I Lost a Friend Yesterday

My friend and colleague Bishop Jerry Roy passed away unexpectedly yesterday. He was quite likely the most interesting man I have ever known, with a diverse background that created a man who was kind, but not weak; strong yet gentle, and he an instinctive compassion that seemed to arise from the core of his being at the slightest hint of someone in pain or need. Such men are often forged in lives of service and sacrifice that are not always easy, but you seldom hear them complain about it. I suspect, but do not know, that the Jerry I knew was a very different man than the young Jerry. I suppose that’s true of most of us.

Unexpected death is always shocking, of course. I have noticed, however, that no matter the circumstances of someone’s passing those left behind tend to express a desire that it was otherwise. I suspect that is a very natural resistance to the whole idea of the passing of someone who is loved. Even when death is slow and drawn out, it still comes as a shock to those who care about the person. Our clergy group had our regular biweekly zoom call on Saturday and Jerry was in attendance, full of vigor and stories – including one in which he shared with us that his neighbor, through acts of kindness after finding out that Jerry was seventy-two years old, had decided Jerry was frail and so extended acts of kindness such as shoveling Jerry’s sidewalk. Jerry chuckled as he told us he wasn’t sure how he felt about being treated like an old man. If there was one thing Jerry was not, it was decrepit.

I spoke much of the day yesterday with other friends and colleagues about our loss. Some of the most poignant comments began, “I wish I had told him…” On the one hand, such comments should serve as reminders to not leave important things unsaid. Even if we are young and healthy, there may be a city bus outside with our names written on it. With that being said, I think Jerry was aware of everything that was left unsaid – not because we become omniscient at death, though we might. I believe Jerry knew because he had a way of knowing what the people around him felt and experienced. That compassion of his that ran so deeply placed him in an equally deep communion with the people he encountered, their struggles, and their feelings.

For me, Jerry’s legacy will be that compassion and his patience. When I was (not much) younger, I suffered from a profound lack patience. It often amazed me how patient Jerry was. He had the gift of making people feel as if he always had time for them, even when I found myself in the corner muttering in frustration. Jerry understood that the greatest gift was time. I know in my life it is easy to feel as if there isn’t enough time, but I am learning that is a misperception rooted in our own sense of self importance. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerry. We all should.

Pissing from Beyond the Grave

How we go out matters. The last thing we do in life actually happens after we are gone, when the will is read. For most of us, it’s our only postmortem message to the world. Many people seem to think that their will is their last chance to shit on people, to let them know how little regard they had for people in life but they lacked the courage to say so until after death. We sometimes hear about these things in movies, books, or television programs. Old rich guy #1 dies having known that his wife had been sleeping with his brother for years. Having chosen never to confront them in life, he cuts them out of the will to strike back at them after death. At their heart, such actions are passive-aggressive in the extreme. They do accomplish one thing. They cement your death.

My Nana and Grandpa Schroeder both passed away in the last century, but they live on. They live on because they truly are the only members of my family who gave the tiniest little damn about me. They provided refuge from a home environment that was toxic in the extreme. Since they only lived two blocks away it was easy to hop on my bike and go over there where I was always welcome and they both listened to me. Nana was always in the kitchen, it seemed, wearing what used to be called a house dress. Grandpa was often in the den, which was on the other side of a kitchen wall. When I arrived Nana would call to him or knock on the wall to let him know someone was there. He would stop what he was doing, come in the kitchen and sit on his stool. Until I left, we would all sit there and visit. In a very real way, they saw me. I don’t know if anyone else did, I certainly can’t think of anyone. The result is that I have stories, memories of time spent together, that I still share today. They live on.

On the other hand, my parents were toxic addicts who couldn’t care about anyone but themselves and never saw their way clear to try to change that. When I first read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA it was like reading a family history. On my eighteenth birthday my father came home (he was working out of state) to take me out for a beer and tell me he was never coming back. What should have been a memorable rite of passage became memorable for the wrong reasons. The next morning he told me that he most valued the travelling he had done for work, the places he had seen, the people he had met. He said he wouldn’t trade that for anything. When I asked if that included his family, if the travelling meant more to him than us, he replied, “yes.” To this day, I can forgive him for feeling that way – my mother was the closest thing to pure evil I have encountered. What I cannot forgive was that he said it to me, even after I asked for clarification and gave him a way out.

Whenever I hear the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” I think of how I grew up and how, for quite a while, I was a lot like my father. It has taken a very long time to step away from that, to not allow externals to define me and to trust enough to have real relationships. God knows, I am still not perfect and never will be. One thing I can promise my kids they will never experience is the pain I have experienced in knowing that not only was my father never interested in doing the work of maintaining a relationship with me or anyone else, but he also chose to kick at me from beyond the grave. It’s not completely surprising that he did that. He was always a spineless weasel who avoided confrontation at all costs and preferred to whimper in a cesspool of self-pity, passive aggressively striking out when he was sure he had bitchy women around him to protect him.

What this last act of my father has done is ensure that he is dead and will not live on. Who will tell stories of their great times with him? There will be a short time, perhaps, when the handful of people he deigned to pay off in the end, may speak of him. Beyond that, there are no stories, no remembrances of time spent together because there wasn’t any time spent together. His time was at the office, working, avoiding personal relationship, and at social engagements at country club like settings where he unwittingly played a pathetically un-funny version of Rodney Dangerfield’s character in the movie Caddyshack. How we go out matters. Using our last act to lash out speaks volumes about us even if we believe it is we who are making the statement. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to be remembered poorly in exchange for a satisfaction obtained through spite that we can’t even feel after we are dead. We all deserve better, for ourselves and our survivors.

Entitled, Much?

I seem to keep coming across the byline of a woman who feels her generation didn’t get what it deserved from preceding generations. Although I won’t set fire to enough money or time to buy and read her book, I feel safe in assuming she feels she and her cohort got less than they deserved from their predecessors. That’s simply not possible, because none of us deserve anything from anybody.

This is another in a long line of entitlements that have proliferated in American life over the past few decades. Others include the idea that a first job after graduating from college “should” pay at least a certain amount, that adversity in any form is “unfair,” and that the world owes us something. These ideas might be reasonable if we could establish that any generation has received something for nothing. Has any generation that has gone off to war received something for nothing in that exchange? What of generations that have experienced economic recession or depression? Were the children forced to work in dangerous conditions during the Industrial Revolution better off than your generation? What of everyone who lived before the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, or general assistance and nutritional support? I suppose the development of penicillin and other antibiotics actually made life worse?

To be clear, each generation has its particular challenges and particular blessings. Those challenges are how human beings learn and grow. While it may seem to us that preceding generations had things easier than ours does, an objective examination and a broad view show that belief to be primarily the result of a self-pity that is most unattractive. We all stand on the shoulders of the generations that went before us. None of us deserves anything we don’t earn. If we receive something we didn’t earn, that’s grace – something we would all do well to remember on Thanksgiving Day, and throughout the year.

When THAT Guy Shows Up

I suspect we all have had that friend – a good guy at heart but completely lacking in social graces. If you invite him over, the odds are that something will be spilled and something else broken before he leaves. He tends to speak just a little too loudly, act just a bit too impulsively, and not stop to consider how what he is about to say will impact the people who will hear it. If you can get him alone and calm him down, you see a completely different person. The problem is that it’s hard to get him calm and alone, so most often you seem to have a raging jerk on your hands. Your other friends and family may have asked you why you put up with this guy, and a part of your knows it’s a reasonable question. Sooner or later, you are going to have to make a decision about whether or not having him around is worth the cost to your other relationships.

As a child, I found talk of manners and decorum to be about as uninteresting a subject as there was. Who really cared what Miss Manners said? I confess that I do find the obsession certain segments of our society has with completely arbitrary customs and practices, such as which fork is properly picked up first at formal dinners, profoundly boring and inconsequential. Beyond that sort of nonsense, however, I do believe that how we behave and how we treat one another matters. With the advent of reality television, which should really be called contrived television, the display of poor behavior has been elevated and rewarded to the point where participating in these festivals of boorish behavior is celebrated and imitated, to our great detriment across this nation and across the globe.

The truth is that how we treat one another matters, and matters profoundly. When we damage one another, we all suffer. Deriding you diminishes all of us. Human beings are not commodities to be disposed of like so much used Kleenex, regardless of the opinion of corporate America. Whenever we succeed in making another person less that we are, we open the door to all manner of mistreatment. This is the root of racism, of classism, of virtually every -ism we know. The best way to stop this behavior is to call it out. If we see or hear this behavior on television or other media, the best way to stop it is to turn it off. If you have “that friend” described above, the best way to respond is to tell them that while you would love to invite them to your next gathering, they will need to behave in a way that respects the dignity of all present – and respects your property.

These changes may seem slow and less than dramatic. The truth is that most effective change isn’t quick and won’t win an Academy Award for anyone involved. Precisely because change takes time and there is so much to do, we really need to start now. We also need to start in the arenas we can impact. For most of us that will mean starting locally, in our own homes and neighborhoods. If you see a person treating another in a disrespectful way, say something. If you see someone throwing trash around, literally or metaphorically, say something. Treat everyone else the way you would want to be treated, which may be better than they treat you, and remember that your dignity is enhanced by these practices. They aren’t inconsequential. They define our time!

What is getting ahead?

Americans tend to view getting ahead as acquiring more stuff. Houses, cars, furniture, appliances, vacation homes, boats, motorcycles, and more define where we believe we stand measured against other people. As Roxy and I were taking our walk today we met two little boys and their mother. The boys asked if they could pet Roxy, and I readily agreed. I told them that while she wouldn’t lick them, she would “sniff” them. One of the boys exclaimed, “she blew on me!” His brother told me that they just got a new basement, and it was important for them to clean up their toys every day so that it would stay nice and if they didn’t clean up their toys then it wouldn’t stay nice and so they were going to because they wanted it to stay nice. I told him that my wife made me clean up my toys every night, so I knew it could be hard but that it was important, too. Sensing, I suspect, that more secrets were about to be revealed, their mother told the boys they should let us continue on our walk.

Imagine if we could return to that view of life. What if we decided that the measure of whether or not we were succeeding at life was whether or not we cleaned up our toys before we went to bed at night? We would almost certainly collect less detritus, not wanting to add time to our bedtime cleanup routine. We would either stop being so competitive or the nature of our competition would shift from getting ahead at each others expense to doing the best job possible putting our toys away. That would by much healthier than the current system, because there is nothing about me being the best at cleaning up before bed that could possibly destroy another person’s life.

The problem we have right now is that we tend to see each other as obstacles that stand in the way of our happiness. Seeing each other as an obstacle is very different that seeing each other as human beings. It’s the nature of an obstacle to be overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. Human beings don’t fare very well if they are overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. If we see human beings as obstacles standing in the way of our goals we quickly dehumanize them. After that, we quickly find that we don’t care if they live or die as long as they are moved out of our way in the process. At that point two hundred thousand people dying becomes an abstract concept that we will be incapable of mourning. Imagine having to clean that mess up before bedtime!

What if you died and nobody cared?

My father died a couple of weeks ago. I found out last Thursday, but he died the Friday before that. The only reason I found out is that my brother’s ex-wife lives in Florida a few doors away from someone who used to live in the same town outside Milwaukee where my father and his current wife lived. Somehow this woman heard, and expressed her sympathy to my ex-sister-in-law, who then got in touch with my brother, who told me. As if that wasn’t convoluted enough, my father’s wife died two hospital rooms away from his and within eight hours of his death, but we aren’t sure if he knew she was in the hospital with him.

You might be thinking how sad and tragic this story is, but it isn’t. At least, that’s not why it is sad. It’s sad because, with the possible exception of my father’s sister-in-law, nobody cares.

You can’t live your life running away from every conflict and being concerned only with your addictions to work, booze, cigarettes, and money and expect people to be broken up when you pass away. I have been estranged from my father since I was eighteen years old. On my eighteenth birthday he flew into town, took me out for a drink, and told me he was never coming back. The next morning he told me he wouldn’t trade his travels for work for anything, even his family and children. Since that time I have had less than a dozen interactions with him. The last was especially egregious, but that isn’t really my story to tell. When people I met would occasionally ask if my father was alive, I would honestly say that he might have died and I wouldn’t know. It turns out that was prophetic. If my ex-sister-in-law hadn’t moved to that particular city in Florida, we might still not know.

My father was born to parents in their late thirties at a time when people didn’t have babies that late in life. It’s fair to say they didn’t plan to get pregnant. His mother was domineering and his father was a great man everywhere but at home, where he acquiesced to his wife’s demands at every turn. His father was a football coach and he was not a football player, setting up a dynamic where disappointment was a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, my father married a domineering woman. As they sunk deeper and deeper into addiction, she would verbally batter him every night and he would take the beating passively. Finally, he got up the courage to leave and never looked back – at any of us.

He was a man who could be wonderfully social, likely because his career required it, but the moment he left the party he forgot about everyone there. As he got older he developed a slightly paranoid bent, convinced that people were after his money. Perhaps he sensed that was all he really had to offer since he couldn’t feel, relate to others, or allow himself to become vulnerable. He is proof of the hole in the American Dream. He worked hard, made a lot of money, had a lot of toys, and found all of his validation doing those things. In the end, he died alone in a hospital room with nobody knowing he was there. Fitting, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder how many others there are just like him. I suspect there are more than a few.

The Fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Many may be tempted to see the fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. to be a tragic, isolated incident of one man gone astray. It’s anything but. This isn’t about Jerry sitting in the corner ‘observing” while the pool boy cum business partner frolics on the bed with Jerry’s wife. (As an aside, since these religious right types preach against masturbation they have apparently taken to calling it “observing?”) The age old attempt by Christian religious types to blame the woman, as old as the story of Adam and Eve, rears its ugly head once again as the event is described as Becki Falwell’s affair with a pool boy. In truth, it’s the three of them engaging in consensual sexual activity. If it was people in your neighborhood you might think, “it’s not my cup of tea, but if it makes them happy who am I to judge?” Or, you might think, “where can I get a pool boy?”

I’m less concerned about the fact that Jerry appears to be a cuck who likes to watch than I am about the wider trend he represents in White Evangelical Christianity. (As an aside, I don’t believe that White Evangelicalism has anything to do with Christianity.) Allow me to explain. Jerry’s father was a founder of the so-called “moral majority” around the time of the Nixon administration. While that group no longer identifies by that name very often, it still exists. You know the type. They tend to believe that if something feels good it must be a sin, which is why they don’t buy Q-tips. Back in the day they crawled into bed with political allies in the Republican Party, gradually increasing their political power in America. On the religious side, they became Televangelists and Megachurch pastors. What this latter group has in common is sexual misconduct of epic proportions. A close second is financial misconduct, and coming in a not too distant third is substance abuse. In case you think I am kidding, here is a short list: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, Bill Gothard, Tony Alamo, Bob Coy, Fred Phelps, Dave Reynolds, Robert Tilton, Marc Driscoll, Creflo Dollar, Bill Hybels, and the list goes on and on. Why?

Anything you repress will eventually come out sideways. It’s virtually guaranteed. Basic human needs denied don’t simply go away. If we are convinced that basic needs are abnormal, the shame we feel around them becomes overwhelming. Still they don’t go away. Eventually we act out, and the shame and guilt we feel for acting out intensifies our need to act out, and soon a classic addictive cycle sets in. Maybe the pastor is impregnating most of the Church. Maybe his repressed sexuality emerges in a cocaine induced frenzy with his gay meth dealer. Maybe he finds the only way he can express his sexuality is by flogging little Jerry in the corner while the pool boy bangs his wife – and we keep the pool boy in a diminished, more sexually satisfying state by continuing to refer to him as the pool boy long after he has become our business partner. Maybe the anti-LGBT Bishop is grooming teenage boys in his congregation to become his sex partners on his yacht. Maybe half of the choir tests positive for the pastor’s DNA. If you can imagine it, you can find it.

The problem is this: no spirituality that is based upon a poor understanding of human psychology can possibly be healthy. If our beliefs lead us to try to deny our psyche what it needs, our religion become soul killing. If our religion is constructed in such a way that questions and dissent are not allowed, we (and our religion) are doomed. The products of our religion will be unhealthy at best and outright pathological at worst. In my opinion, the entire prosperity gospel movement is the result of a religion that represses sexuality and pleasure. Those energies get twisted and redirected into the acquisition of wealth, which will never really satisfy the needs that have been repressed, and so there will never be enough money, never be enough external signs of wealth, because inside we are completely impoverished. Pastor needs a mansion, a private jet, a fleet of luxury automobiles, homes around the world, all because these things are justified as necessary to emulate a Jesus who by all accounts was impoverished and homeless. If that doesn’t strike you as odd, perhaps you should stop drinking the Kool-aid.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to a sacred/secular divide, I do believe that it is patently unwise for organizations that claim to be religious to covet power and wealth. In fact, a close, honest, and educated reading of the religious texts of any tradition will reveal that power and wealth are barriers to spiritual attainment, not assets. Wealth and power feed the ego, and the ultimate goal of spirituality and religion is first the development of a healthy ego and then the dismantling of the unhealthy ego. Climbing the career ladder, wealth acquisition, and accumulating power all stand in the way of those crucial spiritual goals. While some segments of the religious landscape believe that setting up their pastor with the trappings of a CEO reflects well on their communities, the truth is that such preoccupations are unhealthy and destructive. We create Jerry Falwells every day through our own skewed priorities and them refuse to look at our role in these tragedies, preferring instead to blame the monster of our own creation. It is time to look a lot closer to home.

Forming my What?

I get a number of emails each day that are sale notices for ebooks. Yesterday I happened to glace at one of the descriptions of a book that read, “…the Church contributes to society by forming the conscience of people.” I almost fell out of my chair! If that’s not a line straight out of medieval theology then I am the Pope. If the Church is going to form the conscience of the people the way she forms the conscience of her clergy, we are all doomed! There are other issues this statement raises that are at least as bad. Are we suggesting that only people who are members of a particular church have a properly functioning conscience, or that only Christians, or religious people, or any specific group are able to have a conscience that works properly?

The truth is that conscience, ethics, morality, and all similar human functions are not in any way dependent on religion, spirituality, or membership in any specific group. There are completely secular people who are quite ethical and very in touch with when they have transgressed their own values. Then there are religious people you wouldn’t want to leave unattended in your home! We need to move beyond the antiquated notion that spending an hour or so in a church building every now and then does anything for us other than perhaps cause callouses to grow on our buttocks. In fact, most churches do a God-awful job of teaching anything that would cause someone to develop a healthy conscience. You would be better to spend your time and money on a good therapist to explore your conscience or lack thereof.

Let’s do away with the notion that being a church member gives you a leg up on anything, any more than joining a golf club makes you a good golfer. In fact, the two are related. You become a better golfer by practicing golf. Your conscience becomes more functional as you practice qualities like empathy, compassion, and generosity. If you don’t put in the work, whether in golf or ethics, you will soon find your balls in a rough patch!

That’s What Friends Are For?

There seem to be some pretty distorted notions of what constitutes friendship floating around lately. It seems a lot of people have bought into the notion that a friend just approves of every decision you make, no matter the consequences that are clearly going to arise for you from that decision. If you walk out of the house with a big green booger hanging from your nose, your friend will remain silent because apparently that’s what friends do. Do you have half a roll of toilet paper caught in the back of your skirt dragging behind you like a tail? Don’t look to your friends for help. Are you involved in an argument and making a fool out of yourself? Apparently your friend’s job is to enable whatever foolish behavior you wish to display.

I was on Facebook the other day and ran across a discussion that hit on one of my pet peeves. The substance of it was that clergy shouldn’t criticize people, and if they claim to be a friend to all then they really can’t say anything about anything. The first premise is patently absurd and reflects such a profound ignorance about clergy and prophetic voice it would be laughable if it wasn’t so stupid. My concern in this piece is the latter, however, this notion that a friend tolerates whatever nonsense you wish to dish. By extension, it implies that a friend doesn’t have your back and won’t tell you if you have food stuck between your teeth on your way to that first date with your special someone. It says friends should lie to you.

I am not suggesting that we need to bludgeon each other with the truth, but a friendship based on lies is no friendship at all because trust cannot develop in a deceitful environment. If we are going to share our thoughts, feelings, and dreams with our friend, we need to trust they won’t take out a billboard ad tomorrow revealing what we discussed to everyone in the morning rush hour. Is the truth sometimes uncomfortable? Of course it is, but when difficult truth comes from a trusted friend whose motivation is loving it is easier to hear that truth. The benefits of friendship are innumerable, as is the damage that wolf in sheep’s clothing can do in the context of friendship. Let’s be clear about our expectations in all of our relationships. If others can’t meet those expectations, it may be time to cut them loose!

Facts is Facts

I saw an interview on one of the news channels of a corona virus denier. The man said that he didn’t really believe the virus was any worse than the flu. When the reporter countered with the fact that (at that time) there had been over one hundred fifty thousand deaths in The United States, the interviewee responded “I don’t agree with that number.” This one statement reflects the heart of the problem – facts are not opinions.

You can’t disagree with a fact, at least not if you are a rational human being. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t disagree with a fact without dire consequences. If you disagree with the fact of gravity, it will not end well for you. When presented with a fact, our job isn’t to agree or disagree, but to respond. We need to ask ourselves how we are called to respond in light of the fact. Pretending the fact doesn’t exist will only lead to foolish choices. Sadly, at this point in time we see many people making just such foolish choices and paying the price for them. Still the fact deniers continue. Maybe that’s the appeal of denying facts. Maybe you feel quite wise and powerful until you don’t, but then you’re dead so you avoid responsibility for your foolishness. That’s a steep price to pay for a few seconds of delusional certainty.

I believe that part of the reason we see so many people eager to exchange opinion for fact is that we have, as a culture, bought into the idea that we have to be perfect. That idea is fiction, nothing more. We learn from making mistakes, and nobody comes into this world immune from mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and to avoid them is to ensure than we learn nothing. It is uncomfortable to fail, sometimes profoundly so, but I have never had a failure that wasn’t a learning experience. Pretending that we have never failed reveals more about us that any success ever could.