Friday, April 29, 2011

On ill health

It's time to share some personal information here, since I've said more than enough about politics and religion recently. I haven't spoken much about my family, although those who have noted my planned joint recital with my son Jeremy must have concluded that I have one. They are correct, and we've had some health challenges that have made this past couple of years particularly difficult for us.

The hero of our family is unquestionably my wife Barbara, who has endured a catalogue of illnesses that would challenge even the most robust among us. A thirty-two-year cancer survivor, she has been deaf for the last eight years because of the damage done by the massive dose of radiation she was given after her surgery. She hears only with cochlear implants, which are an improvement over deafness but far from perfect. She also struggles with balance, which is undermined by the loss of both inner ears and part of her cerebellum. Over the past two years, she has had surgery for an excruciatingly painful rotator cuff tear in her left arm that was pinching a nerve, and for trigeminal neuralgia, called the "suicide disease" because it is believed to be the most painful condition known to man.

That's an awful lot to lay on one person, so it's a good thing that I've usually been able to take my own good health for granted. This year, though, my body has thrown me for a loop. Last April I suddenly experienced a sharp and growing pain in my lower left abdomen. When it didn't subside for over a day, I was taken to the hospital for a CT scan, which revealed extensive diverticulitis and a near-ruptured abscess in my large intestine. (I wasn't told about the latter at the time.) Diverticulitis is a bacterial infection that develops in pouches in the sygmoid colon. Almost every American has these pouches by middle age, but it's unclear why they sometimes become infected. Mine did, though, with a vengeance.

I missed nearly a week of classes, but massive treatment with two different antibiotics got me back in shape. I was told to expect another infection - eventually. In the meantime, I should eat lots of fiber and probiotics. With luck, it would be a few years before I had to worry about this again.

It turned out to be two months. In June, at the height of my summer term teaching, I was struck once more. Once again the antibiotics, and once again a few days when I couldn't work - though with no student assistant to back me up this time. A few more days teaching against medical advice, sitting when I prefer to stand. Two weeks of antibiotics this time instead of ten days.

In July, another relapse. Three full weeks of antibiotics this time. Then, except for a false alarm in September that sent me to the hospital for another CT scan, it held fire for over half a year.

It returned out of nowhere in February as I was teaching my afternoon seminar. By the time I got back to my office, the pain was so severe I couldn't drive, so I had to call Barbara to pick me up. The same pills, the same five-day recuperation period, and I was more than ready for the Spring Break respite that came shortly afterward.

Episode number five began on Thursday of last week, during a committee meeting. I was able to drive myself home this time, but the painkillers I had to take kept me doped out for most of Good Friday. (Perhaps that explains my blog post that day, with the nostalgia for Earth Day 1970. I didn't say that.) According to the well established pattern, by the time Easter Break was over, I would be on my feet and ready to teach again - just way behind on my paper grading. I even took some time to practice intensively for the joint recital. Then Wednesday came, I taught three classes, and I returned at 5:00 deeply weary and in pain. It was clear that I just wasn't getting over this episode as quickly as in the past, and I had to make the painful decision to postpone the recital (until June 5) so I could focus on getting my final grades done.

This time, my doctor gave me what I hope is the full story. The flareup I had in April of last year was so bad that it damaged my sygmoid colon irreparably. The only way to stop these increasingly debilitating attacks will be to have surgery to restructure my intestine. Believe it or not, they can do that with lasers and a few small incisions. However, they can't do it before July 18, when I'm finally done with my summer teaching and will have three weeks to recuperate. In the meantime, I just need to keep those pills on hand and try not to get too stressed out, since it's glaringly obvious that stress makes this worse.


Do you think that's going to work? Neither do I. At least, though, I've had the opportunity to experience first-hand what it's like when your body just doesn't do everything you think it should. Barbara has been living with that for over thirty years, so I can surely put up with it for a few more months. It's sobering, frustrating, and a little scary. It's part of life.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter, Now and Then

"I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day:
And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th'East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavor?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever."

These lines from George Herbert's Easter remind us that the link between Earth Day and Easter that occurred this year is a logical one. Images from nature abound as the poet looks for ways to express his effortless amazement at a phenomenon at once ordinary and astonishing.

As a lefty Christian, I naturally get asked a lot whether I believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. The answer is yes.

I am not going to devote any space here to defending this belief, which is contrary to all logic and counter-intuitive in the extreme. What I want to talk about is why it matters that we understand the resurrection as physical, and not just as something that a bunch of people coined a metaphor to express.

It's important because it means it took place in the world, which is God's creation. As such, it was actually a vindication of the beliefs of the radical Pharisees, who of course do not come off well in the New Testament. Really, though, the Pharisees' belief in a physical resurrection is itself a logical extension of the images of God's justice expounded by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, among others. The vision of the New Jerusalem that concludes Isaiah is virtually identical to the one that concludes Revelation, and that is no coincidence. The Old and New Testaments are in complete agreement in proclaiming that God's purposes, including justice, will be worked out entirely on earth. We will not go to live with God; God will come to live with us.

It may surprise many people to hear that this is the only vision of the afterlife or of ultimate justice offered anywhere in the Bible. Absorbing this fact, though, has profound implications. On the one hand, on this Easter, we don't have to wait for God's justice to be fulfilled. It has just happened. On the other hand, as Franz Kafka said, "the Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary. He will come only on the day after his arrival." Preparing the way for what is yet to come is our business, and we shouldn't expect any more miraculous intervention until we've done a much better job of it than we have so far.

As New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright points out, until the later 19th century, when belief in the physical resurrection began to be replaced by mushier notions of the afterlife, the deep connection between the Gospel and social justice was well understood. Only after the waters have been muddied and the resurrection metaphored onto the sidelines has it become possible for an idiot like Glenn Beck to claim otherwise.

So here's my Easter challenge. Let's act as though it's real again.

• Let's respond to the evil of violence not by arming ourselves and attacking others, but by daring to walk unarmed and non-violent in a world in which death has already been conquered.

• Let's respond to the reality of social injustice by acting with prophetic vision. In particular, let's acknowledge that glorifying the acquisition of wealth, under the assumption that it will somehow benefit everybody, is a complete inversion of justice of which we should be deeply ashamed.

• Let's assume that when both the Old and New Testaments speak of God's justice extending to all people, they mean it. You can exclude people from an other-worldly paradise on the basis of all kinds of criteria, including what they believe, what they look like, whom they love and, of course, what church they don't belong to. You can't do that in a world that is covered by God's justice as the waters cover the sea.

• Let's continue to expand this bullet list by adding other ways in which we can take seriously the Easter claim that God has conquered death and injustice permanently, and that the place where that happened, and will continue to happen, is here.

Happy Easter.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day, Then and Now

The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. I got in on the ground floor, since my father—a biologist who has always been deeply concerned for the environment—helped spearhead the observation of the occasion in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I grew up. I was in the 9th grade that year. In subsequent years, I helped organize an Earth Day Fair at my high school. One of the highlights was the "(ecologically) pornographic picture contest." Prizes were awarded to the photos that most graphically showed the degradation of the local environment.

Due to my father's example, I have had over four decades to get used to the idea that our current level of energy consumption is dangerous and unsustainable. Thus, the recent crystallization of concern over climate change was no surprise to me. Unlike many others, I saw this coming.

I saw something else coming, too. I still remember my shock when Mr. Wilson, my art teacher, started telling anybody who would listen that environmentalism was a communist plot. I liked Mr. Wilson; he was a sweet man and a good teacher. He did have his causes, though. He freaked out if anybody drew a picture containing any kind of alcoholic drink. I figured he'd probably been fighting that demon himself, so it didn't bother me when he preached to us about the evils of booze.

I have no idea, though, how he might have been harmed by environmentalism, or why he was determined to wage a crusade against it. On that first Earth Day, he constructed a big display case in the school lobby documenting what he believed was the environmentalist/communist connection. The trump card was the fact that April 22 was Lenin's birthday. You have to wonder, of course, what was going through Mr. Wilson's mind. If I wanted to construct a plot that was designed to fool people into promoting Nazism, I would surely be smart enough not to schedule my flagship event on Hitler's birthday. Such subtleties, though, were apparently lost on my art teacher. Environmentalists were communists. He was gracious enough to acknowledge to me that my father probably wasn't a communist; he was just a dupe. I could rest assured, though, that the motivation for Earth Day was coming straight from Moscow.

The irony will not be lost on regular readers of this blog. As I revealed in my post on McCarthyism last month, I did have communists in my family. They were all on my mother's side, though. My father had no connection to them.

They were also patriots. My cousin Richard Lippman, as his daughter Martha recently reminded me, served as a major in the US Army during World War II. He was rewarded by being blacklisted from his profession and hounded literally to death. So I was not very sympathetic to Mr. Wilson's argument. Nor was I sympathetic when, 20 years later, I heard a local Congressman in California, where I lived at the time, call environmentalists "watermelons:" green on the outside, red in the middle.

As the 42nd Earth Day rolls around, the rhetoric is still the same. Environmentalists are now out to destroy the foundations of American capitalism with their trumped up claims about climate change. No-one should be surprised by this. That's been the line of choice from the beginning; only the specifics have changed.

Don't fall for it. The crisis is real, and growing worse. Far from being a threat to America, those concerned about preserving and protecting our environment are patriots, and deserve to be honored as such. Take some time today to thank those who were prescient enough to see the need for this observation way back in 1970, and then honor them by keeping the momentum going. It's the right thing to do. In fact, it's the only thing to do.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Selfishness wins

There's been a lot of talk lately about the new book by Rob Bell, Love Wins. If you live outside of the Bible belt and/or don't have friends who are evangelical Christians, you may not have noticed. If you're one of those who has heard of the book but simply hasn't read it, here's the lowdown: Rob Bell believes in hell, and his detractors are in it. If you want, you can skip the rest of his book and just read Chapter 7 for clarification. I'm sure Bell would be too gracious to say what I just said in so many words, but his interpretation of the story of the Prodigal Son speaks for itself.

The reason I bring this up is that the Rob Bell controversy shows just how judgmental some Christians can be. Many seem to hate Bell's book, whether they've read it or not, for the simple reason that they truly can't stand the idea that they might have to stop denouncing and excluding others. After all, if you're one of God's people, there's got to be somebody who's not, or what's the point, right?

As for me, I try very hard not to be judgmental. That's how you know that for me to write a post like this one, my back has to be really up against the wall. If I'm going to claim publicly that there are people around who seem determined to oppose, undermine and destroy everything the Christian religion stands for, I need some serious provocation, because I just don't say things like that. But then there's Paul Ryan, and I guess he brings out the worst in me.

Here is an article from Newsweek that makes it clear just where the inspiration for Ryan's budget is coming from. Ayn Rand.

If you're not aware of this, Rand, whom Ryan reads "religiously," deliberately turned traditional ethics on its head. Instead of believing that all people receive their life from a common creator and hence have obligations to each other, she avowed that there is no God and hence nothing beyond self-interest to pursue. Instead of affirming that it is the duty of the strong to help the weak, she saw the strong as virtuous and the weak as lazy and ineffectual. The desire to help others - what is commonly known as altruism - was to her the original sin of human society. The strong and powerful owe nothing to anything beyond themselves, because they are natural heroes. The poor are evolutionary misfits, and encouraging them to believe that they are anything else is a disservice to society and will only lead to more suffering in the future. Better to let them starve and die now than continue to reproduce.

If you think you recognize the set of beliefs that Rand is contradicting, you've either read the Gospels and the Old Testament prophets or internalized much of their ethical content. The ideas that the strong should help the weak, that no-one is righteous in and of his or herself, and that we owe respect and love to others, including strangers, are the basis of the Judeo-Christian worldview. If you're a practicing Christian or an observant Jew, you're more or less supposed to practice those things. They're the foundation of our laws and our traditions of justice, which is why most modern people believe them regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof. Many would even suggest that this positive ethical content is the only thing worth salvaging from the history of Western religion. That's what I was brought up to believe, and the only reason I started going to church was because I needed to get back to the source. Acknowledging how broadly accepted these ideas are is what has made me the broad-minded person that I aspire to be.

And then there's Congressman Ryan. What I hope the Newsweek article makes clear is that his worldview, which inspired his much-touted, supposedly "courageous" budget plan, is based on a conscious, deliberate rejection of everything I just described. He has a coherent worldview all right, but it is the polar opposite of Judeo-Christian ethics. That's why I can say with absolute conviction that Ryan is waging a war on everything the Christian religion stands for. There is no point of contact whatsoever. What Christianity affirms, Ryan rejects. What Christianity rejects, Ryan affirms.

What makes this whole business so frankly sad is that, as the Newsweek article makes clear, Ryan's ideas, which are Ayn Rand's, are also the ideas that have motivated the Tea Party and brought it to a position of power, and there is a broad intersection between the membership of the Tea Party and that of the so-called Christian right. I really want to take the charitable interpretation and assume that those who belong to both groups simply don't understand where this whole cluster of ideas is coming from. I want to do this because there are people I like and respect who belong to both groups. I do hope that some of them are reading this - because if you are, NOW YOU KNOW!!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

More Beethoven

Update: I am sorry to say that because of my recent surgery, I've had to postpone this recital indefinitely. We will still be giving it in the late summer or early fall. Stay tuned for details; I look forward to seeing you there.

I've been laying it on kind of heavy with the POVs lately, so I'm indulging myself by doing something that a lot of other bloggers can't. :-) Here's the second movement of the Beethoven sonata whose first movement I posted in March. (There are only two, if you're wondering.)

My performance of this is a work in progress. As you can see, I don't have it memorized, and I still flubbed a few things even on Take 2 this morning. I take consolation in the fact that the great Beethoven pianist Artur Schnabel told his son Karl Ulrich shortly before he died that he had finally managed to play the conclusion of this movement so it made sense to him. That's a pretty high bar.

Anyway, I'm posting this now because I will be giving a little joint recital with my son Jeremy on Sunday, June 5. Jeremy will be traveling to the United Kingdom - all parts of it - this summer as a People to People Student Ambassador. This is a wonderful opportunity for him, but it costs a lot of money. That's why we'll be passing around the hat afterward. I'll be playing this sonata and some Chopin. Jeremy will be playing a movement of a Haydn sonata and Ginastera's Rondo on Argentine Children's Folk Tunes. He'll also be singing songs by Schubert and Donaudy, which I will accompany.

It will be a true joint performance, and if you live in the area, we'd love to see you there.

St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church
800 New Road
Waco, TX
Sunday, June 5

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A bad smell

I want to share a story about a close friend. Call it a parable if you will. If you don't like my more religious posts, you're going to hate this one. If you're interested in finding out what exactly I think is wrong with American religion at the moment, though, read on.

My friend had a brother she had long since given up on. They had been close once, but he had drifted. He started using drugs and was often distant and occasionally abusive. She used to visit him often, but her visits were becoming less and less frequent.

What was perhaps most hurtful to her was the way this experience challenged her religious faith. She and her brother had been brought up in a church where she learned that God was in control of everything. She tried to continue believing this, but it was evident that her brother had long since lost any connection with what they had learned in Sunday School. His faith was dead.

She, however, suffered the long, slow decline of a faith challenged by the daily confrontation with pain beyond endurance. The more debased her brother became, the more angry she became at God and the church for letting him go. Try as she might to will herself beyond such doubts, they instead began to fester and wear away at her own soul.

The last time she had seen her brother, he was living in a box somewhere in a bad part of town. What she couldn't help but notice above all was how bad he and everything around him smelled. She might be able to put up with the debasement and poverty if her nose weren't also offended by the vile odor of decay and death. It was too much to bear.

Imagine yourself in her shoes. What you need isn't just a new brother. You need a new God. One who, instead of "being in control," is willing to go in there with you amid the bad smell and everything that has led to it. One who, in fact, is there already. This is not omnipotence as we normally understand it. It is something far more powerful, since it doesn't shrink from the odor, decay, doubt and despair of death itself.

All right; I confess I made this all up, with a slight prod from a Facebook comment on somebody else's post. The subject was a sermon on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This is a story that a lot of people probably assume that only hard core Bible fanatics take seriously. However, all of us who go to lectionary churches - those that follow a prescribed series of readings linked to the liturgical year - heard a sermon on this difficult text this morning. Many probably heard it pointed out that the text is oddly appropriate to current events. Everything is going haywire at once, it seems, and, like Lazarus in the tomb, the mess stinks to high heaven. What kind of God can you possibly appeal to when things get this way?

Part of the answer can be found in another lectionary text from this morning: one that lots of people also have trouble taking seriously. In it, a valleyful of dry bones comes skittering back to life and dances merrily off to Jerusalem, where God will welcome them back and become, once again, all in all to them. This vision came to Ezekiel some time after the one that apparently got him started on his gig as a prophet, and that deserves to be equally well known. It's right there in the first chapter. Amid elaborate metaphorical language that clearly isn't intended to be taken literally, Ezekiel describes seeing a God in human form who addresses him as "ben Adam:" Son of Man.

What happened to Ezekiel was weird not only because God, upon whom nobody had previously been allowed to look directly, now appeared seated on a throne in human form. It was also weird because Ezekiel saw this vision on the banks of the river Chebar, in the middle of Babylon, and that was not where God was supposed to be. God was about as likely to appear to somebody there as to walk into a stinking tomb with a four-day-old corpse in it.

Thus, it's fair to say that - as the lectionary makes clear - the idea of a God who will get down and dirty with Creation has broad inter-testamental support. This is a God whose vast transcendence is matched only by intimate immanence. It is not, however, the omnipotent God of popular fable. As I'm suggesting, it is something much more.

It's clear that, much like Lazarus's purported corpse, the omnipotent God has gotten a bad smell for a lot of people. As a result, we're hearing appeals to all kinds of other deities that seem to promise something more appealing: deities like "capitalism," "fiscal discipline," "spending cuts," and the ever-popular "American exceptionalism." One of the main reasons I started this blog is that I'm tired of seeing all these gods mixed up together. The messy one is the one I'm interested in: the one who, as I've been suggesting lately, exposes the others I just mentioned for the false idols they are. I understand why those false idols appeal to so many people right now. I just don't believe in them, because not one of them is willing to go into that foul-smelling dump where what's left of my made-up friend's brother has been left for dead.

I hope my metaphors are not so broad that their relevance to current events isn't clear. As Lent marches to its culmination, things are starting to stink badly, and some serious metanoia (It means "renew your mind," remember?) is called for. Who's joining me?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Run it like a business

As the prospect of a government shutdown looms, it's worth pausing to consider what the Donald Trump presidential candidacy says about our national values, and to think about what kind of correctives might be in order. After all, if the federal government is about to shut down, it would appear that there are at least certain things that we're not doing very well.

We also have a ready-made answer, of course. There is an almost mystical belief in America that a successful businessman (or woman) can run anything better than anybody else. How? By running it like a business, of course. This is what drove the Ross Perot candidacy in 1992: the most successful attempt I have ever witnessed by an independent candidate to crack the two-party monopoly on government power at the national level. If Perot had managed to prove himself in the hard-scrabble world of business, many assumed that he would be able to straighten out the proverbial "mess in Washington" as well.

Unfortunately, I have often heard the same argument made by college trustees, most of whom are successful businessmen. When I lived in South Carolina, most of the trustees at the college where I taught were textile barons. It was often pointed out that they regarded the college as a mill, and professors as mill workers. After all, a good college should be run like a business, right?

It doesn't stop there, of course. Anybody who has worked in the arts has probably heard repeatedly that the arts are a business, and will succeed or fail as such. The same argument is routinely made to people who work in the media, in health care, in schools of all kinds, and even, God help us, in the church. It's not surprising, therefore, that we have so many churches these days that are run like businesses.

So I want to ask a very simple question. What would it look like if, instead, we started running everything in the country like a church? Running it, that is, the way a church is supposed to be run?

Here are a few reminders. Churches aren't supposed to worry about the bottom line. They're not supposed to ask whether someone can pay. They're supposed to honor those with prophetic visions who challenge the values of the society around them. They're supposed to trust that people will rise to the occasion and support transformative actions and ideas.

A church isn't supposed to cut back on services to the needy because money is running low. It's supposed to shame people into rising to their responsibilities, even when this involves personal sacrifice.

A church isn't supposed to ask whether somebody can afford to take advantage of what it has to offer. It is supposed to think pro-actively in order to offer the widest possible range of services to precisely the people who most need them.

Now of course we know that churches aren't always run that way. In fact, I would wager that, like most things in America, they're more frequently run like businesses, driven by the bottom line. Perhaps that's why we seem to lack the moral imagination, or even the desire, to rise above the petty, childish antics that we're witnessing throughout government at all levels. It's not that we don't know how to run things like a business. We know that perfectly well. What we've forgotten is how to act with love, compassion, trust, mercy and faith. Those are things that go beyond the realm of the everyday world, which is precisely why they are advocated by saints and prophets, not businessmen.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ceçi n'est pas un April Fool's Joke

There are things on which people of good will can disagree while continuing to respect each other. Here are some:

1. Whether, in the wake of the recent disasters in Japan, we should continue to pursue nuclear power as an alternative to burning oil and coal.

2. Whether our recent actions in Libya were necessary to prevent a massacre, and whether they actually worked.

3. Whether the extremely rich should be taxed at a higher rate than they are now, or whether they deserve to keep nearly all of what they make.

4. Whether health care is a right and should be regarded as such.

5. Whether rights like those granted by the Second Amendment should be construed broadly or narrowly.

I could go on, but you get the idea. If you've been reading this blog, you probably know how I would argue most of these questions. Or maybe you don't. If you disagree with me, though, that doesn't mean I'll lose my respect for you. I hope you won't lose your respect for me either.

There are things, however, about which there is no room for disagreement. While no issue is ever completely black and white, the line between good and evil may be so clear that no-one with an ounce of moral sensitivity should be able to mistake it. Here is one such issue.

• Whether a budget that cuts services that are literally vital to the poorest, most vulnerable members of a society while allowing its very, very, very wealthiest citizens to become even wealthier is immoral.

There are no two positions on this question. The budget that the Congressional majority is proposing is a violation of human decency. It is wrong. No country with its morals intact could pass such a budget.

That's it. You can fill in the rest.