Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rambling Thoughts on Health, Salvation and Oprah Winfrey

I've noticed that most people have a real love-hate relationship with Oprah Winfrey -- they either think she's Wonder Woman, or else they can't stand her. And boy -- start talking about Oprah to a theologically literate Lutheran, and you will very often see that scary high eyebrow of disapproval; you know, the Oprah who appears to embody the sort of pretension to spiritual self-reliance and self-improvement that stands in contrast to the insight that, as Luther put it, we are all beggars before God.

But I've been thinking about Oprah as the year's lectionary readings have been leading us into Mark's Gospel, filled with all those short vignettes of Jesus' BANG! POW! BAM! healings, coupled with his message that the Reign of God was "at hand."

I used to watch Oprah, before her show got so self-absorbed, celebrity-driven and bling-dispensing. And I've subscribed to O magazine, before the ratio of advertising to editorial content and the cognitive dissonance therein -- you know, "You are capable and talented and beautiful and empowered, and that's why you need to look a certain way and buy all this stuff" -- finally got to me. I enjoyed and was inspired by the stories of everyday people who overcame desperate situations in extraordinary ways, I appreciated the practical, accessible cognitive psychology that underpinned many of the articles and I also liked the affirmations and uplifting quotes that were there in between all the cosmetic ads and photos of Oprah's Favorite Things.

So while I find Oprah's self-aggrandizing brand of celebrity spirituality, what I can understand of it, goofy in a Shirley MacClaine/Tom Cruisey way, and while I get tired of her seeming constant celebration of herself as personification of her "brand" -- I also see someone who, having struggled to free herself from a very damaging family experience and destructive personal choices to become successful, has a genuine interest in giving other people hope that they can do the same. And that is not a bad thing.

The problem is, I run into a lot of my coreligionists who, in their ongoing battle against "works righteousness," wrongly conflate the notion of spiritual self-betterment, the climbing-Jacob's-ladder model of salvation that's the opposite of the Gospel message, with what I think is a healthy realization that we can be enslaved by faulty thinking, by learned responses to stress that don't work anymore or that never worked at all, by the messages imprinted on us by parents and our culture, by a paralyzing helplessness...and that there are practical, proactive ways people can overcome those patterns of thinking and doing.

Living in struggling rural America, I see every day the result of "stinking thinking" in the lives of people stranded here -- people who live in communities like mine not by choice but because it's their perceived dead end. The local backwoods culture sends the message to children not only that education isn't important but that seeking anything beyond a kind of minimal literacy and local folk smarts is a dangerous, antisocial thing; the greater pop culture encourages a self-indulgent nihilism that tends to get a lot of young people here in trouble at an early age via pregnancy, paternity, drugs and/or criminal behavior. So by the time people are in their 20's, a great many of them are stuck -- stuck with kids they don't have the tools to adequately parent, stuck in the social-services system or in strings of part-time minimum-wage jobs, stuck in relationships of convenience, stuck in a cycle of whatever chemical or other pleasure-seeking gets them from one day to the next.

I would like to respectfully suggest to folks who do ministry in communities like these that it is possible in this sort of milieu to be so heavenly minded in terms of affirming the Lutheran idea of justifcation by faith that, when it comes to community outreach and care of the whole person, we do no earthly good. If someone's m.o. from day-to-day is enculturated learned helplessness, high-minded discussions about our inability to earn brownie points for good behavior with God don't make a lot of sense; because that person has somehow internalized the idea that brownie points from anyone for anything -- getting out of pajamas in the morning, staying in school, learning something more than Ma and Pa and Uncle Earl know, aspiring to a challenging career or even to a self-supporting job, delaying gratification in service to a greater good -- are either totally beyond their grasp or else are just not worth the effort. "Don't try to impress God with good works, because God isn't impressed by them," can sound very much like "Don't try," period.

Take that, steeple-fingered, middle-class Lutheran theologians and pastors and lay leaders. I'm just sayin', me, a little semi-trained church elf here in the depressed hinterlands. What is the good news for these folks? How do you get from the Gospel message that God is our friend, not our enemy, to the message that this life is a good gift of God that's worth living in a mindful way, and that there are ways of escaping the hopelessness of bad thinking and bad choices? Or is that the point where you pull out the business card of the local CMH office and make a referral, because that's not the church's job? I'm not being snarky here; I'm interested in how other people in ministry of whatever kind navigate the territory between "care of souls" and care of the rest of us.

All of which, as I'm sitting here thinking about stuff and procratinating housecleaning on this cold February day, leads me to pondering the Lutheran tendency, at least as I've experienced it, to maintain a very Western, penal model of sin and grace and to reduce the idea of salvation to God's free key to a heavenly condo. I mean, that was certainly the definition of salvation that I grew up with; my unearned fire-insurance policy won for me by Jesus. Many decades later, after having lived a lot of life and being exposed to both the Eastern Church's ideas about salvation -- salus indeed -- being about spiritual and other health in this life as well as the next, and to the very real benefits of cognitive psychology and counseling, I wonder why so many of us are still stuck in a rather simple-minded and to me unhelpful salvation paradigm starring Jesus as our defense attorney, Satan as prosecutor and Judge Sky Daddy gravely perusing our multi-paged record of criminal charges. That's how it seems to me, sometimes, in our collective Godtalk.. How does that mesh with Mark's image of Jesus as One whose healings are a powerful sign of God's intention that we be freed of whatever it is that alienates us from God and from one another and from living "the life that is life"?

(As you can see, I really do not want to vacuum the living room right now.)

Our local fundamentalist churches, of course, offer their own version of the eternal get-out-of-jail-free card (some conditions may apply); and they are also fond of promoting the tempting idea that struggling rural people's personal chaos and community malaise are largely blameable on certain predictable Evil Others, so that if American society just purified itself of the Evil Others life would return to a  comforting scene from The Andy Griffith Show with Jesus, the Duggars and a really big, flappy American flag thrown in. You can laugh at that, or get angry at that -- but do those of us in the Christian mainstream have any kind of compelling alternative vision of a life healed by God that makes sense to a teenager with little competent adult guidance or role models whose only idea of an "abundant life" is a boyfriend, or some aimless young man who drifts between Mom's basement, under-the-table odd jobs and baby mamas, or a proudly self-sufficient entrepreneurial couple who suddenly find their tenuous grasp on a bit of security and dignity yanked away when a major local employer moves its operations elsewhere and all the money bleeds out of the community?

How does the Gospel we encounter in Mark become real for people like this? Discussion is welcome and encouraged.

On Living With the Squid

As some of you who still hang around here know, after my big Medical Event this past fall I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which means that I stop breathing, for several seconds at a time, many times -- in fact, dozens of times in my case -- every hour that I'm asleep.  My doctor said that this could well have been a factor in my going into respiratory arrest after some routine, "twilight sleep" day surgery.

Occasionally sleep apnea has a neurological basis -- the brain, for whatever reason, is simply misfiring when it comes to sending the message to breathe. Most often, though, it's a function of body mechanics, whether that be enlarged tonsils or, most commonly, excessive weight that can physically obstruct one's windpipe if one is sleeping in a certain position.

Even though I think it's sometimes misunderstood as merely a snoring problem, it's actually a pretty serious condition that brings with it a whole constellation of unhealthiness, from daytime grogginess and cognitive slowness to full-blown depression to metabolic imbalances and hypertension to increased risk of stroke or heart attack.

All of which made my choice to invest in a CPAP machine kind of a no-brainer, even though the thought of going to sleep every night hooked up to this odd contraption made me sad and got me going all Charlie Brown over myself: You blockhead; you can't even breathe like a normal person. It didn't help, either, that the tech who came to the house to fit my machine and run me through its use and maintenance was a dourly melodramatic young thing, a CPAP  user herself, who intimated that if I were careless in any aspect of wearing or caring for my machine, or even if I carelessly indulged in a CPAP-less naptime on the sofa, I'd die, pretty much. And my first night lying there in the dark, feeling like an unholy hybrid of Darth Vader and a vacuum cleaner, was not fun. I couldn't get comfortable; as I tossed and turned the hose would get twisted and would pull my mask, breaking the seal and causing a distressing hiss that kept both Fellow Traveler and myself up much of the night. I later described it as trying to sleep with a large squid attached to my face. Trying to speak with the pressure on is uncomfortable, to say the least; turning the pressure off before loosening the mask can feel like having the life sucked right out of you.

And -- I'm not a vain person, but no matter how hard the medical supply catalog models try, you cannot rock this look. Unless you're one of the more disturbed individuals who write classified ads in the Village Voice personals section, a CPAP mask is not something that you really want to visually inflict upon your mate as the last image of you before s/he goes to sleep. It just isn't.

Well, this sucks, in many and various ways, I thought in the morning, dutifully washing my headgear with Ivory soap and setting it out on its little towel on the bathroom sink; a new daily ritual to follow for the foreseeable future.

But the next night, something interesting happened; after repeatedly tweaking the fit of my face mask, I finally got it to where I could sleep on my side, as I am wont to do, without pulling the thing away from my nose. And -- I got a good night's sleep. I woke up with my head spinning from all those good, complex dreams that come with some decent REM action, and an urge to work out on the Wii  Fit and write and inventory our antiques and play Words with Friends and clean the house and go snowshoeing -- all at once. Oxygen is amazing stuff when you've been depriving yourself of it for years. In the days that followed I became a whirlwind of energy; while that's peaked somewhat, it's still nice to wake up feeling, as someone once put it, Good morning, God rather than Good God -- morning. I also started thinking more clearly, which can be a bad as well as a good thing -- along with feeling like I'm getting my old sharpness of mind back, I also keep coming upon evidence of a mental fog that, while certainly being amplified by having a seizure, had been there to a lesser degree for a much longer time. Half-done projects that I had completely forgotten about, just lying here and there...confusing strata of personal clutter in my favorite caching spots...lots of stuff that makes me think Omigod -- did I really do this? Did I really not do that? What is this? Omigod...Omigod...

So I love this machine that I  hate, because it's made the difference between experiencing my world in one-dimensional sepia and in 3-D Technicolor.

And I hate this machine that I love, because as this article points out about Type 2 diabetes and the medical industry that's sprung up around it, CPAPs are evidence of a culture in which we've largely (pardon the pun) given up the idea that we can wean ourselves from unhealthy food and habits; we've consigned ourselves to simply creating technology and pharmaceuticals that help us survive a little longer and more comfortably while we still remain dependent on ways of food production and leisure and marketing -- think Walter Wink's powers and principalities-- that damage us. I hate the idea that over the years I've imbibed the poison cultural Kool-Aid and damaged my body to the point where I need a device like this.

But I cling to a stubborn hope that it doesn't have to be like this forever, either for me personally or for great swaths of society. My DO, henceforth to be referred to as Dr. Awesome (as opposed to my previous physician, Dr. Drive-By), is a complementary-medicine practitioner -- improbably located just 45 minutes away from my small town -- who is absolutely convinced that chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes are reversible in many people with the right balance of lifestyle guidance, motivation and judicious use of medical technology. She isn't mean or condescending, but she holds me accountable, and I like that. And she suspects that if I lose enough weight I may well be able to eventually wean myself off my CPAP. At the same time, she told me that my CPAP is a very useful tool that is going to gradually lower my blood pressure, amp up my metabolism and do a lot of other good things that will in turn make it easier for me to work on my other health goals. I wish everyone had a Dr. Awesome.

So at this moment I am loving the squid more than hating it. And last night I actually got a very sleepy Fellow Traveler laughing by donning my headgear, turning on the machine and intoning, "Luke...I am your father..."