Month: March 2017

(In many churches, March 25 marks the Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the visit to Mary by the archangel Gabriel, to announce that she would bear Jesus).

I have been reading Lionel Shriver’s interesting book We Need To Talk About Kevin, a tale of the birth and development of a (fictional) boy who would go on to become a monster, a psychopathic killer. The story is told from the mother’s perspective in a series of flashbacks contained in letters to her husband. I was struck by the descriptions of how Eva reacts to her pregnancy. Even though her son’s birth would be legitimate, emerging out of union with her husband, she looks upon it with dread. She fusses. She mourns that she can no longer quaff a glass of wine:

Although I didn’t think I had a problem, a long draught of rich red at day’s end had long been emblematic to me of adulthood, that vaunted American Holy Grail of liberty.

… I did not care so much about being deprived of a glass of wine per se. But like that legendary journey that begins with a single step, I had already embarked upon my first resentment. A petty one, but most resentments are. And one that for its smallness I felt obliged to repress. For that matter, that is the nature of resentment, the objection we cannot express. It is silence more than the complaint itself that makes the emotion so toxic, like poisons the body won’t pee away. Hence, hard as I tried to be a grown-up about my cranberry juice, chosen carefully for its resemblance to a young Beaujolais, deep down inside I was a brat.

She muses about how pregnancy is depicted as infestation in horror movies such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Aliens”:

In Alien a foul extraterrestrial claws its way out of John Hurt’s belly.

She feels humiliated, demoted to an inferior state, from “driver to vehicle, from householder to house”, for a “nine month freeloader.”

She frets about the effects of pregnancy on the woman’s body. She recalls a meeting with a young mother:

…she had recently given birth to her own first child, and I needed only to say hi for her to begin spewing her despair. Compact, with unusually broad shoulders and close curly black hair, Rita was an attractive woman — in the physical sense. With no solicitation on my part she regaled me with the irreproachable state of her physique before she conceived.

Apparently she’d been using the Nautilus every day, and her definition had never been so sharp, her fat-to-muscle ratio was unreal, her aerobic conditioning topping the charts.

Then pregnancy, well it was terrible! The Nautilus just didn’t feel good any more and she’d had to stop—. Now, she was a mess, she could hardly do a sit-up, much less three sets of proper crunches, she was starting from scratch or worse—! This woman was fuming, Franklin; she clearly muttered about her abdominal muscles when she seethed down the street. Yet at no point did she mention the name of her child, its sex, its age, or its father. I remember stepping back, excusing myself to the bar, and slipping away without telling Rita good-bye. What had most mortified me, what I had to flee, was that she sounded not only unfeeling and narcissistic but just like me.

In a sense, the character of Eva speaks for us today. She expresses our individual and cultural ambivalence toward motherhood — nay, toward parenthood of any sort:

“Motherhood was harder than I’d expected,” I explained. “I’d been used to airports, sea views, museums. Suddenly, I was stuck with the same few rooms, with Lego.”

Compare this now with the reaction of Mary to her upcoming birth, as recorded in the Bible. She had good reason to look upon her role as the bearer of Jesus with some degree of dread. Her son’s birth would most likely be perceived as illegitimate, since she was not yet married and Joseph wasn’t involved in the conception. People in ancient Israel were not any more gullible than we are. Mary faced ruin and scandal. She faced abandonment by her family, and by her fiancé, Joseph, who could have walked away.

And yet, she responded to the angel Gabriel with firm assent: “be it unto me according to thy word…” (Luke 1:38) Lest there be any thought that her “fiat” was grudging, this was followed by an outburst that revealed that her heart was singing with joy. Her “Magnificat” has been read, recited and sung for centuries: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Savior…”

As one pastor stated, “a teenage girl has shown us all up.”

In a shocking study published in 2015 by Princeton University economists Ann Case and Angus Deaton, it was shown that mortality has been mysteriously rising for an unexpected swath of the populace, high school educated whites. The authors of that earlier study have further elaborated on their work, as reported today in the Wall Street Journal:

Driving the uptick are increases in “deaths of despair”—from drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases and suicide, as well as a slowdown in progress against death in middle age from heart disease and cancer, the nation’s biggest killers, wrote Anne Case and Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, her husband.

By the numbers we are looking a tragedy of proportions that would spur the nation into a froth if we were talking about terrorism victims, or casualties of a battle. Questions naturally arise: Why this is happening, and what can be done about it? Here are my initial reflections.

Globalization is partly to blame, as it has brought wage stagnation and loss of manufacturing jobs to middle class workers without a college degree. However, this disaster is not purely economic, but is also associated with social disintegration:

Those changes have come along with trends such as a decline in marriage, more temporary relationships and children out of wedlock, and a rise in social isolation that have made life less stable, they said.

Looking at the age cohort graph it is startling to see how abruptly things changed, beginning with the Baby Boomer generation, a group who really revolutionized society. Poverty–grinding and crushing poverty–has existed for whites before and after the 1960s. It exists for other racial and ethnic groups. Somehow, people have been able to cope better at other times. They had something that is missing now.

The Baby Boomers came of age at a time of postwar prosperity, when manufacturing blossomed and the “American Dream” came to include a good paying job, suburban houses with TVs in every room, multiple cars, and mostly the optimistic sense of permanent upward mobility. The old cohesive forces of family, community, and church were simultaneously dealt a body blow–for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of a short essay–thereby kicking aside a crucial support needed later when the “Dream” proved to be illusory.

But the problem goes deeper than merely lacking social support at a time of greatest need. A Sunday School teacher of mine was fond of saying that each of us has a “God-sized hole” that only God can fill, though in God’s place we try our best to fill that hole with other things–idols of our own devising. This may be part of the problem. Making an idol of work and a particular kind of lifestyle can only shatter you when those things are yanked away. Christianity doesn’t call people to be rich and successful, nor does it endorse the heretical view that wealth and status are the guaranteed symbols of a life blessed by God. Success that is merely an external papering over of an existential void will only be an illusion. It is like Jesus’ parable of the two builders, where the house built on the sand eventually collapses.

Work success and the illusion that this provides–take it away and what is left? A life that is not integrated with God at the center will be more likely to yield to identity crises. There will be a tendency toward loss of community, and fragmentation of relationships. It may be the culprit behind that overwhelming despair that is driving the suicides, cirrhosis deaths, and drug overdoses.

Of course, this is a lot of conjecture. It would be interesting to drill down deep into the data to see exactly what going on in the spiritual lives of these victims of despair. Only God knows.

Whatever the reason for this despair, it suggests a tremendous need for assistance, assistance that is not merely economic, but existential. This is a mission field. This is a wake up call to Christians reach into that void with God’s love.

God our Father
You sent Saint Patrick
to preach your glory to the people of Ireland.
By the help of his prayers,
may all Christians proclaim your love to all men.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

(Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours, from the website

(Image credit: Saint Patrick stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA. Posted to FLICKR by user SICARR, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.)

Rachel Dolezal now styles herself Nkechi Amare Diallo. The white civil rights activist and former NAACP leader had lied about her past, claiming to be African American, which allowed her to rise to become a lecturer in Africana studies at Eastern Washington State University, and president of the Spokane chapter of of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She lost both of these positions, and gained a heap of notoriety, when she was outed by her estranged parents in 2015 for passing herself off as black. (Subsequently, investigations have suggested that 8 hate crimes she alleges to have been perpetrated against her when she was living in Idaho are also fraudulent).

Defiant to the end, Ms. Dolezal has borrowed from the debate about gender identity, insisting that race isn’t purely biological, but can be chosen.

For her part, Diallo is doubling down on her insistence that she is “transracial” — a woman who is the product of two white parents but identifies mentally, emotionally, physically and culturally as black. “I feel that I was born with the essential essence of who I am, whether it matches my anatomy and complexion or not,” Dolezal told The Guardian earlier this week. “I’ve never questioned being a girl or woman, for example, but whiteness has always felt foreign to me, for as long as I can remember. I didn’t choose to feel this way or be this way, I just am. What other choice is there than to be exactly who we are?”

Read more at NPR.

Ms. Dolezal now has taken to heart the idea of “making a name for yourself”, and has legally changed hers to something else. She feels that this name reflects her true self. Identity trumps biology. Biology is therefore something malleable, to be altered, rather than accepted. We are self made.

Christians believe that we are not self made, but rather that our identity comes from God. Of supreme irony here is that Ms Dolezal’s new West African name means “what God has given.”

“Jesus is the answer!” So proclaims numerous road signs, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers. For those posting such things, it is an expression of their faith, of their confidence in Jesus. It a touchstone of peace and happiness for them and perhaps also for many who see it–but not for everyone. To a great many others, this statement provokes rather a sense of bewilderment, and begs a follow up question: “If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question?”

This thought brings to my lips a smile as I recall the analogous situation in Douglas Adams’ humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a planet-sized super computer named “Deep Thought” was constructed and directed to come up with “the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. The program ran for millions of years, and finally returned an answer: “42”. Unfortunately neither the Deep Thought nor his designers knew what the ultimate question happened to be. The pan-dimensional beings seeking this answer were then forced to construct another planet-sized super computer to figure out the ultimate question.

Ash Wednesday is a Christian celebration that reminds us of the question for which Jesus is the answer. Or, more accurately, we are reminded of the problem for which Jesus is the solution; That is, the problem of death:

“Remember, o man, dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.”

Thus intones the priest in many a ceremony as ashes are imposed upon the foreheads of penitent Christians, these words echoing God’s curse in Genesis 3, pronounced upon humankind as punishment for sin.

Death is literally the bane of our existence. It destroys all that we hold dear. Try as we might to banish it from our thoughts, death catches us all. We recoil from it as we simultaneously yearn for permanence and significance. The idea of the extinction of our consciousness into an eternal nothing is difficult for us to fully grasp, for “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Death is universal. We all die, because of our sin. Death is universal because sin is universal.

Fortunately, Ash Wednesday is merely the prelude to Easter. Whereas Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, in essence saying, “Ye are dead”, Easter tells us: “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

The good news of Christianity is that God has set eternity in our hearts for a reason. It isn’t a dreadful taunt, or a meaningless musing. Jesus, the Christ, has died our death, in order that we might live his life. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

As the old Easter canticle proclaims:
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
(This comes from 1 Corinthians 15)

Jesus’ resurrection from death foretells our own liberation from it, and not only in the future, in an eternity after physical death. We may be liberated from its shadow, and its dread, and its power over us even in this life.

In the light of this good news, St Paul exults in his first letter to the Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

As John Donne, the 16th century poet we recently profiled, elaborated so eloquently:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

(Sonnet X)