I’m wearin’ fur pajamas/ I ride a hot potato
–David Byrnes, The Talking Heads
These are probably two of the most eccentric, albeit attention-grabbing, lines from the opening of any song. They begin the 1980′s hit, Wild, Wild Life. Like many things having to do with David Byrnes and The Talking Heads, it isn’t always clear what exactly is going on. Though as you read through the rest of the song’s lyrics, you catch a sense of the band’s playful poking-fun at the wild, wild world of the 80′s and life itself. It certainly is an upbeat—and catchy—tune that critiques our interests, obsessions, and way of making meaning.
At the center of the song, however, resides the sober sentiment, ” Like sittin’ on pins and needles/ Things fall apart it’s scientific.” It, too, is sung with an upbeat, Pollyanaish tune that keeps your toes tapping and mouth humming, perhaps designed to keep you oblivious to the reality the lyric conveys or the irony of the bookends on either side of this expression. Sometimes the critique of life goes down a little easier when it comes coated in the sweetness of a mindless melody. Meanwhile, at other times, we can’t avoid addressing the uncomfortable truths that crop up in life.
This past Sunday’s first lesson from Ecclesiastes was one of those moments. The author—believes to be King Solomon—waxes a bit poetic, but what he writes surely makes you want to wane. I need only mention one word: Vanity!
The text follows:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
This is the 10th century BCE version of “Wild, wild life,” and a serious version to boot alongside the Talking Heads’ playful take. If you didn’t laugh at the overwhelming pessimism of the author, you would most certainly cry at the state of affairs he considers.
Following the service, I had a delightful conversation about this text with a parishioner. “Why,” the parishioner wanted to know, “did you not preach on this text?” The usual excuses about
generally focusing on the gospel and applying the New Testament texts didn’t hold much sway with this individual, and we got more to the heart of the matter. “It’s such a depressing text,” was the honest evaluation of this parishioner. Indeed, it is. What followed was a discussion around why such a text would remain in the Holy Scripture of both Jews and Christians. A brief recap follows.
On the one hand, the text remains, because it is true. While I don’t like to consider that place of despair outlined by the author of Ecclesiastes, I certainly have felt more than once or twice that vanity of vanities indelibly marks our human story. (I would also venture a guess that as we age, the sentiment is more likely to emerge than not.) The text remains in the Biblical corpus not because we want everyone walking around with their heads hung low whispering, “Vanity. . . all is vanity.” Rather, the text remains so that when we find ourselves in that position—frustrated, depressed, disillusioned—we find that we are not alone. Obviously, this doesn’t solve our immediate problem (whatever it may be) but it hopefully helps us gain a sense of perspective: humans have been feeling this for over 3000 years. Hmmm. Maybe I’m not alone!
Furthermore, the text resides as a corrective to any and all voices that seek to gloss over the difficulties that do emerge in life. Televangelist, Joel Osteen, probably does not preach on this text very often, and there is a strong movement active in the Christian tradition over the past 100 years or so of what some call the “prosperity gospel.” That is, life is intended by God to be good, happy, and pleasant. The purveyors of the “prosperity gospel” will give you any number of steps to get on the track to success and happiness. They also will often take in a nice chunk of change for themselves. The issue isn’t so much that people hawk these ideological wares, for, honestly, it’s as old as time, and, thankfully, many lives have been changed for the better. What is troublesome, however, is that because of the growth of such a worldview and preaching, we lose sight of the wisdom that Solomon offered in his Ecclesiastical rant. His concern is a human concern.
Which brings me to the final point of why we would read such a text: it’s human. And the God we engage with in the Christian narrative is so interested in humanity that, according to the story, God enters it fully. In Jesus, God doesn’t experience only the good and happy and pleasant side of life. In Jesus, God experiences it all. From the anger with the money changers and religious leaders, to frustration with his own friends and followers, to agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, to despair on the cross, there is no doubt that Jesus experienced humanity. While this won’t tie up all our questions in a neat bow, it does promise us that the questions are normal, healthy, and a part of the life we live. If we can’t verbalize doubt and fear and anger and frustration and despair, then we are not being human. Obviously, what we do with our emotions makes a difference, but I’m not so sure we need to check our feelings at the existential door. Solomon didn’t. Jesus didn’t. And you don’t need to either.
Of course, there isn’t a neat answer to the larger questions with which we wrestle and those that vex us. The Christian tradition, however, is thankfully one that seems more about process and living into the questions rather than possessing all the answers. Solomon expresses this so compellingly, and Jesus reminds us that we do so not alone but with another. So, while you may more often than not want to whistle with David Byrnes that it’s a “wild, wild life,” you can when you need to—and you probably will at some point—deftly acknowledge that, “all is vanity.”Posted in Prodigal God | Comments Off July 25, 2013
“Careful. . . Careful.” This is the command given by the trainer who works with our golden retriever, Henry, to acclimate him to the electric fence that has recently been installed at the rectory. Upon hearing the command for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile, and consider this training procedure as not just the orientation and ordering of a dog to his newly charged environment, but, “Careful. . . Careful.” functions as a major metaphor for our life and how we engage life. We recognize that the world around us is not always a safe place, and potential danger and mishaps lurk at every turn. And while we know that positive affirmation works as much for our canine companions as it does for us, I suspect that we all were raised with a healthy dose of caution. Careful. . . Careful.
Indeed, from the very beginning of time, there has existed the need to make us aware of the precariousness and perils of life, if not to just protect us from ourselves. In the Garden of Eden, God calls out, “Careful. . . Careful.” to Adam and Eve regarding eating the fruit from the tree at the center of the Garden. Should we be surprised at how that turned out? For in Adam and Eve’s pushing of that limit, we find, in part, one of the paradoxes of our life: we are simultaneously pushed and prodded to be “Careful,” while also seeking the rush and the excitement of pushing the boundaries that “Careful” imposes.
Of course, we have evolved quite well in couching “Careful” in a vernacular that is not so heavy handed and more poetic. ” Ring-a-round the rosie/A pocket full of posies/Ashes! Ashes!/We all fall down,” is the classic nursery rhyme whose genesis is interpreted by some as a way to teach children about the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century. Similarly, the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales are not-so-subtle ways of indoctrinating young people to be aware of the capriciousness of life and, thus, CAREFUL. Yet, for all the ways that we can dress up our cautions, the world still can be unpredictable and, interestingly, the propensity to push against the warnings in life found in Adam and Eve seem forever etched into our DNA.
Recently, I watched The Crash Reel, a documentary of the life of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, and the two ends of the continuum—”Careful” and “push the boundaries”—collided in a profound, tragic, and inspiring way. Pearce is the snowboarder from Hartland, Vt., who was a favorite for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (Indeed, he had consistently challenged and defeated the eventual gold medal winner, Shaun White, in competitions leading up to Vancouver.) However, Kevin sustained a devastating crash in his final training days on Dec. 31, 2009, in Park City, Utah. The crash is a vivid example of why we keep reminding each other, “Careful. . . Careful.” We are aware of the worst that can happen. Yet, to speak to Kevin before the crash—and knowing full well the danger of what he was doing—the desire was to keep pushing out the limits of what was possible for a human to do with a snowboard, speed, and gravity. Watching the amazing feats that he could perform one cannot help but marvel at his athletic prowess and the artistry of his craft. He was beauty in motion.
And for a variety of reasons on that December 31st day, he moved too close to the limits and was shocked and shattered in a way that left him barely alive. The documentary is a diary of his recovery, possessing numerous insights and critiques of the business of sports, traumatic brain injuries, and the desire of the human spirit to regain past glory.
The documentary is also, at points, a testament to the love of family, the wisdom that comes through experience, and the self-imposed “Careful” that comes through the recognition that things have forever changed. Part of the inspiration of the documentary comes at the end of the film, where Kevin comes to terms with the fact that he will never compete in snowboarding again. The poignancy and depth of the moment is heightened because if comes around the family dinner table and with Kevin’s brother, David, who lives with Down Syndrome.
David expresses to Kevin his fear that were Kevin to try his old snowboard tricks—like the double cork—he could die or be paralyzed. Kevin let’s David know that he won’t be doing any double corks ever again. Kevin continues, “The hardest thing to come to accept is how much my life has changed. How different things are now, and how different is the future.” With this admission, Kevin’s mother, Pia, brilliantly finds an opening to connect Kevin’s situation and David’s experience. “I’m curious,” she says to David, “if you can learn something about accepting your Down Syndrome.?” David’s response is, perhaps, the most honest and true. He haltingly replies, “It’s hard. . . I’m not sure if I can. . . But I will try.” I want to believe what David expresses is the indomitable strength of the human spirit, and the need to keep pushing the limits, yet also recognizing that we need not always push or struggle. Sometimes, we need most to hear the command—or love ourselves enough to internalize the invitation—that is, “Careful.”Posted in Prodigal God | Comments Off July 20, 2013
“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…,those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.” These words were written by author Norman Maclean, best known for his novel-cum-movie, A River Runs Through It. This particular quote comes from the last literary work of Maclean’s life entitled, Young Men and Fire (in fact, it was finished posthumously by a group of his students at the University of Chicago).
In Young Men, Maclean retraces the tragedy of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, in which 13 fire jumpers were killed. He tries to understand—and to help anyone else understand— what exactly happened and why. Of course, dealing with a tragedy makes it hard to grasp such elusive realities as “what exactly happened” and, more importantly, “why.” While 13 men died that day in 1949, there were three survivors: two young men who were able to crest the gulch and find cover in rocks as the flames blew over and the foreman, Dodge, who recognized that they couldn’t outrun the fire and lit an “escape fire.” Throwing a match on the dry grass in front of him, he laid down in the burnt area, while the larger fire roared around him.
Ironically, the “escape fire” that Dodge created eventually evolved into portable shelters used by the likes of the 19 fire fighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots who recently died in the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott, AZ. The desire to understand what exactly happened and why in the Mann Gulch fire led to the development of protocols like “escape fires” and portable shelters for those caught in the extreme and unpredictable conditions of fighting a forest fire. And such review and research has made an impact on innumerable lives, lives that we never hear about precisely because the protocols were effective.
Of course, this is little comfort to the family and friends of the victims of the Yarnell Hill fire. Indeed, a new round of questions about what exactly happened and why fill the space of pain and loss for so many impacted by this tragedy. Meanwhile, “the rest of us tire of this inconsolable catastrophe and turn to the next one.” There are clues that can be cracked about what went so tragically wrong for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and, perhaps like the Mann Gulch fire, new protocols will emerge to prevent further catastrophes. The question of “why” is the one that we inevitably run up against and, at a fundamental level, the question seems impervious to scrutiny and impenetrable.
On the one hand, the question, “Why?” is as natural as breathing in the case of tragedy. We are rational creatures, and we seek order and meaning. Others will caution that it is ridiculous to ask such questions in the midst of a catastrophe, for there are limits to our knowing, and even if we were able to answer the question, it would clearly be unsatisfactory in the face of something so painful and raw. Still others will offer platitudes and pat answers to something that so far transcends their ability to know. The hubris in such an act is stunning.
The end of the book of Job possibly offers us an example of the posture that is part of dealing with suffering. Job seeks answers, longs to know why, cries out for help, corrects
the hypocrisy of his friends, and rails against the divine, seemingly expressing the fullness of human emotion and experience. What he is finally met with is a question, “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” He is forced to deal with the limits of his humanity. There are those things—and it certainly isn’t for lack of trying—that we cannot know. And while we desire to peer behind the curtain, understanding that we cannot perhaps is the beginning of wisdom.
Unfortunately, such recognition is little comfort. Yet, far from inviting us to abandon the search for meaning, this awareness may help us along the way. In the midst of tragedy, returning again and again to work out in our minds what exactly happened and trying to figure out why, furthers the narrative of our life’s interaction with those loved and lost. It doesn’t “fix” things, there are no answers, and the pain of the loss lingers forever. However, while we question, the memory of those loved ones continues, and they become intertwined within the narrative of our search—limited here as well—but nonetheless and, at times, profoundly present.
As some of you are aware, I am quite intrigued by the work of economist Albert Hirschman due to the work of Malcolm Gladwell in a biography review of the economist in a recent New Yorker magazine. A major theme that Hirschman studied and Gladwell ponders is the place of doubt in the planning that we do in life. Another theme worthy of conveyance is what Hirschman described as the economists bias toward “exit” and against “voice.” An illustration from Gladwell’s review will be helpful.
Describing Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice, Loyalty Gladwell raises fodder for our consideration:
Hirschman was interested in contrasting the two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions. “Exit” is voting with your feet, expressing your displeasure by taking
your business elsewhere. “Voice” is staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. There is no denying where [Hirschman's] heart lay.
Early in the book, Hirschman quoted the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who argued that school vouchers should replace the current public-school system. “Parents could express their views about schools
directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them
to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible,” Friedman wrote.
“In general they can now take this step only by changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.”
This was, Hirschman wrote, a “near perfect example of the economist’s bias in favor of exit and against voice”. . .
Hirschman pointed out the ways in which “exit” failed to send a useful message to underperformers. Weren’t there cases where monopolists were relieved when their critics left? “Those who hold power in the lazy monopoly may actually have an interest in creating some limited opportunities for
exit on the part of those whose voice might be uncomfortable,” he wrote. The worst thing that ever happened to incompetent public-school districts was the growth of private schools: they siphoned off the kind of parents who would otherwise have agitated more strongly for reform.
Beneath Hirschman’s elegant sentences, you can hear a deeper argument. Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong”* was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. Voice was courage.
While there are times in life where “exit” is the right and compelling path, it is interesting to consider what our institutions and world look like if and when our bias is in favor of “voice” rather than “exit.” (I suspect that the nature and character of the “voice” that does
engage is also critical to the furthering of institutions and the world. Think civil discourse over partisan rancor.) The backdrop for Hirschman’s life and his predilection for “voice” is fighting Fascists in Spain and shepherding Jews out of Nazi-controlled France. The intensity of such situations may seem to overshadow the everyday dealings with which we are preoccupied. However, there seems to be a connective tissue binding the little things in life to those much larger issues. If nothing else, the exercise of a way of being in smaller events certainly helps us to remain true to our beliefs when the pressure is turned up.
Within a small community of faith, like St. Francis, this bias toward “voice” over “exit” is fundamental to our life and life together (and hopefully life lived well together). The time, energy, and effort required to participate can be daunting at times, and the myriad other things on our plates may give us pause about entering the fray. However, the fray devolves into an echo chamber if there is not a meaningful and substantive exchange. In my experience, there is a good deal of “voice”—helpful “voice”—present at St. Francis, and we are the better for it. My prayer is that it will always continue.
*”Proving Hamlet wrong” was a phrase that Hirschman and his mentor Eugenio Colorni used to frame life and work. As Gladwell notes, “Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect.”
Shadowy and silhouetted figures are the norm for early morning encounters with other people as the autumnal dawn appears later and later with each passing day in northern Minnesota. Wispy black figures enveloped in a gray backdrop alert you to the presence of another or others as daybreak flirts on the horizon. One vivid childhood memory of this scenario is a Saturday morning in late October. The soft light above the kitchen sink partially illumined the room and my mother sipping coffee at the kitchen counter, the hub around which most of our familial conversations and activities were centered. She gazed out the picture window at one of those wispy black figures against the gray backdrop. My father. He was up before the light pacing back and forth, waiting. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him this excited in a long time,” my mother commented. She continued, “He’s waiting for Claude Branum to pick him up. They’re going to the livestock show in Theif River Falls. He loves livestock shows.”
Of course, given the northern European heritage of my father, you would never know that anything special was in the works or that this was a most eventful day. The only give away was his shadowy figure pacing in the pre-dawn haze.
While livestock shows may not be the passion of most, we all recognize those moments where we are so giddy and excited that we can’t help ourselves. We awaken early, pace in the dimness of the pre dawn, play over in our mind how the day or the event will unfold. And we might even tell a person or two what is going to happen! Anticipating. Excited. Expectant. Such moments are gifts and markers in life that happily transport us beyond the mundane and routine of most of our days.
The lead up to the impending vacation that Marnie and I are taking possesses such energy and excitement in spades. While growing up on a farm in northern Minnesota, travel meant an excursion to Minneapolis or Fargo, ND. Big trips meant a jaunt out to the Black Hills in South Dakota. International travel? Well, that was Winnipeg, Canada. (Nothing quite like crossing the Canadian border!) Thus, the trip that we are about to embark upon to Italy is quite mind-blowing. One of the common refrains materializing in my conscience many times over since we moved to the East Coast is, “I never dreamed of this while living on the farm!” Thus, the refrain echoes yet again.
The logistics of the trip are that we will travel beginning June 5, and return on June 29. While we are away, Debra Slade and Kate Heichler have agreed to cover any pastoral emergencies, and I am grateful for their willingness to do this. (If there are any pastoral emergencies, Debra can be reached at:203.512.0215 and Kate can be reached at: 203.415.1962.) During the time away, we will visit Rome, Florence, Siena, Assisi, and settle in for the majority of time in a villa in Tuscany.
Because of my background, I often pinch myself at times like these. I wonder what it is like for those who take such things for granted, or, possibly worse, expect them to happen. There is a certain kid-in-the-candy-shop giddiness that comes with entering an experience that you never fully anticipated would happen. Because of this, I am acutely aware of the generosity of many at St. Francis who, through their work and their commitment to our parish, make such a gift and time away like this possible. I also am extremely grateful to Lillian Kraemer and the wardens—past and present—who have made this particular trip possible as a celebration of 10 years at St. Francis.
Within the Christian tradition, the Sabbath is the day of rest. The practice eventually evolved of clergy resting every seven years or so by going on sabbatical. A time for rest, re-creation, and restoration, so that one could re-emerge into the fullness of pastoral duties with renewed energy and excitement. This also is gift. And I am acutely aware of how rare this mini-sabbatical is for most people in life. I am extremely fortunate and blessed. Thus, it is with anticipation, excitement, and expectation that I have been doing my own internal perambulation in preparation for this trip. I inherited my father’s northern European constitution for showing emotion—or lack thereof—but inside the little boy dances with candy—or, in this case, pasta, olive oil, and wine—all around!
P.S. Look for blog notes on the excursion. . .Posted in Prodigal God | Comments Off ← Older posts