A flash of light in the ugly

I have seen two horrible years. Enough!

1968 was a very bad year. Domestic terrorism that overshadows the present day Fox News driven lie machine. Assassination of two of the greatest men of the twentieth century, M.L. King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The election of Nixon and his lies that ended the draft but extended the war six more years. These are just the things that hit me, a few of hundreds that left us feeling that the center could not hold. It couldn't.

Fifty years later as if on command came another horrible year. Terrorism against the Constitution and all forms of civility. Accomplishments long fought for reversed at the stroke of a pen. Back to the fifties again (or is it the thirties?) in race relations. Cowardice embodied in the Republican party, confusion in the Democrats, arrogance and fascistic greed in the President. There is no Constitution, no rule of law, no traditions of governance or civility. America is finished and I hope we can start all over again someday.

Osama Bin Laden won. The moral foundation of this society was so thin that we were ready to hate each other at any provocation. The church sold out so completely that we had nothing to offer and Jesus was finally dead and forgotten, at least in the places where America was worshipped and the horrible insinuations of sanctimony counted as praise indeed.

I have spent much time suffering from anxiety of various sorts and depression of different colors. I was once incorrectly diagnosed as bipolar by a doctor who never talked to me at all about anything except the side effects of the meds he prescribed. I cannot give up the idea that some of my superiors were aware of what was going on in my medical care and insurance expenditures and treated me appropriately in light of what they were so sure they knew. I have been put to sleep for surgery four times, to repair my left quadricepts tendon twice, to fuse a disk in my upper spine while mucking around in the nerves and giving me numbness and limited use of my hands, total replacement of left shoulder, and surgery on my right foot to remove gout deposits. Not so much, but every time one was over my mind was slower and less efficient than before. I worry about alzheimimers but more than that I simply worry about growing stupid and old and forgetful. My body is not worth the chemicals that make it up, but can't my mind stay ahead of it? Clearly the answer is No. All of that can build to an excruciating peak of pain and futility some days. I have been hounded by it all my life and even more consistently all my career. Most of the time depression has won and I could write some words that would evoke tears if I simply had the time. Talent wasted. A god betrayed. People cheated. I carry all of it and worry about the future of a man who has no purpose. Yet the physical pain can make the mental agony disappear in an instant. The weakness, the klutziness, the numbness, the throbbing might be lessened by meds, but I took Oxycodone for several years and reached some kind of medical limit that had me taken off of them, with no apparent addiction by the way. So I take multiple medications that probably work in their pitiful ridiculous way and if the weather is right and I throw the dice just right I can walk straight and tall and in some way appear to be what I once was or expected to be. The humiliation and the inability to sit still or to sleep more than two or three hours can break the peace and start me down the cliff again. It hurts to pull myself up after falling. It hurts to be unable to do so. It hurts to be alienated from grandchildren because I am an old old man before my time. It all hurts, but when the hands and the feet start throbbing nothing else matters. One foot in front of the other. Use all your fingers at once. Try not to wince. Let life happen but don't reveal it.

I am a United Methodist pastor, so it seems imperative that I like John Wesley. This is tough. I have never seen a portrait or statue, never read a story which attributed to him even the smallest dollop of warmth. His writings are cold and bloodless much of the time, but that is just a sign of his 18th century influence. Nevertheless, people responded to him like he was handing out roses. They loved him, they obeyed him, they were moved by his words and blessed by his actions. He still lives in churches as diverse as the California Methodists and the Assembly of God.

And here I am, having spent my whole adult life trying to make an impact and to be loved (two goals that must not go together), and I have almost nothing to show for it. Training, technique, torment.

I think it was his faith that did it. He really did believe.

“Nobody “gets over” anything, there is no closure, hearts stay broken for a long time.” Garrison Keillor in Salon, June 4, 2008.

Politics is not a dirty word to me. No human institution could exist without the compromise and bargaining and quid pro quo that is necessary to get things done by human beings with differing values and interests. Nothing would get done without what we call “politics.” Nevertheless, we must beware using that truth to excuse behavior that betrays our values. The Democratic party, for instance, has compromised profoundly with wealthy financial interests that contradict its values. There is no longer a “party of the working man and the poor.” The excuse for the compromise is this: “if we aren't in power we can't do any good.” When the only way to gain power is to compromise your core values, then the power you think you gain really belongs to someone else.

There is no way a prophetic critique can be brought to bear on the political process if the only appeal is to the people who already maintain the system we live under. I am not saying that change is impossible, simply that it will take courage and will draw on something other than the conventional wisdom.

Likewise, politics in the church is mostly an appeal to the conventional wisdom. Church leadership is carefully cleansed of independent minded individuals. Prophetic critique is eliminated. The definition of our problem becomes strikingly clear and simple. We read it and hear it at every meeting we attend. It is inescapable and inarguable. Likewise, the answer to our problem is universally recognized. We all agree. We are all too pious to disagree, all too afraid for our positions to assert ourselves. Does God hear the prayers of a bishop? What difference does it make? Conventional wisdom rules.

Julie Christie was as beautiful then as she is now, and almost as fine an actress. This 1968 film captures the hippie era beautifully, and even features appearances by Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Stoned hippies wander through scenes and miss the point altogether. A beautiful psychedelic Volkswagen drives backwards. We see the brief obligatory scene of the Vietnam War on television. The city of San Francisco is a prime player, with the hills and curves reflecting what is going on in the relationship between George C. Scott and our heroine. And the flash forwards and backwards show us the way that past and future coexist in the mind and our need is to build from the pieces a coherent story. Thirty years ahead of Crash and other recent films that deconstruct time, this film told a story in pieces that reflect the confusion of the time and of the mind of the protagonist.

The plot is simple. An extraordinarily rich, prestigious, violent, and spoiled young man named David marries and then travels with his wife to Mexico. The woman may or may not have invited a young boy named Oliver to come back to San Francisco with them, but the boy gets in the car and refuses to leave. The woman finds a Mexican couple to look after him, but Petulia has him over for frequent visits. On one such visit, David gets tired of having the boy around and with threatening words and gestures demands she get rid of him. Petulia responds in a panic, and hurries him outside so they can get away from the coming storm. Soon after they go outside, Oliver runs playfully between two trucks and gets hit by a car, damaging his leg severely. He is taken to a hospital where Archie, a surgeon played by George C. Scott, operates on him. Julie Christie watches the surgery through a doorway and falls in love with Scott, though he doesn't notice or remember her at all. Later, as the boy recovers, she sees Archie at a party where the rock icons are playing and begins to “stalk” him, in a playful sixtyish sort of way. Eventually an affair begins, to which the husband responds by almost beating her to death. The culprit is never caught because family connections keep everything silent. Petulia is taken from the hospital by the family, and seems to settle down with her husband. She has some contact with George C. Scott, but essentially the two go their own ways. At the end of the movie, she is in the hospital about to give birth. Scott sees her and makes one final offer: he could take her to another hospital and presumably run away where the family would never see them again. She says no, but in the last scene as the anesthesia mask is placed on her face and a male hand touches her face, she whispers his name, “Archie.”

Of course, the film is told in a much less pedestrian manner. The director, Richard Lester, who had directed both the Beatles films, is in prime form. Nicholas Roeg, who went on to direct Don't Look Back with Ms. Christie, is Director of Photography. It captures the time as well as any film I have seen.

My first judgment of Petulia was that she was perhaps bipolar or even schizophrenic. As we learned more about her, I judged her to be simply a victim of abuse. But by the end of the movie, she seemed to be above all a person trapped by the wealth of her husband's family. Archie is by no means impoverished, but he cannot compete with Joseph Cotton and son Richard Chamberlain who have her imprisoned by their wealth and her fear of what they might do to her in order to protect their reputation. Archie's explanation for his own separation from wife and family is that he just wanted to feel alive. The enemy of life is the fear that traps Petulia and keeps her from the life that is just within her grasp. It was typical of the sixties that the struggle for life was not something that went on in our own minds but was rather a struggle against the “principalities and power” that ruled this earth. Whether life and freedom are possible in such a world is a question to which the film does not give a final answer. The ending is ambiguous, but it suggests that at least love may have a fighting chance.

I watched King of Hearts for the first time in 30 years and it brought back so much of the spirit of the sixties, the upside down values that called insanity reason and vice versa. But the thing that struck me most was the sweet innocent beauty of Genevieve Bujold. Oh my, it makes you want to cry. This year, she will be 66 years old. In Away from Her, Julie Christie played an Alzheimer's victim in her sixties, a beautiful older woman with moments of insight and clarity who was not so slowly fading away. Then soon after I watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller and parts of Dr. Zhivago and saw a different Julie Christie, young and brilliant and beautiful, and comparing the two made tears come to my eyes. I am 55 years old, with very few options or opportunities ahead of me. When I spend time with people in their thirties or with my son who is 18 I have that same feeling of loss as I remember the me who was once young and hopeful with choices and opportunities and wonders ahead of him. But it occurs to me that the young Julie Christie, the Genevieve Bujold and Alan Bates of King of Hearts, the Lauren Bacall of To Have and Have Not, and so many others are still alive to me through their performances on DVD. All of our lives are available in an even richer and more permanent way to God. The young me still lives in the memory of God, still has all the value and meaning he possessed 30 years ago. He has never gone away and never will as long as the memory of God endures.

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

  2. Don't compare your best to their worst.

  3. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl meant that you should be willing to find elements in the other religious tradition and faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in you own religious tradition or or faith.”

The promises that God made to Israel in the Hebrew scriptures were impossible ones to keep. God promised them land and status and a great future, and the people gladly seized the promise. Yet the conditional nature of the promise became clear as Israel lost bit by bit the treasures of their election. So Israel was traumatized by a god who they thought had failed them. On the other hand, the prophets told of the trauma of god who had been betrayed by the people. Yet Israel was in an impossible situation. No people will ever keep any law, because the very nature of being a people means to draw boundaries that both include and exclude. This belonging is always more important than obedience. The people will gladly violate the law if it makes them feel more comfortable with who they are as a people.

There is only one promise God can truly keep, and that is a promise that depends on God's will alone. The response of the people cannot effect God's promise in any way. The only promise God can keep is one that says, “I will save you no matter what you do. In fact, you are already saved whether you know it or not. I promise that I will not change that reality nor will I punish you in the short or the long term for how you respond to it. I will love you no matter what. You cannot make me stop loving you.” God's promise is universal salvation without exception or condition.

We have always assumed that God could make this promise if God wished. Much of our anger against God comes because of God's refusal to make that promise even though it is the only promise that could make any difference. Yet God did make the promise when Jesus died on the cross. For over 2000 years, theologians have been trying to argue against the promise, claiming that the new covenant was just a spiritualized version of the old quid pro quo. But God did make the promise, and even those who refuse to believe it will yet be the recipients of God's joyous, cleansing, life changing grace.

The gods of America stripped to their clown faces the flag flies proudly as the lies are revealed it is always our choice, our demand, our purpose whether we stand or whether we kneel we throw in a box the things we never needed things too scary for a story, too ugly for a song but the true story will be told a price will be paid by the guilty and the damned In chaotic mass uncertainty We fumbled away our glory That's the way it goes, always goes -  Until it doesn't.