Miscellaneous Thoughts on Grieving

Not long ago I was asked to speak to a grief group.  One of the participants was a relatively new widow who talked of her total ignorance about how to handle the ordinary tasks of day-to-day living, apart from cooking and cleaning.  As a result, she had become excessively dependent on help from neighbors and friends who were increasingly burdened with things she should have been able to do herself.  In this case, her deceased husband was the lord and master of the house and made all the decisions.  It left her with no knowledge about their finances, how to pay a bill, what to do about license tabs, insurance, lawn and house maintenance, or anything else.
I’d like to believe that she is one of the last of a dying breed, but I’m not so sure.  Around here there are still churches that preach and teach the total submission of wives to their husbands, thus creating another generation of girls who will grow up to believe that they can do only what their husbands tell them they can do.  The popularity of home schooling creates a levee against the flood waters of secular culture.  At least this particular woman was in a support group that will help her navigate a new way of life to include basic life skills along with dealing with her grief.  
A few of the men I know go to one of those churches.  They were brought up to believe, and believe now, that the man is to be the undisputed head of the household, and that they have a sacred duty to see that everyone is taken care of to the best of their ability.  Most of them have also become comfortable in delegating a good deal of that responsibility to their wives, with full recognition that it is a delegation of their authority.  They are in loving marriages (mostly) with spouses who are willing to play the game for the sake of good standing at church, but otherwise make their own decisions about life.  It seems to work.   
Now that I’ve mentioned men, it has struck me that most of the grief support groups I know about are made up of women, not men.  It’s not like there are no grieving men.  We have our fair share of men whose loved ones have died: spouses, children, parents, siblings.  They would not have fit in with the women’s groups.  Men simply do not share personal intimacies as quickly or as deeply as women tend to do.  It takes them a long time to build up the trust needed to admit and reveal emotional vulnerability.  Too many have been taught that big boys don’t cry; suck it up and walk it off.  Grief support for them has to accommodate a different process.  In years of working with first responders on issues related to post traumatic stress I’ve learned that men need to get clear about what happened before they can articulate anything about what they were thinking and how they felt, and in that order.  Maybe a men’s grief support group would benefit from something of the same.  Just a guess.  I’ll leave it up to the local hospice.  
That’s all.  No it isn’t.  One of my friends noted the other day that some of my articles have no ending, and don’t seem to flesh things out enough to reach a decent conclusion.  It’s true.  I think of them as conversations, and hope that readers are adding to what is missing, if only in their own heads.  


Paul the Failure

Following several years of house arrest, the emperor Nero had Paul executed about the time he did the same to Peter.  I wonder what they thought, while waiting in the hours before they were killed, about their lives as apostles of Jesus.  As far as we know, Peter left no written record of his life’s work, so our best guess would be pure fiction.  On the other hand, Paul did leave a record of his work, and the evangelist Luke wrote half the book of Acts about his life and ministry.  It gives us, or at least gives me, something to work on as I imagine what he might have been thinking.
I can’t imagine that he looked back with any sense of triumphant satisfaction.  Except for one or two of the many churches he helped establish, they were not much of a success.  Congregational infighting, disagreements over doctrine, legalism, antinomianism, laziness, syncretism, they had it all.  It kept him busy writing letters of counsel, correction, and encouragement, of which a few have survived to be included the canon.  On top of it, he had to endure the physical hardships of dangerous travel that included the occasional jailing, beating, and shipwreck.  His former colleagues among the pharisees hated him, and his new colleagues among the followers of Jesus didn’t trust him.  The Harvard Business Review would never have published an article celebrating his executive prowess, and no theological journal would have published the unsystematic, self-contradictory drivel his letters represented.
So there he was, nearing the end of his life, waiting for the executioner to do the deed.  What was he thinking?  In my imagination he was relieved to be going home to God at last, and grateful it would be over quickly, but I also imagine that he was mentally preparing his confession and apology for having been such miserable failure as an apostle.  He could not have foreseen that some of his letters would be deemed Holy Scripture.  He could not have anticipated that two millennia of Christians would study his letters to receive through them the guidance they were seeking for the problems they faced in their communities of worship.  
He wasn’t right about everything, but he wasn’t wrong about everything either.  He simply did the best he could to listen to what God was saying, translating it into a life of faith for himself and others.  Because he knew Jesus in a particularly intimate way not share by other apostles, he tried harder to listened with his full attention, but it was a learning experience for him as it is for us.  As his letters reveal, he matured in his faith as new experiences opened new vistas leading to greater wisdom.  He was able to change his mind as he learned new things, sometimes casting off what he had previously thought was certain, but never losing sight of Jesus as the center of everything, never failing to point others in that direction.
Maybe a lesson we pastors and teachers of today need to learn from Paul is that our failures may not be failures at all, and our successes may be for nothing.  We don’t know, and we can’t know.  We can only be as faithful as we are able in the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ.   

Falling for Trump

When Trump is challenged about one or another of his outrageous statements, he counter attacks by insulting the questioners:  they are stupid, not very nice, don’t know anything, desperate, disgusting, I’ll sue you, etc.  If pushed, he changes the subject, often by angrily demanding answers to a question having little to do with the prior matter, and the tables are turned.  He’s very good at it.  
One of his most effective tactics is to call someone a nasty name, assert some heinous act or motive, or claim a ludicrous fantasy as fact, and it becomes the issue that must be addressed rather than anything else.  In the meantime, he will be off on some other tangent, leaving the flustered behind to argue about something he has also left behind.  He’s very good at it.  Consider the recent headline that Speaker Ryan has decided that he will find a way to come to terms with Trump.  Who won that one?  Not the Speaker, that’s for sure.  Trump doesn’t care one way or the other whether Mr. Ryan comes to terms with him.  He simply expects that it will happen on his terms and goes on about whatever is next on his target list.  None of his primary opponents ever figured that out.
In the early days of the campaign, Bernie was very effective at telling interviewers, in plain ordinary English, that their questions were unimportant or irrelevant to the weightier issues at hand, and he refused to play their games.  He lost it somewhere along the way, but he started out well.  The point is that Bernie’s method worked in part because his interviewers were reasonable people, and the unimportant issues they raised were often real issues just the same.   Trump is a different case; a harder case.  But I believe that a candidate with nerves of steel, who cannot be rattled, and who sticks with the early Bernie’s method could do well against him.  It’s hard to argue if no one will argue with you.  It’s hard to bait someone into a defensive posture if they see it for what it is and don’t fall for it.  
Apparently we shall see if Bernie can reclaim his earlier panache on June 7 when he and Trump are scheduled to “debate.” Who will be put to the test.  He?  Trump?  Neither?  What about Hillary?  No doubt we will have an opportunity to find out.  Maybe her coaches are drilling her on it by confronting her with every disrespectful, outrageous, libelous thing they can come up with, over and over again.  They won’t let up if they are any good.  After the sessions are over they will rudely blindside her in the hallway, send nasty texts, and generally be a Trumpy as they can at her most vulnerable moments.  A designated Trump should be her constant companion.  Jack Nicholson could do it. 
What a shame that a presidential race has come to this.  A slapfest worthy of small town carnival wrestling, when the nation has truly important matters to discuss, which it should be doing like mature adults.  If we are going to have media events passing themselves off as debates between the nominated candidates, I suggest very small panels of no nonsense journalists who are strong enough to refrain from engaging in conversation with them, and simply stick to the questions that need to be asked.  Gwen Ifill comes to mind.  As for me, I’m not looking forward to the next six months.  However, we shall endure. 

Dear Susan

Dear Susan,
Thanks for the essay “Can the Christian Left Be a Real Political Force?”  I was dubious at first because the author was Ruth Graham, Billy Graham’s wife who died in 2007.  However, it turned out that some other Ruth Graham wrote the piece you shared with me.
I’m not certain that liberal Christianity will be much of a force politically any time soon.  For that matter, Christianity in any of its dimensions may not have much influence these days.  The evangelical right-wing Christians have turned out to be just plain right-wingers whose Christian faith is superficial and ignorant.  Liberal Christianity, both evangelical and orthodox, are certainly present with a strong voice, but not many are listening.   Consider the Bernie rallies; they are large, emotionally charged, and largely devoid of anything remotely religious, much less Christian.  In a curious way, they are stimulated by Bernie pushing hot buttons in much the same way Trump pushes the hot buttons of his crowds.  Bernie has more tangible policy proposals than Trump, but the likelihood of support from Congress is very slim, even from those who think they are pretty good ideas.  Not many of them are pragmatically workable, and Bernie is not known for his ability to negotiate from the ideal to the possible. 
Ms. Graham notes that politically active liberal Christians are often involved not through Christianity, but in spite of it, as they do their best to distance themselves from the popular conception of Christians as narrow minded, judgmental, and anti intellectual.  The theologians of the Christian Left, if there is such a thing, have another problem.  They think.  They think deeply.   That doesn’t sell very well in the public market place.  
My final observation is that the left goes from center-left to far left-wing.  I consider myself to be center-left, and I find my far left-wing acquaintances to be naive, unrealistic, and as stubbornly resistant to evidence as are those on the far right.   Liberal Christianity is not a bloc.  Having said all that, fearless proclamation of the gospel, the Good News of God in Christ, which is not the same thing as the bible, but which is communicated to us through the bible, leads in the direction of political engagement as an essential element of the Christian life.  For my part, I take my lead from the Sermon on the Mount.  It pulls me toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, but it does not encourage naïveté about what is workable.
Fr. Steve+

Romance, Mission, Strategy and Tactics

Memorial Day weekend is coming up, and it’s time for my annual Harlan Miller article.  For those who don’t know, Mr. Miller survived being blown up in North Africa during WWII, spent years in the hospital, and lived out his life back in Walla Walla as an impoverished hermit.  Nevertheless, he was generous with the pennies and nickels that were his tithe, faithful in his desire to know God better, and oddly comforting to those whom he allowed to become his friends. The congregation was his family.  The folded flag presented at his funeral rests on the bookshelf in the rector’s office.  
If you want to know more, you can search for previous Memorial Day articles about him.  This one, written in his honor, is about romance, mission, strategy and tactics.  
We’ve been at war for several decades with little positive to show for it.  The current administration has done what it could to get us out of them, but like the proverbial tar baby, getting free is almost impossible once stuck.  The lessons of war are seldom heeded.  One would think that educated peoples would have learned from the insanity of the wars of antiquity, but they were merely a preface to the greater insanity of the twentieth century.  Their horror inspired world leaders to say never again, but situations arose and into war we plunged yet again, always for what we were led to believe were good reasons, and sometimes they were.  It raises a question; have we become morally inured to war?
Many of the men I talk with, and a few of the women, have been conditioned (by what?) to view war and combat as romantic.  Wrapped in unreflective patriotism, they celebrate the gallantry of brave warriors fighting the enemy with valorous courage, willing to give their lives to protect their country and its freedom from an evil, inhuman, unscrupulous enemy.  They proudly weep over flag draped coffins.  That our country’s freedom is not jeopardized in any serious way by those whom we have identified as enemies is irrelevant, because they have been sold on the snake oil that says it is.  To be sure, I hear little about gallant valor and willing sacrifice of life from combat veterans, but many appear to be as convinced as anyone else that the cost they have paid was for a good cause.  How else could they live with it?
I recently finished reading a management book written by two retired Navy SEALS.  In it they rehearsed the management skills used to take the Iraqi town of Ramadi, and explained how corporate leaders could improve their own management by applying the same techniques in civilian settings.  As far as applied management theory goes, it’s basic, proven advice.  Not bad at all.  But there were several things about it that bothered me.  Each chapter was introduced by a story about some aspect of the battle for Ramadi that they were involved in.  Let’s face it, SEALS are the heroes of the moment, and they capitalized on that by telling each story as if it were a heroic adventure of righteous men facing a devious, evil, savage enemy.  No doubt it has helped sell their book and make them some well earned money. 
The authors had a lot to say about mission, tactics and strategy; all important to effective management.  But the stories they told took place within a very small square on a global chess board where the overall strategy was unknown and unknowable to them, partly because it may not have been known even to those who moved the pieces around.  As it turned out, whatever gains they made in Ramadi were quickly lost not long after they left.  And who won?  No one knows because no one can say what winning means.  Besides, the battle for that little chunk of ruins may not yet be over.  What they called mission was merely a move to take a pawn or two.  What they called strategy was no more than someone thinking a couple of moves ahead hoping to outsmart the other side, whoever the other side might turn out to be.  Moreover, the game was in three dimensions with several players moving pieces, each playing by different rules.  

Courage, valor, heroism, great leadership of well honed teams may all be present.  Great literature tells of it, movies celebrate it, young people play unending killing field video games imitating it, and we (including me) aspire to see ourselves as the heroes.  It’s all a lie.  War may have its legitimate ends, but not as often as we might think.  In the end it produces impoverished hermits whose bodies and spirits are so broken that life becomes hard, sometimes too hard.  Rest in peace Mr. Miller.

Discouraged by Political Ignorance

I meet with several groups for coffee each week. Given the election year, conversation often turns to politics, and I have been surprised and discouraged at the depth and breadth of ignorance that gets displayed.  It isn’t just about the blatant lies being slung about that are yet believed because they touched a hot button or two.  It’s not even about the willingness to take unsupported assertions as truth without bothering to verify them.  It is about the dreadful lack of knowledge about how elections work, the function and organization of our various levels of government, and what the basic functions of government are.
Our area of Eastern Washington (the dry side of the mountains) prides itself on being conservative with a strong libertarian bent, which, in the not so distant past, meant something like cautious pragmatism that was hesitant to employ government action unless it could be demonstrated that it would be good for the community, would work, and could be paid for.  Make the case, and the conservative community would be all for it.  I think you could call that center-right.  The minority liberals were more center-left; willing to engage government for the welfare of the community, but still cautious about how to make it work, and whether the cost would be worth it.  
That thoughtful approach has been replaced gradually over the last few decades.  Center-right has given way to far right-wing.  Conservative is now just a label, and anything stamped with it is acceptable without further examination.  Is it good for the community has been replaced with suspicion about the community itself.  Will it work has been replaced with ridicule.  Can it be paid for has been replaced by a knee jerk faith that lower taxes are always better, and no increase should ever be tolerated.  All of that is colored by nostalgia for a time that never existed.   It’s a curious nostalgia because it is not warm and fuzzy; it’s expressed with angry, inflexible stubbornness.    
The liberal minority is growing thanks in part to in migration, but it’s bifurcated.  One part remains center-left, pragmatic, and forward looking.  The other part is far-left with almost the reverse of right-wing nostalgia.  If right-wing nostalgia looks back to a time that never existed, the far-left looks forward to a time that never will exist.  It’s a fantasy of sorts, but expressed with angry, inflexible stubbornness.  Idealistic proposals are seldom evaluated on their merits, their ability to work, or how they might be paid for.  That said, I’m more hopeful about the liberal side of things because I sense that its growth is almost entirely in the pragmatic center-left that maintains a cautious optimism about the near term future, and is adamant about making evidence based decisions.
Having set the stage, what troubles me most is the wide spread level of ignorance about how government works.  Call it basic civics if you will.  To be sure, I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the poor quality of high school civics now being taught.  But the groups I meet with are adults who were taught in the good old days when civics was an important subject.  Yet their knowledge about government at every level is abysmal.  They have a sketchy, egregiously biased memories of American history.  They know little about the organization and purpose of government at every level.  They know very little about basic economics, that most political of disciplines.  They don’t even know how the election process works, especially for federal offices.  This is basic stuff.  Every immigrant taking the citizenship test has to know it, and most of my adult, born in America, patriotic weekly coffee mates don’t.  It’s discouraging. 

Personal Eccentricities and Abundance of Life

What follows is a collection of thoughts that have yet to arrive at a cohesive whole.  That may come in time.
We were in Portland (OR) for the weekend, and spent a day wandering around using the city’s streetcar system.  Which brought up a personal psychological curiosity.  I like streetcars and feel comfortable using them to get around.  I don’t like buses and am not comfortable using them to get around.  Why?  What’s the difference?
I have warm memories of streetcars from my childhood.  Everything about them was warm.  Soft warm lighting.  Warm wood and cane seats.  Warm sounds of bells and the clickity-clack of the railroad track.  I imagine them as a warm refuge on cold winter days.  On warm summer days, open windows let in the sounds and smells of parks and lakes.  My few city bus experiences were not warm.  They were cold, wet, late, confusing, and long.  So that’s part of it.  But I think there is more.  I think it has to do with the certainty of knowing exactly where a street car on a track is going.  It has a certain kind of reserved right of way..  It doesn’t try to navigate through traffic because it can’t.  Other traffic has to navigate around it.  I was never quite sure where a bus would go, even if there is a printed route map.  Buses spewed smelly exhaust as they grumbled along on badly tuned Diesel engines.  Buses were easily delayed or detoured by other traffic.  In short, streetcars were friendly, buses were not.  They still are.  It’s a childhood thing brought into adult life.
It’s just one example of how much of our childhood experience we tote along with us into adulthood, even into old age.  For most of us, childhood based attitudes and beliefs that pop up in our adult worlds are curiosities, sometimes very amusing curiosities, the source of jokes told at our own expense.  But sometimes they are the source of dysfunctions that present themselves to pastors, therapists, and consultants (now sometimes called life or career coaches).  Well trained therapists may be able to dig down and do some fixing without causing any more damage.  Most of the rest of us can’t and shouldn’t try.  Nevertheless, we do have to take them under consideration, as we work around them to help a person in need.  
I thought about that the other day when talking with a someone about trees.  He was angry and emotionally defeated by a neighbor’s tree that littered his driveway and yard after a storm.  As we talked it became clear that the offending tree was symbolic of something altogether different; a deep fear instilled into him as a child that failure to be neat and clean in all things and at all times was a moral failure that jeopardized his value as a person worthy of love and acceptance.  With that out in the open, it made sense of his lawn without a single weed, of a house never in need of painting, and of things repaired or replaced before they needed it.  This was a guy with an otherwise successful life and well along in age, so deep therapy seemed like a waste of time.  What would be the point?  On the other hand, it made the offending tree make a lot of sense, and  it opened a way to talk it through so that the tree, if nothing else, could be dismissed, at least for a little while, as something destructive to his quality of life. 
What else is there besides streetcars and littering trees?  Likely answers tend to go in the direction of serious psychiatric problems, but that avoids the more common issues that haunt our otherwise reasonably sane adult behavior.  As a pastor, and sometime management consultant, I see these kinds childhood inspired behaviors acted out in the normal ways of getting through life.  For the most part, they are benign, causing problems only when they disrupt one’s ability to live and work in a comfortable way.  
Yet, some adults take their childish neuroses as signs of imperfection that must be treated with unending therapy as they pursue an ideal of mental health that is always just behind their grasp.  They are much like the man obsessed with the littering tree.  Others fashion them into life long excuses for lazy, sloppy habits of life.  Neither leads to abundance of life.  In fact, they throw up unnecessary fences of limitation that inhibit abundance of life. 
The point is that we sometimes make too big a deal out of minor neuroses that are nothing more than mildly interesting eccentricities unique to each of us, or we sometimes employ those eccentricities to manipulate the world about us in inappropriate ways.  Classical Christian practice suggests ways to keep both in check through the disciplines of self examination, honest confession, and repentance (i.e., choosing a new path).  It is’t always easy work, but the intention is to open the way to a life of greater abundance and joy.  Other traditions agree: Plato for instance with his commendation of an examined life, and Jung with his injunction that to know the shadow self is to open the way to a more full and healthy life.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance, but living into it requires a little work as we strive not to take ourselves too seriously while, at the same time, assuming responsibility for the habits of life that make for abundance.