When to talk about death and dying?

A friend chastised me for being too quick to bring up the subject of death and dying with people who are suffering from a terminal illness.  “Here they are, dozens of friends and loved ones, encouraging hope for recovery, and the first thing you do is ask them what they think about dying.  That’s not helping!”
She had a point.  When it is clear to me that someone under my pastoral care is approaching the end of life, I am not shy about bringing up the subject of death and dying with them, but she wonders how it can be clear to me if the doctors are still offering options for treatment.  What gives me the right to bring up a subject that no one else wants to bring up?
It’s a ticklish question, and a good one.  I’m not sure what makes an approaching end of life clear to me.  It may have to do with how well I know the person and his or her family, the history of their illness, and the content of our private conversations during times of pastoral care and prayer.  There is a sense that they know what others don’t, and that they have urgent questions about the path they are on, questions about God and faith that have been rattling around in their minds for decades and are only now being formed into words.
They are not the questions that theologians have batted about for centuries.  They are more likely questions formed in their Sunday School years, from conversations with friends in daily life, from long suppressed anxieties and guilt, or just plain curiosity.  They are not questions that are given a chance to be expressed in an environment of decisions that have to be made about treatment, or with friends and loved ones who seem to seesaw between optimistic talk of recovery and overbearing sighs and tears of sympathy.  Among them, the most sincere and least helpful are good Christian souls who enthusiastically endorse a cheerful hope in miraculous healing in the firm belief that, for faithful Christians, there is no such thing as a terminal illness.

I certainly don’t go barging in where I have not been invited, and I try to deal with the questions and concerns they have, and not the ones I think they should have.  While I always offer the sacraments of the church as a part of whatever time we have together, I’ve also come to recognize that sacramental moments are present without the presence of liturgy or prayer book, most often in what we might otherwise call ‘reconciliation of a penitent.’  In the context of Christian ministry, It seems to be important to some people, as they approach the end of life, to know that another human being is there to walk in hope with them a part of the way, someone who will introduce them to the nearer presence of God in Christ as the one who will walk with them all the way.  It’s a time salted with tears and laughter, often more of the latter.  So there you have it.

It’s Nothing to be Proud Of

Instant nonstop television, radio and Internet news coverage seems to encourage a flood of equally instantaneous judgment from listeners and viewers.  At least that’s what it looks like to me when I look at the comment sections on Internet sources, read the letters page of the local paper, or, on rare occasion, listen to call in responses on radio.  
I try to keep up with the local news in two communities several thousand miles apart.  Recent tragedies in each have unleashed a blizzard of calls for heads to roll as commentators have asserted sweeping accusations of guilt based on a headline or two and a smattering of unverified third hand information.  Tragedies bring out the worst, but almost any event that reaches the public eye does the same.  
The same thing happens in the greater arena of national and international news.  The rush of juveniles coming from Central American across our southern border is an example.  As soon as reports were made public, comments and letters had, without fear of contradiction, analyzed the situation, assigned blame, and asserted their own brand of (often very mean spirited and selfish) righteousness.  Based on what?  Not much!  The curious thing is that most of the response seem to assume that someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong.  It’s a simple as that.  But complicated situations don’t have those kinds of simple I’m right and you’re wrong answers.  They have to be understood, and understanding doesn’t always bring definitive answers, only ways to move forward toward something better. 
Pick a situation anywhere in the world that has reached the public eye, and we will leap to conclusions of right, wrong and blame, thrust our collective chins forward, wipe our hands, and declare ‘So There’!  That’s too bad.  It’s nothing to be proud of.

Green Beans and Avoidance

I had an elderly friend some years ago who could make an entire day out of one small chore.  
“What have you got going today?  Think we have time to get together?”
“Oh, no.  I don’t know how I’ll get everything done. I have to go to the store and get green beans.”
It became catchword for us, green beans, whenever we found ourselves filling up time with small things of little consequence, or using the need to do minor errands as an excuse for not doing something else.  We laughed about it.  How silly to make a ten minute errand the center of an entire day.
Now I’m retired, among the elderly, and it doesn’t seem quite so silly anymore.  
“Have you got time for a beer tomorrow afternoon?”
“I don’t know.  It’s a pretty jam packed day.  I’ve got a haircut, and stuff.”
Green beans, it turns out, can take an awful lot of time.  You have to plan for them, set the alarm clock to accommodate them, modify the daily routine to fit them in, and the first thing you know, green beans have taken up the entire day.   They have to be fit in between the start of the day, which includes waking up sometime, leisurely drinking a couple of cups of coffee, Morning Prayer, breakfast, the paper (on the iPad, which, of course, means checking out Facebook too), maybe a little reading and then the necessary ablutions.  
Holy Cow!  The morning’s half gone.  Time to think about what to do for lunch.  Can’t let planning for that go to the last minute.  Oh, and the car needs gas, I’ll need to squeeze that in.  
OK, lunch over.  How about a little rest to get ready for a bike ride, some gardening, maybe a short workout at the Y.  You see?  The afternoon is almost shot, and there is still a haircut to work in.  
Oops!  It’s five p.m., and you know what that means.  And so goes another day of green beans.

Green beans are a wonderful tool for avoiding so many things, especially the things that truly need our attention.  Everyone uses the green beans excuse, but we of a certain age have often honed it to a fine art that can insulate us from all but the smallest sliver of the greater world about us.  Jesus chastised the Pharisees for straining at gnats.  I wonder what he thinks about green beans.   They serve pretty much the same function as gnats.  Maybe I’ll think more about that tomorrow, if I can work it in. 

A very short rant about nullification.

The platform for a local candidate for the state legislature is based on lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.  I find that almost mindless, but it has attracted the tea party gang.  Her Facebook page includes comments from supporters urging a state statute to nullify ‘unconstitutional’ federal legislation, which is a strongly held sentiment I have often read and heard these days.  
Frequent readers of these occasional articles already know that nullification is not a new idea.  South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification in 1832 in an attempt to overturn tariffs.  Nullification arguments were raised over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The Civil War itself was in part a struggle over nullification.  The issue was settled at the cost of 620,000 dead, and I have no idea how many non-combatants were killed, or how many lived the balance of their lives wounded in body, mind and spirit. 

At what point and at what cost will people understand that the issue is resolved?  We have serious matters to address.  It’s time to stop the silliness that, but for our constitution and laws, could become a violent tit-for-tat killing field such as witnessed in other parts of the world, and that sometimes has broken out in our own land.

Is it the worst of times?

Memories are short, and world views are fuzzy, but what’s there is is firmly held. 
The other day, while sitting in the clinic waiting room, the guy next to me started up a conversation.  The gist of it was that things are so bad, worse than they have ever been, that it must be a sign that the Lord is coming very soon.
I asked him if he could remember a time that was better, a time when it seemed less likely that the Lord would soon come.  That puzzled him.  He wasn’t sure.  So I asked if he thought our times were worse than, say, the times of the Hundred Year War, or the Thirty Year War, or the Black Death.  He didn’t know what those were.  It didn’t quite end the conversation, but it did change the subject to the importance of loving one’s brothers and sisters.  That’s one of those agreeable topics that could be very dangerous if pursued beyond billboard platitudes, but I digress.  
Is this the worst of times?  I suppose it depends in part on one’s political world view and condition in life.  Because we view all things from where we are, the universe, history, and contemporary events revolve around us.  We are at the center, and what we perceive most clearly is what is within our reach.  For some, perhaps like the guy sitting next to me, there was a better time when they were younger.  Women ,and certain others whom we cannot now name because it is politically incorrect, knew their place; gays were hidden away in closets and only talked about, if ever, in the context of rude jokes; children were always respectful of their elders; our only real enemies were in Moscow, and maybe Beijing;  and America had no serious industrial competitors.  None of those things is true anymore.  They weren’t true back then either, but that’s the way it gets remembered.  Around here that kind of remembering is aided and abetted by the popularity of photographs running in the local paper, on the Internet, and in coffeetable books depicting romantic images of the way it was back then. 
What distorted memory asserts as the solid truths and goodness of another time is assaulted by today, and everything about today.  Nobody seems to know what truth is, and those who claim to have a corner on it are steeped in contentious debate with others who are certain of other truths.   And so it is, at least for some people.  Who are they, apart from the guy sitting next to me?  I suspect they are folks whose world view is limited mostly to what has happened in their own lifetime and within their scope of vision.  History, I suspect, is a vague mystery.  Events in ages past are unknown and irrelevant.  Walking a mile in another man’s moccasins; that is, to embed one’s imagination other cultures, lives, and times is an unlikely thing, maybe an impossible thing.  If all of that has been compounded by a life that has not lived up to early hopes and dreams, if it has exploded or imploded, leaving one sitting in a pile of Job like ashes, this may indeed be the very worst of times. 
My prejudice is to claim that arch conservatives are more guilty of this kind of thinking than others, but probably not.  A good many of my liberal friends are equally infected.  Moreover, I wonder if some of the radicals of the sixties and seventies have become the most ardent tea partiers of this decade.  What complicates things a bit more are the dueling banjoes on radio and television who make their living inciting divisiveness and discord through manipulation of facts and rumors.  People like that have always been around, but they have never had such instantaneous, easy, broad access to so many.  Shoot, we used to rely on Satan as the big deceiver.  He’s not only been demoted, he’s been put out of business.  But I digress again.
Is it the worst of times?  No, not from a historical perspective.  But it is a violent time, a cruel time.  Because we claim to be a just people, the injustices we experience and can see are more obvious.  And our own complicity in them cannot be easily avoided. The myth that America could be an island of goodness, safety, and opportunity protected by oceans, above the morass of human failings elsewhere, has long been shattered.  I can understand why the guy sitting next to me at the clinic wondered if it’s time for the Lord to come and straighten out this mess.  I think he’ll wait and see if we can’t grow up and show a little more responsibility for our own actions. 

Reflections on the Fourth

As we approach the July 4th holiday, I’ve seen several articles celebrating our hard won freedoms while lamenting their creeping loss through – through what?  I’m never sure, but most of the complaints seem to revolve around immigration, gay rights, religious freedom, and the perceived intrusion of big government into daily lives.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to remember that our War of Independence was a fairly conservative affair.  Unlike the French revolution that pitted the oppressed and dispossessed of the lower classes against the landed elite, the American revolution was more about protecting the rights of free, white, male land owners from a government in London that failed to adequately recognize or respect them.  To be sure, in America it was possible for any free, white male to own land in one form or another, and that was very unlike any other place.  It truly was a place of opportunity unlike any other.
That was not a bad thing.  The rights we take for granted today had to start somewhere, and the philosophy of rights imagined in the Declaration of Independence would, in time, be understood to reach far beyond the world view of white, male colonists huddled along the Eastern seaboard and living under English rule.  In the same way, the rights of Englishmen imagined in the Magna Carta of 1215 began as a struggle of landed barons against the power of the king.  British parliamentary democracy emerged from that spring, but it took almost five centuries.  The development of American republican democracy proceeded at a faster, if not smoother, pace.  It’s only been 228 years since the Declaration.  The scope of freedoms first asserted as belonging to free, white, male land owners now extends to almost all.  And therein lies the problem, at least as I see it. 
Rights and privileges formerly restricted to certain classes, and now deemed universal, begin to erase advantages that had been built into the system and on which the advantaged relied, even if without awareness.  The barons at Runnymede asserted their rights, but never imagined they might become the rights of serfs who, once receiving them, would no longer be serfs.  Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of them, did not know, nor could they have known, that the Declaration of Independence would become the linchpin of rights and freedoms broadly defined as unalienable for all persons in every condition of life.
We have had many turning points in our history, but perhaps only a few that might be called hinges of history.  The War of Independence that led to an experiment in republican democracy ordered by an unheard of  Constitution was one of them.  The Civil War and its aftermath was another.  Some have said that the FDR era of depression, New Deal, and WWII was a third.  I suggest that the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a fourth, and we are yet struggling with what that means.  The current legislative impasse in Washington, recent Supreme Court decisions, and the public attention granted to populist tea party type movements represent, to me, the remnant of free, white, male privilege fearful of losing its place to the riffraff of ‘others’ who may not deserve to share in them and cannot be trusted to respect and protect them. 

I don’t know what will happen.  Other nations have tried and failed.  The British seem to have finally got it down, as have Canada and Australia.  The French are on their Fifth Republic.  Japan and Germany are new democracies not yet fully tested.  China is tottering toward something that could become parliamentary, if not democratic.  As for us, we are at a fork in the road.  We might embrace rights and freedom in new, expansive ways in a nation where no race or creed enjoys systemic preference.  We might embrace a more mutant version in which authoritarianism is masked with the language of rights and freedom.  We’ve been at forks like that before and have chosen well.  I hope we do again.