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The Promise of a New Year’s Morning

Five years ago today as I write this, I woke up in the north of Argentina and wrote these words:

It is 6:30 am New Year’s Day, but it is too beautiful and private a moment to stay in bed.  I am back once again on a bird deck 30 feet up in the trees, looking over the Parana River and into Paraguay.  The full moon has just set in front of me as the sun begins to light up the land from behind.  Occasional faint sounds drift in – street music from the town of Libertad 3 km away, singing, firecrackers and dog barks from across the river in Paraguay – reminding me that it is early on 1/1/10.  But mostly I am engulfed in the cacophony of birds and insects greeting the new day like any other in this jungle preserve.  It is heavenly peace.

Today I awoke at the same time, but at home in my own bed.  I came upstairs to my study as the first pink light began filtering in through the windows, and once again I felt surrounded by heavenly peace.  But it won’t stay quiet long, for in six hours I will be boarding a plane to Amsterdam and transferring on to New Delhi, where I will begin a journey to several spiritual centers in India as part of my seminary program.  My one previous trip to India, in 2009, was focused on food and cultural destinations, but there is no escaping India’s pervasive spirituality, as captured in this journal entry from that trip:

I stepped into the bow of our houseboat a few moments ago, at the crack of dawn.  The thinnest crescent of a new moon is hovering in the robins-egg blue sky in the east, and the huge, burnt orange ball of the sun has just penetrated the deep haze on the horizon.  Egrets, cormorants, kingfishers and herons are stalking the pads of water hyacinth or swooping low over the water, in search of breakfast.  A few people from nearby homes are starting their days with a quick splash in the river.  Pairs of fishermen in long canoes are heading out for the morning catch.  And in the distance, there is a low chant and music that sounds like a Catholic Mass, Kerala-style.  The sense of timeless antiquity of this setting exceeds anything I have ever experienced.

So when the opportunity arose to travel to India to fulfill my requirement for “Theology in Context”— “the practice of ministry through first-hand cross-cultural experience and careful reflection”— I jumped on it.  However, with a busy fall and an even busier holiday season, I managed only to take care of my logistical prerequisites, like vaccinations and packing.  The less urgent but more important preparations—intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—have had to wait until today.

As I centered myself this morning during my daily meditations, what I had expected to rise was a passage from Psalm 139 that has always comforted me at times of travel:  “You trace my journeying and my resting-places, and are familiar with all the paths I take; you keep close guard behind and before me, and place your hand upon me. Knowledge so wonderful is beyond my grasp.”  What rose instead was a passage from the Book of Ruth—with a twist:  “Where you go, I shall go, and where you stay I shall stay.  Your people will be my people … and I shall be your God.”  Not a prayer from me to God, but a promise from God to me.

I am now ready for travel …

Royal Flush

The ball was hit sharply toward third base but Mike Moustakas was poised and ready.  He fielded it cleanly and fired the ball across the diamond.  The moment the ball settled into Eric Hosmer’s glove, he leapt into the air in celebration.  The Kansas City Royals’ sweep of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series was complete—they were going to the World Series for the first time in twenty-nine years.

My phone rang immediately.  “So … are we going to do this?”  My son, Eric, and I had been texting furiously throughout the Royals’ improbable eight-game post-season winning streak, and now the moment of truth had arrived.  “After all, Dad, the last time the Royals were in the World Series, I was in diapers, and by the next time this happens, you might be.”  “Game 1 on Tuesday,” I replied, “you figure out the tickets, I’ll figure out the other logistics.”  We put down our cell phones—he at his home in Los Angeles, I at mine in Portland—picked up our laptops, and began clicking away.  Within an hour or so we were done—seats in the sixth row of the upper deck, right behind first base; flights and a rental car; and a place to rest our heads at the home of lifelong friends in my hometown, Kansas City.

“And just what budget category is this going under?” my wife, Diane, asked with a raised eyebrow.  “Family emergency,” I replied.  I wasn’t kidding.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with baseball.  I don’t know how it all got started, since no one else in my family shared this interest, least of all my father, who couldn’t even throw a ball overhand.  I played with other boys in my neighborhood every chance I got, I pitched complete fantasy games with a tennis ball against the wall of the neighbor’s house, I took a bucket of balls to the park nearby and hit them as far as I could, then picked them up and hit them back the other direction.  I slept with my mitt and ball under my pillow, I listened to every Kansas City A’s game on the radio, I pored over the box scores and stats in the Kansas City Star and The Sporting News, I studied Harry Walker’s classic How to Bat, and I trekked to the library on Saturdays to search out biographies of baseball players.

My hometown A’s were terrible—during their thirteen years in Kansas City they never had a winning season—but I loved them just the same.  Then, in 1967, when I was twelve, the A’s committed an act of treason by moving to Oakland.  After two miserable summers without baseball, Ewing and Muriel Kauffman obtained an expansion franchise and the Kansas City Royals were born.  The Kauffmans were everything one could hope for in an owner, and I swore undying loyalty to the Royals.  Through thick and thin—and there has been plenty of thin in the past few decades—I have never broken that oath.

It is perhaps not so surprising that Eric picked up the same obsession, and baseball has arguably played an even more important role in his life.  He has a congenital eye condition that, among other things, prevents him from focusing on the ball when in a right-handed batting position; once I figured that out and moved him around to the other side of the plate, a hitter was born.  He needed to do vision therapy exercises that drove both of us crazy, but once the optometrist noted that playing baseball replicated all of these exercises, we moved our “therapy” sessions to the diamond at the nearby school and his vision improved dramatically.  Off the diamond he outdid my childhood pastimes as well, constructing full fantasy season standings by hand with great mathematical precision.  Eric’s college application essay was entitled “Epicurus Came in from the Outfield,” using his experiences with baseball to tell the story of his growth and development into the remarkable human being he had become.  It is a masterpiece.

For all this, our relationship in the ensuing years has often been difficult.  Our shared love of baseball (and many other topics) notwithstanding, Eric and I are wired very differently as human beings—so much so that it can feel impossible at times for each to understand who the other really is, much less to empathize with the other’s struggles.  I think the strength of our common passions may have blinded us to the reality of these differences.  They became more manifest, though, as Eric entered adulthood, leading him to question the authenticity of the relationship we had shared while he was growing up, and even my own ability to be authentic with myself.  We struggled for a decade to move past this—for each to let go of what felt like betrayal of a cherished relationship by the other.  We have shared many moments of warmth and connection, to be sure, but it has often felt like being stuck in an uneasy truce.

Eric turned 30 this past September, and in my birthday note I reminded him of a statement he made in May of his senior year of high school, on an occasion when I was feeling sadness about closing this chapter in our lives.  He said, “You have told me a lot of stories about times you spent with your Dad, and a lot of them took place after you graduated from high school, so there is no reason to think we are done making memories.”  In my note, I said that I hoped we would find more time than we had in the past decade to spend 1-1 time together, creating these memories and deepening the connection between us.  Eric responded that the feeling was mutual.

So when the ball popped into Hosmer’s mitt, we both knew we had our first opportunity to deliver on that commitment, and we weren’t going to miss it.  “Family emergency” generally connotes the need to respond to a sudden disaster, whereas this was a sudden opportunity—for healing.  Just as in medicine, it is always better to work on a sore spot before it becomes a crisis, so tapping that fund just seemed like the right thing to do.

We met up at the Kansas City airport, grabbed our car, and within an hour were seated with close friends at RC’s, the fried chicken palace of my dreams.  After a long sleep we hit Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue when it opened at 11:00 am, paid a visit to the extraordinary Negro Leagues Baseball Museum—the third time we had toured it together—and then headed over to Kauffman Stadium to pick up Royals attire for the next day.  Game day brought a trip to Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and a walk around my beloved Loose Park, but all of these activities were just backdrop for endless conversations—and a buildup for the big game.

Shortly after we settled into our seats, Eric said, “I know I have said this a bunch of times now, but doing this was just the best idea ever.”  I replied, “However this game or this series turns out, no outcome can diminish the joy of the time we have spent together the past two days.”  Good thing, too, because Game 1 turned out to be the Royals’ first encounter with the buzz saw that was Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants pitcher extraordinaire and eventual World Series MVP.  After the Game 7 loss Eric posted on Facebook: “So the Royals lost. I’m heartbroken. That said, going to the World Series with my father was one of the best moments of my life.”  All I could comment was, “And of mine, Eric.”

So often, it seems, we place a burden of unrealistic expectations on our relationships, never more so than on those with whom we are closest.  Yet, as the preacher father said in A River Runs Through It, “it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”  I was blessed with a loving father with whom I never played a game of catch, but we did share a passion for hiking that saw us through many a rough patch in our relationship.  Even though important aspects of my father remained beyond my grasp, our ability to lose ourselves together on a trail was a mainstay of my life.  I fear that, in spite of our best efforts, important aspects of who I am may never stop eluding Eric, and vice versa.  But this wonderful game of baseball connects us with such primordial joy that I know we will never stop trying. And that just may be good enough.

Some Thoughts on Tattoos

These reflections arose from reading and discussing Flannery O’Connor’s short story Parker’s Back in my “Writing as Ministry” seminary class.  The protagonist in this story has many tattoos but, aside from explaining why I would write about tattoos at all, the story provides no critical context for what follows.

I had planned to begin by stating that I don’t have any tattoos, but that’s not quite correct:  I am circumcised.  This mark was written on (more precisely, carved into) my flesh before I was of age to give consent.  In times past this would have marked me irrevocably as a member of a certain minority tribe, and would have connected me closely to some of the most important stories of this tribe.  It would have been done at an age when (in principle) I could have explicitly consented or objected, though I’m sure the social pressures to consent would have been strong.  However, in middle class mid-century America it was just “what was done” to infant boys unless the parents objected, which mine did not.

By the time our son was born, in 1984, the broader American culture had become more ambivalent about circumcision, and so had I.  My wife had been raised as a “cultural Jew” but had abandoned all vestiges of that tradition (except for the food).  Her parents had grudgingly come to accept this—she had, after all, failed Hebrew school and married a goy, but over time they had come to love him, and now their first grandson had been born.  My wife understood and respected my ambivalence (having no first-person experience herself), but she also understood that a decision not to circumcise our son would symbolize to her parents a decisive rejection of her Jewish heritage.  We had already been inclined toward circumcision on the basis of “like father, like son,” and we did not see the merit in creating mores stress with her parents, so we decided to proceed.  We did not want a formal bris ceremony, so it was performed by our doctor, but peace was nevertheless maintained in the family.  My son, now 30 and still childless, neither embraces nor rejects his Jewish heritage—he may someday face a similar decision regarding whether to “tattoo” his own son.

I have a few other “tattoos” that I consented as an adult to have placed on my body, but they were not entirely elective, either.  I had my right hip replaced in 2010, and I have a six-inch scar to remind me of that.  I had a melanoma on my right arm in 2012, and there is a notable scar from its removal, too.  I have a few smaller scars as well, ranging in cause from a fall on a tennis court to the removal of basal cell carcinomas.  Important parts of my medical history—and my life—are written on my body.  I have chosen to view these scars with gratitude as symbols of survival and healing rather than as reminders of the deterioration of my body over time.  I am mindful that others have experienced far more traumatic wounds than I and have reconciled themselves to their permanently altered bodies with grace and class.

I have never elected to get a traditional tattoo for myself, for a variety of reasons.  For one, tattoos simply never held any aesthetic appeal for either my wife or me.  More deeply, though, I have always considered tattoos (and piercings, etc.) as a defilement of the body I believe God created for me to appreciate as it is.  I accept, however, that others see this differently.  I have many friends who love the images and sayings tattooed on their bodies, and I relate to the inspiration and pleasure they draw from these.  There is something I admire about the depth of commitment involved in “writing a story” on one’s body for all time, and I have wondered whether my hesitation to tattoo is really about fear of commitment.  When I reflect, though, on the stories that are central to my life, I realize it is simply that I choose to write these on my heart rather than on my body—but they are there just the same, and I enjoy looking at them.

My final thoughts relate to a boy whom I mentored between the ages of 11 and 16.  Andrew got several tattoos during a period (around age 15) when he felt pressured to align with a gang in his neighborhood, but he soon decided this was a mistake.  I have long supported a non-profit that serves street youth in Portland, and they run a tattoo removal program that Andrew took advantage of (very painful).  In this setting, one learns that there are many complex reasons why people tattoo (and otherwise permanently mark) themselves.  Tattooing often symbolizes joining a community—a Hebrew tribe, an urban gang, or fans of Twilight—and runs the full spectrum from elective to coercive.  While the intent of tattoos is a permanent expression of identity, the desire to remove them often arises from an attempt to take control of one’s own life that is even stronger than whatever gave rise to the original tattoos.

In many important ways we can’t escape the stories that are “written on us.” Some are written on us without our consent, some are written on us under coercion, some we write voluntarily only to later wish to revise or remove them—usually with limited success.  Ultimately they record the stories of who we really are, irrespective of whether they are the stories that we wish might have been written.

Dodging Bullets

A curious phrase, isn’t it—“dodging bullets”?  Images from The Matrix notwithstanding, people simply do not dodge bullets heading their way, for whether a bullet strikes or misses, it has almost always already passed by the time one becomes aware of it.  Despite this, “dodging a bullet” has become a popular idiom in modern English, defined by Merriam-Webster as “narrowly avoiding an unwelcome, harmful, or disastrous outcome or occurrence.”

I had never given this term much thought until a few weeks ago, when my wife, Diane, wrote these words to friends and family:  “The urologist I saw this morning said that no matter how healthy we are or how healthily we lead our lives, we spend our life dodging bullets. I didn’t know I had a bullet to dodge until last Friday, when I woke up and discovered blood in my urine, and a CT scan determined I had a tumor in my bladder.”  As above, by the time Diane had become aware of the bullet, it had already struck.  I had a similar experience myself two years ago, when a small spot on my arm turned out to be melanoma.

Battlefields and hospitals are two places where people often think about God (or other concepts seeking to explain the unexplainable).  “There are no atheists in foxholes” is a saying dating from WWII that expresses this common reaction to a heightened awareness of the potential imminence of death.  Anne Lamott proposed as one definition of God—I’m paraphrasing here—whomever or whatever it is that we cry to from deep within at times like this with the simple words, “Help me.”[1]

The specific kind of help we ask for comes later and, I think, is of less importance than the impulse to ask for help in the first place.  Whether crouching in a foxhole or staring at images of cells attacking one’s body, a gut recognition of the inability to control one’s fate precedes any cognitive plan of action.  And from that comes the primal cry into the void—based on a primal sense and hope that it isn’t a void at all, but a place where help might be found.

While we might eventually ask “Help me dodge the bullet heading my way” or “Keep the bullet heading my way from striking me,” what we are really asking is “Help me survive my encounter with this bullet.”  This has a practical dimension—directed to the community of humans who care for us—as well as a spiritual dimension, directed to whomever we address our primal cry.  And we will need all of this help, for any encounter, even a near-miss, changes us forever, if only by deepening our awareness of the vulnerability of our lives.

Patients receiving an initial diagnosis of cancer often ask “Am I going to die?” and physicians have been said to sometimes respond “Yes, but probably not from this.”  Neither Diane nor I asked this question directly to our physicians, but it is impossible not to ask the question to oneself.  Fortunately, both of our tumors were removed successfully before developing into something more threatening.  But our understanding of our own mortality—the “Yes” in the physician’s response—was undeniably transformed through our encounters with these bullets.

Diane and I were blessed by the responses we received from those of whom we asked “Help me survive my encounter with this bullet.”  We were cared for by concerned and competent medical practitioners who helped us obtain the best available outcome.  As or more importantly, we were showered with love and support from family and friends—some of whom had survived far more life-threatening encounters—reminding us of our abundance at moments when we might have felt deprived or cheated by this disease.

Of course, eventually the answer is “Yes, you probably will die from this.”  My mother and my sister heard these words too early in life due to cancer, as do so many others.  Diane and I were shaken recently by the death of the mother of a good friend of ours from West Nile virus—the first case this year in southern California.  How random is that?  The answer: not particularly more random than the deaths of people struck by drunk drivers crossing the center stripe—or by actual bullets caused by careless gunplay.  There is neither dodging nor surviving such bullets, at least not in our lives on this earth.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  In my case, I certainly count it as a growing experience to have stared cancer in the face and survived to live another day, but I can’t credit that to any ability on my part to dodge bullets. The real growth I feel comes from learning yet more deeply that I have people in my life who can provide me with therapeutic treatments and emotional support, and from knowing yet more deeply that the spirit I call God will always care for me unconditionally.  With these, I am still not able to dodge bullets, but I can survive encounters with them, even if one of them will eventually end my life here on earth.

[1]  Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, 2-3.