The hands of God

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been four years since I wrote a sermon. There is little reason to write one if you are not a minister, which I am certainly am not. But it has also been four years since I attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Four years ago it was in Salt Lake City. This week it is in Louisville, Kentucky. Unsurprisingly if you attend an event like this you will hear lots of sermons as well as prominent speakers, albeit given in large conference rooms instead of sanctuaries. This sermon is tangentially based on a lecture I attended yesterday. No one will hear this sermon but some will at least read it. Enjoy.

Not long ago I wrote about TheTweetofGod, a Twitter feed that hilariously claims to be thoughts from God himself. Many of the prayerful believe they get personal communications from God. Most of us get the sense that God is distant and at best we hear from him through other channels and rarely get information we need when we need it. Many of the more secular of us, such as me, observe that God seems to be far too busy in other outer worldly tasks than to bother with my pedestrian needs. It is hard for us to reconcile the perfectly compassionate God we were taught with the world we inhabit. In the real world, so many of us live harsh, cruel and often capricious lives. Why does an all-loving God allow evil to happen to people? It’s an eternal mystery and for all their quoting of Bible passages, the arguments by the devout are weak at best. It is entirely rational to see God as absent at best and a figment of our suffering at worst.

Yet we move forward in life, at least those of us do with innate survival skills, aided perhaps in part by our local house of worship. Some of us end up as road kill: victims of suicide, homicide, starvation and various diseases. Most of us particularly if blessed with opportunity and education carve some meaning through career, family and social engagement. Life becomes, if not heavenly, at least somewhat bearable with challenges and happy periods. All of us share the same fate. All of us, if we are honest, can say that any other life that happens after death is unfathomable.

Catholics in particular are comfortable with the notion of saints. Saints are men and women with god-like spiritual powers, whose works on earth seem at least inspired by God. Some of the saints Catholics worship seem to have wizard-like capabilities. They are not God, but seem touched by God in some special way to channel abilities seemingly beyond mortal men. Saints tend to have specializations. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, seemed to be especially in tune with the animals.

In truth most of us have gifts that if we practiced them would make us saintly. Simply practicing compassion to those suffering around us can do much to reduce suffering. Many of these skills are easy to learn, if not innate, and are not difficult to practice on a daily basis. I am a reasonably compassionate person but I will confess it is hard to act compassionately to the homeless people on the streets here in Louisville as I walk to the convention center from my hotel. It’s much easier to be compassionate toward more trusted sources, like my wife and daughter. Given that these skills are easy to acquire, and perhaps innate, all of us are in some ways capable of being ministers. The fundamental skill required of ministry is simply the ability to relate to a person and acknowledge them as a person, no better or worse than ourselves.

Thus, while all of us are imperfect, we are still God-like. We have the ability to combine reason with empathy to reduce not just our suffering but the suffering of those we encounter. We become, in effect, the hands of God in the world. We have the ability to do the boots-on-the-ground ministry that God himself seems unwilling to do directly.

Perhaps this is because God is not some external entity wholly apart from us. Perhaps it is because we are all a part of the body of God whether we acknowledge it or not. Obviously none of us acts with perfect knowledge and perfect empathy, but neither does an individual cell in your own body. And yet just as each cell in your body has functions, so do you. Some of these functions can be used to spread love and reduce misery. At any moment we can choose whether or not we wish to exercise these talents.

If we have an erroneous zone, perhaps it is in thinking that God is some external being, rather than we are the hands of God. Perhaps we discount our own ability to be the hands of God, because we see ourselves as too imperfect, and thus unworthy of divinity. Perhaps we have been trained to wallow in our unworthiness, and thus find it hard to love and trust ourselves. Perhaps we believe because we know of our innate imperfections that we cannot summon our god-like powers. And yet we all have them and can use them at any time we choose to do so. We can put a dollar in the cup of a homeless man. We can pick up a man who has fallen and take him to the hospital. We can nurture a son or a daughter. We can hold the hand of our aging parent as they confess their fears of dying. We can scour our pantry for food that we don’t need so that the poor can have sustenance. We can peel potatoes in a soup kitchen. We can pick up trash from public lots. We can plant trees and remove garbage from our estuaries.

Perhaps God is simply saying to us who want to worship him: I gave you hands, feet, eyes and mouths for a reason: so that you can make your world a better place for you and for all life. All we have to do is choose to engage that part of us, and we can create the paradise that we imagine. We simply have to act.

Amen.

Acts of mercy

The Thinker by Rodin

For every Walter Cronkite who passes on, there are thousands of prominent people who warrant obituaries but rarely make the national news. Two notables in the Washington region passed recently, both of them developers. Abe Pollin was perhaps best known as the longtime owner of The Washington Wizards, but he made his fortune in the construction business. Pollin’s most notable achievement was probably building The Verizon Center in downtown Washington where his beloved Wizards played. Robert H. Smith though probably made a larger architectural impact. His buildings were rarely noteworthy, but he built so many of them (mostly look-alike upper end office buildings with marble faces, large windows and with adjacent multilevel parking garages) that they became ubiquitous. They house lobbyists along K Street and beltway bandits out in McLean, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland. Crystal City (which is not an incorporated city) is perhaps his best-known creation. The huge complex of office and residential high rises goes on for more than a mile. It frames the west side of the Potomac River and offers prime view of our federal city.

Of course, for every prominent obituary, there are many other thousands whose lives do not seem to merit an obituary. Sometimes the family will not even bother to pay for a death notice. Dying is rarely a tidy business. Fortunately, there is usually someone around responsible enough to do the hard work of caring for someone nearing the end of life. They are usually family. This is true in the case of my friend Lynn (not her real name).

More than eight years ago, she noticed that her sister was becoming difficult to reason with. Her sister has always been somewhat difficult and irascible. She did not take care of herself and smoked like a chimney, which unsurprisingly caused her to also develop emphysema. Still, giving up her cigarettes was unthinkable. Lynn has one brother who has family problems of his own. Since Lynn is sixty something, her parents have long passed on. As her sister’s faculties declined, she started to become a danger to herself. For example, she would forget that she was leaving lit cigarettes lying around.

Her sister also inconveniently lived fifteen hundred miles away in Colorado. Lynn had two choices: to let her sister to fend for herself or to rescue her. Her sister smoked constantly and everything she owned reeked of tobacco. To say the least, taking on the chore of acting as her sister’s guardian was not appealing, but love won out. Largely by herself, she relocated her sister to Northern Virginia, amongst much crying and cursing by her sister.

Her confused sister felt upset and betrayed. She did not want to come to the east coast; the Rocky Mountains were her home. For a while, they were uncomfortable roommates in her modest house. Finally, she found her an apartment in an assisted living facility a few miles from her house. Meanwhile, Lynn grappled to find her sister the medical and psychiatric care that she needed, with few ideas on how to do so other than to call the county’s office on aging. It took months to find her the right social workers and specialists so that her care was adequate and she was safe. For a few months, she visited her sister weekly and relaxed. However, with each visit her sister was more confused.

Recognizing that she could not depend on assisted living much longer, Lynn began searching for a nursing home for her sister. She discovered that most of the nursing homes were not suitable for her sister, or even most of the patients that lived there. Staffing was short. The staff looked hassled, overworked and underpaid. Care was substandard. She finally found one that she thought would work for her sister, but her sister refused to go. So they paid periodic visits until she began to feel more comfortable with the place. The nursing home felt more like home in part because she had trouble retaining long-term memories. Her mind was going. She recognized her sister less and less.

Eventually she settled into the nursing home. For a while, it was like scenes out of the movie Away From Her. She seemed quite happy and for a few more months, Lynn could relax and visit weekly. Yet, with each visit her sister seemed a little more distant. After a while, she forgot her name entirely. Surprisingly, she stopped smoking, in part because she forgot it was something she wanted to do.

She began drawing on the walls and sleeping in until noon. Then one day she fell out of bed. For hours, no one noticed until someone found her on the floor. She was in great pain. Lynn was summoned. Her sister’s hip was broken. She was quickly taken into surgery. The hip was replaced but she immediately made a turn for the worse. Her surgical pain was horrendous. She screamed for hours and no one in the hospital cared. Lynn spent hours trying to get the attention of doctors and nurses and was largely ignored. She stopped eating and drinking. They tried to force feed her but it all came out through her nose and mouth. There was also blood in her urine. By this time, she weighed less than ninety pounds.

Lynn eventually got her sister some excellent narcotics, but the doctors kept wanting to do more invasive tests and force feed her. Lynn retrieved copies of her sister’s living will, but it took over a week before she could convince her doctors that she would not sue them for negligence and that her sister did not want her life artificially prolonged. Tonight, her sister is in the final stages of dying. She hasn’t eaten in more than a week. Her body is rapidly failing.

Lynn chose to speak for her sister. At great personal pain, she made the awful decision to not artificially prolong her life. At great expense to herself, she stood by her sister, the same sister who so often treated her shabbily. There was no one else to do the dirty work. She did it both out of a sense of compassion and duty.

She cried last night in my covenant group while relaying her story. We held her hands, gave her hugs, and made sure she had all the time she needed to share her feelings and her story. It is ironic that at this very time a new man has entered her life, someone she met at the hospice whose wife died some months back. Sometimes moral support comes from the oddest directions.

As drawn out as her sister’s dying has been, her sister is blessed. Despite the odds, she has a compassionate and loving sister who cares for her for years while knowing that her end was destined to be bleak. Some of us die on street corners, others of hypothermia, and some alone in our apartments, unable to dial 911 and with no one to notice until the rent is past due and the landlord busts down the door. Some like my wife’s wayward father end up as an indigent in a hospital room with no one to notice their passing. Lynn’s sister at least had her.

Lynn’s hard work these last years is as notable as Robert H. Smith and Abe Pollin’s building and stadiums, if not more so. If no one else will do it when it’s Lynn’s turn go, I will do my best to be there for her, for she is childless and will likely be the last of her generation. Compassion should always be given out indiscriminately, but even with family, it is hard to summon the courage and make the commitment. Lynn has earned the compassion she too will need some day. I and the other members of her covenant group will make sure she receives it.

Loaves and fishes

The Thinker by Rodin

Our minivan has been sitting a bit closer to the road recently. For a change, it is full of cargo: non-perishable food and donated clothing. In fact, our dining room is currently more of a pantry, full of boxes and bags of food including the perishable variety like bags of potatoes and onions. This food and clothing is not for us. We are doing fine. It is for the hungry, the malnourished, the homeless and the displaced.

I would like to take credit for all this laudable charitable work but I had little to do with it. My life is full of matters that are more mundane. They include my full time job, teaching part-time and, oh yeah, writing a blog entry a couple of times a week. This is not to say I do not also give to charities. I write checks to charities all the time as well as contribute 1% of my salary to the Combined Federal Campaign. Periodically, but especially when the money is flush, I give back some of it to the community by sending checks to charities I care a lot about, but rarely enough to actually visit. Some of these charities include House of Ruth (a shelter for abused women in Washington D.C.), So Others Might Eat and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. When disasters happen, I am one of the first to send three figure checks to places like The American Red Cross. I am sure my cash is greatly appreciated but my contribution is rather abstract.

Engaging in charitable work first hand takes a tougher soul. It takes someone like my wife. Her motivation might come from remembrances of hard times growing up and now has the means to give back. Nonetheless, for most of our marriage she was content to let me write checks to charities and sleep in late on Sundays. Lately though she has had something of a midlife renaissance. She has become a one-person force of charity.

It all started one Sunday at her Buddhist temple. When it came time for announcements, she stood up and asked why the temple was not doing any charitable work in the greater community. Everyone sort of looked at each other. No one had really raised the question before. When that happens, the onus often comes back to the questioner to do something. So she did. She knew that many of the local food banks were doing relatively well, so she cast her net a little further out. Using the power of Google, she soon found places like Community Touch in Fauquier County, Virginia. Soon she was dialing them up and asking, “What can our temple do to help?”

A week later, she reported back to her congregation but for the most part they still looked at each other with blank expressions. Then she brought a plastic box with her to services put it in the Sangha Hall with a sign above it saying “Donations for the poor”. Every week during announcements, she persistently brought up the issue of helping the poor.

Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia
Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia

At first, just a couple items trickled in. When the pile got high enough, she would drive out to one of her selected charities and deliver the goods. What she found often appalled her. In the Shenandoah Mountains, she found a food pantry with only a few cans and boxes on the shelf. At Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia she found that The Clara House Food Pantry was nearly bare too. The following Sunday during announcements, she reported back again to the congregation on her first hand observations. Slowly, donations started to increase. Most Sundays she would haul back donations to our house.

By July, it was clear that my wife had found a new calling. One of her deliveries coincided with one of my days off, so I volunteered to drive up to Bealeton too and visit Community Touch. I spoke with the director. I took pictures. I asked questions. In part thanks to my wife’s work, their food pantry was now much better stocked. I examined the Victory Transitional House, a large ranch house with multiple kitchens and numerous rooms. It housed some of the area’s homeless families. Each family had their dedicated pantry space and their own rooms. Slobs were not allowed. People had to follow certain rules including keeping their room and the common areas clean. Outside was a playground for the children.

One of the kitchens at Community Touch
One of the kitchens at Community Touch

When we visited at midday, the place was quiet. Most of the homeless were not jobless, and were either at work or looking for work, while the children were in day care or public school. This is the changing face of homelessness in America today. While many are out of work, many also remain employed, although they may have traded full time jobs for scattershot part time employment. Many of the homeless got this way through a series of unfortunate events. Expensive medical issues cropped up. They became exacerbated because they could not afford health insurance. This was often manifested in an inability to show up at work. At best this meant they kept their jobs but took home less money. In some cases, they were let go. Their landlords were largely unforgiving and, living paycheck to paycheck, within a few months they were out on the street. Some lived in their cars. Some live in the woods in and around Bealeton in small Hoovervilles. The fortunate ones end up at places like Community Touch where at least for a little while they can try to get their lives back in order.

When you spend time at places like Community Touch, you hear stories. You hear about the homeless man sitting outside a Food Lion, and the nice people working there who bought him some food and drove him to Community Touch. You find out that he took a bus from Baltimore to Richmond because he heard there was work, ran out of money, tried to thumb his way back to Baltimore only to find himself sitting on the concrete, homeless and hungry. This man was fortunate. Many others are not so fortunate. They can be found in the woods or scrounging garbage bins at local 7 Elevens.

Charitable work does tend to peak during the Holiday season, which explains in part the mountains of food and clothing now occupying our minivan and dining room. It culminates this weekend. My wife, my very own force of nature, has many people from her temple meeting tomorrow and hauling their donated items to Community Touch. In Bealeton they will meet others including people from The True Deliverance Church of God, who run Community Touch. Using their many donated items, they will assemble Thanksgiving dinners to go for the homeless and hungry of Fauquier County. Many turkeys have already been donated by local food banks and are being cooked en masse tonight. She and many members of her temple will be there to help.

Most of you are familiar with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Many devout Christians believe Jesus somehow fed an unexpected multitude with a single loaf of bread and a fish. At least when Jesus is not around, it works this way: someone like my wife stands up inside their community, poses the question and then largely by herself start to address the problem. Those inside the community at first feel hesitant because they are used to the way things have always been. However, if like my wife she persists, and she does so with a generous heart they find themselves drawn into caring about the poor too because they know and care about her. And so one loaf and one fish multiply into a van stuffed with food and donated items which might have otherwise gone toward evenings out and buying an Xbox. Moreover, a dozen people from a Buddhist congregation venture sixty miles into the wilds of Fauquier County to work with people of a different faith they do not know. They help them feed the unfortunate who live among us, but whom for the most part we choose to ignore. As a result, at least some of the hungry are fed. Moreover, new connections occur between people that likely would never have otherwise met. The circle of people who care about others unlike themselves grow. The social fabric of our society mends itself a bit. Love and compassion spreads a bit.

I know that people who would otherwise go hungry or be malnourished will soon have a full belly, thanks to my wife standing up in her congregation and leading them with humanity forward toward a larger fellowship. I am blessed to be married to such a warm, caring and compassionate woman.

Mother Teresa on the couch

The Thinker by Rodin

It is rare that I am riveted by a news story. Yet this story (and its many variants) had me riveted. It appears that Mother Teresa (the Roman Catholic nun who founded the Sisters of Charity, and who spent fifty years caring for the least of our brethren, mostly in the slums of Calcutta) largely did not feel the presence of the God she served.

What is next? Will we see secret diaries of Adolf Hitler saying how much he loved and admired the Jews? The irony is that Mother Teresa’s feelings, articulated only to a series of confidential confessors over many years, seems to be one of the reasons that she will be elevated to sainthood. It appears that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, being disconnected from the Jesus she believed means she suffered, like Jesus on the cross, so that makes her even holier. Perhaps her experience is somewhat akin to the forty days and forty nights that the Bible says Jesus spent in the desert tormented by the Devil. For Jesus though, forty days and nights was enough. Mother Teresa spent more than fifty years consumed by her humanitarian work while rigidly towing the Catholic line. Yet she did this apparently without the consuming zeal of a religious devotee.

Well knock me over with a soda straw! Yet, some part of me was unsurprised. I have discussed Mother Teresa in bits and pieces in a variety of other blog entries. While I cannot but help admire her and feel astonished by the scope of her humanitarian work, some part of me was also appalled. Perhaps I could understand her if it she found passion in her work, but apparently, that was not the case. She loathed it. Seeing such wretched people day in and day out for fifty years, by her own admission, filled her with immense inner pain and suffering. And yet she soldiered on, put on a happy face and towed the Catholic line all while feeling nothing from the God she worshiped and served.

Just who was Mother Teresa anyhow? Judging from her works the answer is clear. She was a humanitarian the likes of which will probably not recur for many centuries. Judging from the divergence between her public words and private thoughts, she was also something of a hypocrite. I hasten to add that her hypocrisy was not the type deserving chastisement. Hypocrisy is typically manifested as selfish or immoral behavior while pretending the opposite. That was not the case here.

It appears that Mother Teresa was a hypocritical humanist. Humanists like Mother Teresa and me generally do not feel the presence of a personal God in our lives. We believe that relieving the suffering of our fellow humans is nonetheless a worthwhile goal. We believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity and that includes rich and poor, as well as the moral and the reviled. Mother Teresa followed the Catholic faith, but appeared to receive no enrichment from it. Receiving the Eucharist, for example, sparked no closer feelings toward God. She followed and advocated the teachings of the Church but they did not provide her with the passion that motivated her to do her work. Rather than taking care of the wretched out of a feeling of passion, she did her work because she said she said she was called by God to do so.

What does it mean to consume your life doing something that fundamentally disagrees with you? Is this virtuous or insane? If I started cutting myself like many teenagers do I would be up to my armpits in therapists. It is generally understood that actions that are self-destructive are harmful. In her confessions, Mother Teresa acknowledges that her actions wreaked a dreadful psychological toll on her. Her actions helping the poor were clearly virtuous but the 24/7/365 nature of her work suggests to me that most clinical psychologists would say she was also mentally ill.

Perhaps it must go this way if you are angling for sainthood. Mother Teresa went out of her way to not draw attention to herself. She was obsessive about being used as a means for people to find Jesus and Catholicism. If she were to take any pride in her accomplishments, she would perceive this as sinful in itself. The primary criteria for sainthood then seems to be the ability of the human will to persistently engage in actions perceived by the Catholic Church as beneficial yet contrary to our human nature. In other words to be a saint, you have to unlearn or deny yourself the right of personal happiness.

Yet it appears that as much as Mother Teresa tried, she could not stop feeling like a human being. Underneath her saintly demeanor was a thinking and passionate woman. Where she “succeeded” was in ruthlessly repressing her own human nature. This strikes me as tragic.

Some years back I wrote about toxic shame. I was introduced to it by the noted therapist John Bradshaw, who wrote this book on the subject. Bradshaw’s thesis was that shame can reach a toxic level, wherein it colors all of our actions. Instead of being a human being who can take joy in life, many of those inflicted with toxic shame become (in his words) human doings. Clearly, Mother Teresa was a human doing. It is now also clear from her confessions that she took no personal joy in her work. How she ended up this way is something of a mystery. However, if I had to bet, I would bet that her childhood was very rough indeed. A casual Wikipedia search did not return much information on her early life. Her father died when she was eight. She was born in Albania (Macedonia at the time), which is a poor country, known for large families. I would bet that her childhood was harsh and women were not valued very much. I also bet she did not get much in the way of parental attention. For whatever reason, she left home at 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto and never saw her family again. Her motivation for helping others might be a result of the lack of personal attention that she craved during her childhood. Obviously, I am speculating here, but it seems logical.

If so, then clearly many have benefited from her feelings of toxic shame. She inspired a new religious order, which continues to carry on with her work. Nevertheless, to be able to give out such love, yet to have been denied the kind of connection that she needed to feel from her God (and likely her family) strikes me as unbelievably tragic. Mother Teresa lived 87 years but it appears she was denied the love and intimacy she needed to feel like she was a human being. Instead, she became a human doing.

While I think humanitarianism is a noble cause, I do not think it should wholly consume anyone’s life. If it does, it should be because a person is truly passionate about it, not because someone feels they should do it. I suspect if Mother Teresa were alive and Dr. Sigmund Freud tried to psychoanalyze her, even he would throw up his hands in despair.

Mother Teresa for me remains an utter contradiction, at once both holy and someone for whom I feel even more compassion for than the wretched people she served. I hope her utter selflessness in her life earns her great spiritual reward in heaven. The irony is that, based on her own confessions, she would not enjoy such spiritual rewards. She would feel unworthy to receive them because they would dim the glory of the God she worshiped, but for whom she felt no passion.

Fiddling while Rome burns

The Thinker by Rodin

It is that time of year when I start writing checks to charities. One of my favorite charities is local: So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith effort in Washington D.C. that provides for the basic needs of the area’s poor and homeless. As their name suggests they spend much of their money providing them meals. They also provide clothing and health care to people who obviously cannot afford it. In addition, they work to break the cycle of poverty through services like addiction treatment and counseling, job training and affordable housing. How could Jesus not approve? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” he told us. His message is clear: find grace and meaning by practicing compassion and relieving human suffering.

I am so grateful that I was never homeless nor hungry. That is not to say I do not feel some empathy for these people. I have lived from meager paycheck to paycheck. I never went hungry, but I spent a couple years on the borderline, barely able to pay my rent and eating many meals consisting of little more than rice and entrees in boil a bags, because I could afford little better. When my car died, I lived for a couple years without one. I felt like many of today’s graduates do: that I deserved more from life than what I got. Life was risky when you are 21, you have a new degree and the job market sucks. In the complex game of natural selection in which I was caught, only my relative youth was an asset.

Most religions teach us that life is sacred. The Catholic Church goes the extra mile and prohibit adherents from doing anything “unnatural” to prevent pregnancy or anything deliberate to shorten its lifespan. While life certainly seems to me to be something of a miracle, it should seem less miraculous. We humans are so good at increasing our numbers and extending our life spans that a case can be made that we live unnatural lives. We are rapidly changing our world, and not for the better. Global warming, largely due to human activity, is now an accepted fact. None of us comes with an environmental expiration date. Mother Nature does not knock on our doors and say, “Well, you’ve had your 57 years. You’ve taken as much from the planet as it can give you and sustain the rest of us, so it’s time to die.” We resist. “I am here and I am entitled to live my life as I please. I will live a long life. I will live a prosperous life. I will live a comfortable life. I will be free and I will be reckless in my happiness. I owe no debt to the earth. Go screw yourself.”

I could perhaps satisfy Mother Nature by living a simpler life. I could be like Billy Graham and live alone in a cabin in the woods. Of course, I will not. It is not just me, I tell myself. I do it for my family. I do it for the ones I love. My wife and I are about ready to send our daughter to college. The last thing I want for her is to spend her adult years washing dishes. No, I wish for her a lifestyle similar or better than mine, in a house with central heating and air conditioning, and a car, and in a job that pays well and in a field where she will find meaning and personal growth. My miserable period was rather brief, but it was miserable. I do not want her to endure anything like it because, gosh, it hurt. For similar reasons, I ache for the wretched and homeless and write checks to SOME. I want happiness for that skid row alcoholic too. I want humans to stop dying of preventable diseases or to have to endure pointless suffering. Moreover, I want all war to end, pronto! Just say no to violence, people!

And I want the Earth to be a garden of Eden again. That is, I want a pony.

When I hit that last point that is when I feel like I should go douse myself in cold water. I have castigated President Bush for his guns and butter approach to war. I have castigated Republicans for expecting low taxes and plenty of government services at the same time. Therefore, I should hold myself to my own standard. I should take less, a lot less from this world than I do. Will I do it? Not a chance.

In a sense, my selfishness, as well as the collective selfishness of all of us living a first world life, as well as the billions desperately clawing their way toward a prosperous life, is writing the extinction of our species and possibly our planet. Each of us, by making this very natural choice to move from misery toward comfort is sending a four-finger salute to future generations. We are also sending this message to the other species that inhabit our planet, and on whom we depend for our mutual survival. In addition, we are sending a message to future generations: if we can be so selflessly reckless, so should you.

After all, freedom is what America is all about. Yes, there is a price to freedom. It is not just, as the proponents of the military tell us, that freedom must be defended. Freedom comes with certain constraints. One of its natural constraints is that the more of us there are, the less free each of us can be. Hence, we end up with community associations dictating the color of paint we must use on our houses. However, it is not just population increases that make us less free. It is also how we choose to live our lives. Each person who chooses to live a prosperous life is acting like a neighbor who plays his rock music all night long at ear piercing volumes. That more of us engage in this habit does not mean we are all, either individually or as a whole, really better off.

Even Al Gore is in denial. He talks about setting the thermostat down a few degrees and replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights. He says we must do this to reduce our carbon footprint. Obviously, these are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Al is not planning to give up his house in the suburbs either. His air conditioner may have a higher efficiency rating than yours, but he is not going to put it out with the trash. He too will take much more from the earth than it can affordably give him. Even if we followed all his suggested practices, the earth would not be in balance. At best, we might delay our day of reckoning.

To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I now find myself uncomfortably awake. I know my selfish actions are counterproductive to the values I claim to espouse. I know I am a damned hypocrite. I will continue to assuage my conscience by tinkering around the edges. Those plastic yogurt cups will continue to go in the recycle bin. I expect we will replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent ones. However, I also understand that these actions do not amount to atonement, and that I will continue to live an earth-hostile life. My car may be a hybrid instead of a Hummer, but I am still a sinner. I am farting a little less than my neighbor is, but I am still stinking up the room.

Perhaps knowing that you are in denial is a prerequisite toward moving toward real penance. If so, I am just tentatively sticking my head above the herd and bleating, “This is a real problem, folks.” The herd, being a herd, does not want to hear me but they sure notice that I am trotting in step with them. I shall bleat nonetheless. Meanwhile, I will keep recycling my yogurt cups. In doing so, I do not really atone for my sins. However, for whatever it means, I do acknowledge my sins. I am sorry I am such a reckless fool, but at least I know I am a fool.

Virginia to gays: share our values or get the hell out

The Thinker by Rodin

Today’s Washington Post brings more sad news that I am living in the wrong state. If it were not for this wonderful job three miles from my house and twenty years vested as a civil servant I would probably be living across the Potomac River, or heading to any place where the good citizens have some sense of justice and proportion. I will likely get there soon after I retire.

Because it looks like Virginia voters (courtesy of our legislature) will have an opportunity to enshrine in the state constitution once and for all that, you guessed it, marriage is between one man and one woman only. Knowing my fellow citizens as I unfortunately do, I am afraid this is a slam-dunk. For I live in the great homophobic state of Virginia.

I have written about gay marriage before. I have no illusions that, barring a U.S. Supreme Court decision, it will happen in Virginia during my lifetime. Naturally, I feel that laws discriminating against homosexuals like this are deeply wrong, hurtful and anti-American. But what really pains me today is I know that, just like the Jim Crow laws so plentiful throughout the South at one time, this constitutional amendment will someday either be stricken down by the U.S. Supreme Court or simply excised altogether by some future generation of ashamed Virginia voters. If Virginians are unwise enough to vote in this proposed constitutional amendment, they or their children will rue the day it passed. It is simply mean spirited. It is sadly just another big f— you to those citizens of the Commonwealth who happen to be attracted to their own gender.

As reprehensible as this amendment is, I already know that Virginia has a sad history of showing contempt for homosexuals. Entries like this one will refresh your memory. The Washington Post Magazine also reported sad stories like this. Make no mistake: in Virginia, homosexuals have under the law essentially become second-class citizens. Unable to legally discriminate against the people we used to hate, like Jews and African Americans, my fellow citizens deeply repressed feelings of rage must be channeled somewhere. So now it is chic to make life increasingly miserable for those who don’t happen to share our heterosexual values. The message is simply: emulate our values or get the hell out.

Therefore, as The Washington Post Magazine article sadly points out, gay couples increasingly simply get out. They know they are not wanted. For Virginia law will not allow gay couples to pass to each other even a nickel of their inheritance to each other. Should they want to be there for their spouse when they are in the hospital, they can be refused. For gays and lesbians, their partners are not legal relatives, and consequently not next of kin. It is the equivalent of spitting in their faces. It is simply mean.

Who are the people who are passing these laws? Mostly they claim to be Christians. It is a good thing Jesus does not live here. If he is the man depicted in the New Testament, it is clear he would be choking on his matzah right now. Jesus was after all someone who spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Negroes of Palestine at the time. He hung out with the lepers and the prostitutes. He avoided the moneychangers in the temple. Jesus was not about exclusivity. He was about inclusiveness. He told us to do to others, as we want them to do to us. If the homosexuals were running the world, would good heterosexual couples want them to void all their marriage contracts? Would they want to be stripped of their simple human right to pass on their inheritance to the person they love, or to be prohibited from giving their beloved comfort in a time of great stress?

It is not likely that they would. Nevertheless, modern Christianity, at least as practiced here in Virginia, has become so twisted and perverted that it has become 100% righteousness and 0% compassion, unless, of course, you model a life very, very close to their lives. Then they can identify with you. Then you become a member of the club. As for the rest of you: go to the back of the bus or better yet, just get the hell out of the commonwealth. If this cannot be done legally because of those darned liberal judges, well, find any legal way you can to turn the screws on those whose values and morals you personally do not agree with.

In addition to causing needless hurt and distress in the lives of good American people, such attitudes only serve to divide us more as a nation. Therefore, at least for a while, the citizens of Virginia are likely to get their wish. The bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender community will increasingly cross the Potomac River to live in Washington D.C. or Maryland or any place where the people have some compassion in their hearts for those with different values. The sad result: red states will get redder and blue states will get bluer. The culture wars will grow. Rather than trying to become a more inclusive nation, these misguided laws will simply drive us into increasingly hateful and xenophobic behavior.

I wish that the citizens of my state could find some compassion in their hearts for those unlike them. Instead we have this constant stream of mean spirited laws and now this reprehensible constitutional amendment. Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

Seize the day

The Thinker by Rodin

For those of you wondering about my dying mother, she is still alive and unfortunately she is not improving. I do my best to visit her once a week. I try to visit on Saturdays around lunchtime. This usually works best for my schedule. I arrive about forty-five minutes before lunch. By this time, her long morning nap is over and she is often reasonably coherent. This gives me a chance to talk to her for a bit before lunch. Lunch is served promptly at noon in the dining room, so I make a point to have her there on time. She can no longer feed herself, so I feed her. I can tell she resents my help but she also accepts that this is the way things are. As miserable as she feels she is not yet ready to check out of this life.

I have to check myself when I feed her. I find myself unconsciously opening my mouth, as I did with my daughter as an infant when I fed her. It would be insulting to say, “Open up the barn door and let the horsies in.” Yet the words want to form on my lips. Forkfuls of food go lackadaisically into her mouth. She chews but swallowing is increasingly difficult. It can lead to coughing fits. This is just one of the effects of her disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. There is this, along with her difficulty in moving her eyes from straight ahead. Focusing is also difficult for her. At this point, her muscles are atrophied. A couple months ago, she could usually sit up on the side of the bed by herself. Now this is beyond her. Her one remaining act of self-care was to brush her teeth. Now this is becoming impossible for her too. I gave her an electric toothbrush and had to turn it on for her; she does not have the agility to press its on button. She can no longer seem to reach beyond her front teeth. Therefore, I do most of the work. She may be dying, but I will not let my mother suffer the indignity of dirty teeth and bad breath. She would not want this either.

Now she must be carried to and from her bed, dragging a catheter bag with her. She can still move her arms and legs a bit. Nevertheless, you can tell she is still overwhelmingly frustrated. The only good part of her dying process is that she spends much of her life asleep or dozing. I woke her up last Saturday about 11:15 a.m. I put her to bed for her nap at 1:15 p.m. She was more than ready for sleep.

I do not know how typical her dying process is. I get the feeling that hers is a lot more benign than most. She can still think clearly. Her speech is often soft or garbled but she can tell us how she feels. She is not like the sixty something woman with Alzheimer’s endlessly walking up and down the halls calling out, “Mother? Where are you mother?” Nor is she like the woman who sits next to her in the dining room, who had a stroke, who grunts instead of talks, and can only use the left side of her body. Nor as best I can tell, is she in any pain, other than perhaps mental anguish. My father visits her twice a day but this is not enough for her. She hates it when he leaves. She feels abandoned and unloved. She does not understand why she cannot go and live in their apartment. She believes we could take care of her there. If she cannot have full use of her limbs, she at least wants the dignity of dying in her own bed in her own home. Why can we not give her at least this?

Maybe at the very end of life that will be possible. If we were certain she had a week or two left perhaps nurses or loved ones could be there with her around the clock. Not yet. Perhaps in time she could go to a hospice. At least in a hospice she could get more of the focused attention that she wants. For she can no longer play card games. She cannot focus on the television. She cannot read a book. There is just the frustration of an active mind trapped in a body that mostly refuses to respond.

When I can pull myself away from her situation, I can observe the dying process as it actually is rather than in the abstract. It is not quite what I expected. Although she has only been in the nursing home about four months, it seems inordinately long to me. I do not know how much longer she has. Typically, it takes one to two years before this disease kills. Her kind of dying seems to be like death from a thousand small cuts. Each time I see her she is slightly for the worse. It is hard to know which one will cause the final collapse of her fragile system. Nevertheless, with certainty one of them will cause her death.

Last week I brought pictures of my wedding to share with her. It did help cheer her up a bit. She liked looking at pictures of herself when she was still so young and vigorous. She was 65 when I was married but looked closer to 45. With each picture was a story and a memory. One picture was of my wife’s grandmother. She passed away about five years after our wedding. “Everyone dies in time,” my mother said sadly, yet in a matter of fact way.

To the dying and to those who love the dying, death is not fair. Dying is a slow motion horror movie that is not make believe. Its certainty and finality are both inescapable and crushing. It is also, at some point, simply accepted. I think that is where my mother is now. That is also to some degree where I am too. There are few things in life that are absolutely certain. Death is one of them. Death will consume us all in time. Whether we devolve into nothingness or, like chrysalides, are transformed into another form of being, no one can say with certainty. Nevertheless, death is final. No matter what divides us from each other, dying is our one common experience.

Through much of my twenties, thirties, and even into my forties my mortality stalked me. I had no answer for it other than to try to ignore it. That was futile. It was like trying to ignore an axe murderer you know is outside your door. However, through observing my mother’s dying process I now find an odd sort of catharsis. Seeing the reality of what will happen to me in time (although my exact experience will likely be different), I am no longer quite so afraid of age, dying and death as I used to be. Now, for some reason, I feel an odd sort of peace with my mortality.

In a way, though I still in midlife, I feel almost reborn. It took neither a savior nor a holy book to make me feel this way. I just had to grapple first hand with my fear. Now dying is not so mysterious. I do not like to see my mother this way, of course. I feel sad and frustrated for her too. I feel more than a bit helpless that I cannot do more for her. Now dying is not an unknown. It is tangible. It feels like silly putty. I can shape somewhat to my own ends, though it always remains the same stuff.

Death is hard to look at but is no longer quite the horror movie of my worst imagination. It was not Freddy Kruger outside my door. It is more like an old, miserable, hungry and abandoned dog wailing out its misery. It turns out, for me, that the way toward acceptance is to open the door and pet the dog. While I cannot make the dog happy, I can give it some comfort. I can hold it to my bosom and I can experience its pain. Moreover, maybe if I shed a tear then my sympathy will turn into empathy. Then maybe I have brought some form of solace to the dying during this distressing time, and some comfort for myself too.

Now I feel what I heard in so many words but could not emotionally grasp. Life is finite. So squeeze. Squeeze every drop of vitality out of this limited mystery we call life. Live life fully so you can leave it with as few regrets as possible. As Gandalf (the wizard from The Lord of the Rings books and movies) put it, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”

Seize the day.

Will the real Christians please stand up?

The Thinker by Rodin

I had a brief flirtation with the Methodist Church in the 1990s. We were shopping around for a Sunday school for our daughter, who needed some religious education. Terri had taught Sunday school for a Methodist Church in her single days and thought the religion was pretty benign. There was a church close by so off we went. It wasn’t a bad experience. This particular church had a female minister, which seemed cool to someone raised in the Catholic faith. The church was bright, the classrooms clean and well run and it had a very wholesome feel to it. Yet it was a bit too Christian for my tastes. That’s why my daughter eventually ended up at the religious education program at a Unitarian Universalist church.

I can’t claim to know much about their theology but I know enough now not to ever go back. Why? Because yesterday a Methodist Philadelphia minister was defrocked for violating a church law that requires ministers not be practicing homosexuals. The minister, Irene Elizabeth Stroud, was found guilty of being “a self avowed practicing homosexual.” Oh, the horror! Imagine what would happen if more Methodist ministers were homosexuals. Why, Methodists might get comfortable with the idea that homosexuality by itself has no more bearing on someone’s ability to minister than the color of their hair!

I have to wonder why is this an issue in the first place. Don’t Methodists read their Bibles? In the Bible that I read Jesus is a wholly nondiscriminatory human being. He hung out with prostitutes and lepers. In Jesus’ time the Jews treated Samaritans with contempt. Jews would even walk around areas of Palestine where they lived. Yet the clear message from the Parable of the Good Samaritan was that no one should be scorned simply for being different. We are all the same.

It is way past time to give homosexuals equal opportunities in all professions. But forces would much rather keep us stuck in the past. The major networks, for example, recently refused to air ads from the United Church of Christ. The ads emphasized that their denomination accepts gays and minorities while many other churches do not.

The ad features two bouncers standing outside a symbolic church selecting people to be permitted to pass the velvet rope to attend Sunday services. The bouncers reject two men and an African-American boy and girl, while letting a white heterosexual couple through.

What was the Church of Christ’s real sin here? It’s not that it welcomes homosexuals and minorities in its membership. The real sin was that it emphasized that other churches — lots of other churches — are quite comfortable with the practice. And it points out quite correctly that Jesus did not turn away people who came to listen to him. Not only do virtually all mainstream churches refuse to ordain homosexual ministers, but lots of mainstream churches also are openly hostile to gays in general. The Mormon Church’s wholly unenlightened interpretation and almost sneering attitude toward gays comes immediately to my mind. Want to see the Samaritans in contemporary Christendom? Talk to a Gay Mormon. They can tell you how the Samaritans felt.

No, we must not hear the truth about rampant, ignorant and prejudicial intolerance in mainstream Christian denominations. Instead we must project a false image of Jesus and real Christianity. We must ignore that much modern Christianity is about as Christ-like as Ghengis Khan. For example, is there any doubt what a 21st century Jesus would have said about the United States invading Iraq? Just in case you forgot, turn to Luke 6:29:

If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either.

But what are we getting from so called “mainstream” ministers about homosexuality? From Jerry Falwell we get vitriol like:

“These perverted homosexuals … absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, God-fearing citizens stand for. Make no mistake. These deviants seek no less than total control and influence in society, politics, our schools and in our exercise of free speech and religious freedom.”

From Pat Robertson:

What kind of craziness is it in our society which will put a cloak of secrecy around a group of people whose lifestyle is at best abominable. Homosexuality is an abomination. The practices of those people is appalling. It is a pathology. It is a sickness, and instead of thinking of giving these people a preferred status and privacy, we should treat AIDS exactly the same way as any other communicable disease.

Were I a Christian I would be seeking out churches that not only have read the words of Jesus but also actually try to live by them. So congratulations to the Church of Christ for getting the real message of Jesus. They must have read Matthew 7:

Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.