A God (Hot)Spot?

I spent most of today at St. Martin Hospital in Caen, where my wife was having an outpatient procedure–for which all went well. I had hours on my hands; but only the busy lobby or the hospital café offered space to sit. Outside offered the Normand rain. Despite its noise and rush of people, I chose the lobby. All through the morning, in addition to driving my wife to hospital and getting checked in, I had been thinking about, praying for and corresponding with a dear friend in England who was in a quandary about accepting a priest-in-charge post in the Church of England. Her messages were not sounding like someone keen to embrace a new ministry. As the decision had to be made today, I offered to listen and, if desired, offer feedback. I received a ZOOM link with the next message.

Ah, ZOOM…love it or hate it, it has saved jobs by making remote working possible during the Covid pandemic, has kept friends and family connected, and has provided not a little amusement! Electronic communications aren’t all bad. And in this particular instance, it transformed a noisy spot, next to the escalator, in the middle of a large hospital lobby, into a God-spot. As ambulance drivers asked ambulatory patients sitting near me if they were awaiting transportation home, people entering the hospital behind me checked their temperatures, cleaning staff came along to tidy up after messy humanity, my hard chair became a sacred space of love and concern, tears and questions, frustration and mental wrangling. It was nothing if not an act of divine grace that I was able to tune out all of the potential distractions!–not least my proclivity for people-watching!

But there were were, in God’s hotspot–she in England and me in France (and my wife in the operating theatre!). What had promised to be a backside-numbing four-hour wait was transformed into a holy time of mutuality–in the least likely of spaces. And so I proclaim with Jacob, after his night of holy wrangling: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven!”

Random Grace?

I have been working outside between showers lately. Yesterday I stopped to take note of pansies growing through the gravel on our drive. (I now park our car in another spot.) They are beautiful in their random appearance. That got me thinking about randomness in life, the universe and everything. Our news media tend to focus on the random acts of violence or natural disasters in the world. I recently read a statistic which said that Americans have a 1 in 315 chance of being shot during their lifetimes, while chances of winning the lottery are something like 1 in 14 million. It’s a stark difference in odds or randomness.

Since the early 20th century, those of us who actually believe scientists make a positive contribution to human existence and knowledge, have learned about randomness in our universe via quantum theory. However, it seems to me that for most of us non-physicists, we see randomness as a threat to carefully planned lives. Thus the adage: ‘shit happens.’ But where would we be in a world without (literal) shit? A lot more bloated, for one! Not enough fertiliser, for another. Thank goodness for those who advocate random acts of kindness or pay it forward as an antidote to negativity!

So back to the pansies and their random beauty that I had nothing to do with, any more than the air that I breathe, the rain that falls, the people in shops who help me with my imperfect French or that 15 year old bottle of Bordeaux that a neighbour brought by for my birthday. (We now tutoyer😉!) For those of us who have a faith in God, the Great Spirit, יהוה, the I AM or Being Itself, and also see scientific endeavours as an integral part of the search for Truth that many of us revere, God’s randomness might just as well be called ‘grace’—a gratuitous free gift that we can’t earn, buy or demand. All we can do is open our hearts, minds, eyes, hands and accept it. Providence is the now out-of-fashion word for it: God’s provision or provide(nce) of all the things we need in life but which we have had no hand in bringing into existence—including beauty. (As a novelist, I can honestly say I do not plan what I write or what my characters say. The words are given to me.)

I am not the first, nor will I be the last, writer to posit that maybe, just maybe, grace/love/beauty are in fact the hidden glue that holds everything together in our world. Yes, the very things that we either take for granted or ignore in our mad dash between complaints and rants about the shit that happens in life, while ignoring that God has provided more than enough toilet paper! Take a slow, deep breath and think about it.

Reflections from a Hot Bath

My wife and I live in a nearly two-century-old farmhouse in Basse-Normandie. We have a stable, hangar and henhouse, as well as another old building that is badly in need of repair. I am not without rural experience, for my early years were spent in the countryside and my family had a farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. So it’s one of those life-come-full-circle experiences…except that I am considerably older and yes, weaker, than I was 40-50 years ago. But hard work, digging the soil, building something with one’s own hands, is honest, satisfying work.

As I worked around our property today—thus my need for a hot bath!—I mused about my 40+ years of ministry. Much of it was not ‘honest, satisfying work’—and it seemed at a remove from reality. Here’s what I mean: The biggest mistake I made going I to parish ministry as a profession, was that I thought that my parishioners/congregations would be seekers after the truth—i.e. ready for the honest, hard, but satisfying, work of faith. Seeking the truth about themselves, society, their relationships, etc. Was I ever wrong! The institutional church is where you go for the imitation of seeking truth and serving God. Or, as a Catholic colleague put it: “Pray, pay and (perhaps) obey”!

Now I hasten to add that I spent my first seven years of ministry as a prison chaplain. It was, in fact, honest, satisfying work. It was real. Facades and platitudes were chewed up and spat out by inmates. Hell, they had nothing to do but study human behaviour day after day. They could spot phoney a mile away. You only dared come as who you were. In that regard it was refreshing! And there’s the rub with parish ministry. People dress in their ‘Sunday best’ precisely because they want to look good—better than they actually are 7 days minus an hour or so each week. Most do not attend services to do the hard work of looking in faith’s mirror, to grow and change, to reflect about the gap between appearance and reality or even to confess their failings—because the “Good News” really is about love and forgiveness. Churches—for the most part—are not hospitals for sinners, but rather retirements homes for phoney saints. And I am truly sorry and repent for the years in which I helped prop up that institution. But I thank God that I have had the time to reflect and change over the last 20 years; to focus my energy and gifts on issues and places in society which really matter. And I thank God that Chris and I are in this wonderful place in France, surrounded by farmers, mechanics and artisans, who produce food, repair tractors, refurbish houses (like ours!) and who accept me as ‘Jack’—purely and simply, for that is who God made me to be. And that is my gift to the world.

White (Privilege) Flight?

The world awaits the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial. It is a trial in which American justice itself is in the dock. But since George Floyd’s death at the knee of Derek Chauvin, there have been numerous other killings of African-Americans at the hands of police. And then there are the mass shootings–the new ‘American way’. Can’t get a date? Kill people. Unhappy at work? Kill people. Can’t hold a job? Kill people. And for heaven’s sake, don’t use a simple handgun–use an assault rifle! More deaths per magazine! The trouble with leaving the US is that the news follows you. And it continues to be bad news, which is not surprising, but it is depressing. (Another mass shooting just popped up on the screen while writing this!)

My wife and I returned to Europe after just 3.5 years in the US (this time!). And we have no intention of returning. To add some context, I grew up in the American South before leaving to live most of my adult life in England. Back in the 1960s ‘white flight’ referred to whites leaving the cities when blacks, Asians, Latinos and others began moving into older, established city neighbourhoods. Churches, commerce and education followed suit and moved to the suburbs. Urban decay set in. Not because of ‘peoples of colour’ moving in, but precisely because faith groups, schools and businesses moved OUT. African-Americans and other minorities were not well-enough enfranchised economically to succeed in the relative monoculture left behind. And they, of course, were blamed for the urban poverty.

So here I sit in rural France wondering whether I have enacted another form of ‘white flight’? Here’s what I mean. The two times I moved (unsuccessfully) back to the US, white privilege became apparent to me as it had never done so before. Being white means one does not have to ask for privilege: it is simply a given. The difference between racism in America now and in the 1960s is NOT that it is being filmed, as Will Smith has reputedly said. Racism was filmed in Little Rock, the Montgomery bus boycott, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and scores of other places fifty and sixty years ago. Under Jim Crow, whites were assumed to be in agreement unless they broke ranks and became ‘n—-r lovers’. Jim Crow was the water in which we all swam. What has changed is that nowadays whites have to use their own version of ‘signifying’ in order to communicate their racism and to see where other white people stand. I am almost embarrassed to write some of the things that white people said to me and/or my wife to see if we were ‘on side’. Here are a few: “We have bright days ahead. We won’t have to apologise for being white much longer.” “Have you ever noticed how all black people smell funny?” Frankly, that’s enough. It gets worse–much worse.

We left America simply because of white people. Ironic, ain’t it? We left because of white hatred, white racism, white supremacy, white fear, white recruitment into violent hate groups/militias and white people with guns. Our values as human beings and Christ-followers were almost in daily conflict with the culture around us. We felt under assault. Now lest you think we have moved into a monoculture here in France–far from it. There is a very large Turkish community in our town, two large Gypsy/Traveller communities, there are Africans from all of the former French colonies and overseas departments and more. Europe is far more multicultural than the US.

In sum, we were not about to join the “In Guns We Trust” brigade, nor could we change our skin colour. So we changed our country of residence. We have no regrets.

Life Is so Peculiar

I was recently blocked from the Far Side (Gary Larson) FB page, dedicated to the great cartoonist’s wit, as well as other like-minded cartoonists. I had made what I thought was an apposite comment about a cartoon. The cartoon in question was of a black swan (not an “ugly duckling“) looking into a pond and seeing itself as a white swan. I simply commented that “in these days of Black Lives Matter (and they do), this cartoon might not be found very amusing/endearing.” Boom! I was shut out and told, in a private email, not to post political statements and “Don’t be a dick.” Since when is racial sensitivity itself a political statement? Oh I know, race has been politicized for years–but sensitivity? I guess it’s okay to be abusive in a private email…kinda surprised I wasn’t called a ‘N-lover’! I would sincerely like to hear from any readers of this blog as to what you think about this (minor) situation. Is it just another example of unconscious racism/white privilege?

By the way, I remain a big Gary Larson fan. I love his off-beat sense of humour and I love the way he parodies human creatures vs. four-legged and other creatures. Would he post such a cartoon today? I honestly don’t think so. A lot of us white folk have had to re-evaluate our positions of privilege and the many expressions and assumptions we have taken for granted, e.g. black sheep of the family, black mark against someone, Devil’s food cake (dark) vs. Angel food cake (white), etc, etc. In any case, being closed out of a Facebook page is no great problem for me, given the world’s problems, and I would certainly make the comment again. Let me hear what you think.

The Way of All Flesh

My fourth novel is now ready for publication and is totally unlike the previous three. This book is a farce set in an enchanted retirement community, called Carolina Woods. I have described the community as a blend of Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology’s Hades, as people fully become what they were all along, but generally hid from public view. Their fully realized personae are both mirthful and tragic. Writing the book was both a way of coping with the second Covid lockdown as well as dealing with my own aging. I am writing this in the wake of my youngest first-cousin’s death–he leaves a wife and two teenaged children. He also leaves a positive legacy as a man, husband and father. He was far too young to die, but then death nearly always comes as an inconvenience.

The trick to dealing with death is first, to accept that we all I have to die–yes, you too! And second, to live one’s life well and fully in the face of one’s mortality. There, that’s my summary of 69 years’ existence and 40+ years as an ordained minister. A third strategy–if you need one–is to befriend each stage of life. I have a progressive-degenerative disease which has reduced my life considerably, but this is my reality. There are no brakes; and kicking and screaming will not help one iota.

As an early 30-something pastor, I remember an old codger who used to stop by the church office about every 2-3 weeks. As soon as he was spotted, the secretaries would literally run and hide in the loos. He was an unhappy man and gladly shared his misery with all and sundry. I remember remarking to a church volunteer one day that I hoped never to become such a miserable old fart as he. I have never forgotten her reply: “Jack, you don’t suddenly become like that at a certain age; it takes a lifetime of practice. You have nothing to fear.”

As a writer I would be remiss not to urge you to buy and read The Woods when it appears later this year. I hope it makes you laugh out loud, but I also hope it gives you pause to consider who you are and how/if you are becoming the person you want to be. After all, we are all in the process of becoming forever what we are freely choosing and loving most right now.

Live as Though You Did Not Exist

The title of this blog comes from Meister Eckhart, a 13th/14th century theologian and mystic. That quotation has remained with me since I first read it years ago. For me it simply made sense. After having made my fifth–and final–trans-Atlantic move last year, it makes even more sense. Unlike the bar in “Cheers”, I live in a place where nobody knows my name. And I feel quite at home that way. I live in a village in rural Normandie–hamlet really–which is so small, it doesn’t even have a shop of any kind. My neighbours are farmers and their animals. The animals are friendly–and so are the people, but not intrusive. The countryside impacts my life, but not the reverse. I like being encompassed by it.

“Where is this going?”, you ask yourself. Just to this point: I recently finished a novel (The Woods) which deals with the “third stage of life”–if you like such demarcations. The action is set in a mythical retirement community in North Carolina. And it’s not your ordinary retirement community, this one is enchanted. I liken it to a blend on Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology’s Hades. In this place people’s alter egos come out to play. There is no hiding from themselves. As a baby boomer who came of age in the 1960s and who has seen many relatives and friends age–well or badly–and die, this book is an exploration of how we might, if so inclined, dance towards our final exit. It also examines the culture-collision between parents, who no longer have anything to prove, and their adult children, for whom everything is a stress-filled challenge.

As a former pastor, I have had the awesome privilege of accompanying people to their deaths. Each death was as individual as the person. Some have incorporated me into their lives as a friend, relative or colleague from the past. I sat patiently with a dying Welsh academic, 40 years my senior, who talked about “our” Sunday evening dinners at the college where “we” taught. He then asked me to sing the song we sang together in the evenings. He told me it was based on a German poem–where to start? Call it inspiration–or die Heilige Geist–I started singing, “Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten,” and he joined in, “Dass ich so traurig bin…” It was Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. It was a sacred moment.

And then there was another academic I knew–a combination of Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy–a tall, striking man. As he edged towards death, he thought I was his father and thanked me “for letting him come here.” “Here” was a hospice room, but for him, it seemed to be a delightful summer camp! As I left, he would come to the door and call after me, “Thanks dad! Thanks for letting me come here!” That was heart-piercing for me, in a sweet and poignant way–and I admit I cried. But it was wonderful that, in both of those moments, it didn’t matter who I was. It simply matter that I was and that I was present. Live as though you did not exist.

Well Reader, we’re all heading in the same direction. Can we finally live into who we are and were created to be, with joy and excitement? Or do we go out kicking and screaming? Will death be for us a dreaded enemy or a welcoming friend? Give it some consideration while there’s time–and take a look at The Woods when it comes out later this year.

A Proustian Moment

On this snowy day in Orne, Normandie, I have been given to reflection on times past. For some reason I thought about the most joyful eucharist I ever attended…and it was years before I was ordained. It happened when I was hitchhiking back from Canada where I had spent a short time in a hospice for young Americans opposed to the Vietnam war. Among the chief reasons I did not stay there was this: it was overcrowded, there were no spare beds, sheets or blankets and sleeping on a cold, hard floor in winter just proved to be too much. I decided to take my chances with Uncle Sam. (I had lost my 2-S, but you can get a flavour of that in my second novel, No Good Deed: https://jacknlawson.com/no-good-deed/)

On the way back to my college in North Carolina, I stopped over in Harrisburg, PA where the trial of Fr. Daniel Berrigan and others was taking place. Considering it was Berrigan who convinced me to burn my draft card a year or so before, I thought I would return the favour by turning up at the courthouse to show my support. He and the other defendants were on trial for destroying government property: namely draft records, which they had pilfered and burnt– not seeking to escape, by the way. Incidentally, they did not hurt or threaten anyone. They simply wanted to interrupt the paperwork which was sending so many of my generation to kill or be killed in Southeast Asia.

One evening there was an ecumenical service officiated by Fr. Philip Berrigan (Daniel’s older brother), Rev. Prof. Harvey Cox and, I think, Rev. Ralph Abernathy (above). The church was so packed, it was standing room only–a real fire marshal’s nightmare. When it came time for communion, there was no way people could move either to go to the altar rail, Roman Catholic-style or to serve one another, Protestant-style. So the clergy gave the prayer of thanksgiving, blessing the sacraments, and began throwing huge chunks of bread to the gathered throng. Wine was then passed around by the bottle! (The doctrinally inclined would not have approved!) There was a real sense of hope and purpose to that eucharist–as well as palpable joy.

Fifty years later, I have to admit to never having experienced that same joy again during communion. Sad, ain’t it? Most communion services I have attended or officiated felt more like funerals, amongst God’s ‘frozen chosen’ rather than the expression of joy at Christ’s resurrection and God’s all-encompassing and forgiving love. Goodness knows I did my best to make the eucharist experiential, real, urgent and joyful; but alas, cultural Christianity resisted.

Postscript

I later studied with Harvey Cox at Harvard Divinity School (1976), and in 2013 was able to coax him to travel to England to give lectures and seminars at the Norwich Centre for Christian Education, which I had helped found. We both reminisced and laughed about that eucharist in Harrisburg–as well as recalled the urgency of those times. We even compared our experiences in Southern jails! Only eight years after my reunion with Cox, I have the same sense of urgency about the US. But now, sadly, too many Christian denominations ally themselves with the powers of hate and darkness, seeking–like the German National Church of the 1930s and 40s–to limit and define God’s activity to white, Protestant culture. Would that American Christianity again had the beacons of light and hope that we had in Abernathy, ML King, William Sloane Coffin, the Berrigans and so many others. King had his dream; and I have my memories.

The Browning of America as its Salvation

Deputy Inspector James F. Kobel

NYPD Officer James Kobel (above), Deputy Inspector responsible for combatting discrimination and harassment in the workplace, has jumped before he was pushed. Despite his progressive-sounding title, it turns out that he is yet another white supremacist in humanitarian clothing. Despite his day job, Kobel had been posting racially, ethnically and religiously insulting messages on white rant sites.

This sort of revelation–the numbers hastened of late by the events in Washington, DC–are almost becoming hum-drummingly regular. “Oh, there’s another one.” Not so long ago, before I lost him as a friend, I had an online argument about whether or not there is systemic racism in America. My ex-friend said there was a dearth of real evidence. I replied, “apart from the lucrative business in slavery for 2.5 centuries, what about the Three-fifths compromise during the Constitutional convention of 1787/8?” Racism was enshrined in US law from the beginning. I never heard from him again. (“Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind–or better, my prejudice–is made up!”

As an ex-pat American, and having spent most of my adult life abroad, my wife and I tried living in the US again from late 2016 until July 2020. I was aghast at the number of confederate flags I saw flying wherever we went. I was even more bothered by the sort of racist talk I heard from idiots who thought that all white-skinned people felt like they did. I sometimes felt like I was in a seedy re-make of “Gone with the Wind”, particularly the scene wherein war had been announced after the shelling of Ft. Sumter and all the young beaux were getting excited at the prospect of engaging and defeating the United States. That didn’t go to plan.

So here we are again. Back to the future to the past to…well, you get it. We human beings really don’t learn from our mistakes–not collectively anyway. Some individuals do learn–once they have been burned by their zealous desire for violence, or have been injured, or lie dying, maybe thinking, “I really screwed up!” But no, this life is not a rehearsal. It’s all we get. And for all the shit we humans bring to life, I still believe it is sacred. But right now, my sole thought about the future of the US is that–if it doesn’t totally tear itself apart–its salvation may very well lie in its ‘browning.’ In other words, in the reduction of the white majority to just another racial/ethnic group among others, with no claims of ‘majority’ to justify its supposed ‘right to rule’. God hasten the day!

America’s Cult(ure) of Anger and Blame

Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with a very wise rabbi (H.C. Brichto, z”l). Of his many quotes I can remember, this seems to be the most fitting for what underlies recent events in America: “Most people live as though their lives are determined, but it’s the other guy who has free will.” Take some time to let that sink in. read it again. Perhaps you have seen your life through such lenses–I know I have, when younger. To tell yourself that you didn’t have a choice for the way life has gone, job opportunities missed, relationships gone sour, etc. is a way of taking no responsibility for yourself, your choices and motives. This, in turn, can lead to anger: “I’ve been cheated!” “Life isn’t fair, to me.” And anger leads to blame.

Take Dylann Root, the shooter at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. He said he killed those church members because “N—-rs were gettin’ everything.” You see, it had nothing to do with his being an uneducated, drug-taking drop-out. No, black people were getting what should have been his by right. The fact that they were all well-educated and hard-working had nothing to do with what they had gained in life–including a welcoming attitude to their murderer. Therefore Dylann didn’t have to take the blame and his anger had just cause–“N—-rs were getting’ everything.”

Jump forward five years, and many African-American deaths later, and nothing has really changed. We have the same anger and blame cult all around us. Why? Because white shit-for-brains supremacists won’t do the HARD WORK of self-examination. That’s too goddamn scary for them. It is far, far easier to blame others: Blacks, immigrants, Hispanics, educated people, Democrats, liberals, Jews, gays–and they have unlimited blanks to fill in. It is ALWAYS someone else’s fault. Thus their feeding frenzy on any and every conspiracy theory that appears. “It ain’t us, it’s them!” Maybe now that the King of Conspiracists has turned on them, a few might actually examine what led them to follow him in the first place.