Monthly Archives: June 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Brave, Brave, Brave

This title encompasses the very words typed into a woman’s text message box that I happened to see as I climbed into the shuttle that provided transport for sick people from a remote hotel to the huge, M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston. I didn’t mean to be reading her message, but I sat down behind her and, whether owing to her unfamiliarity with mobile devices or because she was far sighted and needed to hold the telephone a bit away from her face, she had stationed her mobile rather high in the air. And there were those words, “Brave, brave, brave,” typed into the outgoing box and, in a flash, sent. To whom she sent them and what the fuller context of that message was I do not know. But I don’t think she would, in that moment, have found to be comforting the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”[1]

I think for that woman she would have settled for a hug rather than a kiss, for I can only imagine that either she or her spouse, with whom she boarded the van that morning, has cancer. I expect that they were on their way to see their doctor, as was I, to discuss how far the cancer had progressed or what the treatment options might be. These are not easy discussions for anyone, whether in the doctor’s office or afterward. Doctors too often lack the liberal education they once enjoyed, an education that can produce a demeanor that commands immediate respect and often evidences sharp intelligence; such an education might even mollify to some degree their presentation of the most difficult of diagnoses, cancer. Rather nowadays, doctors—even those who are atop their fields—often come across too much as medical technicians, well-schooled in their craft but not the most personable or sympathetic folk.

And, of course, the patient’s access to the internet has made things both better and worse. One can spend an inordinate amount of time search and re-searching (but not really researching) any aspect of a diagnosis, discovering various treatment options, herbal remedies, blood refurbishing machines, doctors in South Africa or some other exotic location doing experimental things that “won’t be offered in the States for another decade,” or so it is said. And of course, there are those known as healers, too. And every friend will offer you different advice.

But what you really need is what that dear woman wrote: the capacity to be brave in the face of certain danger, possibly death. For me, that sense of peace, that quality of grounding comes from one source, and one only. It doesn’t spring merely from the way I was raised—though Elaine Jakes did instill, I think, the kind of qualities in me as a lad that should have produced a modicum of bravery. She was, after all, a single mother living in the mod, artsy, even hippyesque, New Hope, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, a town ahead of its time as it progressively anticipated the issues that now face our entire country, even the world. She was indeed brave, in that environment to raise a son on her own, to deal with the pressures of easy access to drugs, permissive sexual attitudes, and the concomitant malaise that such lotus-eating culture can engender. No, as brave as Elaine was and as rich a childhood as I was fortunate to experience, that is not the source of courage of which I speak.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of the kind of bravery that I am speaking of and perhaps that dear woman was alluding to in her text: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” Such bravery means that you know that you can die, that in fact you will die. It is just a question of when. And to have that courage means to love life enough to be courageous in the face of death. For Chesterton also wrote, “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” This idea forms an interesting couplet with the other. The bravery that I aspire to is, in a real sense, contradictory, as it can exist only because fear also exists. Yet, while having a deep sense of pathos (i.e. realizing that life can be lost), it mysteriously relies on a certain piece of ethereal knowledge: the presumed fact that the One that Chesterton spoke of so often and so articulately is not only the superabundant (the correct word here is propitiatory) Redeemer but the authentic Healer, as well. Whether St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is right or not about pain being the “kiss of Jesus,” I don’t know. But I do know that knowing that God has any situation all under control can produce courage. That courage will indeed make you “Brave, brave, brave.” I pray that, come what may, such will be the case for the woman in the shuttle, and for us all.

[1] Mother Teresa, No Greater Love (New World Library, Novato, CA, 1997) 137.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nursery Rhymes, Aesop and the Little Red Hen

The prophet Isaiah once wrote to the residents of Jerusalem:

For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.

And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed.… (29:10-12)

When I read these verses this morning, I could hardly help but to think about the America we are living in now. I do not seek to address the political reality. That could be the subject of another blog, perhaps several. Rather, I am alluding, by a strange sort of temporal and cultural metonymy, to quite another phenomenon: our society’s loss of cadence, rhyme, literature, even story.

Isaiah is speaking specifically about the last of these contiguous ideas, the loss of story. He compares his people to someone sleeping. That sleeping man, Isaiah had said a few lines earlier, dreams that he has had a fine meal only to wake up to realize that he is still hungry. So it is with our own generation in which the dreamt-up dinner of political correctness has replaced the hearty meal of morality. Situation ethics are in vogue, though the term is but seldom used nowadays. Perhaps that is the case because the effete situation ethics that was evolving at least by the 1960s is too flexible a term for the intolerant fashioners of political correctness who want the permanence of morality but get only the ephemeral corrective, judgmental terminology that changes with the times.[1]

But to return to Isaiah’s point about the generation he lived in not being able to see, consider this: his contemporary “seers,” he says, can’t see. The message they need to heed is laid out right before them like words in a book, but that book is sealed. Thus another translation reads, “their worship … is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (NIV). They have learned rules, but they can’t read. And if they can’t read, they don’t know stories, they don’t know nursery rhymes, they don’t know that stories matter and that nursery rhymes teach moral lessons.

What stories do we need to heed if we don’t want the empty dreamt-up fodder of our “ethical” spokespersons such as Amanda Taub, who actually denies that political correctness exists or at least qualifies it as merely the demand for heightened sensitivity and recognition of the hurtfulness of microaggressions.[2] Let’s consider a few such stories; and here’s a spoiler alert—they’re loaded with micro-aggressions.

Aesop writes of the ant and the grasshopper (Perry Index, 373). The ant, of course, gathers all summer so that when the winter comes he has a great store of grain. The ant, however, asks the grasshopper, legitimately enough, whether he had gathered his own grain in the summer for the long winter. The grasshopper’s reply is that he had not but he had been busy drinking, singing and dancing. The ant’s response is micro-aggressive (at a minimum), for he states that those who sing, dance and drink away the summer will wind up starving in the winter. Not exactly the answer that the grasshopper was looking for. And just think of how this might sound to a child!

The Little Red Hen is a modern adaptation of the same story, of course, with a delightful twist that involves the denial of fully baked goods, not a mere supply of grain, to the hen’s slothful friends. And what about the boy who cried wolf, another of Aesop’s fables? (Perry Index, 210).

Illustration by Francis Barlow (1687)

In some versions of that tale not only do the sheep wind up dead, but the boy does, too.[3] Talk about an aggressive moral lesson!

And, to the politically correct person, perhaps it only seems to go downhill from there:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

What possible lessons could be gleaned from such a nursery rhyme? Is there anything? Well, yes, actually there is: first, if you’re a single mother with a lot of children and (presumably) little income, you might just have to live in tight quarters and, being poor, there’s a good chance that you will not have adequate means to feed yourself or your children well. Second, you might find yourself being short tempered from time to time—or, from the child’s point of view, you might just get a whipping if you complain about dinner. Are these the best lessons a child can learn? Perhaps not, but they are lessons nonetheless.

It might behoove us, in this regard, to realize that not all stories are proscriptive (telling you what to do) but many, like biblical proverbs, are merely descriptive (about what might happen and sometimes does and that you thus just have to deal with it). Descriptive things can be funny or at least mildly amusing and, simultaneously (and this is very important) apotropaic. Certainly that is what is meant here—if you joke about it, hopefully it won’t happen to you: you can ward it off by addressing it, at least in a roundabout, playful way. Consider another, which some say describes the Great Plague of London in the mid-seventeenth century:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Those who accept the plague as a possible explanation for this ditty’s origin and thus interpret the poem on that basis presume the ashes refer to death, along with the falling down motion of the children playing the game. On that interpretation, the children learn that death is omnipresent—but they do so in a game and, again, probably apotropaically. If we deny our children the opportunity to deal with stark reality, in this case death, because we want our children to feel safe, when death does come they will be ill equipped to deal with it. We can’t forget the value of the ancient dictum, “Live ever mindful of death” (Persius, Saturae 5.153), a lesson that a child can learn both from the boy who cried wolf (in some versions, at least) and, if only obliquely, from the simplest song in which the children have fun dropping to the ground.

Finally, let me suggest that we should not be surprised that our stories are strange, for life can be strange, too. And we should celebrate that strangeness, perhaps, with stories that can wake us up from the slumber that Isaiah describes and can inform our ethical choices. Such discernment can last us a lifetime—but only if we heed the moral of the story.

[1] An interesting ethical dilemma is the inability to teach ethics: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/ethics-professor-almost-impossible-to-teach-class-anymore-because-students

[2] One might also find interesting this article on how a reaction to political correctness helped to elect Donald Trump: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump.

[3] This occurs in John Hookam Frere’s Fable 3 (http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/fable-3-boy-and-wolf).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Home

When I saw Daniel outside the shelter, he said to me, “Hey, it’s you again. You coming tonight, well, I think that it’s a God thing, because I was just talking about how even though I’m homeless, I still have a home. We all do, even though we’re all homeless here. We have a home in Heaven, and we have MBK, the shelter, which is a building but in it we can find a home, at least for now, by loving each other.”

I was astounded—this young man had spectacularly paid attention to, even internalized, what I had said the previous week. His summary of what I had said was spot on: that home is not a house, not a building any more than church is a building. A church comprises sainted sinners, sinful saints—hypocritical people who struggle not to become hypocrites. That’s a church, and I heard a very nice podcast about it this week, for which I’ll share a link here. A home is where there is family, and family can mean a literal family or the family of those who have the opportunity to love each other with selfless love. Home isn’t just where the heart is; home is where the heart is free to love. To love the other person, whether that person deserves it or not. Even to pray for the person next to you.

Now I imagine someone reading this might be thinking, “That’s all very noble and ideal, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way.” And he might even add, “My home isn’t ‘out of this world.’ It’s here, it’s real; it’s not some kind of fictionalized, idealized place. This world is all we have to work with, so don’t through your religious mumbo jumbo my way.”

To which, given the opportunity, I might respond, “Who said anything about the real world? I’m talking about MBK, a shelter for the homeless in central Texas. What could be less ‘real-world’ than that?”

Now I’ll be honest: I might have easily turned that sentence around and asked, “What could be more real-world than that?” And by the way I do, of course, have my own ideas of an ideal home in this life, for I grew up in an idyllic, if not idealize place, not far from where Washington once crossed the Delaware to defeat the British in Trenton. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a real home, the real home, something far greater but no more imaginary than Washington’s Crossing.

And as I went back to the MBK shelter this week, I spoke again to those folks, gently, even gingerly. For I don’t know their lives. I don’t know how they wound up being homeless. I can guess that for some of them it may have been drugs, alcohol, pornography or mental illness or, perhaps, having had to spend time in jail for some wrong they committed or at least were convicted of. Maybe, in the case of many of them, it was just plain old bad luck, a bad break at work, a bad break with or within their biological families.

But I don’t go to MBK to be anyone’s judge. I go there to share some glimpse of what life might be like for them as they learn, as I still am myself learning, to walk by faith through this dark world and wide, and find in themselves that one talent, which is death to hide, that they might serve therewith their Maker, who will not chide them. Nor shall I, for I have learned from Patience that they also serve who only stand and wait. Last night, for yet another evening, I was privileged to stand and wait with them, my homeless brothers and sisters at My Brother’s Keeper. Cain could never have foreseen what the impact of that phrase, which he uttered about his brother Abel, would turn out to be when it would, one day, adorn the front of a humble edifice in central Texas. But, after a few visits to MBK, I think I am beginning to understand.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Argument from Silence

If you were lucky enough to have had a good teacher of humanities in high school or college, perhaps you learned that making an argument from silence is a bad thing. The Latin term is, of course, rather august: argumentum ex silentio. Such an argument is certainly less persuasive than an argument based on solid evidence. The absence of holes for the poles of a wigwam does not prove that there were no Indians.

But I want to talk a bit about another kind of argument from silence, one that is in fact based on silence. That is the argument for God. But I start with the argument against God: human suffering. Now I acknowledge that animal suffering is horrible, too. An abused dog, an uncared for cat, or a horse suffering from malnutrition are all horrendous to look upon. But among these, none presents evidence sufficiently contradictory for the idea of God. Rather, human suffering does, whether caused by natural disaster, war, or human malfeasance. “If there is a God,” it is often said, “why does He permit little children to starve to death in Africa, hundreds to die in a mudslide, terrorists to blow up little girls as they are leaving from an Ariana Grande concert?” These are the best arguments against God—not evolution, not the fact that the earth is but a speck in the universe, not even the very good anti-God argument based on the hypocrites who attend churches. Those are interesting, even entertaining to debate. But the really good argument against God is, without doubt, human suffering.

But what is the argument for God? The argument for God is nothing quite as convincing, for it is ultimately an argument from silence. Not the silence of a wigwam’s missing pole hole. Rather it is the argument from silence and invisibility, from not hearing a word but somehow knowing, at least strongly believing, that He is there, and sensing that that silent argument changes everything. For it gives you hope. Hope, I think, is the strongest argument from silence for God.

Now what do I mean by this? Let us begin with the notion that hope is as invisible as it is intangible. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it with your fingers. But you crave it perhaps more than an alcoholic his next drink. You can’t go on without it, or at least you feel certain that you can’t. You get up in the morning and on your drive to work you can think only of the cruel oppression of the world, knowing that your job, perhaps, is in the hands of some of those very oppressors.

That boss seems simply to want to make your job so difficult you can’t do it, let alone flourish in performing it. Rather, it is like one continuous fraternity hazing ritual, where every time you think you’ve accomplished something, done a task or prepared a report correctly, you are yet again chided, criticized, knocked down, made to feel small, made to feel worthless. Your work is never up to the standards which appear to you to shift at the will or whim of your boss. You’ve learned to live with that, but it is not a good situation and you know it. But it’s too late to change. You’re middle aged and you’re at the bottom rung of middle management.

This is where the argument from silence comes in, or rather bursts in. On that selfsame drive to work you think and think and think and wonder how you can get out of this situation, how you can extricate yourself, but you can’t come up with a way, not a natural way. And then you think of your faithful cousin, or your co-worker (the only one who actually cares about you), or your smiling and helpful neighbor, all of whom are cheerful, hopeful, encouraging people. “Why are they so?” you ruminate. And then it dons on you, in the silence of your car as you close your eyes for thirty seconds at a traffic light until the car behind you honks. They all believe in something greater than themselves, in a god, in God. The all have hope from on high. They all are convinced that the supernatural can and does happen. They get especially excited and exude their hopefulness on occasions such as Christmas or Easter, to the celebration of which holidays your smiling, helpful neighbor invariably invites you but you hitherto have invariably declined. Yet now, in a silent moment at this traffic light, hope breaks through, perhaps for the first time in a long time, since you were a kid, since you last bowed your head and said a prayer.

That’s just the beginning, not the end. And that’s the point of today’s blog, a beginning, a beginning in silence, based on silence. If you want to see where hope leads, keep reading each week. We’ll get there on another occasion. Another silent occasion.