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Sunday, December 22, 2019

On the Clarity of Charity

The line in my reading yesterday that jumped out at me actually came from a pretty typical passage where a writer went on about the "clarity of language." For some reason, I didn't read that. What I read made me stop and really think: I read "the charity of language."

This seemed an interesting departure from the lines before it, and it got me paying attention. I went back and reread the line to make sure I was right, and then I saw the word "clarity." But this didn't prevent me from a little musing. I admit I was hooked, and I decided to write my misreading down in my notebook. What of the charity of language? I thought.

As I continued to read, of course, it became clear that the writing in front of me wasn't concerned with either charity or clarity. This is nothing against the writer. It is only to say that he did not really accept that clarity in language or charity were possibilities.

I began to ask myself the following: Is it possible to be charitable with language? How would that sound? What would it look like? In the political "arena" most recently, we've been witness to its opposite. Even saying that we've been subject to a lack of charity would not begin to denote the hatred we've been hearing. The quality that really bothers me recently hasn't been these ongoing expressions of hatred, name calling, and divisiveness that are daily occurrences. Rather, it has had to do with a lack of belief: this lack works from the premise that others around us of different factions do not understand what we do. It is not only that we can't agree on what is right. We can't even begin to disagree. Witnessing the last week of Impeachment hearings, where our two major parties seemed to be speaking from different universes all together, I was reminded of the words of St. Augustine in his work with what he was trying to define as Christian rhetoric.

One aspect of communication that the fourth century C.E. rhetorician turned Christian bishop considered to be charitable had to do with thinking, even when a passage was difficult, that there was a meaningful way to understand it. Meaning existed. Charity meant assuming that the writing you are reading or the speaker you are hearing has the intent of making meaning.

This meant an effort at the more receptive acts of what we today term literacy. I am speaking of reading, yes, and also listening.

I don't see that so much today. We are not charitable in the simplest sense that Augustine seems to mean. The moment I hear one person begin to speak, he or she is immediately interrupted by others wanting to have the last say. This is what we might call power, not charity. What does charity mean when the drive is to be right, to have the last say? The drive to be right has never, in my experience, led to changing minds.

The English word charity is loaded with connotations of alms giving, of giving to those who are unable to return what we give. It is something we do for the poor. Those who are our equals, or those we perceive as our equals, or worse, our betters, we don't think of as being deserving of our charity.

That is not the sense one gets, of course, from reading the New Testament.

Charity has to do with wanting another's benefit, with wanting others to live and do well. There's an entire chapter on it in what Donald Trump would call One Corinthians. But that chapter, like most hit songs, is not something we hear with much clarity these days.

We might say that the charity of language has something of clarity in it. We call things as we see them, which is with or without some accuracy. We also use our language to the benefit of others, not only ourselves. As we wish to be considered, so we consider. Our language is such that others are lifted up, healed, and helped, and perhaps not only in a physical sense. We are not talking about flattery.

We use language so that others might feel they are in a place and among people who might really be listening and hopeful of--and ready for--new possibilities.

Seasons greetings. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Navigating the Holidays Again

I know many good people who are not looking forward to the holiday season. In fact, at this point, I may know more people dreading it than people looking forward to it. To them, this is a season to navigate, to get through with fewer problems than last year. They are making specific plans aimed at avoiding encounters they know will come.

Here's just one example. A couple I know who lost their only child to suicide a few years ago has decided to limit the amount of time they spend at family gatherings. It's not that they don't love their family. It's that their family will not understand what my friends would really value. The last two Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings passed with no one saying a word about their child, with no one wanting to remember anything or to allow my friends to really talk about how they are doing. Instead, there was this ongoing focus on sports teams. Perhaps the worst experience for them was passing time with family who expected them to forget their daughter. This year, they have placed a timer on their visit.

I admit that for me, the holidays are an extension of a season of pain that begins in early October, when we remember the day our son took his life. The rest of October has various triggers, and then there's the November Suicide Prevention Walk, which takes us to the edge of Thanksgiving and the rest of it, all downhill from here. I have one blessing going into all of this, however. I know my family will allow for whatever feels right to us--to talk about Michael if we need to, or not to. But there will be no toxic pushes to avoid certain topics, to instead spend all our time talking about sports teams. 

No Super Powers Needed
I should counter right here, of course, that no one I know intends to be mean for the holidays. No one wants to make anyone else more sad than they already are at this time of year. What actually happens has more to do with not understanding than anything done intentionally. 

The Survivors of Suicide group (SOS) I attend every other Monday recognizes that most of the world has not faced what we have, and instead of trying to change public awareness, they simply try to equip survivors. The first year after we lost Michael, I attended the group and received a list of things that addressed both things to do and ways to think about the season now that things had changed so radically. I admit that the first time around, I couldn't see how any of the suggestions would help me with what I was feeling. I was in shock, and it was hard to do any planning or think ahead. 

This past Monday, two years later, our group met because our facilitator wanted specifically to talk about what we were thinking and feeling about Thanksgiving. Each of us was able to talk about what we were doing (we are going to our daughters' for dinner--this was taken by the group as a potentially new tradition), what we were not looking forward to, and how we were going to plan things. This meeting helped a great deal. We could not have these conversations anywhere else in our routines. 

For those who are not grieving, please understand that you don't need to do anything special for a grieving friend or relative. You don't have to be a counselor or have the super powers of one. It is really very simple. First, it is true that you are powerless. We all are. You can do nothing to take away your friend or loved one's suffering. Don't try to, and also, don't try the opposite; don't ignore it and not allow it into the conversation. Just accept that you can do or say nothing to ease the pain, unless you are willing to let your friend talk. If you are willing, then there are things you can do or say to your friend, but mostly it is just good to listen. You can say you remember things about their lost loved one. Even better, you can allow them to talk without trying to massage or shape their feelings or words into some sentiment that seems more acceptable to the larger, more orthodox world. 

Being available to listen sends the message that you care and are available in relationship. It's very meaningful and helpful. One of the most painful things I hear survivors say is that their friends have all gone on to other things and they are mostly alone. 

Etymology Meets Ethics
The word I hear a great deal over the holidays is the word "compassion." God had compassion on Israel, on all people of low esteem. Like all words of Latin or Greek origin, this word sometimes passes without clear meaning. And yet, this is one of the easy etymologies to do, and I don't know why I didn't see this more clearly a long time ago. Quite simply, to have compassion means to "suffer with." Well, literally, it means "with suffer": Com=with. Passion=suffer. 

The claim is that this is what God did in the incarnation. God became man and suffered as we do. Jesus was referred to as a man familiar with suffering. 

I find it a contradiction in these political times that churches named after this suffering servant are not doing more of the same. Instead we are politically involved, aiming our attempts at championing a few of our values and gaining power. 

This holiday season, though, we may have greater influence if we let go of that need for power and instead make the attempt to "suffer with" those in this season who, if you would ask them, you would discover that they don't really want to be here. 

To have compassion can seem to be to act high and mighty or give money. It's actually the lowest you can go. And for some of my friends, it's a great and mighty thing you can do. 

Seasons greetings. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

12 Biblical Passages: A Review of Joseph Bentz's New Book

As I read the introduction to Joseph Bentz's new book, 12 New Testament Passages That Changed the World, I was struck by the fact that for the first 1400 to 1500 years of the church, few Christians actually had Bibles in their own language or, for that matter, could read. Yet the Christian faith spread throughout the reaches of the old Roman Empire and beyond.

With this idea suggested by the introduction, I began to marvel at the wealth of the scriptures that Bentz provides a guide to. Moving through 12 of the most famous New Testament passages, passages known to people of all cultures, known to atheists as well as Christian believers, he documents just how far and wide these passages have influenced culture. From "fictional" characters like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan (interesting that Jesus' fictions have lasted two thousand years), to The Lord's Prayer and passages about judgment, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, Bentz makes a strong case for the world shaping and life changing qualities of these scriptures. He recounts the cultural influences of the passages, including in his reckoning countless movies, songs, books, and organizations that speak to these influences. Each chapter begins with a famous painting depicting the scene in question.

As he explains the relevance and import of each passage, a clear message of love, grace, and salvation emerges. A final chapter balances a concern he has expressed throughout the book, between noting the many martyrs, like Wycliff, Tyndale, and countless missionaries, who worked to get Bibles into the hands of people, and our own growing apathy about reading it. We are "drowning" in Bibles, he notes. We have apps for it; we have countless translations. But is this helping?

Comparing the contemporary situation to one of his literature classes, Bentz writes, "(t)he only force that can keep students away from this wealth of literature...is their own decision not to engage with it. A literary feast is laid before them, but some may simply choose to ignore it.

"The same is true," he writes, "of the Bible."

I once remember T.S. Eliot making a similar comment as 
he spoke of the literary influence of the King
James Bible--its beauty of expression and its influence on countless writers. But Eliot also voiced the concern that to speak of its literary influences might come at a time when its real spiritual influence was in decline. A similar note seems to be sounded here. For Bentz, our current apathy and lack of interest are of concern.

Certainly, the author is interested in more than the literary values in the Bible, and he makes a wonderful case for the spiritual gains to be made from deep and sustained reading of it.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Moving through Time with Wounds

Entering the week with some dread, I am thinking about two years ago at this same time, the end of September and the beginning of October, just before my son took his life. He was seventeen. Though we are learning to live with our loss, we miss him every day.

I think about different aspects of the person he was. This season, I have been more conscious of the distance he created between himself and everyone around him before we lost him. Even his friends were blocked out of what he was going through. In larger terms, I can see now what I didn't see then as red flags. One of the harder aspects of my own grief has to do with the fact that I should have noticed these red flags but didn't. He wasn't even talking to his friends about his depression. 

I guess the part about this that I dwell on now is not so much what I should have done, though there is a little of that. More, though, I think about my own distance from others. I am a little more aware of my own borderline tendencies. I think about my own desires to be apart, left alone. I recognize my own depression in some of what he was going through. 

If these thoughts seem important right now, it is because they are helping me to recognize my own mistakes and how to do things differently. But this is pain that doesn't just go away, and I wonder if many, many people, perhaps many teenagers, feel it also. I wonder, and I hope, that if there are others in this state, that they, that you will try to be aware of how your feelings are not to be ignored. Getting someone to talk to is important now. This is what has helped me. 

Talking to others who know what I'm going through is important. 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Grief in a Survivor's Second Year

During our first year of grieving for our son, I heard often enough at my Survivors of Suicide support group that the second year of grief would be harder than the first. I didn't know how to take this. Anything had to be easier, I thought, than what my family and I were facing. But in many ways, over the second year after losing Michael, I have found the statement to be true.

Jennifer Ashton, a TV personality who lost her husband to suicide, writes that the second year for her was full of second guessing, a lack of energy that she used to have for daily routines, and occasionally being blind-sided by her grief. The second guessing I can attest to, certainly. As the initial shock wears off, the second year, for me, has been one of going between wondering if I am getting better or just forgetting what I've been through. Ashton writes of really wondering if she and her children were getting better or just ignoring their pain and filling their lives with business (171, 172).

She also writes of being blind-sided by meeting a friend from many years ago who was unaware of her loss and who asked how her husband was. She had to recount everything, and the scene was one of being triggered again.

Everything that Ashton notes has been true of my experience. As my family nears the end of our second year, most people I've been around have been gracious and well-meaning. But they have all gone on with their lives. This also happened in the first year soon after the memorial service. But now, in the second year, as the memory of my son becomes more distant, it has seemed that few people even stop to ask how I am or to talk about my son. They and the world have simply gone on. And that is painful for me. There is a great discomfort to what I am experiencing. I sense my own life moving forward into making new memories that Michael will never be part of. His life has ended, and mine goes on, and this is unsettling enough that a part of me really resists this. I am in many ways wanting to stay in two years ago.

Another aspect to my second year has to do with the shock wearing off, and there are two parts to this. First, I've moved on to have good days in which I enjoy my job, my life, and my friends. To others, it may appear that I am over things already. But my awareness of my enjoyment also brings feelings of guilt and a reminder of how much my life has changed now. I can make jokes with others, I can enjoy the meaningless moment. Yet I'm also aware of tragedy and human suffering around me, and I am much more quick to side with the suffering, to want to stay with those who are suffering loss.

The other side to getting past the shock is that the natural anesthesia is gone. Recently, in this absence, I've begun to remember the last night we had with Michael in some fresh ways. I have begun to relive the last night with powerful feelings of guilt, going over and over again what happened and blaming myself for it . This has become recurring and painful in ways that it wasn't a year ago.

Perhaps this is a relapse for me. I have heard that the "stages" of grief are not neat, linear stages. They are messy, back and forth. I know that I have always felt responsible for what happened, and it is difficult to listen to others trying to rationalize what happened for me. When they start telling me that I am not to blame, I simply shut down. It is hard to listen to them.

Perhaps I will eventually get past this. But for now, toward the end of my second year, the grief comes in moments and is isolating. I experience it and then let it pass. The experience of it reminds me that my son was once with us. It reminds me that he lived and that he mattered. So in that sense, the grief is welcome.

Passing through this seems to be important. My life has been changed forever. But this seems to be important to understand. To dismiss it and to act as though I am completely well again would be wrong and a denial of love. I have, this second year, been most grateful to those who have understood this and haven't tried to force me to move on.

I will do that when the time comes--I don't know when that time will come.

Work Cited
Ashton, Jennifer. Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community after Unthinkable Loss. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Rhetoric and Imagination

Even in earliest practices, rhetoric was synonymous with persuasion. Today, most still think about it this same way. To practice rhetoric is to engage in persuasion.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle adds to this when he argues that rhetoric is a counterpart to dialectic. That is, dialectic, a method of philosophy, engages in questioning statements of truth. Rhetoric, he claims, also engages in questioning statements, and in this sense it becomes a philosophical, critical discipline. The difference is this. In dialectic, we question whether or not statements of truth are absolute. In rhetoric, we question opinions, most of them having to do with issues of public policy, praise or blame, and legal guilt or innocence. The art of rhetoric is aimed at discovering the best opinions, and it is focused on opinions because they are what we have with most issues in the world.

Where dialectic is seen practiced among philosophers, rhetoric is seen in everyday life. The key here is that in Aristotle's terms, rhetoric is no long just persuading. It is also an art involved with observing what is persuasive with individual audiences. To the degree that philosophy seeks absolutes, rhetoric seeks to understand what persuades people in real, not ideal, settings.

Aristotle details three areas of interest. First, he notes that people are persuaded mostly by three things--by the character of the speaker, by emotion, and by reason. He also notes that the character of the speaker, or ethos, is most persuasive. In other words, when other good reasons are missing, our being persuaded will depend on our trust of the quality and character of the speaker. Second, rhetoric has to do with important issues we do not have absolute knowledge about. Third, rhetoric concerns opinions.

The importance of ethos seems especially relevant today. It suggests why we see so many personal attacks against public figures and politicians. These attacks are often effective, especially if a speaker can convince an audience that they really do face an either/or choice. In the terms of the old school, these are examples of fallacies--ad hominem attacks, that is, attacks "against the man," and devil terms. For devil terms, think "socialist." Think "Nazi." Think "Un-American," a term used to great effect during the Joseph McCarthy trials of the early 1950s. Think of all the attempts to characterize President Obama as a Muslim or not American. Rather than attacking policies, we attack the people who are detailing them.

Rhetoric and Imagination
The example of attacks against President Obama are especially malicious, and illustrative. The slur "Muslim" in this case becomes a devil term in the post 9/11 era, where it conjures pictures of extremist groups like the Taliban. It suggests wildly imagined scenarios of a terrorist in the White House without ever having to actually state such an absurd scenario. The scenario is absurd in that it can't be based on any policy or aspect of Barack Obama's character.

I recently was reminded of all of this when I saw a post on social media claiming that any Muslim in America who wanted to follow Sharia Law should be forced to leave our country, because they weren't really Americans. This deeply shocked me. I fear now for people of Islam who have just as much claim to the American experiment as any Catholic or Protestant believer.

Similar tactics have been used with the current president. The interesting difference, however, concerns that in this case, the people accusing him of fascist tendencies are pointing to actual policies, both with immigration and in his actions with the judicial and legislative branches, that seem to be a real concern for anyone interested in supporting constitutional democracy. With the former president, all they had were accusations about his birth certificate and, apparently, his name.

In both cases, with both men, these are examples of exploiting and arousing real, longstanding fears held by the American electorate. And both require imagination. While members of both groups susceptible to these fallacies would certainly claim that they are just basing their thinking on the evidence and being reasonable, they are in fact mostly driven by their rhetorical imaginations. In both cases, their imaginations are being engaged to conjure fear.

When this happens, we have in our public imagination moved beyond appeals to reason. We have debased character. And in making what remains of ethos the whole debate, we have moved into areas of bigotry, discounting whole groups of people on the basis of something like religion, which is protected by our constitution.

Of Realtors and Rhetors
Consider these less political but very real scenarios.

When we were selling our house in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2001, our realtor went through our house and told us to remove most of our personal belongings. There needed to be empty spaces, she told us, so that prospective buyers could come in and imagine themselves in our rooms.

The important emphasis here was on getting prospective buyers to imagine themselves there.

Don Draper, of Mad Men, said as much when he noted that his company wasn't selling a product so much as a way of life.

These are commercial examples of rhetoric and imagination, of leaving just enough empty spaces for others to fill with their imaginations. And, in the old art of Rhetoric, as a counterpart to dialectic, these empty spaces would invite questioning and prodding. Is Obama really a Muslim? Is he really going to invite the Taliban into our country? Will Trump really become our first dictator? Or will other branches of government check him?

As the discourse of advertising--of appealing to a vicarious imagination in a few strokes--has become wall-to-wall in our thinking through TV and social media, we seem to have forgotten to question--ourselves, first. We have certainly become cynical about all claims. But we also seem to have become willing accomplices in undermining ourselves when we simply join the bandwagon and don't stop to question things.

This all leads to my main appeal: Never has the need to teach classical rhetoric been more serious than now. I know that I should advertise this by appealing to the rhetorical imagination--imagining a perfectly informed city square where reasonable people engage in questioning and elect the perfect candidates.

Such a realm has never existed, least of all in Ancient Athens. But the ancient art of questioning--and beginning that questioning with "Why am I personally so persuaded by this speaker? Is there something of flattery in this?"--should still be enshrined in all education--including vocational and technical education. The art of asking critical questions remains in the domain of the Liberal Arts, first named as liberal or liberating by Thomas Jefferson.

We need them now to be givens across the board.

Support your local rhetorician. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

On Grief and Doing What We Do Not Do Well


A new series streaming on Netfix this season, called The Kominsky Method, stars Michael Douglas as an aging actor who has never quite achieved success. When the series begins, he is an acting teacher in Hollywood. His best friend, a successful Hollywood agent and a mover and a shaker in the industry, is played by Alan Arkin.

In the second episode, the agent played by Arkin loses his wife to cancer. Kominsky (Michael Douglas) helps his friend to put together the memorial service his wife planned after she went off chemo for the last time. In addition to requiring that her service include performances by Barbara Striesand and Patti LaBelle, and a five minute talk by Jay Leno, all friends of the Hollywood agent and his wife, Alan Arkin’s wife requires that they find driftwood from a shipwreck on a nearby beach or island to use to make her coffin.

This episode works well as comedy and as a commentary on Hollywood. Certainly, when it comes to Hollywood serving itself, no one should be surprised that death would be seen as just another reason to put on a show. Yet watching it, I was struck by something very human about about how we see and approach death and dying. We approach it the way we do everything, by trying to do what we do best. In Hollywood, it’s perform. I could imagine construction workers going out and building some memorial. At the loss of my son, I wrote poetry.

Yet the problem is this: What we do well in life isn’t always what works when faced with the grieving and with the loss of loved ones.

What the Church Does Well
As for the church, I have noticed that the one thing we do well is talk. Talk is the way we control ourselves and others. Even when I have sensed that I am not getting through to someone, for example, when discussing politics with a friend who holds a different position, or with one of my children, I will keep talking. And when I stop talking, I am still thinking about the things I want to say. Perhaps if I reframe it, I think, all will become clear. Even after I stop talking, I am still thinking, not about what the other is saying, but about the next point I am going to make. 

Before thinking about it, this is what we will bring to the grieving among us, our methods of control; no matter how gentle we think our words may be, they are our tools and methods, after all. This is how we have lived the life of faith. Suffering stands before us as something that might challenge that control.

Unfortunately, too many of the things that we say to the grieving, too many things that I have said to the grieving, can leave the impression that they are not really accepted in their current state. We tell them that their loved one is “in a better place,” or that “their loved one would not like to see them like this.” These are words of dismissal. They tell the mourning to get over it, to move on.

Part of our need to talk may also come from thinking that we need to defend God. With suffering, when everything that has happened would seem to defy our expectations for a good life and what we sometimes call the promises of God, we might be prone to defend God and put this experience in the proper light. We must speak for God. In this spirit, so many people have felt led to share “overcoming” and “triumphal” words with me that simply made me more sad than I already was.

This is something along the lines of what Job’s comforters did. Recall that, in that story, after Job lost everything—his possessions, his livelihood, his children, and his health—his friends came and sat around him and wept with him. They did that for a week.

During the second week, however, they began to talk. They talked about what God really thought of what had happened and why it happened to Job. And these friends turned out to be wrong. At the end, they were told to repent. 

We may fail to notice that our talk may be telling the grieving to deny their loss. If we want them to have hope and to put on good cheer, our saying so actually goes in direct opposition to the experiences of the one who is suffering. In telling someone to look on the bright side or accept that their daughter is in heaven, we are asking this person, in all of his or her stress, to somehow ignore that their loved one is gone. When I was told to just praise God anyway, I felt like I had sinned deeply because I really couldn’t. I missed my son. I also felt horribly responsible for his death--as all parents do. 

Doing What We Aren’t Good At
This focus on what we shouldn’t do shows us what we should do. In fact, what I’ve found is that doing what we should do actually opens the way to God’s grace in the shadow of death. I came to understand this after attending a few Survivors of Suicide meetings and listening to the instructions. We were instructed, first, not to interrupt another or to give them advice. We were to let the other talk until finished. Also important was that when someone began to cry, it was not our place to hug them, touch them, or hand them a tissue. Such actions, especially handing them a tissue, suggest that we want them to stop crying. What was desired in the group was for everyone to be honest, forthcoming, and fully expressive of their grief. Even handing someone a tissue could be construed as a kind of denial.

Behind the pain of those of us who grieve is the real loss of a person we would like to have back. And getting that person back is deeply tied to getting back the life we ourselves once lived with them. And that is what we can't have. So we are faced with this most harsh journey. We must go on living without the one we love. We are the ones who must do it, and no one else should take that away from us or add to it. We must simply go forward with loss.

The Beatitude reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

This is messy, but it is the mourning that Jesus says will be comforted. Do we have the faith to see and believe this? It isn’t what we tend to do well. But it is worth trying.