Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Love With A. Lincoln

Maira Kalman is an illustrator, author and designer whose last column for Op-Extra, "The Principles of Uncertainty," ran from May of 2006 to April of 2007 and has been published as a book. She has written and illustrated 12 children's books, and her artwork is featured in a recent edition of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style." She recently created a panel story for The Rosenbach Museum and Library's 21st-Century Abe Web project. Her work is shown at the Julie Saul Gallery in Manhattan. Ms. Kalman lives in New York City and teaches graduate courses in design at the School of Visual Arts. "And the Pursuit of Happiness," about American democracy, will appear on the last Friday of each month.

Here's a favorite post from "And the Pursuit of Happiness'" entitled "In Love With A. Lincoln."

Please enjoy!

Text Source: New York Times
Image Source: Maira Kalman

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Keeping Vigil

I walked up the wooden wheelchair ramp to the back door of the one-story blue house. In the tiny kitchen the hospice nurse introduced me to the patient's wife, Eleanor. Her two step-children, Debbie and Donna, greeted me. 

The family escorted me into the living room where a hospital bed had been set up in front of the TV. Leland, a dying elderly gentleman wearing a white T-shirt, was lying in bed, unresponsive, with the clear plastic tubing of the nasal cannula draped over his ears delivering oxygen. His large gnarled carpenter's hands were folded neatly on the sheet. I had been called to come and offer prayers.

An open black leather Bible sat on the over-the-bed table. I commented on the presence of the Bible and asked if Eleanor had been reading from it. She showed me the passage from the Book of Revelation and I asked if she would like me to read it aloud. 

"See, the home of God is among
He will dwell with them as their
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with
he will wipe away every tear from their
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will
           be no more,
for the first things have passed

We gathered around the bed, held hands in prayer, and stood for a few moments in hushed silence. I opened my prayer book and read from Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd..." We said the Lord's Prayer together. Eleanor wept copiously and dabbed at her eyes with a kleenex. I took her hand to console her.

And just as I was about to bless the patient, sending him solemnly forth on his final journey, the gray tabby cat jumped unceremoniously up on the bed. 

"O, hello!" I said.

"That's Poop," the patient's wife sniffled.

"Excuse me?" I replied.

"Poop. That's the cat's name. It's his nickname."

"How do you spell that?" I asked, unsure of whether I heard her correctly.

"P-o-o-p." She slowly spelled out the cat's name.

"Oh, that's what I thought," I replied, snickering under my breath.

Gales of laughter erupted from around the bedside.

Poop settled down on the blanket between Leland's legs. The cat draped a paw over the bulge of the pillow under the covers and closed his eyes for a nap.

"He looks just like a king on his throne. He won't leave him alone. It's been like this for several days now," Eleanor said.

And so I blessed Leland and went on my way.

Poop kept silent vigil throughout the night.

The Consolation of Faith?

Ira Byock, M.D, reflects on "What is the consolation of faith in the face of death?"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dying Well

Over at My Morbid Obsession, I'm taking a look at the concept of a "Good Death" in mid-nineteenth century America and particularly how that notion was challenged by death away from home in the Civil War. The reality of the impersonality of battlefield violence and destruction up-ended the customary practice of a domestic death with family gathered at the bedside to witness the beloved's last moments. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust has noted that up until the first decade of the 20th century, fewer than 15% died away from home. Hospitals were for the indigent, not for respectable citizens.

As the power of medicine to cure grew in the second half of the 20th century, increasingly Americans were dying in the hospital. According to Ira Byock, MD, 20% of Americans die in ICUs tethered to life-sustaining quipment. 50% of us die in hospitals. 30% in long-term care facilities. Death has been subsumed within a medical model and culture and occurs largely away from home.  

The tradition of the ars moriendi--the arts of dying-- of which I spoke in my last posting at My Morbid Obsession, have been to a large extent lost. And while we are no longer a predominantly Protestant Christian culture, our spiritual lives continue to impact how we die. We are whole people. As Byock suggests, dying is not a medical occurrence but an intensely personal one, encompassing the whole person. As a culture we have become alienated from death and dying, having become entranced by the power of medicine. Without denying the many blessings of modern-day medicine, we can begin to reclaim--in our own way-- the intimate experience of dying well among loved ones so evident in the 19th Century.

Enjoy the video below by Ira Byock, MD, Palliative Care physician at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and author of many books on end-of life care. He addresses the question of why we are afraid of death.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Are You an Episcopalian?

Reading Ronald C. White, Jr.'s outstanding new biography A. Lincoln, I came across a delightful story reflective of Lincoln's amiable nature and wry sense of humor.

After the death of Lincoln's beloved son Willie in February of 1862, and as the war wore on and he worried over his military leadership, he became increasingly close to Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lincoln spent many evenings at Seward's home on Lafayette Square, conversing with his friend and warming himself by the library fire. White writes:

To the other members of Lincoln's cabinet, and many in Washington, Lincoln and Seward were an odd couple.  As the two men lounged in Sewards' library, the secretary of state would take pleasure in his Havana cigars, while Lincoln did not smoke; Seward enjoyed vintage wines and brandy, while Lincoln did not drink; Seward was known for his colorful language, whereas Lincoln almost never swore. One day, Lincoln and Seward were on their way to review troops near Arlington. Traveling in an ambulance drawn by four mules over rutted roads, the driver, losing control of his team. began to swear. As the roads became even rougher, the swearing increased. At last Lincoln spoke up. "Driver my friend, are you an Episcopalian?"

"No, Mr. President, I ain't much of anything; but if I go to church at all, I go to the Methodist Church."

"Oh, excuse me," Lincoln replied. "I thought you must be an Episcopalian for you swear just like Secretary Seward, and he's a churchwarden."

("House-clearing in Washington" Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun; June 1, 1864)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Waking Up to This Wide and Wondrous Universe

“Waking Up to This Wide and Wondrous Universe”
A sermon preached by the Rev. David S. Heald
All Saint’s Chapel, Orr’s Island, ME
June 7, 2009

Drive anywhere through the country side in Maine and you’re likely to pass any number of roadside church billboards. Gospel signage, I like to call them. Last year, I often had occasion to drive by a Baptist church in Auburn, ME. The minister there is a gospel signage overachiever. Here are some examples of his work:

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

Don’t wait for the hearse to bring you back to church.

God takes the stains out that others leave behind.

Faith in Jesus is the believer’s passport to heaven.

And here’s my favorite:

Where will you be spending eternity—smoking or non-smoking?

I recently saw a variation on that theme in an online Time magazine photo essay entitled, “John 3:16 in Pop Culture.” A North Carolina bible-belt church’s sign, without the creative flair of its Maine counterpart, says rather bluntly:

Where will you be spending eternity?
Heaven or hell?
Read John 3:16.

For those of you who don’t know it by heart, John 3:16 says:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That photo essay had several other images:

Florida Gator’s quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow, wearing the famous verse on his eye black during the NCAA championship last January.

Rollen Stewart—known as the rainbow man—who, having been born-again, became obsessed with sharing his faith, attending big-time sporting events wearing a rainbow-colored wig and carrying a sign saying John 3:16.

A cardboard coffee cup from an “In and Out” burger franchise, with the verse emblazoned on the bottom.

John 3:16 is embedded in the culture of evangelical America, especially in the South. It is the clarion call of that culture’s missionary zeal to convert souls to Jesus.

All well and good you might say, but unfortunately John 3:16 has taken on an exclusivist edge, a foreboding “you’re in or you’re out” sensibility, reflected in the “where will you be spending eternity” motif, a choice between smoking and non-smoking sections.

This biblical verse, which Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,” has become a byword, a throw-away statement, that the more secular-minded among us are inclined to give little heed to, if not ignore altogether.

Re-examining John 3:16—within its context of the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night—opens up another point of view: the way that Jesus incarnates is a universal way, inclusive of us all, Christians and non-Christians alike.

Marcus Borg, professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, in a two and half minute video on, offers a corrective to what he feels is a misreading of John 3:16. He describes that misreading as follows: that the way you get to heaven is by believing in Jesus and, in particular, believing that Jesus died for the sins of the world.

He asserts that John’s gospel means something quite different. Borg then goes on to examine the verse phrase by phrase.

First, “for God so loved the world.” It doesn’t say for God so loved Christians or God so loved the elect or God so loved the Church but God so loved the world.

Next, “that he gave his only son.” In John’s gospel this does not refer to Jesus dying on the cross but to the incarnation itself—“the word was made flesh.” That is, God so loved the world that Jesus became a part of it.

Next, “that everyone who believes in him.” The word “believe” doesn’t mean believing a set of statements about Jesus. The pre-modern meaning of the word meant “to give your heart to, to commit yourself to.”

Finally, “may not perish but may have eternal life.” In John’s gospel, eternal life doesn’t mean life after death. It means the life of the world to come, a Jewish notion. For John’s gospel, the life of the age to come is already here.

As it is said elsewhere in John, “for this is eternal life, to know God.” To know God in the present is already to participate in eternal life.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, which is to say, Nicodemus is in the dark, like the rest of us. He comes to the one who is light shining in darkness, the light of the world, the true light that enlightens every person, the one who gives light to the blind.

Nicodemus praises Jesus as the one who has come from God. But Jesus abruptly changes the subject and says that no one can see God without being born from above. Which is to say, without being born again. But still Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is a literalist; he is unable to experience life metaphorically or poetically. “How can anyone be born after having grown old,” he says, “can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus drives his point home again.

“Do not be astonished that I say to you ‘You must be born from above.’” He connects the experience of being born again with the life of the Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Nicodemus needs a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation. Isn’t this what we are all seeking, what we all need?

As a hospice chaplain, I have occasion to visit many of our patients who reside in long-term care facilities. One such patient is a retired space engineer who was instrumental in promoting a flight path that proved decisive in the success of the first lunar mission.

Now confined to a wheelchair, only able to speak haltingly and with few words, he is often agitated, frustrated by his inability to give voice to his brilliant mind. I know that he can’t be rushed; that he requires a patient, attentive listening presence.

A few weeks ago, the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Hubble Telescope to make repairs and install new optical equipment. I shared this news with my patient, knowing that he might be interested, and watched as he became visibly excited, his eyes widening. I wheeled him over to a computer and googled images of deep space made by the telescope—those mind-blowing, brilliantly colored images of an unimaginably wondrous and vast universe. He uttered exclamations of awe and delight as I downloaded one image after another—star clusters, spiral galaxies, and supernova remnants trailing through the cosmos.

For a few minutes his agitation and frustration subsided and he was attentive—awake—with every fiber of his being.

And Jesus said: “Do not be astonished that you must be born from above.”

Moments of self-forgetfulness—even in spite of our confusion or anxiety or feeling ourselves to be in the dark—come to us all, unbidden and freely given. To paraphrase Philip Simmons from his book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, the experience of God, like falling in love, is not something we choose or reason our way into; but rather, is something into which we fall, something in which we find ourselves.

To fall into God has the nature of an accident. And though we can’t choose our accidents, we can learn to make ourselves accident prone, to make ourselves available for the fall into God—into eternal life—which always comes as grace.

John’s gospel promises that we need not wait for some hoped for heaven. Eternal life is in our midst now. It is as if God was saying to us all, as to Moses before the burning bush: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

You and I are standing on holy ground.

We need only awaken and walk into this wide and wondrous universe.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Preaching Again for the First Time

It's a novel experience yet one that has the fit and feeling of a well-worn sock. Today, I'm writing a sermon for the first time in well over a year, for one of the my church's summer chapels on the coast of Maine. Tomorrow morning, I'll put on my clerical collar, my alb, and my stole and step into the pulpit or, as the case may be, stand in the aisle, and preach.

The old working habits come back. Up by 6 A.M, I brew some breakfast tea and head over to my study, pull out a lined yellow writing pad and my fountain pen, light a candle, and begin. Thumbing through this book or that piled up before me, occasionally stepping over to sit at my computer to do some quick research, I work through the morning. If I'm fortunate, as I was today, I'll have a draft to show for it. 

Back later this afternoon, and then again after supper, I'll neatly rewrite my barely legible scrawl on a dozen or so five by seven note cards. In the morning, I'll be up again at dawn, reading aloud what I had written the day before, committing some sections to memory, hoping that it all hangs together. 

And then comes the long anticipated event itself, when the magic of forgetting myself in the act of preaching may happen and the thrill of feeling connected to my hearers may occur or, on occasion, the dull dead sense of missing the mark, of finding myself talking to an empty room full of people. One never knows.

Right now, I'm thankful for the opportunity. The whole creative process--planting the seeds and then watching what comes up in my heart and mind, the physical process of writing, of searching for and finding words that will speak well, of reading those words over and over again until they descend into my body and become second nature, and finally, of uttering them before others--is a great gift.

We'll see how it goes...

(Hans Holbein the Younger Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam Writing 1523 Louvre, Paris)

Monday, June 1, 2009

My Morbid Obsession: Take Two

As threatened in my May 27 post, I have taken another leap and launched a second blog entitled: "My Morbid Obsession: Death in Antebellum America, the Civil War, and Today." As my last nine posts were more or less about death, my obsession became obvious for all to see. Heeding the call, I took the next step of designing and constructing a new blog over the weekend and then, Sunday afternoon, published my first post.

I think that "Morbid Obsession" looks very cool, with a cropped Timothy O'Sullivan photograph of the dead on the field at Gettysburg as the header. I purposefully avoided any color in the overall design, choosing to make it muted in tone, intentionally inviting a more contemplative and reflective mood.

Now that I've had fun creating "Morbid Obsession," my intention is to let it come to life (or not) on its own terms. I have no idea how often I'll post. It's an experiment. Now that I've created a space of welcome in my own heart and mind--and a virtual space on the internet--I'll watch with curiosity what arises. The same applies to Distant Temple Bell. We'll see which way the spirit moves over the next few weeks. In a month or so, I'll give you a progress report.

Meanwhile, please stay tuned. And take a moment to add comments or drop me a line. If you enjoy "Morbid Obsession," become an official follower.

(1836 Political Cartoon " A Galvanized Corpse" by H.R Robinson; Library of Congress)