Archive for June 2011
Since I started seminary 14 years ago, I have offered words of remembrance at the memorial service of every family member who has died, along with countless church folks I have known and loved. In that time, I have learned to grieve and to heal by writing those remembrances. While it may be unusual to eulogize a cat, Ringo was an unusual cat. Writing him a letter felt like just the right way to honor his memory and work through my grief at his passing today. I share it with you with a light heart and much love.
To Ringo, My Little Lion
July 26, 1997 to June 27, 2011
You came into our lives in October 1997, when you were just 10 weeks old. At the Berkeley Humane Society, all the other kittens were sleeping quietly in their cages, but you and your jet-black sister were racing in gravity-defying circles around your cage. I immediately thought you were beautiful, and we brought both of you home.
That first night, before you even had a name, you were both so tiny we were afraid we would lose you in our giant one-bedroom apartment. We made elaborate plans to let you spend the first night in the bathroom, then move to the bedroom, then the whole house. But you and your sister were so cute and irresistible, and you slept in our bed that night. We should have known right away that this was a bad idea, because you kept us up all night. We discovered you had been weaned too early, and had taken to suckling (loudly) on your baby sister’s soft stomach. Hours and hours you carried on, and we couldn’t tear you away. This was just a preview of your lifetime of obstreperous behavior.
J named you “Ringo,” and the name fit you perfectly. Your sister became “Lilith,” and she has grown aloof and reserved in accord with her name. In that first apartment, you grew and discovered the world. You and she found a way to crawl inside the back cushion of the sofa, and made us worry you were lost or trapped. You would mewl and tap us on the back through the thick fabric. One day, you got curious about something outside the unscreened, second-story window, and took a flying leap to the alley below. It was the first of many times your wild side gave us a scare, but you landed just fine and took it all in stride.
When we moved to our second apartment just a block away, you were already two years old. You immediately took an interest in the small yard out our back door. Within just a few days, looking out the window was no longer good enough. You started keeping us up all night again, yowling and begging to go outside—even though your only previous experience outdoors was your flying leap out the window. We tried a leash, and supervised outdoor playtime, but you were relentless and demanded to go out all the time. Who could blame you? It was Berkeley, and the backside of the PSR campus. We finally gave up, and let you go free. You only became more affectionate and attached to us, and always returned home from your wanderings.
When the time came to journey from California to Boston, it was you, me and Lilith driving all the way across the country in a tiny, 12-year-old Ford Escort with no air conditioning. I couldn’t stop for more than 15 minutes at a time, because the car would get too hot for the two of you in your carriers. That first night in Elko, NV, we stopped at a Motel 6. I put you and Lilith in the room with food and water, and left to go eat and cool off. When I returned, you acted like a watchdog at the front door—guarding it with your body and your fiercest meow. All night long, you laid like a sphinx by my side on the bed, and at the smallest noise you would send up a loud warning growl. I don’t think you managed to scare anybody away, but you showed me that night how much you loved me. I realized that you would fight to the death to protect me and Lilith, and ever since that night, I have felt honored by your devotion. I started calling you “my little lion,” because you acted as big as the king of the jungle.
When we moved to Boston, we tried to keep you inside again. That didn’t last long, and you were again an urban outdoorsman—prowling the backyards and driveways of Brighton in all hours and all seasons, even insisting on going out into two-foot snowdrifts that swallowed you whole. It was there that you honed your skills as a hunter. You jumped into the front window bearing mice, birds, rats and even a snake one time. Sometimes, they were still alive in your jaws, and I had to finish them off just to be humane. Once, you dropped a crushed, crippled, but very much alive and FAST mouse in the middle of the kitchen floor, and it scurried under the couch on three legs. You sat and watched as I chased it all over the house. I’m not sure if you thought you had provided me with great entertainment, or you just did it for your own amusement. I was pretty amused, though, when we left you in the care of our two PETA-loving vegan friends, and you left them the head of a mouse on the kitchen floor as a gift. They were horrified! I still chuckle when I remember it.
You always maintained your wildness, your fierceness. Of course, that meant you were also a bully. I was so embarrassed when I realized that you were the one starting all the fights with the other neighborhood cats. I had to go apologize to more than one neighbor. When we moved here to Indiana, you were older and the neighborhood cats were tougher. You tried to keep on being a bully, but you kept getting injured. After two $150 trips to the vet to drain infected cat bites, we had to keep you inside again. J told you that we didn’t have $150 to let you go outside, and if you wanted to go back out, you’d have to give us $150. You didn’t ever come up with the money, but you did manage to wheedle your way outside again. You could be just that annoying, demanding and obnoxious. We realized we couldn’t live together in peace if you were an indoor cat, so you got your way.
When B was born, I was afraid of your fierceness. I worried that you would be jealous, or play too rough, or love too hard. But you directed all your fierceness to protecting my tiny child, showing distress when he cried and joining your yowls to his if I did not respond quickly enough. To B, you gave only gentleness and patience. I cringed when I saw baby B grabbing fistfuls of your fur, pulling your tail, or leaning open-mouthed into your flank and emerging with a giggle and a face full of gray hair. You just laid there, even seeming to enjoy his crazy attention. As he got older, B became your playmate, and I never had cause to worry about his safety with you around. He always called you, “my best kitty,” and you were. You two roughhoused and snuggled and got on each other’s nerves just like brothers.
But your true sister was always Lilith. You two were siblings in every sense of the word. Sometimes, you loved on each other, groomed each other, healed one another’s wounds and showed enormous affection. Other times, you were jealous of one another, snappy and bickering and screaming at one another. But you always protected each other, just like all good siblings. I don’t think she realizes yet that you have gone for good. I don’t know how she will grieve for you, but I know she will miss your companionship.
We all will. You were a big presence in our household. I keep expecting to hear you yowling at me about something, or jumping in the front window to come inside, or head-butting my chin to get my attention, or pawing my face to get me to pet you more vigorously. You drove me crazy most of the time, and I was annoyed by you as much as I enjoyed you. Yet you were the most friendly, tolerant animal I have ever known, never showing a hint of meanness (except to other cats) and letting us lift, carry, pull, tug and pinch you without concern. You were fierce in your loyalty, fierce in your affection, fierce in your independence and aggressive in your demands for love and attention. I loved you even when you made me want to throw you across the room. You loved me even when I did toss you across the room—and you immediately came back for more.
Tonight your fierce and restless spirit has at last been silenced. I held you in my arms to the very last, and your persistent spirit kept purring and begging to be petted some more. Your sweetness and love prevailed as you purred through your last breath.
I wasn’t always the most attentive caregiver, Ringo, and for that I’m sorry. Please forgive me. If you could talk, or feel regret, or ask forgiveness, I hope you would finally admit you weren’t always the most patient or pleasant of pets, either. You were stubborn, obstreperous and frequently rude. I don’t think I’ll miss that behavior anytime soon. But you were also the most loyal, devoted, loving animal I have ever known, and I will miss your presence on my feet, in my lap and in our lives. You will always be my little lion. I love you.
Thank you for sharing your life with us, Ringo. I hope it was a good one.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)
I used to think passage evoked the worst image of a vengeful God. Not the fact that God is jealous and possessive, demanding our absolute faithfulness–that seems a reasonable request for relationship given God’s devotion to us. But a God who would visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” seems to know nothing of forgiveness and grace.
This promise that a father’s (or mother’s) sins would bear out in punishment upon their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is repeated as often as the commandment, also appearing in Numbers 14:8, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9. In good biblical fashion, it is also directly contradicted in several other places. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” This standard of justice, which accords far more with our own understandings, is reaffirmed in the Hebrew Bible in Ezekiel 18:19-20, and in the Gospels in John 9, the story of the man born blind.
Yet the commandment stands: the sins of the father will haunt the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The more I come to understand human relationships, the less I believe this is the sign of a vengeful God, and the more I come to know that this is simply the truth of human relationships and earthly life. Our actions, especially our sins, have consequences that last for generations. The things we do in this world, in this lifetime, will shape the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for good or for ill.
The evidence is most dramatic in families with a legacy of sexual abuse or addiction. One parent who acts as an abuser will distort the sexual lives of his children, whose brokenness is repeated in their children, who pass it along to their children. An alcoholic family member warps the interactions of the rest of the family members. Even those children who do not follow the pattern of addiction live with shriveled expectations and wilted relationships, unable to teach trust and intimacy to third and fourth generation. To consider it even more broadly, in this consumerist, energy-hog world, our pollution, decomposing trash and environmental catastrophes will haunt our future children for hundreds of years.
The pattern persists even with less cruel and dramatic patterns of sin and brokenness. Every generation of mothers and fathers tries to do better than their parents did. My grandparents talk about the ways they tried to raise their children to be stronger and more compassionate than their parents. My parents still carried wounds and longings from their childhoods, which they tried valiantly to fight off as they raised my sister and I. They did their best, and yet the same wounds and longings that they carried are still alive inside of me. As I start to raise my son, I can already see what I cannot give him. I will try to do a better job than my parents, just like they did for me, but B will still carry my inherited brokenness forward. As a family, even across generations, we have not the knowledge or power to break out of the damaged patterns, even if we try.
They may not have called it family systems theory, but the writers of the Torah understood the pattern of human relationships. We are locked in systems of relationships where we live out circular roles and behaviors again and again. We can alter our actions to try to change the system, but one generation is not sufficient to break its hold on us. We pass on our human failings to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the same way we pass along our genes for curly hair, or freckles, or nearsightedness.
As I come to appraise this reality, the message of that commandment seems less vengeful and more hopeful. “Follow me,” says God, “and your brokenness will not last forever.” There is no curse applied to the thousandth generation—only three or four. While we cannot fully escape the bitterness and behavior of our parents and grandparents, nor can we avoid passing our own lack and longing on to our children and grandchildren, nothing will last for all time. If we follow God’s command to serve and follow the Holy, these curses will not go on and on. Each generation can take a step to leave behind the problems of their predecessors. Our false idols of ourselves, of what is good, of what is bad, of who we are and what we can become—these will fade away, albeit slowly, if we keep trying to orient ourselves toward God. By the fifth generation, perhaps they will be gone altogether. It may take generations, but grace prevails.
Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture by Terry Mattingly, W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2005, 198 pp.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have been reading a lot on the topic of evangelism lately. When I purchased this book, I was just pursuing my interest in religion in pop culture (check out the last post about angels on TV). However, in reading it now, I had an eye toward using pop culture as a means for telling the Gospel story using images familiar to people outside the church.
Mattingly is a columnist, and this book is a compilation of his columns over the course of ten years, beginning in the mid-1990s. I was initially disappointed that the book was not a more systematic analysis or sustained thesis, and feared the book would be too random and hodgepodge to be useful. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the disparate columns hung together well. Mattingly is an insightful analyst and critic.
The most important thing Mattingly offers in this book is the conviction that faith matters, and that popular culture matters. Both are real forces in people’s lives, shaping their worldviews for good or for ill. Both deserve to be taken seriously and analyzed deeply. Mattingly demonstrates a level of insight about both that is rare to see. Most people (especially writers/journalists) speak eloquently about one, but ignorantly about the other. The gift of this book is the author’s ability to comprehend both so well, and understand how they speak to one another.
One of the interesting themes that emerges over and over again is the way that attempts to form Christian popular music (Christian films, contemporary Christian music, Christian fiction) rarely get beyond shallow tropes. Because they seek to be positive, to stay within well-established orthodoxies, and to promote doctrine, elements of popular culture labeled “Christian” rarely manage to find the depth of struggle and hope that render them powerful and inspiring. This is why I got turned off years ago by Christian music and just about anything else that can be purchased at a Christian bookstore. It just seemed saccharine and over-marketed, an attempt to sell Christians a bunch of junk because it was labeled “Christian.” Mattingly returns to this theme in several articles:
Since Christendom is built on a story that is literally larger than life, Peacock wonders why CCM is smaller than life. The Bible is full of sin, death, doubt, love, hate, anger, war, lust and other messy subjects. The faith of the ages wrestles with the bad news before getting to the Good News. — on Charlie Peacock’s book At the Crossroads (7)
Most Christians, he argues in the first chapter, are sinfully content to write for other Christians, to sing to other Christians, to produce television programs for other Christians, to educate other Christians, debate other Christians, and only do business with other Christians. “Shameful,” he writes, “We have failed and are failing America.” — on Bob Briner’s book Christians Have Failed America (69)
By mining popular culture inside and outside the targeted Christian markets, Mattingly uncovers the spirituality and the yearnings at work in everything from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to U2, Carl Sagan and the Veggie Tales. He points out what makes “popular culture” so popular, why it become a spiritual experience for people. Mattingly does not make an argument about how Christians should respond, he simply points out the connections. In other words, if you want to connect with people who live in this pop culture world, here are the things they are connecting to, and this is why they are connecting to them.
As I take time to contemplate evangelism and how to tell people outside the church about the story of Christ, I found this a helpful way of thinking, and full of insight about the quest for meaning in non-Christian sources. It’s a fun read, and light, and invites further reflection.
My family recently cut the cord on cable and switched to Roku (thanks to this advice from a friend). As a result, I have been watching some older drama series on Netflix. There are always shows that look intriguing, but come on at an inconvenient time. The first one that hooked me was Eli Stone, which ran for only two seasons (2008-2009). In that show, lawyer Eli Stone develops a brain aneurysm that gives him visions from God. These visions lead him to his next case, usually an unusual opportunity to help an underdog. Now I’m watching Saving Grace, which ran for three seasons (2007-2010) on TNT. Detective Grace Hanadarko is a hard-drinking, cursing, independent cop played by Holly Hunter. For the first season especially, almost every episode features a sex scene between Grace and a long list of partners, both regulars and one-night-stands. Into her life comes a “last-chance angel” named Earl, who wants to offer her redemption and enlist her help in redeeming others.
I am struck by the contrast between these angel-themed shows and the shows of my childhood, like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. Highway to Heaven ran from 1984-1989, with angel Michael Landon and his earthly partner travelling the United States to intervene in people’s lives. They would help, provoke, comfort and encourage people into the right, then move on to the next episode with a completely new set of humans. Touched by an Angel ran from 1994-2003 (alright, not my childhood), and followed the same formula, but with female angels Monica and Tessa.
Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel are notoriously heart-warming. These are the shows that the Hallmark Channel was invented for. While the angels do work with people facing hard human issues like death, divorce, abuse or evil, the angels are always agents of comfort and direction. At the end of the episode, the angels have done their best to help the humans deal with these tough issues, and everything wraps up neatly. Angels are benevolent helpers that offer insight, clarity and instruction in the right course of action. We viewers always saw things from their perspective.
Not so for Eli Stone and Grace Hanadarko. While both of those characters are broken people with broken lives, the angels (or, in Stone’s case, the visions) are anything but clear and instructive. The appearance of the divine in their lives troubles, confuses and mystifies them. Divine intervention is never a full revelation, but a labyrinthine wandering through different clues in search of the meaning of it all, which is never fully revealed. While we (the viewers) receive some gratification from the resolution of their individual police/court cases in each episode, the relationship to the Divine and the meaning of the angels/aneurysms is never fully explained or clarified. We don’t see God’s perspective, only Eli’s or Grace’s. God’s will is a disruptive and mysterious force that haunts their lives, albeit for the better. We are left to wonder about the will of God in ours.
This new perspective is much darker and more uncertain. There is no room for deus ex machina endings, and human characters wrestle with God far more than they obey. In the end, God urges their lives in a certain direction, but seems to offer little concrete aid or support. God is powerless without the partnership of human beings. In one episode of Saving Grace, Grace is held captive, and all her fellow officers are searching for her. Her angel Earl can’t find her either, and summons an “army of angels” to help him search. While there is some indication that the angels leave clues for the humans to find, it’s never clear whether Earl is effective at helping the search or if the officers would have found Grace on their own. Earl cannot protect Grace. Throughout the series, all he offers by way of support or protection is the occasional flash of comforting light from his wings.
Personally, I find this darker, more mysterious version of God’s action and intervention much more in line with my faith and spiritual experience. I’m not sure I believe in angels, and I definitely don’t think they are as benign as Michael Landon and Roma Downey. My parents always watched those older shows, but they just made me roll my eyes. If angels dwell among us, they come to trouble and provoke, not simply to guide and guard. God’s presence in our lives does not simply comfort us through life’s storms—sometimes, it causes a storm, and urges us out into it. God does not just use the gentle and devout. God is more likely to use those like Grace and Eli, wild souls more at home in the bar than the church.
I am still curious about why the shift took place between the older angel shows and the newer ones. What does it mean that popular faith no longer believes in a powerful, interceding God? What does it say about our American attitudes and culture that we believe we are just as effective as God? There is arrogance there, but there is also a recognition of responsibility, that we must engage with God. Why did this shift take place? Are we more comfortable with uncertainty, with unresolved endings? Does it speak to our desire to know God and angels, as long as they don’t impinge upon our choices (good or bad)? Who watches these shows, and what connects with them as viewers?
Addendum: When I wrote this original piece, I was at the end of the second season of Saving Grace. I am now nearing the end of the third and final season, and the show has changed dramatically. Grace seems to have “found the Lord,” and her character has lost its iconoclastic spirit. The show itself has become a lot more like Highway to Heaven in the third season, with characters appearing all over with connections to Earl, and Grace and Earl working together to help them. Real dialogue and story have been replaced by sermon-like speeches where every question has an orthodox answer. Platitudes have replaced probing faith. I’m very disappointed at the triteness of it all. While I’ll probably go ahead and finish out the last few episodes, I’ve lost the engagement with Grace and the other characters, who are becoming two-dimensional model Christians instead of struggling human beings. (See similar critique here.)