Thursday, June 28, 2012

Things change

Oh, how things change.  It was just over a year ago that we were winding our way across the eastern United States (after an unintended sojourn in Mount Vernon, Illinois, documented on this blog here).  I guess it must have been a year ago yesterday that we finally arrived, were thankfully able to reschedule the unloading crew after our unplanned schedule adjustments, and spent our first night in Richmond (or Chesterfield County, to be more precise).

A year ago I was still trying to find most everything, looking ahead with a certain amount of dread to summer Greek, and having to troll around local restaurants for internet access.  Now I think I've found most things (though there are still a couple of boxes I'm slightly afraid of), looking ahead with a significant amount of dread to summer Hebrew, and usually able to access the ol' interwebs from home, campus, or a number of other places with trusty MacBook in tow.

A year ago I couldn't have told you the name of a single church in the area aside from an obvious guess like "First Presbyterian" which one can find almost anywhere.  Now I know I have an interim job for this fall, working part-time with youth groups at a church we've been attending for a while.  It's a dipping of the toes into the water, just a little bit, after all these years away from working in churches.  It's also a chance to adjust to the particular structures of PC(USA) churches, which I have not experienced other than as a member and (very briefly) committee member.  It is also a departure from my comfort zone, made more concrete than has yet been the case -- it was inevitably going to happen, so it might as well happen now.  I am, as usual, both highly apprehensive and greatly looking forward to it.

A year ago, aside from some online interaction, I knew none of the folks I'd be attending classes with.  I could guess that many of them would be about the age of the students in my music history classes I had just left behind, though some would be my age or older.  Now I know that...yes, many of my classmates are exactly that, some are older, and maybe one is "about my age."  I'm actually in just a little bit of a soft spot age-wise.  Still, I can occasionally drop a "you weren't even born when that happened" on some of them when talking about events in my life, which is good for a laugh now and then.  And in the interim, I got to know some folks enough to miss them now that they've graduated or moved on from the faculty.

A year ago, I really had no idea how I'd get involved in seminary life, particularly from a commuter's distance, beyond the classroom.  Now I've got a small on-campus job that buys a few groceries, will be working on coordinating chapel this summer (making sure the communion elements are procured and such, as well as lining up speakers -- which is DONE, baby!!), and will next year be one of the Richmond campus's two student representatives to the seminary's Board of Trustees.  That, along with the interim youth ministry coordinator gig, will be plenty to keep me busy along with Old Testament, Preaching and Worship, and the various other classes on the schedule for this fall, January, spring, and May.  [One major task remaining is to figure out if there's even the remotest chance of being able to afford any of the travel seminars the seminary offers for credit.  One goes to countries in Central America this January (I want to say Guatemala and Costa Rica, but my memory is not certain), and I'd really like to go, but that ain't cheap.]  

A year ago, I wouldn't have struggled nearly so sadly with a simple revision of a musicological paper as I have this month.  My brain is just engaged with different things now, and getting that focus back, even temporarily, has proven elusive.

Some things do not change.  I still miss Lawrence and KU and many of the folks at the university and First Presbyterian, tremendously, achingly at times.  I miss the rhythms and interactions of teaching, sometimes (other times I don't miss the other stuff that goes with it, as when Union was going through its accreditation process this year).  I miss having income (I mean real income, the kind one can sort of live on).  I miss our house, cookie-cutter as it was, with Julia's garden producing strawberries on occasion.  I miss the walks with Miss Piggy to the pond down the road.  I miss Miss Piggy.  I miss Lawrence during college basketball season, even as I'm relieved to some degree not to be in Lawrence during college basketball season.  I miss Mass Street, and the favorite restaurants with all the locally grown cuisine.  I miss the quirky way the town just ... ends once you get past the movie theater on South Iowa Street.

(To be sure there are things I don't miss: winter and its blizzards, summer temperatures up to 110 degrees or more, the hour-and-a-half drive to the Kansas City airport, the futility of the Royals, and a few others.)

But life has changed, all the more dramatically for its seeming routine.  The mental process of sitting down to write this review has been jarring for revealing just how much has happened in the last twelve months while I was busy being a seminarian.  And more change is to come, I'm sure, whether I'm ready or not.

Bring it on.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My left knee's private life; or, the really disturbing implications of the "body of Christ" metaphor for the church

Yesterday wasn't a great day for me.  I woke up not entirely certain which way was up.  So I laid back down, and got up again a bit later, but nothing had changed.

For close to twenty years now (good grief, I'm getting old), my balance has not been right.  Due either to a really bad inner ear problem or possibly a blow to the head caused by slipping on ice, those mysterious nerves and canals and whatnot in the human brain that control my balance (yes, that balance, the one that enables a person to stand up and walk in a straight line and such) went on the fritz; the easiest way for me to describe the result (not the condition, necessarily) is that the right side of my brain tells me I'm walking in a straight line, but the left side tells me I'm veering left, and my brain overall can't handle the mixed data, so it conks out.  It isn't really vertigo, because there is not the usual dizziness or such going with it.  Anyway, I went through some physical rehab to get my eyes and the bottoms of my feet to do the work of keeping me straight instead, and most of the time I have no problem with this imbalance.  Certain things might occasionally set it off; lack of sleep (I'm guessing that was the culprit in this case) or maybe a mild head cold or congestion can cause problems, and I'm not good at getting around in the dark (I'm the one in the movie theater who waits through all the credits until the lights come on, even if there isn't a blooper reel running over the credits).  Only very rarely does this become debilitating, and yesterday was one of those days.  Today is not, thankfully.

What I was a bit overwhelmed by was just how much of a hindrance it was yesterday.  Eventually I got to where I could get around enough to do some laundry, but I'd have to take an hour's nap just to get over loading the washer and/or dryer.  Mowing the lawn, or going to the farmer's market (both of which I'd planned to do) were completely off the table.  Even reading, which would be my normal fallback, was a bad option; my eyes were already working too hard just to keep up.  Any attempt at physical labor (like putting together the bookshelf that's been waiting for months now) was a good way to get something broken, like the bookshelf, or possibly me.  The day ended up being very limited and frustrating.  Not much to do but think, which is always dangerous and ends up in blog posts.

I was, not surprisingly, frustrated at how something that would seem to be so contained, so restricted to a very small portion of my overall body, could essentially knock me flat.  Of course, we're talking about nerves in the general area of the brain, so I suspect most people would not be that surprised that it could have such an adverse affect.  But if you think about it, it isn't just the really sensitive stuff like the brain or lungs or heart that can mess with the whole body if not checked or treated.

Take that titular left knee.  Unlike other parts of me, my knees are in reasonably decent shape.  Let's say, however, that in whatever physical activity I'm doing I get a little off-stride and tweak something in that knee--nothing major, mind you, no "pop" or tear or anything so dramatic or surgery-inducing; just a tweak, something that makes you say "ow!" for a moment and passes (or so you think) quickly.  The "manly" advice is, of course, to "walk it off."  You can still feel it; it certainly doesn't prevent you from walking, but you can still feel that tweak with each step.  Soon enough, though, you're back to walking around more or less like normal.

Or so you think.  Probably unbeknownst to you, your body is still getting those "ow!" messages from your knee, and your brain is sending out all sorts of commands to compensate and try to stop the "ow!" messages from flaring about.  The result, though, turns out to have its own unpleasant consequences; after maybe a day or two suddenly you notice a lot of discomfort in your right ankle, or your lower back, or maybe even your neck or shoulders.  Your body's subconscious response to that little tweak suddenly brings discomfort and possibly real injury to parts of your body that would seem completely distant from that original tweak.

You can see such things in sports fairly often.  A baseball pitcher who alters his throwing motion to cover for elbow discomfort tears a rotator cuff, or sprains his wrist or strains his back or incurs harm elsewhere, for example.  But one doesn't have to be an athlete, and the afflicted area doesn't even have to be so big as that left knee.  Ask someone who lost a toe or two, even the smallest ones, how much adjustment was required even to the loss of such seemingly minor digits.  And let's not forget the appendix, that small and seemingly useless part that can kill you if it bursts too far from medical help.

With these pleasant thoughts in my head, somehow my distracted brain summoned up this blog post from Duke Divnity's Call & Response blog.  With its provocative title it had managed to stay in my head for several days after I had seen it (possibly linked by a Facebook friend?  Though it's two years old I only saw it this week), and had lain quietly in the back of my mind waiting to cause havoc at the most opportune time.

Taking from that column its point about the potential difficulties of the "family" metaphor so often used for the church (Paul speaks so often of "brothers [and sisters]" that it is not feasible to dismiss), my mind went into overdrive on another of the common metaphors found, particularly in Paul, that of the "body" or even particularly the "body of Christ."

My experience of full physical discomfort found its echo in Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 12:26; "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it ... " (Common English Bible, a relatively new translation I'm just starting to explore).  Or, to go back to this entry's tongue-in-cheek title, my left knee doesn't have a "private life."  When something goes wrong there, or in my ankle or brain or pinky toe or whatever, my whole body is affected by it.  So, too, with the spiritual body, suggests Paul.  If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets tweaked, all the parts hurt with it, or are ... hurt by it?

Does this disturb you as profoundly as it does me?  I find this one of the most terrifying verses in all of scripture.  Whatever happens to me affects the whole body.  Does this also mean that whatever I do to myself affects the whole body?  How far does this idea of total interconnection go?  What then is it possible to keep to myself?  Anything?  Does this really imply that anything that I do that provides even potential distraction from my role in the body of Christ (I've always imagined myself some sort of small tendon or ligament somewhere obscure, just trying to hold things together) ultimately ripples through the whole body of Christ and becomes yet another obstacle to the doing of Christ's work in God's world?  Body or bank account, person or purse, mind or matter, no matter what... this is fearful stuff.  I suspect very few, even those who might find the whole body metaphor most useful, really want to think about such implications to the fullest possible degree.

And yet it's a rather inescapable conclusion.  It isn't merely a metaphor of cooperation, or even of accountability in the strictest sense.  That left knee isn't "accountable" to the body; the connection and the complications are simply an inescapable part of the relationship.

I don't think there is any metaphor for the church that works perfectly; we are given so many because all of them get at some part of the truth about the church without necessarily exhausting that truth.  The "body" metaphor is rather compelling, partly because Paul works it out so directly in 1 Corinthians, but I somehow suspect even he must have boggled a bit when he thought about just what he was saying.  It is a powerful and fearful thing, I think, to be called a part -- even a tiny little obscure tendon -- of the body of Christ.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Writing prayer

So this Sunday I am tasked with leading the Prayers of the People and the Lord's Prayer at the church we've been attending of late.  There is no set prayer, and not a tendency to use one from the Book of Common Worship or other such source.  In other words, I create a prayer and pray it.

It strikes me, and has for a long while, that praying in front of the congregation is a funny thing.  A person of even modest biblical literacy can hardly avoid recalling the mandate about going to your closet and praying in secret, even if one doesn't remember where it is found (Matthew 6, and yes, I had to double-check that).  Depending on one's perspective, one might also be made uneasy by certain public-spectacle types of prayer that occasionally make headlines or touch off controversies, and want to shrink back from the whole idea.

Prayer, though, is a needful and important part of a service of worship, and not something I can really avoid in my not-exactly-chosen profession-to-be.  Still, one can find all sorts of arguments to have; should it be led by one person?  Should it somehow be responsive or responsorial, with the congregation called upon to participate?  Should it simply be a time of silence in which each individual prays him- or herself?

What has occurred to me at the moment is the degree to which, at one time in my life, I'd have been shocked and maybe even horrified at what I am doing about it; I am writing the prayer in advance.

There are of course many traditions at work today in which such an act would somehow be seen as less than faithful, evidence of a weak or nonexistent faith, or otherwise somehow lacking in authenticity.  At one time I probably believed such things or something similar.  Now, though, I find such attitudes not terribly helpful and perhaps a bit prideful in some cases.  Writing prayers makes too much sense to me now.

For one thing, I know my memory to be something less than fine, and I do not want to leave anything out; I know that will happen if I'm up there engaging in "holy winging it" and I don't want to be the person who does that.  Also, the act of writing prayer is, if done right, prayer itself.  Whether for this specific kind of occasion or others, the process of thinking about the needs and concerns of this particular congregation, that family, this place in the world, the country, the denomination; all of these drive me further and further into praying for the congregation, family, world, country, denomination.  By the time I say anything Sunday morning I will have already been praying for these things for most of the week.  I can't specifically say that will benefit the congregation, but it is certainly better for me!

I find something similar to be true in my still-developing practice of hymn writing, even as another hymn was brought into being last weekend.  The time spent letting the inspiration form itself, then molding and shaping that initial inspiration into something more organized and communicable, even the fussing over a single word or stray syllable, all become prayer and prayer again over whatever subject the hymn addresses.  Hymns are not strictly prayers, though some may take that form; their purpose and function are as likely to be instructive, evangelistic, encouraging, or maybe even reproaching as they are to be prayer of any specific sort.  Still, I am finding that the act of developing and shaping such a text drives me into more prayer on that subject.

Written prayer is nothing new for liturgical folk, and to be honest I've been accustomed to such for a while, though I've not been called upon to do it much.  There is a time and place to be able to pray extemporaneously.  For me, that is not this Sunday.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shocks to the system

I remember reading an article about a former NFL player who had committed suicide.  One particular sentence in the article gave me chills.  A forensic pathologist reported that the brain tissue in this man's brain was in a condition that one would expect of an 85-year old.

Andre Waters was 44 when he committed suicide, over five and a half years ago.

Maybe that one slipped your mind.

The "new" issue of the deteriorating mental health of several former NFL players is not really that new, after all.  While it flares again each time a former player commits suicide (even if concussion-related symptoms are not necessarily known, as is still the case with former San Diego Chargers star Junior Seau), this is not a thing that has mushroomed out of control in the last year or two.  Waters's suicide was over five and a half years ago, as noted above.  Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long had committed suicide some months earlier, and his brain also showed signs of trauma likely connected to his football career.  Perhaps the first case of such brain injury causing severe repercussions later in a player's life (at least in this modern wave) was former Steelers center Mike Webster, whose condition was at least partly diagnosed during his lifetime (unlike most of the more recent cases) and who was the subject of litigation against the NFL over that damage.  Or perhaps one recalls another Steeler, Justin Strzelczyk, who died under strange circumstances in 2004.  Some cases have been shocking for the relative youth of those so diagnosed after death; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was only 26 at the time of his death about two years ago, but his brain already showed significant signs of chronic traumatic encephalophy (CTE) when examined after his death (the only way such a diagnosis can be made conclusively).

Frankly, these cases only moved the needle minimally in terms of public perception, shocking as they may have been for a day or two in the general news cycle.  Only the suicide of Dave Duerson, formerly a defensive back for the Chicago Bears, seems to have registered with more force, probably because of the manner of Duerson's death; he killed himself with a shot to the heart, in order that his brain be in suitable condition for study after his death, which he specified in a final note.  The results of that study seemed to verify Duerson's fears.  Seau's suicide this year followed not long after the suicide of Ray Easterling, the former Atlanta Falcons defensive back, after a diagnosis of dementia that prompted him to participate in a study geared towards trying to find a way to diagnose and deal with such symptoms without the patient's death being required.  (Confession: I used that last link mostly because of its provenance in a tabloid from the United Kingdom; the story is not limited to American newspapers and sports sites, despite the prevalence of the condition and aftermath among American football players.)

So, by now, the three of you reading this are wondering; I know this guy calls himself a fool and all that, but is he really so foolish as to tangle with the NFL?  Sorry to disappoint you, but no.  At the risk of a metaphor in bad taste, I have no intention of banging my head against that particular wall.  No amount of protest, no amount of editorial castigation, not even congressional hearings were they to be initiated would make even the tiniest dent in the financial leviathan that is the NFL.  (Oddly, congressional committees seem to recognize this; they'll summon baseball players at the drop of a hat but have you heard peep one out of Congress over something that actually seems to be contributing to premature death?)  What will ever serve to humble the NFL?  Read on, faithful few; that discussion is later.

Besides, why should the NFL be the only target here?  Remember Chris Henry; he was only 26, but already showed a lot of CTE damage.  Do you really think all of it came from his time in the NFL?  To consider this issue fully one will have to consider the amount of damage that might occur in the average collegiate career, or even during high school, or maybe even before.

No, my consideration here is not the NFL or the NCAA or any particular high school association.  If you really expect that any such entity is just going to up and change its ways all of a sudden out of the goodness of its collective heart, well, John Calvin has a thing or two to say to you about human nature and sinfulness.

My concern is with those who are most responsible, ultimately, for perpetuating these organizations, seemingly without regard for the consequence a football career might well have for those who play the game.  (True, hockey has its own issues in this regard, but hockey's following is significantly smaller.)  As the old comic-strip philosopher Pogo might have put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

I referred to the NFL as a "financial leviathan"; how do you think it got that way?  People go to games, watch games on TV, buy the merchandise, spend, spend, spend.  College football, that bastion of "amateur" compe ... ha, ha, hahahahaha, I can't even type that, also rakes in money hand over fist, with the added benefit of not having to pay salaries to the ones actually playing (aside from scholarship money, which even at expensive schools is a bit less than even an NFL rookie makes).  Don't knock the drawing power of high school football, at least in certain parts of the country.

For that matter, going beyond the dollar signs, don't knock the cultural sway football holds in much of the country.  High school games on Friday night, college games on Saturday, pro games on Sunday; football offers a whole weekend of opportunity for ritual adoration, and plenty of devoted supplicants bow at the respective altars.  Devotion to one's particular team results in all manner of bizarre and even repulsive (to the non-initiated) acts of devotion, particularly as the games are played for higher and higher stakes -- championships of whatever legitimacy, bigger and bigger payouts, more and more bragging rights and opportunities to proclaim your team as Number One (or bizarrely, on the college level, to proclaim your conference as the best athletically, higher education be damned).

In the face of all of this, all I can do is ask a question:

What will it take?

What would have to happen to cause you to turn away from the spectacle and glamour and glitz of The Great God Football?  Is there a quota of early dementia cases?  Junior Seau not a famous enough possible-football-related-suicide for you?  Who would it have to be?  Tom Brady?  Peyton Manning?  God forbid, Tim Tebow?  (Think about this, those who boast that he gives out more punishment than he takes; look at that list of ex-player suicides and notice how many were defensive backs, known as hard hitters -- Duerson, Waters, Easterling...the ones who specialized in dishing out the punishment were apparently taking plenty of it as well.)  Or are suicides not enough?  Does some player or ex-player under the curse of early dementia have to take out a gun and start shooting a crowd of autograph seekers?  I am not ranting; quite seriously I want to know what it would take to get a devoted football fanatic to be so repulsed or disgusted or humiliated by the legacy of damage and death that that fan can no longer participate in the system, financially or devotionally.

Another possible question; is it now possible to still count oneself as a football fan or even fanatic, and yet prevent one's own son from getting involved in football?  Apparently it's now possible to be an NFL player or ex-player and start discouraging or preventing one's offspring from playing.  Is this a cognitive dissonance that others are starting to experience?  Or is there a cognitive dissonance between a team engaging in a bounty system designed to reward players for injuring other players and this whole business of long-term damage from playing the game?

Football is evidently as dangerous (or more so) than it has been since Theodore Roosevelt's time (he convened a "fix it or it's gone" summit in 1905 over an increasing number of deaths resulting from football; one of the innovations deriving at least partly from that summit was the forward pass); it is also, without doubt, as popular as it's ever been.  Can the two possibly coexist forever, or for much longer?

Of course, I have to ask such questions from the point of view I now have; a not-so-young man in training to be a pastor of some ilk in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  If a life of being a Christ-follower is to mean anything beyond showing up for the occasional Sunday morning, one eventually has to be challenged by the football monolith and its consumption of flesh.  How many brains is it o.k. to scramble while the NFL gropes for a technological solution, all the while churning out "NFL's Greatest Hits" videos and SportsCenter sequences?  What happens if a wave of players starts to make the same calculation Jacob Bell made; to get out while his marbles were still relatively intact?  What has to happen before the whole cultural and financial monolith that is football simply can in no way be found compatible with following Jesus Christ and living as Christ-imitative a life as possible?  (I'm sure Tim Tebow would have a truly godly rebuttal, but I'm also sure he doesn't read this blog.)  Where is the tipping point, and are we really capable of seeing it before we're well beyond it?

What if more and more parents decide to take the step of withholding their boys from the game?  Does it then become the province of the less affluent, the only way out of a life of grinding poverty, as it has been for so many wide receivers out of the sugar cane fields of south Florida?  Does it, in short, become boxing?  A spectacle in which the well off feast upon the spectacle supplied by the less fortunate?  Sounds pretty damned exploitative, and I use the word "damned" very much on purpose.

I freely confess to being a bit of an outsider here; I have no sons to prevent from playing the game, and I am one of those apostates who doesn't even watch the Super Bowl (in retrospect, this might have been influenced by Andre Waters's suicide, though I don't remember it being a conscious factor at the time), and my taste for the college game is diminishing yearly (for many reasons besides the concussion factor, but that is probably playing into it as well).  On the other hand, I suppose this is why I have to ask.  What is the cost that is too much to tolerate the game?  How long do we have to wait for somebody to invent the perfect helmet to prevent concussions?  At what point is the violence and destructiveness too much for one who would be a Christ-follower to accept?  And if we can't imagine such a point, what does that say about us?