Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In the chair

This is that day.

Normally treatment is on Monday, every other week.  Due to yesterday's holiday, the schedule is pushed back a day.  I get the chemo cocktail for four and a half hours and have the pump added today, then I return Thursday to have the pump removed and get a shot of something called Neulasta to try and keep my white blood cell count up.

The picture above is actually from two weeks ago, but the visuals are pretty similar each week.  I arrive at Thomas Johns Cancer Center at Johnston-Willis Hospital near Midlothian, about a ten-minute drive from where we live.  First stop is the lab to have blood taken for testing.  In all honesty, that's my least favorite part of the day, particularly when it involves having my finger pricked.  I don't like any sharp object poking holes in my body, but in my finger...ouch, ouch, ouchouchouch.  Having it taken from my arm is no picnic, but these days I'll prefer it to the finger-prick.  Ouchouchouch.

After a few more minutes wait it's time to enter the transfusion room.  Most weeks I'm the youngest patient room and it isn't close, and today doesn't seem to be an exception so far.  It's typically about noon when one of the oncology techs starts to hook me up.

Back on March 1 I had surgery to have a transfusion port installed in my upper chest, on the right side.  In the picture above the port area is somewhat concealed by my shirt.  During the week when I'm not hooked up to the port, it's a little odd to feel this lump in my chest and know that it's (hopefully) part of the solution, not the problem.  It doesn't hurt, but I can't really say that I don't know it's there.  It's enough of a lump that it's impossible not to notice.

For today, that port is the means by which the day's cocktail of drugs passes into my body.  The tech is generally kind enough to numb the spot thoroughly before inserting the connection into the port, so I can't really say I feel what's going on (believe me, I look away).  Once that is done and the tech can see that the connection is secure (unfortunately, this involves seeing "blood return" issuing from the port into the injection tube.  Now you know why I look away), the initial preparatory drugs can be hooked to the tube and the day's fun can begin.

In the mix of drugs that get pumped into me in a given session, almost as many of the infusion liquids are devoted to preventative measures as to the chemo itself.  At least two of the first to be injected are primarily for the prevention of nausea.  It should be noted that these apparently work, as I have not really had a major problem with nausea, aside from one day several weeks back (and that was as likely a consequence of a poor meal choice as anything).  Eventually a saline solution is hooked up to keep a regular flow going and to act as a little bit of a buffer against the chemo drugs proper doing too much damage.

Another of the preventative drugs administered is a kind of steroid, which means that I'm suspended from Major League Baseball (the NFL would obviously have no problem keeping me on if I were in it) and that I will have a pretty ravenous appetite tonight.  That effect passes after a day or so, otherwise I would end up even more unsightly than I already am.

I know when the serious drugs are being administered, not because I can recognize anything by name (please, prescription and drug names might as well be in Sanskrit -- thanks to biblical study I'm more comfortable with Greek* than with these drug names, and therefore the old "it's Greek to me" line doesn't apply), but because of the protocols that kick into place.  I get not one oncology nurse, but two; I have to repeat my name and date of birth, and the second nurse is double-checking and observing closely as the IV bag is hooked into the system; and the nurse is wearing an extra protective gown.  No fooling around here.  One of those drugs can feel a little cold as it enters my body; otherwise I can't say I notice much when the transfusion is happening.

*I didn't say I was comfortable with Greek.

If you've spent time in a hospital, you probably remember that a typical IV drip doesn't go quickly.  By the time the various preventatives and chemo drugs are swapped in and out, I spend about four and a half hours in the chemo chair.  The IV bags and monitor are on a rolling stand, so I can make the trip to the bathroom when necessary.  My arms and hands are not particularly encumbered, so I can do serious things like complete classroom assignments such as papers or take-home tests, read articles, etc.; or, I can do silly things like live-blog my chemo, as I'm apparently doing now.  Back at the beginning of April I tried to catch some major-league baseball on Opening Day, but the poor quality of the wifi connection and the lack of any sports channels on the room's TV system doomed that for the most part. Conversations are sometimes possible, but frequently other patients are either asleep (particularly the older ones) or accompanied by friends or drivers and are therefore primarily in conversation with them.

And, well...there's not a lot else to describe.  The transfusion room has been, at least the six days counting today I've been here, a drama-free zone.  The techs and nurses are generally friendly and highly capable, and the patients are frequently asleep or otherwise involved.  Generally, not much happens aside from the individual treatments going on at any given time.

I would not have you think my regime is typical.  Some patients actually receive their treatment not through a port, but through a typical IV hookup in the arm or hand.  I have to admit I'm happy to have the port in that regard, as strange as it feels sometimes.  Most patients don't stay as long as I do, but then they're often coming every week or even more often, whereas I do get two weeks between Monday treatments.  That fact has probably been why I've been able to keep up with classes and otherwise function like a normal human being.

If this week is typical, I'll be famished tonight; my fingers will tingle when I try to handle anything cold, possibly the rest of the week; and I'll be fairly fatigued for three or four days -- not debilitatingly so, but noticeably.  I'm rather happy that this week is an "off week" for me; I really don't have anywhere to go before Friday of this week, which means I'll be free of the pump before then.

The pump is the last part of the chemo treatment, and probably the most obnoxious because of the inconvenience it causes for parts of three days.  It gets linked into the tubing hooked to the port at the end of today's treatment, and has to remain attached for forty-six hours (yes, forty-six and not forty-eight).  Typically the pump is kept in what is often called a fanny pack, with the tube snaking around from it to the pump.  This tends to require a buttoned shirt if I'm going out, so that the tubing can be slipped in between buttons and kept from getting caught on other odd stuff like doorknobs.  Around the house it's less of an issue, but in any case it gets pretty darn tedious, and makes a lot of ordinary activities a bit more laborious.  Since I tend to keep the fanny pack positioned on my right hip, it means I can't sleep on my right side -- usually not a problem, but a little inconvenient some nights.

On Wednesday afternoon (Thursday this week), forty-six hours later, the pump (which looks a bit like a water balloon encased in a plastic jar) is removed and a last flush is pumped through to clear the port, which then is bandaged for a few hours (with an ordinary band aid, mind you); the last injection goes into the fleshy part of my left arm, and I'm done.  Free at last, free at last...

Once Thursday is done this week, I'll have two more treatment cycles to go, which means chemo is done on June 26.  I'll see the oncologist mid-July, at which time a determination will be made about when to do another endoscopic ultrasound or other scoping procedure to see what's left of the cancer, if anything.  Obviously what happens next depends on what that procedure shows.  I'm studiously avoiding expectations of any kind at this point.

I can already feel the fatigue starting to settle in just a little bit today.  Having this kind of stuff pumped through you is going to be a wearying experience, with some lingering effects.  Yard work is beyond me right now; between the labor and the sun exposure I can't cut it ("it" being the lawn at this point).  Sleep, though it certainly comes and sometimes when I least expect it, is a little bit more fitful.  The cold sensitivity is rather inconvenient; I can cook dinner, but my wife has to handle the cold stuff.

Still, considering that others can and do have a much tougher time with chemotherapy treatment, I can't really complain.  Despite my general bulginess and non-athleticism, I was apparently a reasonably healthy person (aside from the cancer), in that I've come through radiation, surgery, and now most of chemo without many of the usual side effects and not a lot of degradation to my body.  I'm losing hair, but not at any faster rate than I was before starting cancer treatment (I do wonder if my beard is turning white faster, however).  The presence of the port limits what I can do in terms of upper-body exercise, but the legs are continuing to be in fairly good shape.  My brains haven't totally deserted me, as I apparently managed to get through classes in better shape this spring than back in the fall.

There will also be long-term ramifications, of course.  I'll always have to be on guard for cancer.  The financial ramifications will be devastating (not going to get into that here).  Insurance may be tricky, particularly between graduation from UPSem and finding a call (thank God pre-existing conditions won't be allowed to deny me coverage...).

At this point, though, all I can really do is get through each treatment, while working on my internship this summer and getting ready for ordination exams in August.  I don't see a point in whining too much as long as I'm being spared the worst effects of the chemo that so many people have experienced in the past (and still do in some cases today).  If the chemo is judged not to have worked, mind you, I'll be whining pretty fiercely, but that's still a couple of months away at the least.

So, that's about what it is these days.  Nothing terribly interesting, but it is a fairly large chunk of my life right now.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Updated 5/26/14:
Note: it's now been two years since I wrote this one, and things seem only to get worse.  Not only does the tendency to miss the memorial part of the day get stronger, one can increasingly find more and more public rationalization of paying more attention to current (i.e. living) troops rather than observing the day in honor of those who did not return from war.  Will we not ever face the stark consequences of what Harry Emerson Fosdick so rightly labeled our "warring madness"? 

My family has been generally fortunate through the generations that those of our number who have gone to war have returned when war (or that particular war) ended.  I mention this to note that there is no particularly personal sense of grievance or distress behind what follows.

Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, dates to the era following the Civil War.  In the wake of so much death Americans, not surprisingly, needed a way to process such loss and shock in a formalized manner; the custom of decorating graves with flowers wedded itself to a formalized observance in memory of all those who had been killed in the war, and Decoration Day was born.  Though the term Memorial Day began to appear as early as the 1880s, apparently, it was not until the twentieth century that the term "Memorial Day" overtook "Decoration Day" as the formal name of the event.  (Read the Wikipedia article for more, insofar as you trust Wikipedia.)  The musically minded may recall Charles Ives's movement from his Symphony, New England Holidays, titled "Decoration Day," marking the event as he recalled it from his childhood in his singular musical language.

Large-scale observances do mark the occasion today.  Parades, observances at cemeteries, and other formal events at various locales call forth solemn contemplation of the sacrifices of those who have died in armed combat on behalf of the United States.  One of the more worthy ceremonies in my experience is held annually at the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, in Kansas City.  Others take place in different locales; you may have a particular favorite of your own.

That said, there are many for whom the holiday passes with little such reflection.  Even as every year new names are added to the swelling list of those who died in war, there are still many for whom Memorial Day basically translates into "four-day weekend."  The pool finally opens, the grill finally comes out, and it's unofficially summer no matter what the calendar actually says about that season being three or more weeks off.  There is no shortage of lamentation over this neglect of one of the country's more solemn occasions, and it is not my mission to add to it here, however worthy such lament may be.

My concern is something different, something that may seem perhaps innocuous, and might even be seen as an act of patriotism by some.  Increasingly over the years, I see Memorial Day (in an unofficial sense) losing its "memorial" connotations, even at such events that portray themselves as "Memorial Day" observances.

It is a good and worthy thing to honor those who have served in combat and who (like most of my ancestors who fought) lived to tell about it, or not to talk about it in the case of many.  My father was a prime example.  You could not extract one word from him about his service in World War II.  He once let slip about something that happened at Guadalcanal in my presence, but then clammed up and would say no more.  At any rate, such men and women (also being added to daily) should be honored, and indeed there is a day for such observance.  It's called Veterans' Day, and it happens in November.

It is also good and worthy to give honor and gratitude to those who serve in our armed forces, those who are the first to face the danger, in most cases (9/11 being a singular exception) when our country's sovereignty is at risk.  That day is called Armed Forces Day, and it is the third Saturday in May.  If you've never heard of it, perhaps you should do some research.

It seems, though, in the mind of many, that Memorial Day is, to the degree it is recalled at all, a more or less generic patriotic occasion which calls forth a sometimes-genuine, sometimes-perfunctory show of supporting the troops, particularly those still among us, without necessarily giving special regard to those who have, in Lincoln's words, given that "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf while wearing one of the uniforms of the American military.  As long as we put out a flag, or perhaps zip out some pronouncement about "those who have served..." or sing "God Bless America" or something else patriotic, we're covered.

Increasingly, my heart screams NO!  Dammit, no.

Somehow, some way, we must make Memorial Day truly Memorial Day.  It is desperately necessary that, if we're going to bother with this holiday at all, we rededicate the holiday to marking indelibly upon our memories those men and women who have knowingly put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the United States of America, and paid a price from which they do not return.  They deserve that much.  We are too often and too willingly far less of a country than their sacrifice deserves.  Can we not do this much?

Or do we not want to face what a truly Memorial Day would mean?  Do we not want to face the unalterable consequences of our "warring madness," in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick's hymn?  For this is always the price, even of the "good wars" or "just wars" our country may fight.  Even the Spanish-American War, blip on the historical radar that it was, cost somebody their son or their husband or their father -- over 2,000 total.  World War I, a mere blip in the collective consciousness of this country, killed over 100,000 Americans in barely a year's worth of active fighting.  How many did not come home from World War II, possibly the most unavoidable war our country has fought (other than perhaps the Civil War)?  It will always be thus, as long as humans stride pridefully about this planet nursing grudges or feeling compelled to prove they're "tough."  Wars will kill, and will not discriminate among the "good guys" and the "bad guys."  And someone's husband, someone's sister, someone's child will not come home.

Can we do this?  Can we, even if only one day a year, at least try to be worth the profound and unanswerable sacrifice they have made?  Can we look at their lives, their service, their deaths squarely and face that this is what it means and will always mean when we go to war?  Can we honor that fact directly, and honor their service and the howling loss their families learned to know, without averting our eyes or looking for some other thing to rouse up our patriotic spirit?  Can we simply let "Taps" play, let the tears fall, and resolve finally to be worth it?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Damned, beautiful things

This May I have been taking a course on Ecology and Worship.  The primary thrust of the class has been to consider and act upon the challenge of creating liturgy that is more mindful of God's creation, in such a way as to discourage the kind of separation of one's faith from how one treats the planet.  That is a hugely oversimplified description, but hopefully it will do for now.

I came into the class for a few different reasons: I really, really find joy in creating liturgy; I do believe the church has not been very good at calling humanity to its right role in relation to God's creation; I have this strange idea that what happens in a church's liturgy sticks more than pastors may realize, including the corollary that if nothing happens, that sticks too; and did I mention that I really like creating liturgy?  I've written a bunch of it, for sure, and maybe if I'm not too much of a sluggard I'll be writing more.

Another, back-of-the-mind issue that was at play was a level of concern about the condition of creation itself.  We've not been particularly good stewards of it, and we may well be to the point of reaping the whirlwind where we have sown the wind.  I'm not the type inclined to dismiss what 98% of experts say on a given subject, so the possibilities of what this planet and everything living on it might be looking at in the not-distant-enough future are of concern.  I'd also say that even if one decides that one can't make up one's mind either way on the subject, why in the world would one not err on the side of caution?

Note: if you are the type who prefers to dismiss what 98% of experts say on a given subject, you probably don't want to stick your nose in here.  You won't change my mind on the subject, but you may very well change my mind about you, and not necessarily for the better.  And if you go the Mark Driscoll route and contend that we might as well crank up the SUVs because God's gonna burn it all anyway, I will take note of your hideously bad theology and particularly unloving nature for all the world (or at least the four people who read this) to see.  

End of rant.  For now.

At any rate, there was one other latent challenge in this class.  Despite how goosebumpy and sentimental it is to get together and sing "Circle of Life," nature is not always a pretty place.  Predation exists.  Animals prey on other animals.  Heck, even some plants prey on other animals.  Climatologically, storms get destructive even when the planet is in the best of shape.  How do we balance such concepts with the notion that creation is good, it is created of God, and our worship ought to include praise and honor to God for that good creation?

Then, of course, just as the end of the term is arriving and I'm feeling pretty good about it, those tornadoes happened out in Oklahoma.

Damn, damn, damn.

With a town looking like a war zone, children trapped in destroyed schools, and a death toll that may approach the Joplin tornado, this big one was a silence-inducer, at least for folks with souls.  (Of course there were those ready to proclaim the tornado as God's punishment for insert person's bete noire here because, well, hatred.  I'm not going to give them the pleasure of publicizing their names because I don't believe in feeding trolls.)  What could one say?  Aside from repeated kyrie eleisons, what could one say?

How then does one speak of the glories of creation in the wake of nature at its most destructive?  Theologians far better than I have struggled with this and not, as far as I can see, come up with a lot of useful stuff to say.  There is a tension at work that we, in our finite experience and wisdom, cannot resolve.  We want a binary world: unequivocally good or unequivocally evil, no gray space in between.  Nature refuses to play along with this.  The same climate that gives you that beautiful weather for your Memorial Day picnic also gives you Hurricane Sandy.  The body that carries you and makes you and allows you to have any kind of interaction with the world turns out to be generating cancer just for the hell of it.  That gorgeous lion you saw on your Kenyan safari went on to maul and devour that antelope you had just seen earlier.  The circle of life has plenty of death about it.

On the other hand, terrible blizzards in January and February help ward off drought in July and August.  Or the next tropical storm or hurricane turns out to be a desperately needed drought-breaker.  The raging forest fire clears away clutter and undergrowth that chokes off new life, allowing new trees to grow.  The cycle of death has plenty of life about it.

I don't know quite what redeeming quality tornadoes might have.  They can be beautiful things, when they keep themselves to remote Kansas wheat fields where only storm chasers and shutterbugs are around to be threatened by them.  That's no consolation this week, when a populous city was in the way instead.  Satellite pictures of hurricanes, the kind of thing we've only been able to see for the last few decades, sometimes reveal amazingly beautiful energy, near-perfect symmetry, stuff that can be gorgeous to contemplate when it churns away harmlessly at sea but becomes The Enemy when it threatens an island or a coast.

On the other hand, most other kinds of natural disasters have some avoidable factor.  If you don't want to get destroyed by a hurricane, don't build your house right on the beach.  If you do, don't whine when it gets washed away.  Fear earthquakes?  Don't live on the San Andreas fault.  If you're going to live right on the river, you run the risk of being flooded.  Tornadoes, though?  What do you say?  Don't live in Oklahoma?  I'm not quite sure that's workable.  So how, in all honesty, do we praise God for the goodness of creation in the face of monsters like that?

Oddly, I am reminded of the doctrine of the Trinity, to be commemorated in this Sunday's liturgy.  This was far from a settled thing for many decades or even centuries in the early church.  Positions that smell of heresy today were widely accepted and taught as sound doctrine.  Pitched battles of rhetoric were waged over the issue.

In the end, the church decided (as one might see reflected in the Nicene Creed) not to decide to some degree.  The upshot is that there is one God.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  One God.  Three in One.  One in Three.  How?  You'll not find that answered in there.  We can theologize about it all we want until the angels dancing on the pinhead get tired and go for a beer.  We're not really going to solve it.  But we will say, in our most basic theology, that it is.

So too with the goodness of creation even in the face of its destructiveness?  That tornado striking Moore, Oklahoma was a horrible tragedy.  We are called to live in harmony and right relationship with God's good created world.  Resolve at all costs, or live in the tension?  Three in One.  One in Three.  Resolve at all costs, one or the other, Three or One?  Or live in the mystery?

"Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don't be afraid."  With all due respect to Frederick Buechner, that is a difficult thing to do or not do in a moment like this.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

I don't really do Mother's Day, but if...

The sentence looks downright un-American, sitting there in type.  What kind of cretin are you?  How can you not celebrate Mother's Day?  You must be a hateful creature.

I wonder if those women who have never had children, or who have never been able to bear children, or whose children are no longer living, have those same bilious thoughts directed at them.  But I digress, and I cannot begin to imagine the thoughts that crowd into their minds on this day.

For me, the odd mathematical realization came a couple of days ago; I am sneaking up on the point in my life where my mother will have been dead for as much of my life as she lived to see.  (Awkward sentence, I know; take another pass or two at it and it should make sense.)  I was a couple of months short of 25 when she unexpectedly died.  I'm 48 now, so that point should arrive some time in 2014.

All of the typical stages of grief passed through my life at the time, and they recur again on occasions like Mother's Day (particularly when the ol' Facebook feed fills up with pictures of friends with their mothers, or friends who are mothers with their children, or what have you) or around the anniversary of her death (December 2014 will mark the 25th such).

We, of course, do not have children (unless you count the feline variety), and the likelihood of that happening grows slimmer every day.  My wife of course does honor her very living mother on that day.  I hesitate to use the term "mother-in-law" because of the often-exaggerated negative connotations it has acquired, but I should say that I do not slight my wife's mother; she has been as supportive as a mother can be (particularly during the cancer business) and has also had the wisdom not to try to "replace" my mother.

All this rambling goes before to say that Mother's Day just doesn't have a lot of juice for me.  I wouldn't call it painful; "mildly uncomfortable" is probably a more accurate description.  I have neither motivation nor interest in joining the conversation, or the most part.

Yesterday, though, I was reminded of one element of Mother's Day that actually did provoke my interest, just a little.  This article reminded me of the curious history of the founding of the holiday.  This was actually a story I knew a little about, though it had been years, since grad school at FSU, since I had learned that little bit of history.  Anna Jarvis, the woman described in the article as one of the motivators behind the day, might well have been just a tiny bit unbalanced.  Diana Butler Bass is (to the best of my recollection) somewhat charitable to describe Jarvis as intending the holiday "to honor all mothers beginning with her own"; she had little interest herself in honoring anyone other than her own mother with that national holiday.  Mind you, as the article notes, Anna Reeves Jarvis was a pretty remarkable woman, but a state-level organizer of women back in the 1850s was not going to get a national holiday.

What is remarkable, though, is the degree to which Mother's Day was in its early years a rather activist holiday, at least in aspiration.  The hope, at least for those progressive groups that picked up Anna Jarvis's odd vision in a more general and appealing way, was for a day that would embody a progressive, Christian vision of such notions as justice, progress, clean water, health care -- you know, crazy radical stuff.

So what happened?  Was it the greeting-card companies that tamed the holiday?  I don't know that much of the history.  I have to admit, though, the vision of millions of mothers storming the Capitol and sending a whole bunch of congressmen home (or turning a few of them over their knees and giving them a good paddling) is immensely appealing.  I say go for it, moms.  That's a Mother's Day I could get behind.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Grubbing around in the dirt

I am not typically a person inclined to gardening, farming, or other such earthy pursuits.  My wife is the gardener in the family.  Today was an exception.  A group from the seminary spent the morning planting peppers at Shalom Farms, a faith-based farm operation outside Richmond that works with groups or neighborhoods in Richmond that otherwise will not necessarily have access to much food at all, much less the freshly-grown type.
Despite the fatigue/stamina issues that plagued me earlier this week, the morning passed without incident.  It helped that much of the work could be done from a sitting position, even if that meant dirty jeans from scooting around by the seat of my pants (literally).  Good fellowship helped to pass the time and to be less bothered by the gradually-encroaching heat of the day.
There are far more eloquent and informed authors on such subjects as food security, the benefits of local food, and other issues that a group like Shalom Farms addresses.  There are also far more eloquent and informed authors on the relationship between being aware of the Earth and its condition and Christian faith.  This is not a space in which I'm going to go into those topics, not tonight at least.  I got through the morning just fine, but I'm not that energetic at the moment.  I merely raise them to indicate, between today's activity and my May term class, that these are things on my mind at the moment.
It's hard not to think of such things, when my compadres back in Lawrence were posting pictures of snow on Facebook on May 2, or when one reads of the wacky drought/flood cycles of Australia's Murray-Darling river system, not helped by dam building and development.  When the earth's weather puts one in mind of a pendulum gradually swinging out to greater and greater extremes (more drought-y droughts, more destructive floods, Category 1 hurricanes that flood like Category 3 hurricanes, winter that lasts until May (and at least in this area, didn't really seem to get going until March)...it is hard to feel like the world is well.  One begins to wonder if the word "normal" applies any more in any meaningful sense.
My planting a few peppers this morning will not make much of a dent in that, nor in the degree to which folks living in housing projects will actually be able to eat much of anything healthy (though, combined with the labor of others, it does make some dent there).  This kind of realization leads some to decide that, since their contribution is small and not necessarily difference-making, they might as well not bother.  One might see this as a matter of too much humility, or perhaps of despair.  I suppose one could, if not feeling charitable, spin it as a kind of arrogance -- "if I'm not that important in the scheme of things, I'm not going to bother with it... ."  As I said, that would be a non-charitable interpretation.  That doesn't necessarily make it untrue, in some cases, I suppose.
So, I went grubbing around in the dirt this morning.  It make me tired.  It didn't make me holy.  It made me happy, sort of.  And it made me think.  That can't hurt.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Against applause

The month of April, rewarding as it was in most every way possible, was draining.  Between going to Kansas for candidacy and to Charlotte for a trustees' meeting, on top of the typical end-of-semester round of exams and papers and such, the return of chemotherapy this past week and the Sprunt Lectures on campus served to remind me I'm just not physically up to things the way I normally would be.  I don't claim to be a primo physical specimen, but normally I can mow the front lawn.  Not today.

One of the things fatigue does to me, frequently at least, is to unleash my tendency to snark even more than usual.  So, when obliged to attend a concert last night that, in retrospect, I shouldn't have done (better to have gone to bed early), some of that snark made its way onto Twitter and/or Facebook as a coping mechanism.  One of those responses, however, turned out to have more than snark behind it; it resurrected in me something that has bothered the daylights out of me for a long time.

I really don't like applause.

You're waiting for the end of the sentence, right?  That should be "I really don't like applause in church, right?"  Well, it's true, I really don't like applause in church, and maybe I'll get to that before this rant is done, if I hold out that long.  But in fact, the sentence, odd as it may seem, is complete.  I really don't like applause.

OK, here's my problem:  applause is a one-size-fits-all reaction to a plethora of performance types and styles that really deserve very different reactions.  Just taking music for an example:  I like, just to be a bit random, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet, Chadwick's "Jubilee" from the suite Symphonic Sketches, Weather Report's "Birdland," Buck Owens singing "Act Naturally," Louis Jordan's "Choo-Choo-Ch'-Boogie," Josquin des Prez's masses, gamelan music, ... o.k., is the point through? I like bits of a lot of different kinds of music, and I'll guess many of the folks who read this (to the degree that there are many folks who read this) are of similar eclecticism.  Now my question to you is: do all those different kinds of music evoke the same reaction in you?  Good grief, I'd be seriously worried about someone who had the same emotional reaction to Adagio for Strings and "Choo-Choo-Ch'-Boogie." But somehow, applause is the default reaction our audience culture has absorbed.  Yeah, I can whistle or stomp my feet for the Louis Jordan piece too if I'm so moved, but in truth after a really good performance of the Adagio the last thing I want to do is applaud.  But what else have I got?  A totally silent concert hall would probably freak out the performers, I'm guessing.  And yet that might be the most honest, gut-wrenchingly real reaction to that piece.

Ultimately applause just feels insufficient.  It works just fine for some things, but certainly not for everything.  And yet every now and then you get this strange audience that seems to be doing nothing more than waiting for the end of the sound, vying to be the first to clap.  I truly can't wrap my mind around that mindset.

Suffice to say I really don't find applause in worship to be a great reaction either.  My reasons are different, though: applause is a thing audiences do, and (hopefully!) a congregation is not an audience.  The congregation is the worshiping body.  It sings.  It prays.  It passes the peace.  It eats the bread and drinks the wine, or juice, whichever constitutes the elements of communion.  Maybe, in some places, it moves.  It doesn't applaud, or somehow I can't see how that really works as a gesture of worship.

People will disagree, and so be it.  But I guess I need to say that a congregation has, or should have, so many other obvious and active physical moments of participation in worship (and yes, listening does happen in worship too) that there would be no particular reason or need to applaud.