Friday, January 16, 2015

Meet Shirley, in the Red Sweater


We met her coming in the front door.

We were coming in, and she was going out.  Or, at least, she wanted to be going out.

Mom and I were visiting Dad at his new Alzheimer facility, and we'd just opened the front door, for which a security code is required.  Entering the facility's airy lobby, we immediately encountered an elderly yet sprightly woman wearing a red cardigan.  Mom and I hadn't even closed the door when she began to speak.

"My husband has gone out to get the car, so before you close the door, please let me go wait for him," the red-sweatered woman requested.

She looked normal enough to me.  The sweater, her crisply-tailored slacks, her curly hair done just so, her pink nail polish and makeup properly applied; Dad had only been at this Alzheimer place a day, yet I'd already realized that just about everybody living there displays an appearance varying from modestly disheveled to unnervingly bizarre.  This woman, however, looked fine and healthy, and she spoke without the slightest hint of deceit.

Mom, nevertheless, wasn't convinced.  "I think we need to shut the door," she whispered.  So I did.

A few moments later, we met a staffmember of the facility at the other end of the lobby.

"So; you've met Shirley?" he grinned.*

Apparently, Shirley stations herself by the front door most days, and spends her time sizing up the people coming in and going out, trying to figure out who she might be able to bluff into letting her out.  "She thinks she runs the place," another staffmember joked to us, since even when she's not at her usual post by the front door, she takes upon herself the role of mother hen for her fellow residents who are far less socially proficient.

One morning, while strolling the quiet hallways searching for Dad, Mom and I met a female resident wearing a Maine t-shirt.  She was walking the halls with her husband, who is not an Alzheimer patient.  Mom grew up in Maine, and we learned that this resident also came from Maine.  Immediately, they began chatting about the towns, lakes, and regions of their childhood memories. 

Shirley happened to be around the corner; out of our sight, but not out of earshot.  Apparently, Shirley heard people talking about land and property, and she couldn't help herself:  She burst around the corner, interrupting the conversation with offers to sell her farm to whomever wanted to buy it.

Mom, this other resident, and her husband were confused.

But I burst out laughing.

I already knew a lot about Shirley's farm.  On an earlier visit, when Dad was resting in his wheelchair in the lobby, Shirley had given up her post near the front door and come over to chat with us.  Of course, having lived with a dementia patient for seven years myself, I've gotten used to filtering everything they say with skepticism, since their version of reality and history can be unintentionally distorted.  Nevertheless, Shirley was convincing in her tale of once owning a large farm, parts of which flanked both sides of a country road.  After her husband passed away, Shirley had sold the part of the farm on the other side of the road, even though the house on that piece of land was newer and modern.

"I liked the older, bigger house," Shirley explained, referring to the farmstead's original domicile, "even though I didn't need all that space.  Besides, that part of the farm was blackland, which is real good for crops.  I wanted to keep the blackland."

Made sense to me.

"Did you see my car outside?" Shirley anxiously inquired, instantly switching the subject.  "I have that brand-new Cadillac, but nobody ever drives it!  I've got that Cadillac just sitting out there!  It's still there, isn't it?"

I hadn't seen a Cadillac in the small parking lot out front, but neither did I see any harm in playing along.  "Nobody's moved it," I assured her.

"That's good," sighed a relieved Shirley.  "I've got two daughters, but they hardly ever come to see me.  Everybody's so busy nowadays. I hate having that Cadillac just sit out there with nobody driving it."

Late yesterday afternoon, Mom and I had just come through the front door into the lobby.  Our red-sweater friend had been taking another breather from her place near the door, standing instead across the room near the fireplace, and when she saw us, she came across the lobby.  At first, I thought she was going to greet us, but she walked right by us, without acknowledging us.

"My girls are coming to see me!" Shirley happily announced to nobody in particular.  "I see my girls!"

And sure enough, right behind us came a middle-aged woman and a man who was apparently her husband.  Shirley greeted the woman affectionately, but barely acknowledged the man.  By the way both the woman and man acted, Shirley's daughter and son-in-law were no infrequent strangers to the facility.  With dementia patients, however, the discouragingly short duration of their attention span denies them the comfort of knowing that loved ones are with them more often than they remember.

Dad's been at this facility for a little less than a month, and so far, Shirley is the only other resident who regularly talks with us.  Several residents are ambulatory, or can navigate their own wheelchairs, so they're moving about the facility every time we've been there, and the place is by no means deserted.  Still, the atmosphere, hijacked as it's been by Alzheimer's, is decidedly unique.

I've never before been around so many people whose brains are literally closing them off from interpersonal communication and interaction.  This facility has programs and activities that try to get its residents to participate in things together, like meals, sing-alongs, and question-and-answer sessions where residents call out words that begin with certain letters of the alphabet.  Yet only a couple of women ever verbalize their answers during the quizzes, and the sing-alongs are mostly muted mumbles by - again - just a couple of the ladies, in a room of maybe a dozen people.  And mealtimes?  From what I've seen so far, they're eerily quiet, too.

Today at lunch, for example, there was an elderly man slouched in a wheelchair alongside a dining table demanding "where's the food!" like that lady on the old "Where's the Beef?" commercials.  But otherwise, everybody was sitting quietly, and still; their faces displaying the trademark blankness of dementia.

At first, you'd be tempted to appreciate such model patience, but it didn't seem to be that they were being patient.  Being patient implies that one is exercising a certain measure of grace and tolerance while somebody else gets their act together.  No, with the exception of the one rowdy gentleman, these residents had some sort of mental button that had been set to "pause" while staffers bustled about them.

Patience is a virtue.  Blankness is simply sad.

Indeed, it's not just because of her ubiquitous red sweater that, within this sheltered tableau of crushing social dysfunction, Shirley stands out.  And to me, at least, she provides some much-appreciated relief.

Even if she herself cannot disguise her own struggles with dementia.

"I'm going to visit my mother this afternoon," she cheerfully told Mom and me the other morning.  "She's 400 years old!"

"Four hundred years old?" Mom exclaimed.

"No - she's four hundred and ten," Shirley corrected herself, as if at Mom's prompting.  "Yes - 410!  Shame on me for not remembering my own mother's age!"

"Wow," I marveled, "She's sure lived a long time, hasn't she?"

"Yes!" Shirley replied, beaming with pride in her mother's longevity.  "She's got a lot of get-up-and-go in her.  And so do I!"

And with that, Shirley grinned broadly, with a twinkle in her eye, raising a well-manicured fist into the air, like she was charging off to battle.

If only she could slay the enemy that is destroying her brain.
_____

* "Shirley" is not her real name.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Who Cares if Your Husband Isn't Gay?

  
Who cares if your husband isn't gay?

A mix of conservatives, evangelicals, Mormons, and gay-rights advocates are getting all hot and bothered over an otherwise flimsy show scheduled for Sunday, January 11 on the cable channel TLC.  Provocatively entitled, "My Husband's Not Gay," the show has succeeded in drumming up a lot of free publicity by coyly pitting religious conservatives against social liberals and letting them duke it out in the court of public opinion.

And like reliable, predictably reflexive machines, prominent conservatives and liberals have taken the bait.  What was otherwise probably going to be barely a blip on the cable TV radar screen has turned into its own media circus before it even airs.

The show's premise involves same-sex feelings a select few Mormon husbands profess to have despite also professing to be happily married to women.  One woman each, at least.  So liberals say the show depicts intolerance towards gays by portraying homosexuality in a negative, deviant, and undesirable light.  And conservatives say people of faith should have the right to act on that faith without being accused of being intolerant.

It's part of the antagonistic dialog that has flooded much of our post-Modern, post-Christian world recently.  Ours has become a jaded civilization of misguided universalism, haughty narcissism, and individualized moralisms, in which religious dogma is considered quaint at best, or destructive at worst.  Witness the panic being visited upon France this week, as bloodthirsty jihadis slaughter cartoonists few of us had ever heard of before, hold hostages in multiple venues, and kill an injured cop at point-blank range.  See what religious devotion can inflict upon society?

Yet, is promoting "My Husband's Not Gay" an expression of religious devotion, or reckless haranguing?  Baptist professor Denny Burk calls the liberal backlash against "My Husband's Not Gay" a form of anti-religious propaganda.  Another popular Baptist, Jim Denison, is more cautious, but he drops another "P" word - persecution - when writing in support of TLC's show.

As a member of the Baptist church's more fundamentalist flank, Burk describes socially liberal critics of TLC's show as intolerance against people of faith.  Denison, being more partial to moderate Baptists, says that Christians need to "earn the right" to share our faith, while both men casually give Mormonism the green light to claim that Joseph Smith's version of God's Word speaks for orthodox Christianity when it comes to homosexuality.

Meanwhile, God's Word has a lot more to say about marriage, sex, sexuality, and sin than merely the wrongness of homosexuality.  Should we be spending so much effort only criticizing the two percent of our population that is gay?  Consider the firestorm currently in Atlanta, where religious conservatives are up in arms over their mayor's firing of the city's fire chief, a Baptist deacon who self-published a book on sin.  Apparently, he briefly described homosexuality as a sexual sin, but he was pointedly sensationalistic when he did so.  In a sentence that is technically accurate yet intentionally incomplete,  Kelvin Cochran, the former fire chief, listed sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, and bestiality as being "opposite of purity."  But he failed to also include forms of sexual perversion in which heterosexuals far more frequently engage, such as lust, fornication, and adultery.

Do you see the problem?  By focusing on sexual activity that many religious conservatives personally find offensive, such as homosexuality, the topic of Biblical sexuality becomes an "us-versus-them" scorecard.  Sin becomes a sliding scale of sexual deviance, instead of an all-or-nothing metric by which God's holiness is valued, and our holiness should be pursued.  It also becomes easier to sell conventional religious audiences on the truth that homosexuality is a sin, rather than the many forms of heterosexual adultery which are far more commonplace in virtually any church or Bible study group.

Alienating people you apparently don't care much about can seem to carry a lot less risk than preaching the same truth about sin to people who are supposed to be just like you.

Who cares if your husband isn't gay?  Whether your husband is gay isn't the issue here, is it?  Is your spouse lusting after anybody?  Is his sexuality piqued by anybody else of any gender?  What difference does it make if your spouse is attracted to or titillated by anybody or anything other than the person to whom he's married?

Focusing on homosexuality is deceptive in this case, because by default, you're diluting the perils posed by any marital sin.  Marital sin isn't just homosexuality, it's any form of adultery.  Right?

Besides, if your husband happens to have some sort of latent attraction for other men, is that something you should be promoting from the rooftops, or national television?  How does that promote marital harmony?  Do we have shows about fat men called "My Husband's Not a Glutton"?  Or shows about talkative men called "My Husband's Not a Gossip"?

And let's not forget another big problem in this flash-in-the-pan debate:  Since Mormonism is a cult, don't Christians need to be exceptionally wary?  Mormons talk about sin, salvation, purity, and marriage in ways and with doctrines that are unsupported by Scripture.  America's increasingly potent dialog over gay marriage and sexual morality may scare some evangelicals into trying to forge political alliances with anybody who sounds halfway sympathetic to Biblical virtue, but Mormons are not our theological friends.

And to carry the marriage metaphor, "My Husband's Not Gay" isn't worth getting unequally yolked over.

Sure, defend religious speech if you want, but let's not drag a myopic, one-sided sexual purity debate into this one.  If, as Denison claims, we orthodox evangelicals need to "earn the right" to advocate for Biblical truth in the public square, is getting all sanctimonious over "My Husband's Not Gay" a good way to do it?


Monday, December 15, 2014

Longing for Yesteryear


When was your yesteryear?

Was it several years ago, when your children were younger?  Was it a couple of decades ago, when you graduated college, or got married?  Was it half a century ago, when the world seemed to be a far simpler place?

My yesteryear was two months ago, back when my father's dementia was merely stressful.  My yesteryear is the beginning of November, when Dad could still recognize me as his eldest son.

Before he began accusing me of being evil.  Of being Satan.

My yesteryear is even before he began to believe I was going to kill him.

Starting on Thursday evening, and every night since then, Dad has prayed out loud to God for peace as he prepared for me to murder him.  Every evening, in what is called "sundowning" (the process in which dementia patients react in disturbing ways to nightfall), Dad now lives in profound fear.  Fear of Mom, fear of me, and fear of what he thinks we're going to do to him.

He shakes in agony, his voice cracks, he sobs without tears.  He whispers disbelief at how his life is about to be stolen from him.  He prays to God defiantly so I can hear that however I kill him, as he truly expects, I'll know I can't kill his spirit.

You don't see any of this on the Alzheimer websites.  You see lots of information about walking with Alzheimer patients through their earliest memories, but there's nothing about how to handle a loved one who believes you're about to murder them in cold blood.

My yesteryear is the time - about three weeks ago - before Mom began getting so afraid of Dad, and what he might do to himself and us, that she began calling 911.  She's called them three times now, and each time, the police come out and quietly try to diffuse our situation.  The first two times, it worked:  Dad calmed down and his fears subsided.  Saturday night, however, he began arguing with the cops, and I finally encouraged them to leave, since no progress was being made.

Yesterday afternoon, we experienced the earliest onset of Dad's sundowning, with the questions and fear beginning at about 5:00.  He'd scowl at Mom, asking for her identity.  He'd glare at me, disbelieving anything I told him.  I found one of his CDs of hymn music and played it, watching his face sink into his hands, as if in prayer.  Mom and I looked at each other, smiling to see him asking God for peace in the midst of his confusion.

Then he raised his head and looked defiantly at both of us.  He declared that he was ready for whatever harm we were about to inflict upon him.  We then realized he'd been praying for the faith and courage to face his imminent death.

Mom choked back tears.

I silently chided myself for being so gullible as to hope a simple thing like playing soothing music could intercept his worsening dementia.

My yesteryear was when Dad merely forgot that his sister no longer lives in Brooklyn, where they had grown up.  Every time they spoke on the phone, Dad would ask her three or four times where she lived, since the experiences she told him about her day had nothing to do with the old neighborhood.  Last night, for the first time, he angrily told her she was lying to him, and tried to hang up the phone.  Mom grabbed the receiver from him and commiserated with my aunt over what had just happened.  Dad had turned on his own sister, the last person alive who can relate to their family's childhood experiences.

My yesteryear was an almost unbelievable one or two inches ago, back around the beginning of November, when I couldn't wear several old, old pairs of denim jeans.  I fit comfortably into them now, thanks to all the weight I've suddenly lost.  Because of my constant anxiety, my appetite has shriveled up, and so has my waistline.  I'm still hungry, but I can barely brace myself for whatever new hell we're going to face each evening with Dad's condition.

My yesteryear was when Dad refused to go to church because he didn't want anybody to see that he needed to use a cane.  On Sunday mornings, after breakfast and before the time he and Mom usually left for their church, he'd feign an illness, such as being too tired or dizzy.  But then, as soon as I announced that Mom had left for church alone, suddenly he was chipper and professing that he felt fine.

My yesteryear was when Dad fought with Mom and me for trying to help him take a shower safely.  It could take half an hour to coax him into the bathroom to take a 5-minute shower.  And those strategically-placed handrails Mom paid some contractor a ridiculous amount of money to install in their bathroom?  He would disdainfully use them only after I'd repeatedly remind him of their obvious presence.

My yesteryear was back when Dad didn't fear me as his potential killer; he merely considered me the bad guy in our household; the person upon whom most of his anger was directed.  Mom and I had learned that because of the confusion and anxiety dementia patients experience, they tend to direct their resulting anger towards one of their caregivers.  Usually, that unfortunate target of their anger is their spouse.  Yet in our case, since I'm living at home with them, as the overweight, underemployed son, I caught most of Dad's vitriol.  And that was okay, since it usually spared Mom from even higher levels of stress.

But those days appear to be over, and long gone.  When sundowning begins, both Mom and I are equal-opportunity targets for his scorn, vitriol, and outright ugliness.  Some experts say we should nurture Dad's childhood memories and walk through his version of reality with him, validating his humanity despite his confusion.  Unfortunately for us, however, Dad's childhood was irreparably scarred by an alcoholic father.  There is little in his earliest memories that is good.  Years ago, during one of his extremely infrequent mentions of his father, Dad told us that the day he came home from work to find his father dead in their apartment's foyer, there was such profound relief in his family, it took a while before anybody figured they should call somebody to remove the body.

Fortunately for us, there's an elder at Mom and Dad's church who has willingly come over on each of these past few nights and helped to calm Dad down.  This elder, Ron, has a remarkable knack for chatting through topics to find nuggets of relevance that can engage the person with whom he's talking.  With Dad, his only really good childhood memories involve watching Dodgers baseball games at Ebbets Field, and Ron, having grown up as an improbable Dodgers fan himself, despite being raised in rural Texas, can talk to him about the old players.

In my yesteryear, Mom once had me research and print off some information on the old Dodgers and their legendary players, but Dad read just a couple of sentences of it and then filed it someplace.  We haven't seen it since.

Ron is an engineer.  He was also military pilot, and has worked in several different industries, so he's accrued a broad and diverse history from which he can draw stories and anecdotes that touch on Dad's history in the military and employment in the concrete construction business.  Meanwhile, the life histories Mom and I each have are inextricably tied into Dad's.  And since he doesn't know who we are, he doesn't trust us when we talk - especially about experiences it's apparent he should remember along with us.  Mom and I try to talk with Dad like Ron does, but invariably, Dad becomes suspicious, and before long, he's denying what we're saying, and getting agitated.  I suspect that Mom and I are too close to him, even though he can't remember why we're close.  People like Ron are removed from his life just far enough so that there's a certain casualness to their relationship.

Chalk it up to one of the difficult ironies of dementia.  Dad would cheerfully chat away with telemarketers and willingly offer up his credit card information if we let him.  Yet he's fearful of us.  He convinces himself I'm going to murder him, yet he'd shuffle out the front door, off to who knows where in the black of night, if we'd let him.  He enthusiastically welcomes Ron into his reality, but he bitterly accuses Mom and me of holding him hostage.

In my yesteryear, I wasn't a hostage-holder.  I wasn't Satan.  I wasn't about to murder my precious Dad.

I want my yesteryear back, and everything it stood for.

In God's holy providence, however, even today's misery will soon become a yesteryear for which I'll likely pine as we descend ever lower into this netherworld called Alzheimer's.
_____

Update - Sure enough; it's 4:09pm on Monday, and Mom and are getting ready to take Dad to the hospital, where his neurologist has arranged for him to be admitted before his inevitable placement into a nursing home.  As you might imagine, this is very hard.  Very.  Hard.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

NYC, San Francisco... and Arlington, TX?


How legitimate is this list?

It puts Arlington, Texas, between New York City and San Francisco as the top three cities for today's millennials to live.

Arlington... Texas?

It reminds me of the little ditty, "one of these things is not like the others."

Hey - I live here, and I'm single, although I'm no longer in my 20's, like millennials are.  My Dallas friends consider Arlington a cultural wasteland, however, and most people across the rest of the country only know of Arlington as the place where the Dallas Cowboys play.

Arlington, Virginia, is far better known, and even here in Texas, is probably considered far hipper and attractive to twentysomethings than Arlington, Texas.

Yet the self-absorbed webzine Vocativ says they've crunched the numbers, and in their second survey of America's 35 most populous cities for millennials, it's New York City in the top spot, with Arlington in the second spot, and the city by the bay in the third spot.  At least as far as being attractive places for today's twentysomethings to live, work, and play. 

For its part, Vocativ is a relatively new media concern that has yet to impress the digital community, and it's struggling to establish itself within its target demographic:  millennials.  Will this survey help make the website appear relevant to such people?

To be fair, this survey of theirs isn't so much about where millennials are currently living, as it is where they should be living, at least according to the perceived metrics millennials embrace in their lifestyles.  As interpreted, at least, by Vocativ.

So, OK:  Having New York and San Francisco anchoring two of the top three spots isn't hard to understand.  These two perennial urban hot spots have been magnets for young people for generations.  In fact, what's surprising is that Portland, Oregon, commanded the top spot in Vocativ's first such listing.  Sure, I hear Portland is a hip and trendy place, but in terms of raw appeal, especially to impressionable and highly idealistic young adults, there's no comparison between the Big Apple, San Francisco, and any other city on this list.

Which brings us again to Arlington's curious association with such appealingly cosmopolitan, world-class, popular, and expensive cities.

There's nothing glamorous about this city I'm living in.  Sure, we have an impressive stadium for the Dallas Cowboys, and an attractive baseball stadium for the Texas Rangers, but they're surrounded by acres of parking lots, not trendy neighborhoods full of quirky restaurants, gastropubs, and coffee shops.

We do have something approximating a downtown area, but it's hardly what anybody would call bustling.  Most of the buildings downtown are occupied by government agencies and non-profits, like the miniature empire of Mission Arlington, a Baptist social services center.  We have a large university district, but it's for the University of Texas at Arlington, whose aesthetically bland campus and academically average pedigree prevent it from exploiting a prominent collegiate profile.

We have an outdoor concert venue downtown that is pleasant enough, but its schedule is limited to 50 nights out of the year when the evening temperature is bearable.  However, Arlington does boast the original Six Flags amusement park, as well as a convenient 15-minute drive to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.  We have some charming older residential neighborhoods, along with a lot of aging cookie-cutter-type subdivisions and sprawling apartment complexes, in which housing is abundant and affordable.  Just about every chain restaurant known to man has at least one outlet in town, shopping in plentiful and all parking is free, we've got three major freeways to get you anywhere you want to go in the wider north Texas region, and we're geographically located smack in the middle between Fort Worth to the west, and Dallas to the east. 

In other words, Arlington is the affordable, pleasant, convenient, family-friendly, conventional American city that those of us who live here know it to be.

It's not flashy, or trendy, or sophisticated, or artsy, although we do have a respectable amateur theater scene.  Most residents have to commute outside of Arlington to their jobs, but that's the story in many of the suburban communities clustered around Fort Worth and Dallas.  We have a world-class cancer center here in town, but hopefully that's not something millennials have to worry about in their young lives.

Vocativ admits that Arlington's relative affordability represents the single biggest reason we're number two on their list.  They try to paint our humble town as an up-and-coming hipster enclave, but if that's the case, it's news to all of us who live here.  Basically, if you're a level-headed twentysomething who takes responsibility for your own personal expenses, Vocativ's list gives you something to consider in Arlington.  Otherwise, Arlington seems to be more of an aberration within - rather than an affirmation of - Vocativ's statistical prowess.

And if you dig a little bit into Vocativ's other results, you'll see that Arlington's prominence isn't their only analytical oddity.

Cleveland, Ohio, for example, comes in at #10 in the entertainment category.  News to you, too, huh?

Then too, when they calculated housing costs, Vocativ threw in a consideration for how much a house cleaning service costs - which either says a lot of negative things about how pampered Vocativ's staffers are, or how spoiled millennials are in general.

And when calculating the costs of spending an evening on the town, Vocativ factored in the cost of marijuana in various cities across America.

Let's just say that marijuana is illegal in Arlington.  Weed is something in our lawns that we mow.

So if you're single, young, and looking for the most truly "livable" city in the United States, you'll find a lot of rational, boring reasons for taking a look at Arlington, Texas.  Sure, we're just about the antithesis of what New York and San Francisco offer you - or demand from you, but should life be all about big city excitement?

Hey - for that, what about Cleveland?


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Churches Dreaming of a White Christmas

Adapted from an essay I wrote on November 2, 2012:


We're thick into the Christmas season now, and churches of all denominations and theological stripes are having their annual Christmas concerts.

These concerts, of course, range in style and focus from sentimental seasonal standards to contemporary Christian extravaganzas to high-brow classical.  We have a gargantuan megachurch here in suburban Dallas that puts on a show every year to rival the legendary spectacle at Radio City Music Hall, complete with camels and flying angels.  I've never attended myself, but I hear their production is astonishingly professional and immensely entertaining.

Besides, since Santa Claus himself bows before the manger prop containing the Baby Jesus, it's supposedly good evangelism to boot.

And we evangelicals wonder why the world around us increasingly views our faith as some sort of fuzzy fable.  We like to blame the world for corrupting Christmas, but aren't we doing our part within the church to mythologize what we say we believe, especially when it comes to the narrative surrounding the birth of our Savior?

Christmas is No Myth

Forget all of the commercialization, the partying, the excessive gift-giving, the decorations, and the other busyness of this season.  Plenty of critics have already pointed out how the theological implications of Christ's nativity get lost in the ways we Westerners overdose on what we call "holiday cheer."

Meanwhile, one of the subtlest ways people within the church tend to fritter away the Biblical legitimacy of Christmas involves our complicity in perpetuating its traditionalist fallacies.  We want the nativity to be nostalgic and pretty.  Yet aren't the facts of Christ's incarnation far less cosseted and pristine?  How white should Christmas be, anyway, both in terms of the European spin we give it, and the snowy dusting with which we Western Caucasian evangelicals fondly depict it?

If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, let me remind you of the real deal:  Mary was a pregnant teenager who'd just finished a grueling trek forced upon her and her fiancĂ© - who wasn't the father of her baby - by their imperious government.  They ended up in a stable, with smelly hay, smelly farm animals, smelly excrement from those smelly farm animals, and no obstetrician, neonatal nurse, or midwife in sight.  Their first visitors after Christ's birth weren't nobility, but a group of illiterate shepherds.

In addition, this all took place probably in March or April, not the dead of winter, and the magi were just starting out on their journey after seeing the star in the East.  It would take them a couple of years to make it to the place where the young Christ child was.  And by then, it wouldn't have been a stable.

And guess what - it hardly ever snows in temperate Bethlehem.

Actually, if we told the story authentically, wouldn't we see that the reality of Christ's birth is more profound than the frosted fantasy into which our culture has polished it?  Thankfully, some of our songwriters have gotten it right, and attempted to marvel at God's perfect way of introducing Christ to this planet.  But it's hard for merchants to sell Christmas as an arduous, unsanitary, disenfranchised, and bizarre event.  And unfortunately, the evangelical church has been mostly complicit with the Nativity's commercializers in making the Incarnation a sellable product for once-a-year churchgoers.

Christmas Music Needs Authenticity

Regular readers of my blog essays know that I'm an unabashed advocate for classical hymnody.  I actually believe that what we consider to be traditional corporate worship provides, on the whole, a focus on Christ and God's holiness that comes closer to what our Trinity expects when we gather together to honor Him.  I'm willing to contend that culturally, our genre of classical music has become less a Caucasian, European contrivance as much as it has become a universally-renowned, broadly-appreciated style of stately repertoire uniquely suited to the worship of God, no matter where we're born, or in what society we've been raised.

Yes, that means some expressions of culture are better than others.  It's a politically incorrect thing to say, and, some think, a woefully impertinent thing to believe.  But it's true.  No human culture is perfect, or even ideal.  And many are utterly unBiblical.  Doesn't this mean that, when it comes to how we express our adoration of God to Him, particularly in public, we can't rely on cultural norms to be adequate?  Just because we're under the misapprehension that God values all cultural norms equally?

Don't we need to discriminate between what's good, and what's adequate, or even downright inappropriate?

When it comes to such cultural institutions as Christmas, shouldn't we resist the urge to let culture dictate our worship?  Shouldn't communicating the glory of Christ's birth be done with as much theological and historical integrity as possible?

Poetic License to Mythologize?

Consider, then, one of most revered songs within the Christmas repertoire.  It's called "In the Bleak Midwinter," and the text is by noted poet Christina Rossetti, who lived from 1830 until 1894.  For the most part, these lyrics withstand basic theological scrutiny fairly well.  Yet Rossetti incorporates snowy winter themes and references the Wise Men in a way that bolsters the fictitious narrative of popular Christmas lore, which does a grave disservice to the historical accuracy of Christ's birth.

1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

4. What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Thematically, the references to a "bleak midwinter" could be argued as being allegorical to the span of quiet time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, when it's widely thought that God's presence had been generally withheld from our planet.  Then too, since centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church had moved the observance of Christmas to coincide with pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, which symbolizes a time of death between the seasons of decay and renewal, a "bleak midwinter" presents a poetic linkage between mortal sin and salvation.

For the artistic among us, appreciating these delicate abstractions may be a permissible way to forgive the historical inaccuracies that help to mythologize Christmas.  Scott Aniol, a professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that on its literary merits alone, the poetry of "In the Bleak Midwinter" makes it a bona-fide carol for evangelicals to use during Advent.

"What Rossetti is portraying in her poem," reasons Aniol, "is not a weather report on the day of Christ’s birth.  Rather, she is using quite conventional metaphorical imagery to paint a picture of the condition of the world when Jesus was born.  This was a harsh world, a world that was cold as ice, dark as midnight, and hard as iron... Sin had built up upon the world like snow piled upon snow upon snow upon snow.  This world was bleak.  And it is into this world that the God of Heaven descended.  Rossetti beautifully contrasts the bleakness of a cold dark world with the warmth and light of the stable.  You can almost see the light and feel the warmth through her words."

That may be, but is artistic license sufficient authorization for reinforcing inaccurate cultural baggage when it comes to the Gospel?  Literary nuance is one thing, but isn't basing it on pagan fables a bit counter-productive?  She may sure write pretty, but Rossetti's imagery does little to convey a universal application of the Christmas story to cultures where references to snow and its allegorical qualities risks tilting the Incarnation towards a Western - and therefore, foreign - aesthetic.

Granted, the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle we Christians can put in the way of Christ's redemptive work, but how loving is it for us to intentionally and unnecessarily complicate parts of the Gospel?

Let's Liberate Christmas from Ethnocentrism!

Maybe you don't mind singing songs that are exclusive to your culture and cohort.  And in terms of everyday socialization, doing so isn't wrong, in and of itself.  But when it comes to the Gospel, shouldn't we be seeking to free God's Good News from the shackles of our own cultural bondage?  The message of God becoming incarnate for us is a global message.  And it's not our message - it's God's!

For a full half of our planet, the midwinter is hardly bleak and snowy.  For them, it's like North America's and Europe's summertime!  If we sang Rossetti's song in Australia or Nigeria, we'd have to throw in the caveat, "well, this was written by a European white woman; you'll have to free it from its cultural baggage."

Maybe there are some Nigerian Christmas songs that talk about how hot and dusty it must have been during the winter when Christ was born.  See how awkward that would be for us?

Therefore, shouldn't Christ's Nativity be equally relevant to all of God's Elect, no matter where we live?  Or what our winters look like?

I'm not interested in preserving Western hymnody simply for nostalgia's sake.  I think the bulk of Western hymnody should be applicable to as many cultures as possible, because it has that much theological and artistic integrity.  It may have originated in Western cultures, but just like the message it declares, it can be universal in its applicability.

Why doesn't the church return those dreams of a white Christmas to Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby!  And why don't we instead sing:

In the bleak midwinter of mans' weary soul, 
    past the prophets' telling, silence from God's shoal;
Earth stood hard as iron, gloom as shrouds of snow, 
    in the bleak midwinter long ago.

- I edited the first verse of Rossetti's poem for a choral performance of this piece in 2007 at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Old News, Old Political Games in CIA Study


If waterboarding isn't torture, why did the CIA do it?

If stripping detainees naked and dragging them along the floor isn't torture, why bother?

Is the CIA run by a bunch of sadistic perverts who enjoy contriving agony from people simply because they can?  If that is the case, then we really have some deep problems in the United States of America.

If, on the other hand, our government was desperate to learn about other ways Muslim extremists intended to attack the "Free World" after 9-11, did former president Bush and his administration simply bend the rules a little too much?

Some pundits fear that the Senate Intelligence Committee's release today of its report on the CIA's use of torture could spark a new wave of extremist aggression against Americans and American interests abroad.  Yet the bar for terrorism was set mighty high on 9-11, without anybody knowing the depths to which Americans would go in torturing suspected Islamists.

Indeed, in the months and years immediately following that tragic day, the democratic world's combined intelligence community really didn't know what it was up against.  Their attack models, leads, informants, and operational knowledge of terrorist capabilities had been proven woefully inadequate by what the world witnessed in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania.  What else didn't we know?  When might something else as bad - or worse - take place?

For the record, and for a country as obsessed with laws, the courts, and due process as the United States, there's little wiggle room when it comes to condoning torture.  As her committee unfurled its voluminous report this morning, California senator Dianne Feinstein rhapsodized that our country is big enough and powerful enough to absorb whatever repercussions there might be in declassifying such sensitive information, and she rightly said that torture should be something our country opposes, both here at home, and abroad.

But is today's grand reveal really about torture?  Is the "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program" actually about the morality of what the Bush administration condoned in our name?  Or is all of the political and media fuss over today's release merely a re-hashing of aging partisan vendettas?

Read far enough into the study, and you'll realize there's little in it that you haven't heard before.  We've heard stories about how the CIA inflicted pain and humiliation on suspected terrorists.  We watched eight years ago as the CIA and the Bush administration squabbled between themselves - and amongst themselves - regarding who authorized what when it came to things like waterboarding.  Dick Cheney has been snarling for ages about how appropriate everything was.  Just about the only thing we didn't fully comprehend was how frustrated members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were with what they perceived to be a lack of inclusion in the CIA's agenda.

Which is really what this study is about, isn't it?  In a way, it's the Senate's opportunity to whine in public about feeling like they were only bit players in what America's secret intelligence operatives were doing - at the behest of a Republican presidential administration.

What makes things juicy is that they can wallow in the details of torture to titillate an audience who'd likely otherwise fall asleep while reading it.  And they don't have to take any responsibility for having possibly turned a blind eye at the time to interrogation methods that politicians of all political stripes may have condoned in the frantic season after 9-11.

Regular readers of my blog know that I'm no flag-waving fan of the Bush administration.  And that I'm even less enamored by Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other right-wing hawks who kept their White House careening wildly along a narrow ledge of accountability over the threatening canyon of Muslim terrorism for two white-knuckle terms.

But what is there in this report that we didn't already know?  Other than the fact that "the CIA has actively avoided or impeded" the oversight that the Senate, the media, the White House, and other agencies and departments believed were rightfully theirs to assert?

For that, we need a 500-page "executive summary" for a 6,000-page report?

Here's a news flash for you, senators:  now you know how the American electorate feels about how Washington has been treating us for lo, these many years.

You want torture?  Try voting and paying taxes, election cycle after election cycle, only to see your dysfunction corrupt our political discourse.

Not to trivialize the inhumane degradation and physical harm that the CIA inflicted upon its dozens of prisoners, as recounted in this exhaustive Senate report.

But neither should we trivialize with petulant partisan gamesmanship the torture most of us should be able to recognize in the pages of this report.

Do you want this to instead be about America's turning away from torture?  That's fine.  Yet, from an altruistic human rights perspective, shouldn't we be able to discuss methods of acquiring sensitive information from enemy combatants without re-branding old news in new ways to buy face time on national television?

It's awfully hard to see the CIA as being the problem with so many senators ogling for the media spotlight.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Bruised Reeds and Weak Wicks


Behold My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen, in whom My soul delights:
I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up His voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed He will not break,
and a faintly burning wick He will not quench;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
  - Isaiah 41:1-3 ESV


As God speaks through His prophet, Isaiah, regarding the promise and purposes of Christ, it's easier to focus on the grander things, and overlook the smaller.

At least, it's easier for me to focus on Christ's grand purposes, like bringing justice to the nations.  Pretty impressive, huh?  Meanwhile, I overlook the fact that God pointedly assures me that His holy Son will not run roughshod over the weak as He accomplishes his momentous, eternal objectives on Earth.

Of course, God's justice is broad and deep.  It is the perfect accomplishment of His plans and designs for each one of us, where we live, and when we live.  It's as perfect and strategic for you - no matter the country in which you're accessing this article on the Internet - as it was for the Jews in Isaiah's day.

When we mortal humans accomplish big things, unfortunately, we usually tend to inflict a considerable amount of collateral damage along the way.  China, for example, has obliterated so many densely-populated neighborhoods in its desire to build some of the world's most ostentatious buildings, social scientists worry that indigenous cultural features from China's ancient traditions may be vanishing within a single generation.

As the pastor at my church who preached from this text above pointed out in his sermon yesterday, we Americans were pushed into World War Two's Pacific Theater with the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.  Yet our valiant fight for freedom was quietly compromised as over 100,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during the war.  Quite the irony, wouldn't you say?

God, however, will accomplish His epic, universal, and even intimate purposes without destroying His people.  How could he act otherwise?  Pure, complete justice such as the sort God represents doesn't inflict collateral damage of any sort amongst those who serve Him.  This means that in terms of our deficiencies or problems, He will not discard disciples who have suffered injury, nor will he snuff out weak-spirited followers.

Isn't His an amazing depiction of sovereign care and grace in the midst of Isaiah 42's sweeping pronouncements about all Christ will accomplish?  Even in the midst of such utterly profound feats as creating us, giving sight to the blind, freeing captives, and defending His glorious honor, God will preserve the lowly, and the damaged, and the weak.

God watches over bruised reeds and weak wicks.

Regular readers of my blog know those things that weaken me, and that have bruised me emotionally and mentally.  And even spiritually.  For years, I've felt like a faintly-burning wick, barely able to cast a glow, let alone a shadow.  My spirituality has been beset by doubts and fears, and it's easier for me to feel sorry for myself than be confident in my future.

Indeed, I tend to see myself more as a wick than a reed.  How about you?  A bruised reed sounds as though it's describing an otherwise innocent person who has been injured by somebody or something else.  A faintly-burning wick seems to more aptly describe somebody who simply feels as though their very being has been compromised by some debilitating deficit within themselves. 

I don't blame anybody else for my depression, or for anything else that has affected me negatively.  Not that I'm a model of forgiveness, or champion of letting bygones be bygones.  I simply haven't been victimized any more than anybody else.

What I do believe, however, is that my chronic clinical depression has drained so much emotional, physical, and spiritual energy from me, that if I were to demonstrate the amount of fuel within my soul, and a wick were inserted to try and generate some sort of light or warmth from that fuel, the flame would be faint at best.

Yet Christ didn't come to punish me for having a faintly-burning wick.  He didn't come to snuff me out!  Amen?  He knows my weaknesses, and He's come to save me from them.  Not penalize me!

Of course, in order to benefit from this reality, I need to believe that Jesus - even the baby much of the world celebrates in some fashion at this time of the year - is indeed the Christ, the holy Son of the living God.  I need to let Him be the Lord of my life.  I need to allow His Holy Spirit to produce within me the Fruit of Godliness, which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  And I need to rest in His promises of deliverance - deliverance in His time and through His ways.  Not my timeframe, and my expectations.

In our popular parlance, the word "break" has become commonly used in conjunction with ending something, like breaking one's self of a bad habit, or breaking-in a new employee with an employer's preferred best-standards.  In the context of these verses, however, Isaiah is talking about "break" as in destroy, as if to regard the destruction of a ubiquitous reed with a weak spot in it as irrelevant.

And how many of us bother with a weak flame?  When you're lighting candles, or when candles have reached the bottom of the wax, and one of the flames is weak, what else do you do but snuff out the flame?  What good is a weak flame to us if we want to use it for light, heat, or even ambiance?

Providentially, God's value metrics are different from ours, aren't they?  And for that, shouldn't we be profoundly grateful?

Maybe you don't see yourself as a bruised reed, or a faintly-burning wick, and you're enthusiastic about celebrating all that our Christmas season has to offer.  You're full of vim and vigor, and really can't relate to what I'm writing about.  If this describes you, then be thankful for your lot in life, and invite the Lord to glorify Himself through the ways you celebrate His birth.

Nevertheless, meanwhile, if the Lord allows any of us to metaphorically encounter a bruised reed, let's be careful not to break it.  And if we encounter a faintly-burning wick during this candle-burning season, why not resist the urge to snuff it out?

When we're seeking to honor Christ, being mindful of others is simply following the pattern Isaiah told us He'd model.