Friday, December 17, 2004

A Christmas Carol

In our household, one of our newer Christmas traditions is to read Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" during the run-up to the holiday. Some of you may even remember a reference to Dickens' work back in my post about Sandy. I love A Christmas Carol, and get choked up every time I read it. Schlocky as it is in some parts, it has moments of intense beauty and overwhelming power.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."

Interested as I am in the idea of narrative theology, I enjoy piecing together elements of theology from the story. It's interesting to note that Dickens' description of the ghosts as tormented by their desire to perform some act of good and having "lost the power forever," is very nearly a restatement of the ideas of St. Isaac of Syria about Hell, who writes that the denizens of Gehenna are "scourged with the scourge of love;" namely "bitter regret" for their sins against love (see also Fr. Zossima's idea of Hell as "the suffering of no longer being able to love" in the Brothers Karamazov).

Sentimentality aside, Dickens writing has remained influential because of its immense moral force and clarity. But the Orthodox Church had someone who spoke with the same piercing moral insight a thousand years before Dickens: St. Basil the Great. In fact, when I read St. Basil's writing, he strikes me almost as a kind of "Dickens before Dickens." For instance, consider the following two excerpts from Basil's homily To the Rich:

Wherever you turn your gaze, you will clearly behold the apparitions of your evil acts: here the tears of the orphan, there the groaning of the widow, elsewhere the poor whom you have trampled, the servants whom you have brutalized, the neighbors whose property you have encroached. All your deeds rise up before you; the wicked chorus of your wrongdoings besets you on all sides. Just as the shadow follows the body, so also one’s sins closely follow the soul, forming a clear outline of one’s actions. There is thus no possibility of denial there; every mouth will be stopped, and especially that of the arrogant. Each one’s works will bear witness; without a word being spoken, they will make our deeds plain. How can I summon before your eyes the fearful things that await you?

The "apparitions of evil acts" sound like the Ghost of Christmas past (and future) to me. And check out this description of the end of the greedy person:

Perhaps the servants will not even dress you in burial finery at the last, but will desert the graveside, having already transferred their allegiance to the heirs. Perhaps they will even turn philosophical on you: “It is not right,” they will say, “to adorn a dead body, and to give a lavish burial to someone who no longer feels anything. Would it not be better to dress the successors in this elegant and beautiful clothing, rather allowing such precious garments to rot together with the corpse? What need is there of an officious headstone and a lavish burial, expenses that cannot be recovered? These funds should rather be used by those who remain for their own needs.” These things they will say, at once avenging themselves upon you for your tyranny, and ingratiating themselves with those who succeed to your fortune.

(translation in plain English: "They will dump your sorry ass in a hole naked, and won't even take the trouble to cover you up." Cf. Stave Four for the similar end of Ebenezer Scrooge)

I suppose the point here is that these themes are universal, not bound to any given time or place: the blinding power of greed, regret at what might have been, the recognition that those who live alone and unloving die alone and unloved. And the immense existential optimism that we have the power to change, to repent, to create a more just and humane future than that which might otherwise have been. To make God's Kingdom present, in some small way, "on earth as it is in Heaven."

So on this night before Christmas, check out A Christmas Carol from the library and read it. Read it for your kids. Read it for yourself.

And yes, God bless us every one.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Takes one to know one

So tonight, when I got off the train and started the weary walk up the street towards home, Sheri called to me from the other corner where she was panhandling and came running across the street to catch me. She's noticed I've been working too much lately, coming home late, looking tired and irritable. She wanted to make sure I was doing OK, tell me that I shouldn't be working so hard, remind me that I have a family and I have to take care myself and them. She planted herself between me and the direction I was heading and didn't let me go by until she'd said her piece.

At one point, I felt like I was in the middle of an intervention.

I listened for a minute or so, nodding my head agreeably, and then casually changed the subject. It was a subtle, even artful move, worthy of someone in the "helping" profession, someone who has taken classes where they talk about "transference" and "appropriate distance." I asked her how she was doing, how it was going in their new place (a tent at somebody's apartment around the corner). I knew I was subtly reorienting the conversation, shifting the focus from my problems to hers, realigning our roles as the helper and the one being helped. "Here is a person who is homeless," I'm thinking, "struggling to recover from drug and alcohol addiction, and she's worried about me working a little late?" And yet somehow I also knew that I was handling the whole thing all wrong, that there was something here that I needed to sit with for awhile and not move away from so quickly.

After all, my workaholic tendencies are really just a form of "clean addiction," just another way of being hooked. Maybe in this case it takes one to know one; it takes an addict to recognize the subtle signs of addiction. And I am an addict, I admit that. I am addicted to praise, addicted to admiration, addicted to success. I need it bad and I need it often, like a needle in my veins. This is a socially acceptable addiction that we have chosen to bless and reward. But its results are no less corrosive to our society, no less harmful to our families.

For all of us who are seeking, not merely to "help" the poor, but to truly live in community with them, there is a constant temptation that can be summed up in this word "help." In fact, the whole notion of "helping" others can itself become a kind of powerful drug that is incredibly addictive. We become "helping junkies," get to the place where we need a "compassion fix," where we need to help someone quick so that we can have that wonderful feeling of being strong and powerful, like a benevolent minor deity. If you are involved in this kind of work, you know exactly what I mean. There is a way of "helping" others that not only does not eliminate the distance between the giver and the receiver, but actually reinforces it. The whole thing then becomes purely a question of power and who wields it, just another level of control, another layer of dominance. Our relationships become one-directional, like looking out at the world through mirrored sunglasses, so that no one can see the pain, or hurt, or confusion, or doubt in our eyes.

What is lacking in all this is a sense of shared vulnerability. And in the final analysis, vulnerability is the only thing we all share in this life. A deacon of our Church once said to me that it is our strengths, the things we do well, that separate us from each other, while it is our wounds and our weaknesses that unite us as one community before the one Bread and the one Cup. And if we are to remain part of this community, we cannot always be the Good Samaritan. Sometimes, we have to be the man lying wounded by the side of the road. Sometimes, we have to risk being vulnerable.

You got my back, sis. Thanks.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


We are the invisible ones
the faceless people
the nameless inhabitants
of a forgotten landscape.

We are the anonymous "poor"
the ubiquitous "needy"
created according to your fancy
as whatever you need us to be.

You make us innocent as angels
or devious as demons
and like both angels and demons
we remain unseen.

If it is true what Christ said
"Blessed are you poor..."
perhaps this is because
we have learned what it means

to be transparent.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Goodbye to old Buck

The story of how I met old Buck can be traced back to a bit of lead smaller than the tip of your little finger.

It was the Korean war, and Buck was a poor, semi-illiterate kid from Arkansas, fighting together with other poor boys from Georgia and Tennessee and Alabama. The poor fighting the poor, as war always is and always has been; no governor’s sons or future presidential candidates in this bunch. He would eventually prove to be the only member of his unit to survive the war, a purple heart and a bronze star later.

That bit of metal that changed his life, traveling at a precise trajectory, entered his left leg in the groin area, and blew out his hip joint before exiting. Doctors pieced his pelvis back together, gave him a new, artificial hip, but his leg was never quite the same. He’d had a young, strong body, the only thing he’d ever been able to count on. But by the time he reached his forties, his hip was giving out, he couldn’t walk, and he became permanently disabled, unable to continue the hard physical labor that was the only work he’d ever known.

And so Buck became one of the legions of disabled vets in this country. He stopped working and started taking a monthly government check. His disability checks were nothing to write home about, though; they would barely cover rent for a decent apartment in any major city in America, not to mention food and clothing. So Buck moved out to a rural area where land was cheap, and got himself a little trailer to live in. It wasn’t much, but it was his. It was home.

Every now and then, though, he had a hard time covering expenses. He never had anything left over at the end of the month, and half the time came out owing something to somebody. All this led to his power getting shut off one month in the middle of winter. Now not having power in the country doesn’t just mean doing without lights and heat, it means doing without water, since all water is well water supplied by electric pumps. And so it happened that one cold winter night, when Buck was trying to heat his trailer with an improvised fireplace, a log rolled out and set his trailer on fire, and he had no way to put it out.

It was over in a matter of minutes. He didn’t even manage to save the clothes on his back, since they were on fire when he jumped out of the trailer.

I met Buck a few years later, when he was living in a decrepit little camper, the kind you see on the back of battered old pickup trucks, without heat, without light, without a stove or an oven, without a refrigerator, without running water, limping around on a worn-out crutch padded with duct tape. Scrawled in paint on the side of his camper was a crude American flag and the phrase, "God said it. I belevd it." No word as to whether or not that settled it.

In the years I knew Buck, I got a taste of how excruciatingly difficult it is to pick yourself up again in this country once you’re down, our Horatio Alger myths notwithstanding. But we managed to accomplish a few things together. We got him a copy of his birth certificate for identification, since all of his records and ID had been lost in the fire, and it's nearly impossible to get services without ID. We got him a reconditioned RV to live in with heat and light, a stove and a refrigerator, a toilet and a shower. Almost unimaginable luxuries. We even got him an operation and a new hip replacement.

I will never forget the day when I was talking with Buck about just ordinary stuff, sitting in his RV, when he suddenly broke down under the weight of all those years and wept like a child, sobbing, “I’m a fucking failure. A fucking failure.”

I tried to tell Buck he wasn’t a failure. He’d fought to defend his country. He was a war hero. He’d worked hard. He’d made a contribution. He was a child of God.

I don’t think I quite convinced him.

I got a call on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving from Buck’s son. His tough, wiry body had finally succumbed to the colon cancer that went undiagnosed until his colon burst.

Remembering old Buck, I cannot help but think of the thousands upon thousands of kids who are being trucked off the battlefield, without limbs, without hands, without eyes. In forty years, when the Iraq war is a paragraph in the history books and all the threadbare flags that now bedeck our car antennas have rotted in the landfill, these men (and women) will still be with us, haunting us like ghosts from a forgotten past. It’s enough to make me want to engage in some kind of massive act of protest, to spit on every bullet ever manufactured, every munition, every fragment of shrapnel, to suck out every last bit of moisture from my body, every drop of my contempt, until all that is left is dust, and from the dust a song, not of battle, but of reconciliation, of peace on earth and good will among all people.

Goodbye brother. You did not fail us.

We failed you.

If only...

We used to value above all else money and possessions; now we bring together all we have and share it with those in need. Formerly we hated and killed one another and, because of a difference in nationality or custom, we refused to admit strangers within our gates. Now, since the coming of Christ, we all live in peace. We pray for our enemies and seek to convert those who hate us unjustly.

St. Justin Martyr