooth and easy.

A couple of years before he died, he had a stroke and, like many stroke sufferers, lost some internal filters when his brain was damaged. He began crying over little things. Once I brought my portable CD player to his nursing home room and played some traditional hymns, and he wept. When he spoke affectionately to his children, he often cried. His mind was still good enough that he knew what was going on. “I don’t like it, but I can’t help it,” he told me once, after a good cry.

Did my becoming a Dad remove one of my filters? (Is having a child like having brain damage?) I cried recently during a wonderful sermon by one of my pastors, Melanie Vaughn-West. I emailed her about this and added that I also wept during the words of appreciation for our outgoing Properties Caretaker, so, I said, “take it for what it’s worth.” Twice recently, I had to leave the worship service early to sit in a Sunday School class and sob. Loud.

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Someone suggested I have “unresolved grief.” (Which, by the way, I call “grief.” It never goes completely away.) There is one hole in my heart that I feel strongly every July 18, the birthday of the little boy that we almost adopted. We were present, and helped a little, at his delivery from his birth mother, and we held him dearly for hours, and the next day she changed her mind and kept him. That experience tore my heart out, but, as is often the case with sorrow, it prepared us for something beautiful, in this case our daughter’s arrival.

I was caught off guard by the sitcom “Modern Family” when Mitch and Cam came close to adopting a baby and when it became clear something was amiss, I expected light humor as everything worked out fine for them. But at the last moment the baby’s grandmother intervened and insisted they keep it. Oh boy. I didn’t just weep; I wailed. This was a good fourteen years after our loss.

Our near-adoption hurt, but I am surrounded by people with losses just as painful and more—much more—so I am not uniquely or severely aggrieved. I have heard failed adoption stories much worse than ours. I don’t have an especially pity-worthy grief. In a way, I feel grateful that I got to experience the profound love of a tiny, tender human, even if only briefly, and I’m a better person for having given my heart so fully over to that boy. Wherever he is, he took a little of my heart with him. I feel the loss every year on his birthday, but I have no regret for having taken the risk of loving him prematurely and for having felt that joy, even if it was yanked away.

Or maybe I have let the whole adoption experience convince me, falsely, that adoption is more special than conceiving one’s own child. I know how ludicrous that thought is. I have a hunch that most parents think their way of getting a child—whatever it is—is deeply significant, each time it happens. And I’m no different. When I think of the decisions and actions that came together just right for Jacy to reach our home—conception by a girl ill prepared to rear a child, she and her parents finding our (not another) adoption attorney, our portfolio somehow appealing to them when we were not that much younger than her parents—I feel grateful and lucky.

During the brief talk I gave at church that I first mentioned, the one about an outgoing interim minister, when I began sobbing and could barely continue, a therapist friend, Tere Canzoneri, got up from her seat in the choir and stood next to me. She placed her hand on my stomach and said, “I’m going to center you, so you can talk.” I was able to finish, though in my haste to go hide somewhere I skipped a couple of things. I left the service early and retreated to my car, avoiding everyone I could. I then decided to take a sabbatical from speaking in front of the church. It was too embarrassing. I’ve been asked a couple of times for brief remarks, and I have declined. I need to think this over for a while.

I don’t consider crying to be a sign of weakness. I’m not trying to get attention (although I like attention). I don’t mind crying in public, particularly at my church, which is a remarkably supportive and empathetic congregation. But I need a break.

Being a Dad at my church has, apparently, opened up the tears spigot. I feel profound gratitude, particularly as I look around and think of all the people who love my daughter. (You thought I was finished with Daddy-cheesiness?)I see nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, choir leaders, youth leaders, ministers, and people who simply say hello. My church, Oakhurst Baptist, is, I’m sure, no more loving than most any other, but that’s where I am. I see a place where my daughter is nurtured and allowed to express herself. She is taught God loves her and that she should love others.

That is fairly simple and commonplace. Millions and millions can say the same thing. So I’m not claiming a superior set of relationships at my church. What I am saying is that, for whatever reasons, in the last several years I have felt an especially strong sense of that set of relationships, a welcoming into my heart of that nexus of love, acceptance, and communal influence on my daughter (and on me). As I gaze upon that reality, my vision has been sharpened and focused. My heart is extra-sensitive to experiencing the feelings that this vision creates.

friends

Once I was walking through Muir Woods, a small patch of redwoods near San Francisco popular with tourists, and was stopped cold by a narrow stream of sunlight that found its way through the thick tree canopy above and encircled a small tree between two walkways. The small tree was surrounded by a soft golden glow, like an exquisite necklace in a jewelry store display. It was as though the heavens had said:

“I want to spotlight that tree so that these people passing by will not miss it, so I am going to put the sun right here and angle it just so. There, I am shining my light between those two giant redwoods in that little bit of open space, just above another tree and right through there.”

The spotlighted tree, mind you, was not a spectacular tree, but I stopped and stared intently, lingering, full of joy, and took in everything as if it were the first tree I had ever seen. I looked up at the redwoods, at the small opening where the sunlight graced us, at the glistening dust particles floating in the light, at the small plants around the tree. Ordinary plants. The soil. Moss. Other than the towering redwoods, everything was ordinary, but I stood there enraptured, intensely feeling the presence of this scene. It was a sacred, emotional, inspiring moment. I simply gazed, welcoming this gust of grace into my soul.

Similarly, my story of becoming a Dad is not spectacular or any more special than anyone else’s. But my emotional receptivity to that experience is heightened, at least for now. The scenes, the people, the relationships, the telling of dad-daughter stories to my friends, seeing a friend greet my daughter across the room, a teacher welcoming her at school, my recalling something from ten years ago—all are commonplace. But for whatever reason, I am receiving and welcoming them in the intense manner that I stared at that scene in Muir Woods.

So don’t pity me. Join me in seeing and feeling.

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Foods I Miss The Most

Foods I Miss the Most

Steak: I’m surprised this came to mind first. I didn’t eat steak, or other beef, real often, but I do (well, I did) love a New York strip or ribeye seared to have a satisfying slight char on the outside, then cooked medium/medium-well on the inside—with a juicy line of pink in the middle. I salt steaks generously. I occasionally add sauted onions or mushrooms on top, but nothing beats the simple pleasure of the right combination of meat, heat, and salt.

Part of my grief is the diminishment of the entire grilling experience. The routine—preparing the grill, lighting the charcoal, waiting, preparing the meat, checking  the coals, cleaning the grate, cooking—was always satisfying. It never got old. With my previous grill, a round black kettle style, I piled the hot coals on a slant so that one side was piled higher, and thus was hotter (for searing), and the other side less so (for cooking the middle without burning the outside). With my new grill, I can, with the turn of a crank, raise or lower the coals for the same purposes. I would often drink a diet soda, wine, or beer while cooking. If we had company over, someone might join me on the deck, and we would talk about whatever, watch the birds, listen to music.

I still cook steaks, but without the tasty payoff at the dinner table it’s not the same. For me now, all meat, regardless of the source or quality, is bland chewiness. I can tell if it’s overcooked, but I can’t tell if it’s good or not. Grilling for friends is still fun because having friends over and feeding them is fun. I like the compliments, but I would prefer to be able to say, “You’re right. This is good.”

Coffee: Oh, I still drink it—copious amounts—even though I can’t taste it. It’s not that I need the caffeine boost; it’s just what I do in the morning. Coffee is one of those things about which I will sometimes reply to the question, “Can you taste __________?” with “No, but I know it’s there.” Some foods/drinks have a discernable sensation separate from their taste, and coffee is one of them. (Same goes for apricots and pretzels.) Nowadays, for me, coffee is often a brown bitterness (I know, yuck), but that doesn’t stop a well established habit from marching on. I get to continue all those coffee quips, even if I don’t really mean them: “Oh, no thanks, I’ve had enough coffee for today.” “Oops, sorry about that, I haven’t had my coffee for today!” “OK, just one more cup, and then I’m done.” Those are fun, if dripping with cliché-ness, but clichés are sometimes useful. They can give us a way of being together without having to really try, and sometimes that’s good enough for that moment.

Chocolate: I had not bought into the chocolate as the dessert of the gods mythology or as a special emotional/spiritual elixir for whatever ails you, but now that I can’t taste it, I think I might have been wrong. Sometimes I have an urge that says I deserve some chocolate, and nothing else will do. Eating chocolate makes—er, made—me feel special. How to describe a taste? I can’t do it. Chocolate is sweet, yes, but it’s so much more. The bitterness of the cacao bean is tamed by the sugar, to varying degrees, but that original bean’s acerbic charisma persists through the sugar. That makes for a pleasurable experience that both feels delightful (thank you, butter) and tastes sumptuous. Nuts, fruit, caramel, crispy rice, and all the other additions are delicious, but chocolate alone can be magical. Chocolate has a distinctive feel and texture—smooth, creamy, delightful—that I still recognize, but (you’re probably tired of reading this by now) it’s not the same without the taste. I occasionally eat chocolate covered toffee because the texture is so recognizable, which makes the memory vivid: oh, the creamy and the crunchy, oh yes, yes. Still.

Ice cream: The creamy-cold combination is still nice, but is now such a letdown. In the past, I would crave ice cream and absolutely have to have it. Once I had a hankering for Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Crunch, and I drove from place to place until I finally found it. I brought a spoon with me and it was gone by the time I got home. Now, I skip desserts altogether.

Carrot cake: Back when I wanted birthday cakes, I often requested carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Carrots have almost as much sugar as sugar beets, so, historically, they were used in desserts when sweeteners were scarce (due to climate or rationing, e.g.). When that frosting (sweet but taken in an odd direction by the cream cheese) and the allspice met in my mouth—oh, wow.

Barbecue: By this I mean slow-cooked meat, not steaks. I heard about beer can chicken from Matthew McConaughey on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” (When I worked at home as a writer, I took many breaks, often wandering upstairs to the rec room and absent-mindedly turning on the TV and plopping on the sofa for a while.) Soon after that, the recipe appeared in the New York Times Wednesday Dining section. I took that as a sign that I had to make it. The recipe calls for putting chicken rub not only on the chicken but in the beer. The beer can then goes inside the chicken cavity while the bird cooks slowly for several hours. The beer can and the two legs make a tripod that helps the bird stand erect on the grill. The seasoned beer bubbles and steams from the inside out. The meat is juicy and flavorful and always a hit when I make it.

I learned to cook pork ribs (I know, I know, from pigs grown in terrible conditions—rubbing my hands over my ears and saying “la-la-la-la-la”) from my wife’s Uncle Tom, who taught me to mix two different kinds of barbecue sauce (Scott’s and Carolina Treat) and brush them on the ribs late in the cooking so the sauce doesn’t burn. The slow cooking melts the fat, which infuses flavor into the meat. (Cholesterol, schmolesterol.) Dear Lord, that is good, and I still feel grateful and fortunate that he shared his cooking tips with me.

Beer and wine: Even after I lost my taste and smell, I could, to an extent, enjoy chilled white wine (red is rancid) and cold wheat beer with lime, but eventually I had to quit. I am composing a blog post explaining how I came to drink too much and why I quit, but I haven’t yet decided how much to tell.

The green beans, salt-and-pepper shrimp, and chicken in clay pot at Michele and Daniel’s restaurant (which I’ve been told is now closed):  I’m actually referring to any favored dish that I associate with a particular restaurant and which drew me back repeatedly. I still vividly recall the first time I tasted their chicken in clay pot with its zingy ginger. I’ve made it a few times myself, and it’s good, but not Michelle/Daniel good. The salt and pepper shrimp had a crunchy but light breading, which was seasoned lightly and perfectly. If we caught them in season, their snow pea leaves (that’s right, the leaves, not the peas) were spectacular. Even after they turned the place—disappointingly—into a buffet restaurant, Michelle would sometimes surprise us by bringing (unordered) snow pea leaves to our table. Their green beans was one of the few vegetables that my daughter would eat enthusiastically as a child. We took her there as an infant, and she slept while we ate, then as she became a toddler, the wonderful Michelle would sometimes carry her around the restaurant so my wife and I could have some adult conversation.

These days, I still eat in restaurants (mainly inexpensive ones), but that whole experience (the relationships, the repetition of pleasure, the planning to return) that was once so enjoyable is now a memory.

Biscuits: Over the last 15 years or so, I have rarely eaten them, even before I lost my taste and smell, for health reasons, but when I did, I loved them. Transfats notwithstanding, I loved a biscuit with sausage or bacon or chicken, or with butter and jelly. Or just plain.

The last time I ate a chicken biscuit, I had driven 50 miles on a Saturday morning to “rescue” native plants from an impending new neighborhood, with the Georgia Native Plant Society, and plant them in my yard. I stopped at a RaceTrac, took a bulb-heated foil-wrapped chicken  biscuit to the cashier, a friendly young woman who handed me a free chicken biscuit coupon and said someone had left it there. I interrupted and said, “And you decided to give it to the most handsome guy you see today.” She chuckled and rang it up for $00.00. Back in my truck, I ate it, full of disappointment, and haven’t eaten one since. (I dug up some good plants, however.)

A hot buttermilk biscuit made me feel like my mouth was blessed by God. The flavor was delicious, of course, but they also evoked heartwarming childhood memories. My mom made us a traditional Southern breakfast—for her six children, herself, and my dad—even though she worked full-time as a college teacher. We had biscuits, eggs, sausage or bacon (sometimes both), grits, and orange juice (which she strained). When she stirred me in the morning with her chipper “Up! Up! Up! Breakfast! Breakfast! Breakfast!”I thought nothing about how early she had risen to get herself ready for work, fix a huge breakfast for eight, then make sure we were off to school. My daughter rarely eats much of anything for breakfast before school, and if she does it’s a small tub of yogurt or a breakfast bar, and we’re barely out the door on time. How in the name of Southern womanhood did Mary Catherine Gentry do it?

For me as an adult, a biscuit was not only about flavor. The joy of it was also in recalling a monumental mother’s effort of love and nurturing—which has shaped my personality in ways I’m not always consciously aware. I witnessed up close a generosity of spirit, a determination to be what her family needed, which certainly seeped into me. She fed our souls, too.

 

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Early Morning Sun Turns the Georgia Power Building Golden

Early Morning Sun Turns the Georgia Power Building Golden

 

The Georgia Power building gleams black, tall,

an angular edifice buzzing with commerce.

Daily, I take my daughter to school—we chat, listen to music, sometimes argue—then,

alone, I pass it, driving eastward, going to work.

 

The deep black, its size, like a huge onyx ornament,

draws my eye each day—as architecturally intended, I suppose.

One winter morning—

Was it the sun’s angle at that time of year, plus that precise time of the morning?

Was it that particular light-dispersing arrangement of clouds?

 —that morning, the glowing, rising sun extended its rays to the building and changed the black to gold, top to bottom, even around a corner. A massive sculpted ingot.

 

Was it telling us: Look here, we change black oil to glittery wealth? That power enriches? That we—we—make this city hum and prosper, and don’t you forget it?

 

Or was it simply saying: What good fortune you have, to be with your daughter those rich twenty minutes.

 

Jerry Gentry

November 2013

What Did I Do?

What Did I Do?

On a Friday while I was driving between hospice visits, a woman pulled up next to my car, and I saw in my peripheral vision that she was gesturing wildly. I turned to look. Her head moved violently from side to side, up and down. I assumed she was talking to someone on her phone—until our eyes met. The glare she gave me let me know she was so furious at me she was about to explode. She gave this one hand gesture that I surmised to mean (and I am cleaning up the language in case my mother reads this), “You idiot! How could you do something so stupid and dangerous? And that somehow caused me inconvenience?!” Something to that affect.

What did I do?

When I infuriate a driver on the road, I usually know why. Sometimes I cut someone off or forget to signal a turn or go too slow in the left lane, or something. My dastardly move is usually unintentional since I am a careful driver, although not always.

Once I was in a hurry and got frustrated by the slow traffic ahead of me. I identified the guilty car and when I finally passed them, I flipped them a gesture of which I am not proud, then as I passed by I realized they were having car trouble.

Oops.

That crass misdeed was not unintentional but was stupidly premature, like the time I blamed my wife for losing something then later found it in the place I left it. (I’ve had to apologize often for that.)

Another time I changed lanes in front of a man driving a big truck after misjudging his speed. As soon as I got settled in front of him, I realized my mistake and, like a good Baptist, felt really badly about it. I assumed he was steaming mad for having to slow down, and I knew for sure he was when we came to a stop at a red light and he got out of his truck and came marching towards me. He was a good bit larger than me and had a determined scowl. I sensed that shrugging my shoulders and saying, “My bad” wouldn’t mollify him, so I locked my door, took out my phone, and called 911. I looked straight down at my phone and saw him out of the corner of my eye hulking outside the window. I guess he saw that I was calling the cops, and he returned to his truck.

When this woman was hollering and gesturing at me, I couldn’t think of anything I had done.

I drive a Prius, and I save gas by accelerating slowly, so maybe she got stuck behind me, and she was in a hurry. But I usually notice when someone is behind me, and I then accelerate normally—just to be a nice guy about it. I didn’t recall changing lanes, so I doubt I cut her off, and I wasn’t playing loud Springsteen with the windows down. I didn’t have any political bumper stickers promoting socialism or the slaughter of baby seals.

I continued on Duluth Highway, and she was just ahead of me. At the next red light, I stopped right next to her. She continued gesticulating and hollering at me. Man, I must have done something to really mess up her plans. I was thinking, “Lady, it’s the middle of the day. Traffic is light. You are now breezing along freely and could be far ahead of me if you wanted. How could I have possibly impeded your progress to go, oh, I don’t know, perform life-saving surgery?” Maybe she resented my gas-stingy hybrid. Maybe she works for Exxon.

I became curious about this woman, as I often am about strangers I see in public. Was she already ticked off at the world before I came along, and I was that one extra irritation that lit her emotional fuse and released her fury? Had there been a series of men who treated her poorly and here I was yet another one without a clue about women? And who thought he could do whatever the hell he wanted, forget the rest of you? When she arrived at her destination, would she be pleasant and sweet to everyone else? We all have at least two faces we present to the world.

We drove side-by-side for another few minutes then stopped at another red light. Her fierce harangue continued. By this time, I found her entertaining. I felt a little like I feel when I catch some of “The Jerry Springer Show”: voyeuristic, entranced, awkward, and relieved that it’s someone other than me who is caught doing something ridiculous in public. Just to make her burn a little more, I smiled and waved. Her hostile yin to my pleasant yang. I killed her with kindness.

Shouting behind the wheel in a car is common, they say. My daughter ratted out the mother of one of her friends by telling me that she curses madly when another driver makes a bad decision that inconveniences her. My daughter, who is no sweet-mouth angel all the time, wouldn’t repeat what she said. I know this mother only as an even-keeled, level-headed woman who seems, when I am around her, to take things in stride. But being behind a steering wheel can somehow turn the best of us into cursing maniacs. My daughter said this mother, after one of her tirades, calmly turned to my daughter and said, “Don’t repeat that.”

I can’t say I’ve never had a car tantrum. When I do, I’m usually alone (as was this woman who hated me), so maybe the isolation and the being-surrounded-by-protective-metal makes us feel like we’re in a fast-moving fortress and no one can reach us and what we say can’t really hurt anyone. They can’t hear us or smack us. Maybe the fact that we’re controlling a massive amount of weight and energy with hands and feet makes us feel extra powerful and invulnerable. Maybe it’s therapeutic to let it all out. Maybe our behind-the-wheel persona is like our typing-an-email persona: Since we’re not face-to-face and we’re at a safe distance, we feel freer to be a jerk.

(If you do this sort of thing too often and too excessively, you may have intermittent explosive disorder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermittent_explosive_disorder, and you may need professional help.)

My arch enemy and I were side-by-side one last time. She had not relented one bit. We finally separated when she turned left and I continued straight, on my way to visit a patient in Duluth, and she continued…where?

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The Ministry of Doing the Same Thing Over and Over

The Ministry of Doing the Same Thing Over and Over

(This was published in a recent issue of PlainViews, an online journal about pastoral care.)

Most of my hospice patients have dementia. I visit each patient about twice a month, and pastoral care for them is challenging. With most, there is no conversation, or if there is, it is usually nonsensical. The nonsensical conversations, often funny and entertaining, sometimes give me energy and motivation to continue my work. I love telling those stories to co-workers and friends.

I lead a support group for residents of an assisted living facility who have early dementia. They are not patients of mine but live in a facility where I go often. I usually get 8 or 10, and the truth is they usually have little idea why they are there or who I am. At the beginning of our group recently, some kindergarten children were brought in to give Valentine cards and hugs to the residents. (Apparently, I look like I belong there because I got a card and hug, too.) As the children were settling in and their teacher was getting organized, the woman to my left, who has attended every one of my support groups, asked me who I was and why I was there about 10 times. I answered every time that I was there to lead the support group, and she always said, “That’s good. We need it.” Once she asked if I was the guest speaker. That’s not precisely why I was there, but I said “Yes” anyway. After the cards and hugs were distributed the teacher began reading a children’s book to the children. The reading was also for the entertainment of the facility residents. After the teacher had read a few pages, the woman to my left turned to me and said, “I don’t think you have much competition.”

That type of exchange makes my work fun. On the other hand, there are dementia patients who say nothing entertaining and, often, nothing at all.  They may mumble incoherently, stare blankly into space, or lie motionless and speechless. What does a hospice chaplain do in those cases? Here’s what I do: pretty much the same thing over and over: play music, meditate at the bedside, say a prayer, call a family member of the patient. I also check in with the facility staff to see if there is anything I need to know. This routine, over several months, can get tedious. Plus, I am easily distracted, and my attention tends to wander.

Here is how I try to make these encounters meaningful and, I hope, beneficial. Perhaps my describing these will generate some creative thought of your own.

When I first meet the patient’s family (usually over the phone), I ask if the patient has some favorite music. If the patient is a longtime Christian, I ask if they might enjoy hearing traditional hymns. On my portable music player, I play hymns that feature clear, strong singular voices with minimal background music, which works well with such patients, who are often hard of hearing. I’ll admit that playing music can sometimes be a crutch for a hospice chaplain. It’s a chance to feel like I am doing something while not saying or doing anything myself.

Music, however, can sometimes create a special connection. I had a patient who had almost completely quit speaking or responding to anyone, even his loyal wife, who visited him for several hours every day. Once when I played “I’ll Fly Away,” he opened his eyes and sang the chorus, then went silent again. His wife and I stared at each other in amazement. (Many hospice chaplains have stories like this.) Sometimes I’ll sing along, and a patient will stare intently at me, watching my lips move. I don’t know what that means, but something interesting is happening inside that damaged mind.

Music therapist Kimmo Lehtonen said in a speech, “Many pieces of music act like a transference and they immediately arouse strong memories, emotions and mental pictures from the listeners’ distant childhood or other meaningful moments in a client’s life. This also happens with demented people,

who still have their memories but the process of getting in contact with them is disturbed or difficult. A certain piece of music can remind them of many vital memories of different persons and especially social interaction with meaningful persons.” (Lehtonon, Kimmo (2005) Music as a possibility of chance – healing metaphors in music. [In: Aldridge, D.; Fachner, J. & Erkkilä, J. (eds) Many Faces of Music Therapy-

Proceedings of the 6th European Music Therapy Congress, June 16-20, 2004 Jyväskylä , Finland. p. 532-546. eBook (PDF ) available at MusicTherapyToday.com Vol.6. Issue 4 (November 2005).]

With that role of music in mind, I call upon the Spirit to move in the patient as the sound waves enter. Music can be comforting like voices of loved ones. I am aware that the main comfort that a minimally responsive, dying person receives when family or friends talk to them is probably a vague feeling of familiarity as he or she “hears” a close person’s voice. That familiarity may create a peaceful connection for the dying person and give the loved one nearby a way to engage meaningfully in a situation in which normal conversation is not possible. Music can provide a similar feeling of familiarity. As I meditate at bedside, I pray that the hymns engender peace for the patient—in some mysterious, unknowable way.

One of the many helpful remarks made by my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor was the notion that I should use my natural curiosity about people to help me make a pastoral connection. He noted that I had been a writer and had utilized my curiosity in that field, so it could carry over into chaplaincy. Indeed, curiosity about what may be going on inside the mind of a dementia patient helps keep me engaged.

I read one theory about people in this stage of life that holds that they are sorting out their whole lives as they appear (to the rest of us) to be staring meaninglessly into space. If this theory is correct, whenever a dementia patient makes some seemingly incoherent remark about a long-dead relative, perhaps they are adjoining in their mind events that happened long ago with future re-connection in the afterlife, as well as with the patient’s current reflective state. I realize that is speculation, but it helps me maintain some sort of pastoral relationship as I sit quietly next to him or her, asking God to guide this person’s final journey. Those moments of deeply felt communing with another give me strength to continue as a chaplain when I feel as if I’m not making much difference, and I trust that those moments are bringing some benefit, perhaps a feeling of peacefulness, to the patient.

Calling family members after a visit is interesting at first. I’m getting to know the patient through their family, and I’m getting to know the family while I try to encourage them. Often, I learn interesting and endearing things about the patient. I frequently find myself thinking, “I wish I had known her 30 years ago.” Eventually, however, the calls become harder to make. I try to think of something new to say, and there usually is very little. In my mind, I make up excuses not to call; I feel a little embarrassed that I can’t think of something to say other than what I have already said. The calls eventually feel repetitive and tedious: “I saw your mom today. I played some hymns, sat at bedside, and said a prayer. I prayed for you and your family.” I realize I am revealing my insecurity by admitting that I feel hesitant to make these calls, but it is a challenge faced by many hospice chaplains. We want to help these families, not just be a prop in the room.

Usually, I do make the call, and even if I leave a repetitive voice mail, I make sure my tone expresses my joy at having sat by the patient. It is easy, without realizing it, to go into autopilot and sound bored and disinterested over the phone. I overcome the tendency to be perfunctory by remembering that this time in the patient’s life is sacred time. At what other time in a person’s life can I sit by their side and simply be a supportive presence with no external distractions? All distractions are my own: my restlessness, my short attention span, my need to feel like I am “doing something.” I remind myself that the music, or the silence, in the room can be a source of comfort for the patient. Doing so enriches my life simply for being there and for being so attentive to the movements (however slight) and sounds (however soft or incoherent) made by the patient.

If I take a moment before each call, breathe slowly, and reflect on the time that I have just spent with the patient, I can give the family member the attention and care that they deserve. The phone call changes from a routine duty to an extension of the pastoral presence I just experienced sitting next to the patient. Even if I leave a voice mail message, which is mostly the case, I can avoid sounding like one machine talking to another by remembering that each visit, even though it may appear to be identical to the last and the one before that, is a unique moment in the family member’s life. For most family of dementia patients, my phone call marks yet another two weeks of suffering through dementia. Waiting for someone to die and living with the guilt of wanting someone to die is emotionally draining, so every added week or month adds to the anxiety. If I keep this progression of the emotional toll on the family member in mind, I can treat even a routine voice mail message as extending pastoral care.

Hospice chaplaincy can be hectic as we drive from facility to home to facility, so I need to pause at certain moments, such as before a phone call to family, to allow myself to fully feel the gratitude I have for being in this work. The repetition can be emotionally stifling and can lead to chaplain burnout, so these moments are beneficial not only to the patients and their families but are also beneficial to me as I keep myself enchanted by hospice chaplaincy.

Occasionally, I reach an actual person on the phone, rather than their voicemail. In all honesty, I must admit that I am sometimes disappointed that someone answers the phone. That is a terrible admission, but chaplains get in a rush, and, as I have said, become self-conscious about leaving repetitive messages. But, sometimes, magic happens. I am delighted when I reach a family member and they say, as is often the case, “Thank you so much for your messages. I really appreciate your visits and your attention to her.” At those moments, I feel deeply the important reason for my returning to these patients over and over. Perhaps by visiting and calling, I am easing the family member’s guilt a little for not being free to visit more often. Whatever the reason, I am pleased to hear that those voicemails, which, on my end of the phone call, can sometimes feel empty and rote, actually come across on the other end as comforting.

These pastoral visits and phone calls to family members, if done consistently and with genuine compassion, prepare me for the patient’s final days and hours. If our nurse perceives that a patient’s death is imminent, he or she is placed on a continuous watch until death, so that pain and symptoms can be controlled. This is my favorite time to visit. At least one family member is usually there, and this is often my first time to visit them in person. By that point, my phone calls have established a pastoral relationship, and I am prepared to provide the subtle comfort that is appropriate for this sacred time. I can say a prayer that reflects the long, painful journey that the family has been through, as well as pray for the patient’s peaceful passing. If it seems appropriate, I gently evoke stories about the patient that lead the family toward healthy grieving. These stories connect their shared past with the reflective present. I can sit by the patient, as I have many times before, perhaps while holding his or her hand. All those repetitive visits lead to a satisfying, healing conclusion.

Music Brain