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.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Giving Up For Lent

Lent is a dangerous time for church nerds and other religious overachievers -- and that means you too, fellow Lutherans. There's just so much to do, or not do, for Lent. Shall we revisit our neglected reading of the Daily Office? Go meatless a couple days a week and donate the grocery savings to charity? Work on some chronic moral failing on our parts? Blog about our interior spring cleaning?

In years past I had big plans for Lent. And I failed at them all. I've even failed at failing. 

This year is different. Part of that is simply due to the spiritual and emotional focus we've maintained on getting Fellow Traveler's surgery. That has been such a central theme of our lives for the past several years that the relief of it finally coming to pass has been an almost giddy, happily disorienting thing. Chronic pain is a terrible, debilitating condition, and when it can be treated it is a kind of miracle.So my head is not in a reflective place, to put it bluntly. It's in a "Thank God this is behind us so we can move forward," place. And I'm not going to feel guilty about that. 

Part of my stepping back from my usual Lenten focus this year, though, is a function of stepping back from involvement in our church. Without going into a lot of detail, because this isn't the place -- it's something that both Fellow Traveler and I have been struggling with in our own ways for the last couple of years. What used to be a "duty and delight," as the saying goes, has increasingly become a duty, period. I don't feel that there's much of a call for me to do what I really love to do, which is thinking and writing and sharing ideas. And FT, who is not a cradle Lutheran and who admits to gaps in her religious education, wants to be in a worshiping community where she can learn more about Scripture and Lutheran theology in a structured way. Now, some of you may be reading this and getting all excited ("Substance! They want substance!") thinking about offering us a signing bonus to join your shack; but I have to tell you, we're not hipsters. I doubt we're on the A list of desired sociodemographics for most churches.that want to be on the cutting edge. On the other hand, we are not tabulae rasae; we know how to do church and behave ourselves, mostly, and we can also rock your church potluck. So there's that.

We have friends in another congregation; we've been to a couple of services there and enjoyed them and were treated warmly by people in general. On the other hand, we would miss some people in our present congregation very much; we are very cognizant of the "grass is greener" illusion that can afflict casual visitors to other churches; and we might find ourselves in the same formational spot there anyway. So at this point we are, as they say, keeping our options open. But this isn't an easy decision. I have heard "Instead of asking what the Church can do for you, why don't you ask what you can do for the Church?" so often that, these days, it can feel like a sledgehammer; it's not helpful or motivational or kind in our situation.

All of which is to say -- we're kind of sitting out Lent at our house this year. We've given up Lent for Lent. It's not a statement about the goodness and value of anyone else's Lenten practice; it's just where we're at now; a quiet place.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

On the Mend

Those of you who follow our household exploits on Facebook know that Fellow Traveler finally -- finally, after a four-year odyssey navigatng the VA system in two states -- received surgery for her RA-ravaged jaw. And as we wished, we were able to have it done right here in Michigan; as it turned out, from one of the best oral surgeons in the state, someone who has taken on surgical cases for the VA in the past. Since outsourcing services tends to make VA bureaucrats' heads explode, we were especially fortunate to connect with this doctor, who was not only happy to help us but who had the experience and professional pull to get things done.

Because my  medical jargon isn't what it used to be I can't tell you the exact name of the ectomies and plasties involved, but the surgeon smoothed out the ragged ends of the jawbones, removed loose bits and created a new disk from a thin flap of skin removed from FT's backside. As one might imagine, this was a fairly involved surgery; it took five-and-a-half hours. FT had researched it extensively; I'm an incessant worrier, and after seeing one photo of a dissected jaw that, honest to pete, looked like cookbook instructions on how to de-bone a chicken, I decided that I was going to limit my grasp of the proceedings to a need-to-know basis and instead focus on aftercare. Which I did, and did well, for three days.  I was one of those pain-in-the-ass loved ones who walks around with a notebook in hand, who measures input and output and how many feet my patient walked down the hallway per day and who asks lots of questions. I recommend proactive patient advocacy highly --partly because it helps overworked hospital personnel do their jobs, partly because it keeps less engaged employees on their toes and partly because it seemed to earn me special privileges, like raiding the Employees Only nutrition station for FT's ice cream.

From what we'd read about the procedure beforehand,and from what the doctor had told us, we had every expectation that FT was going to come out of surgery looking like the Elephant Man, with a melon head and a huge scar running from temple to chin, and that she would be unable to communicate verbally for at least a couple of weeks.. None of these things happened. When I was ushered into the recovery room FT, still high on anesthesia, was joking with the staff and practically giving high-fives all around; her face was wound up with gauze like the ghost of Jacob Marley, but was otherwise pretty normal looking. By Day 2 the fun and games had ended, but her face still looked fine -- and when the bandages came off there was only a small scar along her ear; one hundred stitches, we were told, but most of them internal. By Day 4 we were on the way home. It was the most amazing thing.

And it still is. The best part is that FT no longer feels the constant grinding RA pain of bone on bone; just the ache of mending tissue. Her doctor is delighted with her progress, although he cautions that it's going to take a full year for a complete recovery. (FT is looking forward to her first therapeutic exercise -- chewing gum -- but that won't be for awhile.)

For all of you who've been following our saga, thank you for your prayers and good wishes. We appreciate them so much.