Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Uncantankerous Christians: a Reply to Marilynne Robinson

    Recently I’ve been devouring the great novelist Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant and wise essays – including one in which she laments the hijacking of the term “Christian” by the extreme, shrill, far right “ranters and politicians.” This newfangled version of religion is, like most of our public chatter nowadays, vapid, vulgar, and even violent. It’s not that Christianity has been watered down; it has somehow transmuted itself into something nationalistic, militaristic, very white, angry and judgmental, anti-immigrant and pro-guns. The poor are reviled, books are banned, and science is ridiculed. Alternatives are greeted with a sneer.

   Robinson is puzzled, not just by this perversion of “Christian,” but that “the old mainline,” the “learned and uncantankerous,” while objecting strenuously to all this, are “unaccountably quiet about it. She suggests they must feel lonely, and their inefficacy is obvious. She wishes they would speak up.

   As a mainline guy who is uncantankerous, I suspect we are quieter than we should be. Why? Is it a kind of courtesy toward others, thinking religion isn’t a topic for pleasant dinner conversation? or a restraint on arrogance, a humility that expects and finds wisdom all over the place, not only among those who believe as we do?  

   Let me be one to say out loud that we grieve the toxic travesty that masquerades as Christianity. There are Christians, and Churches, and in large numbers, that aren’t angry or cocky. We refuse to bow down to the idols of political ideology. We care that, in our Bibles, the poor are never vilified or blamed; the poor are blessed, and we are responsible to care for them and walk with them. Immigrants, strangers, and refugees are never despised in the Bible; ours is to welcome, help, share and understand. We treasure life in the womb, and are passionately committed to what unfolds after birth – and for all.

   “All” seems to be one of God’s favorite words, if the Bible is any indication – as is the word “with.” God is with us. We are to be with others, not against them. The “ranters and politicians” Robinson worries about want power to impose their agenda, and they will do anything to stay in power. Voter suppression is a weapon for the far right to stay in power, as is gerrymandering. Show a gerrymandering map to a child, and she will laugh. Lines aren’t drawn to bless all. Lines are zigzagged like a slippery salamander so the gerrymanderers might cling to power. The Christians who forged this country wanted a representative democracy and a balance of powers, not curtailing who gets a say, and never concentrating power on any one person.

   God does not gerrymander. God does not look down and draw a squiggly line: “These guys are in. Those are out. These get the blessings. But nope, not those over there.” God’s map is deep and wide, including and empowering, not suppressing, all.

   How can we be sure that mainline, uncantankerous Christianity is truer than that of the ranters and politicians? Noting the agenda of the far right, Robinson wryly declares “I am moving toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.” Jesus wanted swords put down. But they are sure Jesus and his disciples would carry automatic firearms and thus avoid his violent end.

   Doesn’t the Bible say “If you have the world’s goods, and see someone in need, but close your heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” “The Samaritan is your neighbor.” “Love your enemy; turn the other cheek.” Robinson reflects on the Bible’s ideas that “the first will be last” and “judge not,” and the company Jesus kept, she can only conclude that “We have it on good authority that prostitutes and sinners might well enter heaven before us. It is difficult to respond to this with a heartfelt Amen if one has found comfort in despising people in whom Christ clearly finds great value.”  

   God gave us the Bible, assuming we’d be willing to let it correct our ideological confusions and our personal delusions. The push to shift funding from public schools to private Christian academies? Isn’t it truly Christian to want every child to become as educated as possible, not just Christian children? Fretting over how history is taught? Aren’t the lessons of the marvelous achievements and also the embarrassing flub-ups together what we all need to learn and ponder so we might rise up and improve not just ourselves but all of us and the world? Bible people fear no knowledge, trusting our leader’s promise that the truth will set us free. 

   There are many Christians and Churches who delight in human difference, delighting in God’s creative wizardry as a gift to liberate us from narrow-mindedness and to make us wise. We aren’t terrified by other religions, believing God has strewn wisdom all over the place, and trusting that when all religions are their truest, best selves, antagonisms fade, and peace might just happen. We know what we don’t know. We are curious. We strive to be hospital, humble, and grateful. Our biases aren’t enshrined, but suspect. Sacrifice for others is holy. We are neither angry nor judgmental, which is to say we are not entirely given over to our fears. We believe beauty matters, that love is always the way to life. We are Christian.

Monday, May 15, 2023

On Being a Patient: My 2 Week Hospital Stay

   Given my profession, a place I often go is the hospital, where I’ve spent countless hours and much love, care and tears. Never though, until April 19, did I find myself admitted as a patient inside one. Instead of ministerial garb, there I was in the blousy green gown with a gaping opening in the back. Hard to discern whether to cling to your tattering shreds of dignity, or just surrender to No shame.

   I got my start in life in a hospital as a patient, sort of, if a baby in the nursery counts. And I may make my exit out of life in a hospital too. Such odd places, life and death, survival and decline mingled hauntingly in a single institution. I recall as a young pastor holding hands with an older gentleman as he breathed his last. Just as the nurse declared “He’s gone,” the violins (was it Brahms?) on the loudspeaker announced a baby had just been born. C’est la vie.

   In Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom tells of the day that his friend and teacher Morrie Schwartz was told he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Outside, the sun was shining and people were going about their business. A woman ran to put money in the parking meter. Another carried groceries.” Morrie was stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. “Shouldn’t the world stop? Don’t they know what has happened to me?”

   Not that you want others to know. In our culture, which idolizes health, progress, and quick fixes, there’s almost a sense of embarrassment that you haven’t just whipped this thing. I was in the hospital way longer than anybody anticipated, and I could feel both concern but also shock that I wasn’t home quickly. Tells us a lot about how good modern medicine is, and about how we therefore blanch over the idea of extended suffering.

   I’ve always loved hospital visitation, that holy chance to represent God’s church to people under duress; I knew never to stay long (rule of thumb learned day 1 in seminary). As a patient in some misery, I found myself super honored someone would stop by. But I could muster zero hospitality energy, and I asked Lisa to hold folks at bay. I texted one visitor later to apologize for being rude. She understood. I hope. A couple of visitors just poked their heads in and waved. I felt so loved! – and relieved.

   What to make of God and a long hospital stay? A lovely poem about illness by John O’Donohue speaks of “a courageous hospitality toward what is difficult, painful and unknown.” On day 1, tethered to equipment and flat on a bed, I thought, “I’ll pray a lot.” It’s embarrassingly difficult to pray when you’re fending off constant nausea and a splitting headache – and various professionals zigging and zagging in and out to run tests, poke, stick, listen, prod. I veered quite a few times toward utter despair. I do know enough to recall that the Bible is full of despair. It’s not something that mortifies Jesus. He is very close to us in our despair.

   One of those professionals turned a light bulb on in my soul. A new nurse introduced himself: Martin. He asked how I was. This was at my nadir, the worst day and maybe hour ever. I said “I’m despairing that I’m not getting better. I may never get better.” He said, “You’ll get better.” I asked, “Is that a promise?” He laughed and said, “No, it’s medicine.”

   Two things about that. We talk a lot about hope, or faith, as if it’s something in us we have to do, and strongly if possible. But we hope in God, we believe in God. It’s not our earnestness and positive thoughts about God, but God that saves us.

   And then: medicine. We pray for cures. And God knows I might have prayed for more sick people in my lifetime than anyone you’ve ever met. God heals most often through the smart, hard-working, valiant professionals we call doctors, nurses, the IV team, the X-ray and CT scan people who are God’s handymen, delegates, worker bees, elves… so don’t go as far as you can go with medicine and then ask God to overcome what they can’t fix. God is already there when after your physical, the internist orders up an extra test. God is even in you, God’s delegate, in your body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit: when you feel pain or discomfort (as I did to start all this), it’s God saying “James! James! I wired you with these warning signals! Go see my people down there who can help!”

   I have a friend who heard I was laid low, and said “God sure has a way of slowing you down.” I can’t think for a moment God thought “James is just wearing himself out being so busy! I’ll jerk this colonic volvulus thing in his gut, and then he’ll cool his jets for a while.” But there is a simplification, a cutting to the core of what really matters. O’Donohue’s poem suggests illness might become “a lantern to illuminate new qualities emerging in you,” and that this light might “release whatever has become false in you.” Once it became evident I’d be in the hospital for quite a few days, and I’d emerge sub-par whenever I got out, I cancelled a week of busy things to do in about ten minutes. Important and urgent, some of these things! But all tumbled rapidly off the table of what really matters – as did trips to Colorado and Peru planned for my sabbatical. Funny how little they mattered in the face of a health crisis!

   For me, and I pray I can cling to this more zealously than I clung to my last shred of dignity being prodded in that green gown, it’s understanding what really matters – that is, what it is to be human. To be human isn’t to make mistakes. To be human isn’t to consume or maximize fun. My fellow human temporary boarders in the hospital? Not one of us wanted to be there. Yet everyone one of us very much wanted to be there. Like life on earth: it’s a pilgrimage, we’re passing through – but gosh, it’s such a cool space. And it took me a week to realize I didn’t know the political or religious affiliation of any other patient or professional. Lovely. Calming. Healing.

   We are alive in these bodies. It’s precarious, always – which is what makes it such a treasure. I’m here. My wife and kids are hovering nearby. Life is good. Life is hard. Life is… life. I’m a person who matters, if only in this small space to not many people. Which is why I made it a point to ask every professional her or his name – and where are you from? No one responded with merely a city or state. Always a story. So many stories: people with jobs, but dreamers, lovers, with their own issues and gifts and glories. I might just wear this hospital wrist-band forever to remind me of just that. Being human. That’s all God asks of us. That’s all God asks us to ask of one another.