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Merry (Messy) Christmas!

Carnal existence is wonderfully and terribly messy. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Most of us do notice, yet few Christians seem to talk about the messiness of bodily life at this time of year, when we celebrate the Word of God in the flesh.

“Away in a manger,” we Christians sing, while Mary tended to a baby who spits up and poops, like all babies do. And that manger? It smelled like pig saliva surrounded by the odor of cow shit.manger

Christians know all this at some level, but it’s rather remarkable how infrequently we talk about it. Progressives, like me, prefer to talk about the glories of bodily life after hearing for far too long about the “sins of the flesh.” Spiritual honesty and vitality demand more than that facile dichotomy.

If this feast of the Incarnation is ever going to break free of the titillating tinsel of cheery commercialism and actually seize the human imagination once again it will take both the glories and the humiliations of the flesh with the utmost seriousness – just as God did and does.

Bodies do exult with joys and pleasures sufficient to make angels sing. Bodies also grow weak, fall prey to disease, get very messy, and then they die. I think regularly about the messiness of bodies as I care for my 92-year old mother. Quite literally millions of others likely do, too, as they care for elderly parents with diapers on one end and dementia on the other.

Things can get just as messy on the inside as the outside. Each of us lives with a vast interior space crowded with all kinds of cultural voices: go on a diet; work harder; be more polite; stop being so uppity; know your place; clean the kitchen (like Martha Stewart pays someone to do).

Quite frequently all those voices reduce to just one – our own. Many of us could easily win the prize as our own fiercest critic. There’s a name for that voice; it’s called shame.

Christians spend a lot of time talking about guilt and forgiveness and hardly any about what forgiveness alone can never really touch – shame. I tried to write about this in my recent book where I defined shame as “alienation from our bodily goodness.” Everyone knows what that means and some need anti-depressants to address it. But bodily shame can just as easily issue outward as inward. In my book I described it like this:

When left unaddressed and allowed to fester, this alienation from bodily goodness can spiral into an inward collapse on the self and breed ever greater isolation. “Alienated bodies” can also exacerbate troubled interpersonal relationships and even wider social disintegrations, violent hostilities toward those deemed “other,” social policies that stratify and divide communities, and even environmental degradations.

hands_multiracial3I truly believe bodily shame lies at the root of human distress, and probably always has. We know that distress as racism, homophobia, economic injustice, and horrific self-loathing, which breeds all the rest. Christmas, this Feast of the Incarnation, invites us to come out from our shame and to discover anew – or for the very first time – the antidote to bodily shame in a divine embrace. Christmas invites us to imagine what for most is literally unthinkable: God takes great delight in our flesh, our smelly, delectable, terrifying, itchy, silky, unmanageable, glorious flesh. I tried to imagine that as I wrote this for that recent book:

Most of us take the skin covering our bones for granted, except perhaps when we bruise it or cut it—or perhaps when a friend grabs our hands in a moment of crisis, or our fingers intertwine with the fingers of a beloved partner. Human flesh feels remarkably soft and resilient, creased and textured, smooth and supple. Human flesh comes in a stunning array of colors for which just “black” and “white” seem terribly crude. Pink, mocha, tan, auburn, chocolate—these are just a few of the tints and tones of the flesh that can occasion joy for us, and for the God who made it…hands_multiracial4

Imagine, in other words, God taking great delight in your body. I mean the naked one, the one with creases and dents, the one with the quirky smile and crooked nose, the one that gets messy and tired and cranky, the one that you never think is good enough or does enough or measures up to today’s cult of youth and beauty. I mean the body you cover with festive holiday clothes and workaholic frenzy just as Adam and Eve covered theirs with fig leaves. God asked those first humans about that. Read about it in the third chapter of Genesis. Who told you, God asked them, to be ashamed of how I created you?

If we can start to imagine God truly loving our own, messy bodies, then we might start to see other bodies that way, too. That would change the world. And that would give angels reasons to sing yet again.

angels_sheperdsMerry (messy) Christmas!

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Norman Bates, Elder Care, and Jesus on the Cross

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) horrifies for more than one reason. The reason I have in mind is only rarely mentioned in treatments of that film: going insane by taking care of an elderly mother who is already dead.

If all you can recall from that film is the now classic image of Janet Leigh’s character being brutally murdered in a shower, I invite you to consider the previous scene. Anthony Perkins’ character, Norman Bates, describes his conflicted relationship with his elderly mother. When Leigh’s character suggests that he might “institutionalize” his mother, he strenuously objects, insisting that he could never abandon her. The rest of the film unfolds with classic Hitchcock tension and, well, horror.

All of this cuts close to my bones as I am an only child of an elderly mother. Until recently, I thought I might be going insane trying to take care of my mom in my own home; I refused other options because I didn’t want to “abandon her.” I did that for nearly four years before she moved to a wonderful elder care residence not far from my house last month. My sanity – and thus my life – is slowly returning.

I share this because it’s not just my story. It is the story of a large and growing number of people in the United States and hardly anyone talks about it. I never heard it mentioned in this year’s Presidential debates and I never hear it mentioned in national or state budget negotiations. This is at least odd if not infuriating.

Did you know that Medicare does not cover nursing home expenses except for short-term stays after a hospitalization?

The looming (and already-upon-us) crisis is thus two-fold: emotional and financial. Responding to that two-fold crisis will mean delving into the truly peculiar character of Christian faith and practice.

The Emotional Toll
Through social media I stay in touch with a small group of peers and friends who are dealing with various kinds of elder care. Their stories and anecdotes are by turn hilarious, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and inspiring as we try to support each other as best we can.

Don’t for a moment think that “going insane” from dealing with an elderly parent is restricted to a Hitchcock film. The phrases and images I hear from these friends include: “I’m losing my mind”; “I’m desperate here, please help”; “I can’t keep doing this but I don’t have any options”; “I have to quit my job to care for him, but then how do I pay the bills?” That’s a short list of the emotional and relational agony of doing this work of love and devotion – and that’s what it is.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Norman Bates is not an outlier. I would wager that some of your friends and colleagues are, right now, on the brink of “Bates-related-insanity.”

The Financial Toll
The “fiscal cliff”? Really? Let me — and so many others — tell you about a fiscal cliff. Those of us caring for elderly parents sit on that edge every day. But don’t just take my word for it,. The demographic statistics are alarming. I have found a modicum of sanity in my life only because of some fortuitous financial resources. The vast majority of people in this country don’t have that luxury. Consider the following factoids from this helpful site:

  • Chance that a senior citizen will become physically or cognitively impaired in their lifetime: 2 in 3
  • Chance that a senior citizen will enter a nursing home: 1 in 3
  • Chance that a patient in a U.S nursing home is sedated or physically restrained: 1 in 2
  • Average cost to stay in a US nursing home for one year: $76,680
  • Percentage of older population with long term care needs who live at or near the poverty level: 40%

So, have an extra $75,000 to throw around to take care of granny? No? What will you do? Are you single, like me? Who the hell is going to take care of you when you get old and “useless”?

Jesus on the Cross
I am absolutely convinced that retrieving the peculiarity of Christian faith and practice can help with our elder care crisis and so much more. How about this: As Jesus suffered in extremis on the cross, he looked at the “disciple whom he loved” and at his mother. Here’s how “John” described that moment:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:25-27).

  • John’s Jesus exposes the lie at the heart of today’s religious rhetoric about “family values.”
    John’s Jesus excoriates all those religious leaders extolling “traditional marriage” while their elders languish.
    John’s Jesus urges a robust critique of the “nuclear family” as the building block for late global capitalism.
    John’s Jesus, in the very throes of death, offers a compelling vision for creating a humane and thriving society that values elders by creating homes.

John’s Jesus fuels my impatience for any “Christian economics” that doesn’t account for the care, nurture, and love of the elders among us. The crisis is here. What shall our peculiar Christian faith say about it? Is your church even talking about the social policy implications of all this?

Much more needs to be done today about Christian faith and economics, not to mention families.

Isn’t it time to retrieve the revolutionary implications of the Gospel? Sound too radical? Do you have an elderly parent?