As Cat wrote recently on Quaker Pagan Reflections,
Live long enough, and loss, real loss, is inevitable, after all. We know it, but we live in the happy illusion in our youth that it is not so, that death and disease are the aberrations. Middle age knows they are the rule, and that soon or late they come for everyone we love.This year I have made concrete, irreversible decisions about care for my mother as she declines into Alzheimer's. I have also struggled to communicate with my father, both long distance and in person, as Parkinson's wastes his body and reduces his speech to mumbling.
But…there's an up side, too. The older I get, the better able to weather grief I seem to become. It turns out that in this, as in so many things, practice helps. Grief is a skill that grows better with use, if we dare to trust it—to feel it, acknowledge it, and keep walking.
It was from Dad that I learned much of what I wrote about Jesus in my previous post on this blog. He and I don't continue to share all of the same doctrinal beliefs or liturgical practices, yet we do trust in the same sustaining Presence in our daily lives.
We two have survived our own version of the adult alienation which many fathers and sons experience. The details are not important now. Sometime in my late forties I lay down the desire for our arguments to be "settled," and he apparently did so, too. Being in the present with each other has become more important.
Ironically, I'm now 300 miles away and he can't speak clearly. As a remedy, after my September visit with him, we agreed to communicate more often by email. To my relief, this opened the door to a kind of intimacy which we have shared only rarely in my adult life.
[Note: In what follows I've elided or masked some private matters.]
In early November, I wrote to Dad:
When you fell from my arms after our hug back in September, it was like punctuation at the end of a sentence about mortality and about the eventual loss of you and Mom...and [my spouse] Jim...and everyone else I hold dear.Here is part of Dad's reply:
I've had close friends die, as well as relatives. Jim's parents have both died. At one level I thought I was learning how to deal with death.
Yet visiting you in September and dealing daily with Mom's irreversible decline makes me feel as if I've just been imagining death intellectually until now. Now its concreteness is visceral.
Somewhat surprising to have lived all the way till age 59 without having felt this so undeniably.
I don't say that my own faith is in doubt, yet it feels very dry at present...as if faith were knowledge without evidence, while mortality is clearly real.
A part of me chuckles at that last sentence and says, "You're growing up. Just be patient."
Until I received your letter I had not thought of what it is like for you [children] to realize that you will have to live through our dying…. I realize that it's not easy or intellectual—but quite visceral—to imagine the dying of anyone we love….After a few more exchanges, Dad sent me this:
My faith, as you describe yours, is not in doubt. But I confess I have a hard time thinking of not living on in this life, even when I'm reminded that our Lord Jesus Christ has promised us resurrection and life with him and Abba Father and all his saints….
This morning I read Hebrews 12:1-13. I found that verses 7-13 speak to us mortals:This message stopped me for a bit, but then I grinned at my own ego discomfort over Paul's talk of discipline in this passage.Endure trials for the sake of discipline.Sounds like my drooping hands and weak knees are the Father's discipline for me—"painful at the time, but later yield[ing] the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who [are being] trained by it."
God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.
Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of all spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
I'm grateful to share his with you, now.
Love and peace.
Like many, I tend to be put off by religious language which implies punishment. I bridle against the notion of demands for obedience imposed— whether I acknowledge their authority or not—by an external "power" and enforced by threat.
Yet my faith and practice charge me to listen more deeply.
I reread the Hebrews passage and did some research into the denotations and connotations of the words in Paul's Greek text. Doing so opened out the passage for me, showing me something more valuable than I had first seen.
Here's what I found, as I wrote Dad:
Thank you for the Hebrews passage and your personal take on it.Read this way, Paul's "discipline" sounds less like a warning to "shape up or else." Instead, it assures those who open themselves to paideia of a difficult yet rewarding lifelong process of nurture and growth. I wrote:
It's helpful to me to learn that the Greek noun (paideia) and verb (paideuo) which are translated as "discipline" have a richer sense than our narrower English notion, which tends to carry negative connotations of enforced learning and punishment.
Paul knew that, in the Hellenic world, paideia referred to classical "instruction," the process of educating a person into his/her truest form, into real and genuine human nature.
When I read Paul, writing about the loving Father, I know this is what that "discipline" is about: leading us, incrementally yet inescapably, into an awareness of and acceptance of our true nature as mortal yet loved.Dad responded to this message with his own research on Hebrews 12:1-13 in the New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII.
God assures us that "sufferings"—all our aches and losses and griefs—are merely part of being human, not punishments laid upon us.
We come into our true human nature as we become able to remember God's loving presence with us, even when we suffer.
This is a blessing.
Here's what he found:
…from the many faces of faith presented in [the previous chapter of Hebrews], the one emphasized here is endurance…. Verses 11-12 refer to living the Christian life as the endurance of an athlete running in a race….This observation went straight to the heart of my concern. I wrote:
Sometimes that endurance can mean suffering, not as punishment but as evidence of faithfulness. And again, for those who are not enduring, it can indeed be punishment.
The whole matter of translation reminds me of something I used to tease Mom about. She would mention some personal habit or trait she was dissatisfied with and say, "I'll have to discipline myself to do X."Dad replied:
I would say, "Why don't you say, 'I'll have to school myself'? You like school."
I didn't realize then that she and I were playing off of two different connotations of paideuo.
I particularly appreciate the Interpreter's Bible line about "suffering not as punishment but as evidence of faithfulness."
It works both ways, though, because faith can sometimes be all there is to enable endurance.
Two years ago, when I was deep in clinical depression, there were many days when the only thing I could manage to do was to endure.
In the morning, struggling to make myself get out of bed, during the day, when my motivation would grind to a halt in imagined despair, sometimes the only thing that would keep me going was to center down, pray to God, say to myself, "It's just your brain chemistry," and then to do whatever was the next thing to do.
Those were times of spiritual dryness, when I had to rely on God without sensing God.
God is always present.
In my times of sadness now, I do the same thing.
I'm glad for this conversation.
Amen. Amen. Amen.Once again, I stumbled over the conventional language of "sinfulness" and "confession." However, I knew that the disciplined question was not “What is wrong with this language” but, rather, “What does my discomfort with this language tell me about myself?”
Psalm 66:16-20 in The Living Bible spoke powerfully to me on [a day five years ago] when I was struggling with [the spiritual crisis I confessed to you at that time].
Now, it still testifies to me with God's great love and mercy:Come and hear,
all of you who reverence the Lord,
and I shall tell you what he did for me.
For I cried to him for help,
with praises ready on my tongue.
He would not have listened
if I had not confessed my sins.
But he listened. He heard my Prayer!
He paid attention to it!
Blessed be God who didn't turn way
when I was praying,
and didn't refuse me his kindness and love.
Dad’s crisis involved breaking through denial about hurtful behavior patterns and their consequences, and then confessing all of this to God, to his pastor and to his family.
For Dad, these actions opened the way to answered prayer, to relief from his sense of sinfulness, and to renewed spiritual wholeness.
Dad's witness challenges me to ask why I am troubled by the words of verse 18:
He would not have listenedThe most difficult answer to this is that I know my own hurtful behavior patterns and their consequences, yet I watch myself repeating them over the years.
if I had not confessed my sins.
Paideia rarely produces an instantaneous reform.
Its workings are slow, incremental, correcting and mentoring me throughout my life. Moments of breaking through my self-deceptions and rationalizations. Moments of glimpsing and trying a truer way. Moments of returning to try again.
The Spirit which disciplines me exercises scrupulous discernment, not accepting anything less than naked self-knowing. Yet it also exercises unbounded patience.
The character of the relationship is not the impersonal one of subject to ruler, but the living one of child to parent, or, better, of student to pedagogue.
Therefore, I don't experience God as refusing to listen unless I meet certain conditions. Rather, I experience myself as being unable to hear God until I listen past my own noisy ego.
Perhaps this is why I prefer Robert Alter's version of the verses in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.
The Living Bible is Kenneth Nathaniel Taylor's mid-20th century effort to reinterpret the King James Version in language his children would understand. By contrast, Alter's work is a fresh translation, setting aside two millennia of Christian interpretation to recover the concrete eloquence of the first millennium BCE Hebrew poets.
Here is Alter's version of Psalm 66:16-20:
Come listen and let me recount,For my father, his moment of deep personal crisis did have the dire character implied by the English term "sin." I thank God that he was given the blessings of forgiveness and renewal when he was ready for them.
all you who fear God, what He did for me.
To Him with my mouth I called out,
exaltation upon my tongue.
Had I seen mischief in my heart,
the Master would not have listened.
God indeed has listened,
has hearkened to the sound of my prayer.
Blessed is God,
Who has not turned away my prayer
nor His kindness from me.
But read this again:
Had I seen mischief in my heart,When I cry out in those moments of horrible grief or confusion, or in those moments of dismay over yet again "missing the mark," it is the mischief in my heart to which the Master does not listen.
the Master would not have listened.
When I allow the discipline of the Spirit to quiet me, I can see and set aside that mischief.
Then I discover that my true prayer has already been heard and answered.
And so it is.
Mike Shell is a member of Columbia (SC) Monthly Meeting and attender of Jacksonville (FL) Meeting. He lives with Jim, his spouse of twenty-four years, and manages remote customer services for Jacksonville Public Library. He publishes Walhydra's Porch and The Empty Path.