Saturday, May 26, 2012

Anaheim, Azusa and the Quest for Closure

I am in Rancho Cucamonga, California, at a hotel a few miles from the Ontario International Airport, in Southern California's Inland Valley. This is an area that I associate exclusively with Barbara, who grew up here. Every previous time that I have come in low over the San Bernardino Mountains to land at Ontario, Barbara has either been on the plane with me or waiting for me on the ground. Five months ago, coming back here without her would have killed me emotionally. Now I am experiencing a strange inner numbness that represents the latest stage in my journey of grief.

I am here with Jennifer because my mother-in-law, Barbara's mother, has taken a sudden turn for the worse. One of her major heart valves has failed, and she is too weak to endure surgery. We had planned a stopover of a few days in July on our way to a Hawaiian getaway that I planned with the kids back in January, when our loss was so fresh that we desperately needed something to look forward to. Now it seems doubtful if she will survive that long. Jennifer and I were able to make it out on short notice; Jeremy is on a school trip to Washington, DC with his choir, which will sing at the National Cathedral tomorrow. I would much rather be there to hear them than here surrounded by reminders of the past and, yet again, of death.

The familiar spots are still all around me, although as always in Southern California, growth has altered them. I was able to find the Marie Callender's near the airport for lunch. I told Jennifer that I remembered walking her around the restaurant when she was a toddler, as Barbara remained at the table to finish her dinner. I don't think I had been back since then. On the way to the care facility where my mother-in-law is staying, I passed by Lutheran High School in LaVerne, where I taught for two years when I couldn't get a job anywhere else. I gave up that job twenty years ago to be Jennifer's custodial parent. On the way, we passed a Baskin-Robbins that used to be a Burger King, a KFC that used to be a health food restaurant, a McDonald's that has remodeled to look like the classic golden arches design, and many other reminders that change comes to everything even as life marches on.

I am now resting back at the hotel, since I had to get up this morning at 4:00 Texas time, which is 2:00 in the morning in California. I am too tired to feel strong emotions, or even to wonder too deeply why I am here. My mother-in-law knew who Jennifer and I were today, but she didn't seem to remember much else, and we had to leave after less than an hour to let her rest. I think my grief is resting, too. That's probably a good thing, since it woke up and ambushed me earlier this month as soon as I turned in my grades for the spring semester. I tried to be patient with it; it gave me little choice.

Next week, my family will converge on Waco to see Jeremy graduate from high school. Jennifer and I will both begin summer term, and I will once again have my teaching to distract me. Then we will be back here in July, and I will see these familiar landmarks, along with the unfamiliar ones—and at least some of Barbara's family—again. I will be two months closer to whatever is down the road. I don't know where my life is taking me, but I know I'll soon find out. I'll have to settle for that.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Post-Christian World?

It’s been a long time since I first saw the world we live in described as “Post-Christian.” It is perhaps a sign of the times, though, that many Christian leaders are now embracing this description. The notion that 21st-century Christianity will be largely defined by how Christians live out our role in a Post-Christian world is becoming broadly popular. Unfortunately, like most such cultural memes, it is also being used uncritically.

The argument goes something like this: “In a Post-Christian world, it is the role of the church to act much as it did in the first century: as an outside voice, a counter-cultural movement, a small group of people whose job it is to show the rest of the world how to live life according to a higher standard.”

I have no problem with being seen as counter-cultural. When any religious movement stops being opposed to the dominant culture, it risks sacrificing a part of its soul. There are many who believe Christianity did exactly that when it became the religion of the Roman Empire, and that it is necessary to rethink from the ground up the Roman meta-narratives that have become part and parcel of the church ever since. Often this also means discarding a lot of Greek baggage along the way, and attempting to recover views of God and human nature that come from Jewish culture and that Jesus and St. Paul would have recognized.

But there is also a sense in which our world is fundamentally different from that of the first century, requiring us to understand the term “Post-Christian” in a very different light. We are Post-Christian by virtue of the fact that over two millennia, human society has been profoundly transformed by the moral tenets of the Christian religion, which in turn reflect the Jewish culture from which Christianity grew, with its prophets and ethical teachings.

Without those Christian and Jewish roots, our world would be very different. Most of what we are accustomed to seeing as virtuous in modern life—our respect for the rights of others, our sense of justice, our aversion to violence, our need to set a positive example—stems directly from that Judeo-Christian ethical tradition. In that sense, Christianity no longer needs to be a counter-cultural movement. It needs to be, instead, a guardian of what is most precious and true in the culture at large.

The fact that it often fails to do so was documented in Bill McKibben’s 2005 article in Harper’s titled “The Christian Paradox.” America, McKibben wrote, “is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.” I would like to make the modest—and by no means original—suggestion that the reason for this is that elements of American Christianity have long been fiercely and unreflectively at war with what is seen as the dominant culture, however that culture may manifest itself. Note that I said “elements of American Christianity.” There have always been Christians to stand up for progress as well. Civil rights, the abolition of the death penalty, the promotion of peaceful solutions to international conflict, the rejection of violence as a means of self-defense, the responsibility of society to take care of and support the less fortunate—these are all positions that are derived from Biblical ethics, and to the extent that our society promotes and values them, it is Post-Christian in the most positive sense. The fact that large numbers of Christians oppose the extension of these moral milestones, and in many cases seem to want to turn back the clock, demonstrates that a reflexive, uncritical reaction against modern society has come to define what it means to be Christian for too many of my fellow citizens.

I am writing this simply to point out the absurdity of such a position. We can’t go back to the first century, and we wouldn’t want to. Anyone who chooses to define religious faith in opposition to the modern world will inevitably collide with and end up opposing much of the moral progress that Christianity has wrought in the two thousand years since then. That moral progress is now part of the dominant culture, Post-Christian though it may be. There is no good to be achieved, and much harm to be done, by standing in its way in the name of a supposedly higher virtue.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Highs and lows

I’m almost done. I have one more exam to give, one more set of paper grades to finalize and post, and I’ll be finished with the semester whose end I never thought about when it started—an infinity of grieving now behind me whose vastness I sensed and feared. At first, I went in to teach each class and then went home and drew back within myself, carefully conserving what was there so that I could muster up the strength to repeat the act the next day. And an act it was: a kind of kabuki theater in which I knew the lines and the roles and the cues and the responses, my onnagata self carefully concealed behind a mask that hid me even as it revealed me. I was living in public, yet I was hiding in private, nurturing a grief whose intensity is matched only by its essential solitude. There can be no more lonely pain than that suffered over the death of a spouse. No-one else in the world shared the same relationship with the departed, and so those who survive must live entirely through their own strength, knowing that others who reach out are doing so through the smothering waters of the deep end of the pool, lifting you up only to breathe the strangling air that yields seductively to the power—the black, comforting power—of those fathomless depths. As life goes on, you learn to tread in the depths, and they only awaken to overwhelm you when you grow tired, your confidence spent blithely on the illusion that you have found solid ground. Eventually that illusion becomes more and more complete, and it becomes your new life, and the water grows lighter and somehow sustains you.

That’s where I now am on my better days, and it seems appropriate to review the highs and lows of the past four and a half months—much as participants in a group are often asked to describe the highs and lows of the past week, month or year.


• The group of at least half a dozen people from our church and Baylor who showed up in the ICU waiting room the day after Barbara’s stroke and sat with us non-stop until my family began to arrive. The membership shifted, but they were there all day, and what would have been unbearable blackness and tension was lightened by their presence.

• The long series of friends and students who brought over food when we were still too dazed to do much cooking for ourselves.

• The Spring Break getaway with the kids. For a few days, we withdrew to the Hill Country and breathed some fresh air. The blackness began to recede.

• The sympathy cards that continued to pour in, even months after the event.

• The incredibly warm response to my many blog posts about my loss.

• The Good Friday Requiem at St. Matthew. Intense and tear-inducing, but a high point nonetheless.

• Grace


• Conflicts with my publisher (now tentatively resolved) over the completion of the textbook I’ve been working on since forever. Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten much done anyway.

• The day when, still morose over the above, I went to the dentist for a routine cleaning and he pointed out some suspicious spots on the X-rays of my gums that he wanted checked out by an oral surgeon. By cancelling everything else that afternoon, I was able to get in and see one before the day was out. False alarm, but for three or four hours I thought I was going to die too.

• Our anniversary (Jan. 14), Valentine’s Day, Barbara’s birthday (March 16), Mother’s Day (still to come), the anniversary of our first date (still to come, four days after Mother’s Day).

• This seems petty, but the grating realization that I will never have my birthday back, because it will always be the day on which the unimaginable happened.

• The realization that the previous point seems petty, but grates on me nonetheless.

Those are just a few small points of what has been a day-to-day drama of highs and lows, often stacked close together and sometimes nearly indistinguishable. As I had feared, with the end of classes and the approach of a three-week break before I begin teaching summer term, I have begun to relax the ceaseless effort to tread water and the depths have begun to tug at me again. All I know for sure is that I am a bit bigger than I was at first and my feet are that much closer to being able to stand on the bottom of the pool. What I still don’t know is how deep it is; as you notice right away, there are no markings on the side.