Monday, May 9, 2016

MOTHER MARY, MOTHER MONICA, MOTHER VI: A PERIPATETIC MEDITATION ON MOTHER'S' DAY

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.... ~ God, in Isaiah 66:13
Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. ~Mary, to twelve-year-old Jesus, upon finding him in the temple after a three-day search in the city. Luke 2:48*
In January of 2002, I was traveling back to Minnesota from South Dakota, where I had attended a winter pastors’ retreat at Outlaw Ranch, in Custer. I had also visited my mother—who was living in Custer, near my brother Bob and sister Betty—and had extended my stay for a few days longer than planned when it was decided that Mom would go into Rapid City hospital for surgery to remove a recently discovered cancer. She had entered the hospital with a sense of optimism, but an even stronger sense of assurance that all was in God’s hands, and that she was prepared for whatever the outcome of the surgery might be. The morning after surgery, while she was still in a very groggy recovery, I said a prayer for her, kissed her on the forehead, and said good-by, leaving her in the loving care of my brother and sister – expecting that I’d travel back in a few weeks to visit her in her recuperation.

Now I was heading east, across the open prairies of South Dakota, the landscape of my childhood, and—once I had crossed east of the river—the particular landscape I remembered from my early years in Pierre and Huron, before we moved west. When I’m traveling alone, I like to get off I-90 and take the smaller highways. This time I was driving highway 34, and listening to an audio book, “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Augustine was a bishop in Carthage, North Africa—an outpost of the Roman Empire—in the fourth century A.D. As the narrator made mention of Carthage, I passed a road sign that said “Carthage, eleven miles,” and I remembered that this was one of the small South Dakota towns in which my dad had served as teacher, principal and coach in the first years of their marriage, before the war—before I was born.

On impulse – and because of the strange connection with St. Augustine’s Carthage – I turned toward Carthage, South Dakota, and a few minutes later drove into this very small town. On Main Street, I asked directions to the school from an elderly woman who said she remembered Mr. Jorgensen, but that she would have been too young to have had him as a teacher. I found the school building – boarded up but still standing, and I went up and touched my hand to the brick.
This was the town where Mom and Dad were living when the war broke out, and I recalled how Mom had said they lived in a small apartment in a house across the street from the school; it occurred to me that this was probably where they heard the Pearl Harbor broadcast. I studied the neighborhood, trying to guess which house had been theirs. Then I continued east; South Dakota highway 34 became Minnesota Highway 30, and in a few hours I was in Faribault.

When I walked in the door, Caryl told me that Bob had called to report that the biopsy after Mom’s surgery had revealed an unexpectedly large spread of cancer. In the middle of the night he called to tell us that Mom had died. We wept, we missed her, we miss her still, but we quietly rejoiced that her journey of suffering was over, and her life with her Lord – and Dad – was brand new.
~

Depiction,  in stained glass, of Monica and her son, Augustine.
St. Augustine – Aurelius Augustinus – was a wild, headstrong young man, full of pride. An extremely intelligent wise guy who used his smarts to get good grades,  good jobs, and girls. (He once prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet!”) And he used his knowledge of philosophy to argue the impossibility of Christianity. After his conversion to Christ, Augustine became a bishop of the church in the stormy time of the end of the Roman Empire. His story – which is sometimes considered the first autobiography in western literature – is his own confession of what started out as a wayward and wasted life. (Augustine became one of the foundational theologians of the early church; over a thousand years later his writings influenced a young priest named Martin Luther.) I recommend the book, or the audio book (especially if you’re driving across South Dakota!). You may agree that it is a Christian devotional classic. But, on this Mothers' Day, I ponder and reflect on just one element of his story:  His mother prayed for him.

Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian married to a non-believing husband. Proving that some things never change, Augustine writes that his father spent beyond his means to get his son into the finest schools to fulfill Dad’s own ambition, but that he had no interest in nurturing his son’s relationship with God.** 

Of his mother, he writes that “she never ceased to pray for me.” Monica prayed for seventeen years from the beginning of his adulthood before Augustine became a Christian. She used to go to priests and beg them for prayers, until some would try to avoid her or send her away. One priest encouraged her by saying: “A son who is the object of so many tears will not be lost.” Augustine’s mother was for him – in the word’s of St. Paul – “a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” After her death, Augustine said, “She called me a devoted son, But what common measure is there between the respect with which I treated her, and the service she did to me? She made it her business to win me for Christ by preaching him to me through her way of life.”

I was surprised that I identified with Augustine – not because my life is that of a saint, and not because my youth was like his (I wasn’t half as wild or interesting) – but because our mothers prayed for us. As I look back, for all I know – even though my life has not been one of great drama or rebellion – perhaps my mother prayed me into faith. Certainly it’s true of myself, as I once heard a well-known preacher say when he began his keynote address to an auditorium full of people at a national church convention, “I’m here today because my parents made me come.” A friend of mine says that upon the death of his own mother, his first thought was, “Oh, now who’s going to pray for me?” I know what he means.

An enduring memory of my childhood is the muffled sound I heard after I‘d gone to bed – after mom or dad had said prayers with me – I knew it was the sound of mom and dad having their own nightly devotions.

In her funeral pre-arrangements, my mother had requested that my two preacher brothers-in-law and I wear our clergy collars at the funeral. We told her pastor that this was her wish – that we weren’t trying to intimidate him, sitting in the front pew in our collars. Of course this was a matter of old-fashioned parental pride for Mom – but it’s also an indication that she was a person of the church. At the funeral, the pastor shared a recent anecdote: My brother had brought Mom to Christmas services in what he thought was plenty of time, but which necessitated that they sit in the very back. As mom looked around, she lightly scolded Bob, “I’ve never sat this far back in church in my life!” (And, speaking of my brother – a gifted carpenter and home-builder, and the only one of us guys at the funeral without a clergy collar – we’ve always told Bob that he’s the holiest of us all, since our Lord Jesus was a carpenter!)

What was the prayer of Monica, Augustine’s mother? What was my mother’s prayer? What is your prayer for your children, or your friend’s prayer for you?  It is this: It is St. Paul’s prayer in Philippians: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Although perhaps not in those exact words, that is the prayer of a parent for a child, of a brother or sister for a wandering brother or sister, of a friend for a prodigal friend. It is a prayer I have shared more than once with a parent in my office, weeping for her child, “I am sure that he who began a good work in your beloved child will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, friends: pray that prayer. Claim the promises of God; say to God “God, I know that, for Jesus sake, you will bring your good work to completion for my son, my daughter, my husband, my wife, my friend.” Like Mother Monica – take it to the Lord in prayer.

At the very genesis and heart of the gospel's story is the ordinary wonder that our Lord Jesus had a mom. We honor Mary not as a plaster saint, but as the mother of this kid. We know that being the mother of a headstrong twelve-year-old Jesus was a trial. And we know – although most of us don’t know – about the broken heart of a mother at the foot of the cross. Our creed is not only that Jesus is our Lord, but that he is Mary’s boy. Because she loved him enough to say, on that frantic day among the crowds,  “Where have you been! Don’t you know your father and I have been worried sick!” Like my mom would have said when I was twelve. Like your mom would have.

Mother Mary, Mother Monica, Mother Vi; your mother – or someone who is mother to you—are gifts of God to us, to set us on the path. It is perhaps, after all, not just sentimentalism to say that God couldn’t be everywhere, so He invented mothers.

And God himself says to us: “Like a mother comforts her child – so I will comfort you.”

Not a bad comparison. 
  
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*The story of Jesus' separation from his parents as he sits with the elders in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) is the only account of Jesus' childhood in all of the gospels (apart from the infancy narratives). It is usually lifted up as a pious example of the divine boy's spiritual acuity and promise. As a father and grandfather, I find much more comfort in reading it as an account of a somewhat mouthy pre-teen whose parents don't understand him.

**Monica eventually prayed her husband into the faith, too. Quite a woman!

Monday, March 21, 2016

THE NEXUS: THE PLACE OF BECOMING WHO WE ARE

We need friends in order to know anything--even ourselves.   ~CS Lewis

For the last few months—in preparation for a class that I’ve been teaching—I’ve been in the company of two good friends: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Although I am an admirer of both of these writers, the friendship I am referring to is between them. The story of how these two bookish Oxford professors produced some of the best-selling titles of the twentieth century (“The Narnian Chronicles” and “The Lord of the Rings,” among others) is a fascinating account of intellect, faith, and loss; but it is most interestingly a story of friendship. Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s work not by writing together—each was far too much an individual genius—but by listening, supporting, goading, and even criticizing. In Lewis’ phrase, they “acted as midwives” in the process of bringing one another’s books to completion. They were friends.

Lewis and Tolkien, both combat veterans of World War I, met as new faculty members at an Oxford garden party in 1921, and remained friends until Lewis’ death in 1963. Of course a friendship of four decades is not going to be one long garden party, and their association had its share of tensions, jealousies, and disappointments. But through it all, they considered each other to be brothers in the faith, and they gratefully acknowledged what their friendship had contributed to making each the writer—and the person—he had come to be.

It’s impossible to determine what Lewis’s Narnia would have been like without Tolkien’s influence, and whether Tolkien would have quit dithering with the Silmarillion and gotten on with finishing The Lord of The Rings without Lewis’s prodding. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that the literary works that flowed from their pens was, at least to some degree, a product of their friendship as well as their individual talent.

This is not an exercise in sentimentalizing friendship—as though Tolkien and Lewis had pledged that they were BFFs—but I see their relationship as a laboratory example of a profound element of reality: What the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “nexus.” In Whitehead’s “process” approach to philosophy the fundamental basis of everything—in the microcosm and the macrocosm, the atom and the galaxy, the material and the relational—is not the individual entity (to use a favorite Whitehead term), but the evolving relationship between entities.  Essence, then, is not located in “being,” but “becoming.” And the ever-emerging realities-of-the moment are connected not by a static link, but at an ever-changing point between what has been and what will be: the nexus. (Just try to pin that nexus down!) In fact, an “entity” itself becomes what it is at any given moment only as a stage in a continual process of change. This all sounds very deep, but it is easily illustrated by the difference between King Midas’ living daughter and a golden statue, between a person and a corpse. “Life is change,” the old adage truly says. When the “becoming” stops, so does the “being.”

This is readily seen in the slow-motion video of a caterpillar-becoming-a-butterfly, or the fascinating spring growth of a tree. But, although it is not so “material,” the constant-becoming of a relationship is no less real: Here is C.S. Lewis, and here is J.R.R. Tolkien, and here—at the nexus—is the friendship.  If the friendship were an aspect only of one or the other of them, it would not be a friendship. It is a life-force that flows between them, no less real than the corporeal being each of them is. Of course the joy of this—and the potential sorrow—is that, like all nexuses, it is not only always changing. It is “change” itself.

Beyond Lewis and Tolkien and the nexus-geyser out of which sprang their delightful books, I have been thinking about other historical friendships which have become historical precisely because their accomplishments are, in fact, products not of one or the other of them, but of whatever that life-force is between them. Let’s call it their nexus: Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (I know it is a subtle difference, but I am not speaking of two people who get together to work on a project--rather of something that comes about because of a living connection.) C.S. Lewis describes the genesis of friendship as that moment when one says to the other, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one…,” and the two new friends open together the doors of their isolation; the doors open onto a new place.

One of the deepest locations of finding reality at the place-of-coming-together is marriage. Studies in marriage therapy show that members of relatively healthy couples use the word “we” a lot; an emphasis on “I” when describing what one wants in a relationship is a red flag. One well-respected marriage counselor notes that—when they argue—members of happy marriages are concerned about the marriage (and their partner) and not just “winning the fight.” As one of my teachers liked to put it, “I may win the argument, but I may lose you!” Marriages (and friendships) die when “we” becomes “I” and the nexus is severed as viscerally as Solomon’s proposed dissecting of that baby; or when one or the other tries to freeze in place that life-force that must, in order to live, continue to grow and change.

Love is both formed and sustained at the nexus. In a marriage, each one pours himself, herself, into this living space, and pours him or herself out for the sake of the other. Rather than being consumed in the process, each is constantly renewed as the nexus is constantly reborn. The result is not a cut-out valentine heart pinned to the wall, but: “home,” “family,” “daily life,” “forgiveness”—a place of safety and welcome not just for these two, but for “all who enter here.” In a wedding sermon, written from prison to a young couple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Up till now, it is your love that has made the marriage; from now on it is the marriage that will sustain your love.” The nexus.

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At the request of a few friends, I will write a more complete account of the relationship and work of Lewis, Tolkien, and "the Inklings" in a future post.

Although "infinity" or "eternity" is beyond our ability to grasp, some approaches to cosmology posit that the universe itself may be infinite, and always changing--always "becoming." Whitehead suggests that "god" is eternally changeless and eternally open to change. I explored these mysteries in this meditation.
Alfred North Whitehead
JRR Tolkien



C.S. Lewis





Saturday, January 9, 2016

WHAT AM I DOING?

During the Christmas holiday, daughter Anna had a nice, unobtrusive way of taking occasional candid photos of the goings-on. I like this one of me, for a couple of reasons. (One Facebook friend remarked that it would make a good jigsaw puzzle!) But, while taking a second look, it occurred to me that the picture presents a different, rather modern puzzle, which could be titled, “What is he doing?”

It’s not difficult to see that I am holding and looking at my iPhone (ah, the tell-tale Apple logo accomplishes its intended purpose). But what am I doing? This Amazing Techno-Age which we’ve entered allows a surprising number of equally probable guesses, any of which could explain this very photo. I could be:

  •      Reading a book on my Kindle app.
  •      Reading St. Luke’s Christmas story from my Olive Tree Bible app.
  •      Pondering the New York Times crossword on my NY Times Crossword app.
  •      Reading the New York Times.
  •      Pondering my next move in my ongoing Scrabble game with a friend.
  •      Looking up a word on my Oxford English Dictionary app. (Not that I would ever do so to cheat at Scrabble….)
  •      Reading an article from The Guardian in my Safari “Save For Later” feature.
  •      Reading The Atlantic magazine.
  •      Reading the Minneapolis StarTribune.
  •      Catching up on my e-mail.
  •      Checking the recipe I’m using for tonight’s dinner.
  •      Checking the lectionary texts for preaching this coming Sunday.
  •      Looking at the calendar I share with Caryl.
  •      Looking at an incoming phone call to decide if I should answer.
  •      Reading a clever text message from brother-in-law Jeff.
  •      Drifting off, after doing any of the above.


For most of the choices above, if I knew how to do it, I could photo-shop an appropriate image to substitute for the iPhone in my hand (book, Bible, magazine, crossword book, etc.), and the game would be over; in fact, there’d be no game. We wouldn’t be asking, “What’s he doing?” But, since the question remains, we are left to wonder not only what it is I might be doing, but what effect such a protean device has on our minds, our lives, and our relationships.

At one level, the smartphone is just another functional delivery system, giving us access to all of the media, information, and entertainment listed above (and you could probably double the list)—with the added convenience of not having to move across the room to a bookshelf, game table, dictionary stand, or mailbox.

But, on another level, if we are honest, I think we find something off-putting about scenes like this. If we are honest, is not our first impression that the subject (me) is rather wrapped up in himself, oblivious to anyone else who might be in the room, and—if in fact there are others in the room—rude? This photo at least allows for such a reaction in a way that a picture of me reading a book or working a folded-paper crossword puzzle would not.

I don’t have a clear answer to the difference between finding an innocent explanation (he’s reading the Bible), or an offended one (put down the phone, jerk!), but it must have something to do with the mystery of the device—since we don’t know what he’s doing, we’re shut out, and left to assume the worst. This is similar to what social-science experiments have found to explain why an overheard cell-phone conversation in a restaurant or airport lounge is so irritating: In addition to the volume of the speaker (often), we are psychologically off-balance because we only hear one side of the conversation—we’re left hanging.

I make it a practice not to be bent over my iPhone in the presence of our grandkids, but on the rare occasions when I am, I have taken to letting them know that I’m reading the newspaper or a book. And, while I still use the Kindle app for convenience at times (in the doctor’s waiting room, for example), I have gone back to actual books for my general reading, primarily because when Sam and Violet see me reading a book, I want them to see me reading a book, and not staring at a screen. (Plus—I love the books!) In her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” author Sherry Turkle makes the obvious but important point that the most significant element in our kids’ relationship to these devices is what they see demonstrated by the adults in their lives.

So, what am I doing in Anna’s photo? I am on the Apple Music app, searching for—and about to play—a beautiful song about friendship which Jeff sent me from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s new album. And Anna played some of her songs for me. (We were the only two in the room.) It was a lovely time.

As to photo-shopping: Don’t you think that if I could replace the iPhone in my picture with a floppy leather Bible, it could become a new classic--like that portrait of the old man praying over his supper? I’m going to order up the jigsaw puzzle version.