Sunday, February 17, 2013

Temptation, the Gospel and How I Learned to Love the AARP

Today's Gospel lesson

Back when I was in my thirties, my parents joined the AARP. I should say, my dad started paying for an annual membership so he could get a discount on homeowners' insurance; he actually thought that AARP was part of The Communist Plot, but it was a deal with the devil he was willing to make. (That actually doesn't have much to do with the point of all this, but it's a little ironic, considering.)

Anyway, my first exposure to the AARP was the AARP magazine. And, as a 20-something flipping through it, my reaction was, "Why the HELL would anyone read this thing on purpose?" Because by this time the feisty senior self-empowerment movement I'd remembered from the early 70's had seemed to degenerate (with help, I'm sure, by the sorts of advertisers interested in the magazine's readership) into a kind of sad-sack, victimized whine. Oh, the calls to political organization and self-improvement articles and "Golden Girls" human interest stories were still there, but they were overwhelmed, at least in my young eyes, by an underlying message of powerlessness and sadness: You're getting old. You don't feel good, and it's only going to get worse. Actually, you're going to die soon. And you're probably getting a little soft in the head en route. Mean people are trying to take advantage of you in multiple ways, you poor, weak, crippled, confused old people. We will try and help you, as a needy and pathetic demographic, go more gently into that good night by our advocacy with young whippersnapper politicians who need to be reminded how sad and vulnerable your lives are...and meanwhile, why don't you buy some laxatives and long-term care insurance? Thanks! Look for our next issue!

Needless to say, about 30 years later when Fellow Traveler bought me an AARP membership as a gag gift for my 50th birthday, I had to work to find the humor in it. Getting significant hotel and insurance discounts dulled the pain a bit, but I have to admit that, month after month, my AARP magazine went directly from post office box to recycling bin.

The other day, though, while sitting in the waiting room during FT's follow-up visit with her oral surgeon, I found myself reading the latest issue of the AARP magazine. I actually read it from cover to cover. And damn if I didn't enjoy it. It made me feel like signing up for cardio class and learning another foreign language and making Ina Garten's chicken recipe for my beloved and kicking idiot politicians in their sensitive bits. Apparently somewhere in the intervening decades the AARP had an "aha" moment where it realized its message was losing the interest, and the membership fees, of a good swath of its target market, as well as alienating the coming-up generations. So they got cool. Their magazine spotlights rock and roll icons of my misspent youth, other celebrities and simply interesting individuals whose graceful aging hits the aspirational buttons of people my age. They have an enhanced website where you can do things like play the "brain games" engineered to keep your mentation nice and sparkly. The publication makes a casual reader feel good to be alive -- not only good, but a little defiant, a little in-your-face about it -- instead of anxious and defeated. I mean, there may have been a Depends ad in there somewhere, but I didn't see it.

With all that in to today's Gospel text, and Jesus' temptations in the wilderness. They revolve around power. The devil keeps egging Jesus on, in the text, to use his divine power in ways that would ultimately violate what the Incarnation was all about: as a handy vending machine/magic act; as a means to temporal power; as a way to bypass the physical laws of this world in order to feel affirmed as God's Chosen One.  Jesus rejects every proposal.

While there are certainly ways that reach of us can abuse the own power we've been given in our lives, no matter how disempowered we feel or are told we me, in my own life at this stage of the game, when I have my own wilderness moments with Satan, the gentle suggestions I hear whispered in my ear are not appeals to hubris or manipulative use of power; instead, they're messages to not use the power that I have, period; to just give up. Like the old AARP magazine of my youthful memory, these messages tell me that I'm the helpless victim of my own mortality, of various forces inside and outside myself over which I have no control, of antagonistic or exploitative others.

Just give up on Christianity already. Most Christians are anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-intellectual idiots who hate you, and the ones who don't are in denominations that are swirling the drain, and the whole thing is just an increasingly shallow and unsatisfying mess that doesn't enhance your experience of living. I struggle with that one a lot, even though wilful ignorance, political bloviating, misogyny and homophobia are not things I generally experience on a day-to-day level in my own denomination or faith community. But these tropes are so pervasive in American popular Christian culture that you yourself can  move in the most intellectually lively, woman-affirming, gay-friendly Christian circles around and still feel at times like packing it in: "You know, it's been fun and all, and you're good folks, but I just can't do this anymore. So long; thanks for Bach and all the potlucks."

You're washed up vocationally. Look at you. You don't earn a paycheck anymore. You sell antiques, for God's sake; that's one step up from "Hoarders." There's nothing for you to do at church that fits your skill set -- if you even have one of those anymore. When's the last time you've written anything? Now you're a Hausfrau and not even a good one of those. And -- you're 52! Game over, loser! Stick a fork in you; you're done. Listen to this long enough and you'll find yourself sitting in front of the TV all day watching "NCIS" re-runs while you stuff Doritos into your mouth. In these underemployed, uncertain times, I suspect Old Scratch gets a lot of mileage out of this general script.

You almost died. How long did it take you to get over that medical mishap with the anesthesia? Two years? One moment you were fine; next moment you were checking out; then months of feeling less than competent...being afraid to fall asleep, afraid to take a shower, afraid to walk; feeling numb and  slow and confused. All the organic food and healthy living couldn't save you, could it, from that episode? And don't you think that's affected you permanently on some level? Made you a little more vulnerable? Do you really think that you're ever going to be healthier than you are now? 'Cause you're just running to keep up right now, sweetie. Maybe you should just "number your days," take it easy, keep reminding yourself over and over again how close to dead you really were and how many fewer years you have left. There's a thin it seems, between the hope of second chances and the fear of losing them. And at least for me the devil keeps wanting to nudge me over that line into a life of anxiety and resignation and low expectations of myself physically and mentally.

So far the Holy Spirit has always managed to show up in the midst of these soul-bruising, endless-loop internal conversations, like the disability advocates who picketed Washington with signs reading, "NOT DEAD YET." S/he can be ornery, that one. And she seems to be teaching me, slowly, to be ornery too; to stand up for myself, to make choices instead of making no choice, to defy the voice of Satan disguised as common wisdom and listen for real Wisdom instead. And that is my takeaway from our Gospel lesson, too; not a meek and mild Jesus, but a strong and engaged Jesus giving the devil his due -- which is to say, nothing. I want to be like that when I grow up.


Anonymous said...

It is good to see you back and blogging again. I am very glad to hear that FT's surgery went well.

All good wishes for a blessed (and very relaxed) Lent!

Anonymous said...

This was exactly what I needed today.
I'm glad you're blogging again. Joy in the journey! Dee