For the past six months I have been working on a groundbreaking personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding. I have been writing a book. Yes, I know that that six word phrase, "I have been writing a book", can sound pretentious and somewhat loaded (especially when uttered on the outskirts of LA where I now live, and where everyone seems to be writing something), but it is true. Every day for six months now, I have been working on this project.
But more than a mere book (what the world really needs now is another....book, right?), I have been on a personal sojourn to try an unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now. More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.
The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them". Over the next twenty weeks - starting today - I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book. The reason I am writing blog-posts about these ideas is because I want to invite you into the conversation. I want to get your help in writing this book. If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know. If what I share doesn't seem correct to you, I would also like to hear from you. If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together. What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true". And so now, if you are still WITH me...here is installment #1:
Downtown Los Angeles - 1982
The morning translucent glow of Los Angeles, which, in a previous era could often be mistaken for smog, was still enshrouding the city of Los Angeles at 9:30AM on a Sunday morning. Though weekends were less jammed with traffic on the California freeways, there were still the myriad of ecclectic and sundry people who were out and about for their ritual morning gourmet coffee fix. Roller skaters, cyclers, senior citizens, dogs with their doting owners, mothers jogging alongside their babies in strollers were all meandering the streets of downtown LA. Head-banded work-out instructors with magenta colored tights and pastel shaded leggings were all rushing to their jazzer-size classes.
And a few people were on their way to church. A very few! Christ our Lord Presbyterian Church, once the center of upward mobility and the epitome of Southern Californian establishment culture, wasn’t what it used to be. The building had become run down, the sandstone edifice had become charred with years of decay, and the membership had dwindled from multiple thousands to a bare handful of a hundred. But, on pellucid blue mornings like this, the old church still occasionally resembled it’s previously successful and grandiose self.
The actual church service that morning hadn’t been particularly memorable or noteworthy. The choir sang the usual old dirges from the deep purple church hymnal, and the octogenarian pastor trotted out the same cliché’s and platitudes in the sermon. Arthur, a retired pastor himself, hadn’t really been listening to the sermon anyway. He was really there just to teach his assigned Sunday School lesson to a handful of fellow octogenarians and to receive his weekly teaching stipend check from the church secretary which paid for the sundry expenses of retirement. It was an otherwise uneventful morning, though, it did stand out for one reason. For Arthur, there was something unsettling about his life lately. A non-descript, and indescribable ache and annoyance had been troubling him. The trouble emerged from deep within his soul, and had been agitating for some time. He couldn’t say why, but he was just very angry for some reason - he was very, very upset. Like an itch in the middle of a back that could not be reached or scratched, Arthur was unable to reach or scratch the thing that bothered him.
The general annoyance began with the toast at breakfast which was cooked beyond the point where Arthur preferred it. And then there was the fact that his kids and grandkids hadn’t called him what seemed like months. The morning newspaper featured another downtick in the stock market. Most of all, what bothered Arthur was that he had been losing his memory - he had been getting more forgetful. Whereas at earlier points in his life, he was very good at knowing all of the capitals of all the major countries of the world (London – England, Prague – Czechoslovakia, Sydney – Australia), he couldn’t remember any of them now. Frankly, Arthur couldn’t even remember his own street name sometimes. He would go on a walk and not remember his own address. Arthur sometimes even forgot the names of his own kids and grandkids. Details which used to come easy to Arthur could no longer access.
Ellen, Arthur’s wife had noticed a change in Arthur of late as well. He just wasn’t himself. Aside from his memory loss, he was also flying-off the handle with rage at the smallest and most insignificant things. Arthur would yell at the television with such vehemence that Ellen was often afraid that he might actually get up out of his chair attack the character inside the frame of the screen. He would be sent on a small errand to go fetch the mail from the mailbox, and he would come back hours later, having wandered around the garden all morning, not knowing exactly why he was out of the house. But worse, he would get very angry with himself for the mistake. The doctor had said that it might be early signs of Alzheimer's Disease.
And so, when Arthur and Ellen got into their two-door, brown Datsun hatchback after church, to return home from the morning’s church service, it was never a forgone conclusion where the car ride, from that point forward, would eventually take them. Leaving the church parking lot in Los Angeles Sunday morning rush hour was never fun. Sometimes it seemed like all of LA was one big left hand turn, with no chance of ever turning right – even though the freeway entrances were invariably on the right of wherever you wanted to go. “You have to go left Arthur, if you want to go right, you will have to drive around the block in order to go where you want to go,” Ellen said encouragingly. “I KNOW THAT, I KNOW THAT,” “YOU DON’T THINK I KNOW THAT?????” yelled Arthur, gesticulating with his hands in a chopping motion while un-nervingly taking his eyes off the road. “Arthur, watch where you are going, honey, these LA drivers are crazy.” “YOU DON’T THINK I KNOW HOW TO DRIVE?!???” “I AM A VERY GOOD DRIVER!!!” Arthur demanded. “I have driven these roads hundreds of times before. Just keep your mouth shut, and let me do the driving.” Ellen was stunned. She had never known Arthur, in all of their 50 years of marriage, to be so verbally abusive to her. Arthur was just not....Arthur.
Seeing that she could not have a coherent or calm conversation with Arthur, Ellen decided to try a new approach. She had heard other friends talk about the technique, adapted from the world of anger management, but more recently applied to those who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease. It was the technique of simply just - “going with” people who are struggling. Rather than correct them, or get angry with them, or insult them or teach them or preach to them or demean them, the technique was simply to - "go with" them. And because Arthur seemed hell-bent on going where he wanted to go anyway on this morning, it seemed the course of least possible resistance.
And so, as Arthur merged onto the freeway taking their small car, not to the north of Los Angeles, where they lived, but onto the south of Los Angeles where they did not want to go, Ellen decided to just…go with it. As they passed the signs going south, through Englewood and Vermont Square and Florence and Watts, in dangerous enclaves, going in the wrong direction, she went with it. As Arthur prattled on about some minor nuance of Biblical exegesis on a Biblical text that nobody ever read or cared about, Ellen went with it. She said to herself, “I’m just going to go WITH IT…wherever IT may lead.”
Eventually they passed the exit leading to Glendora, and headed out towards Barstow, and Palm Desert, at least an hour beyond their initial exit heading southward. Riverside County with all of its build-up and suburban housing passed them on their right. Ellen told herself that she would just imagine that she was on Sunday drive. Eventually, Arthur would come to his senses, or they would run out of gas. One way or another, this Sunday morning escapade could not go on forever. Ellen with with it.
It was right on the border of California and Arizona that Arthur, all on his own, seemed to come to his own intellectual border crossing. As Arthur was driving past the huge field of windmills that mark the last part of California, he came to a kind of epiphany. It was the sort of self-realization which doesn’t happen very easily, or very often, and is always self-induced. Arthur realized that he was wrong! Wrong. In fact, that he had been on the wrong road for at least two hours. So wrong was Arthur, that he and is wife were now four or five hours away from home, rather than the normal twenty minutes that they usually took to go home from church.
Arthur pulled the car over to a rest-stop on the side of the road, and pulled the car into a parking place near to the public restrooms. There he sat, staring forward, with both hands on the steering wheel, and his head bowed downward. He said, with sadness and a tear that trickled down his wrinkled cheek, “I’m sorry, Ellen, I guess I am lost. I guess I need some help getting home.” Ellen could not believe her ears. In 50 years of marriage, Arthur had never apologized for anything. She had prayed many days and nights for this moment of self-contrition, and here it was, falling upon her ears like a feather wafting off of an old pillow-case - an apology. Ellen also knew that Arthur's moment of self-understanding had occurred, in large part, because of her newly learned technique of - "going with". “It’s ok honey, I’ll help you get home. We are in this together. Let’s just turn the car around and start driving back home. It’s a beautiful day, and we with each other, and that’s the important thing.” It had truly been a morning and a lesson in – “going with”.
Going with others, rather than going against them, or going above them, or going instead of them, is singly the most transformative tool we all have in the lives of the people around us. In a world that loves to demonize, sermonize, and criticize those who disagree with us, the tool and the remedy is, ironically found in the opposite action - in "going with". What applies not us for victims of Alzheimer's disease, but for all people - the act of moving in the same direction as, of going alongside though not always agreeing with, of persevering through the conflicts with actually plays a transformative roll in the lives of the people around us. It is so simple to understand, and yet it is so hard to do.
Next week, in installment #2, we will talk about how foreign the practice of going with other people has become in our modern day American society. We have become, it would seem, a culture of going against, rather than a culture of GOING WITH!
All For Now,