Sunday, September 25, 2016
The gospel reading from Luke is about radical reversals. It contrasts a rich man and a poor man who live in the economic extremes during their lifetimes. One experiences the luxury of great wealth and the lavish lifestyle that comes with it. The other lives in the streets in abject poverty and misery, with dogs licking his sores. It is interesting that the poor man gets a name in the story told by Jesus, but the rich man remains anonymous. The poor man named Lazarus has more definition. With their divergent lifestyles, both men eventually die.
The story moves on to the afterlife where their roles are completely reversed. Lazarus is in heaven with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, while the rich man suffers in agony in Hades, or Hell. The rich man petitions Abraham: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham explains that the two worlds are separated by a great chasm; heaven and Hades are forever cleaved from each other. The rich man then petitions for Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family. Abraham rebuffs this request, saying that Moses and the prophets have provided adequate warning for the Jewish people to achieve salvation.
I have experienced radical reversals in my lifetime, both up and down. Let’s start with the upward reversal, with a personal story that took place during the Christmas season twelve years ago. Just after the holiday, I took my mother to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. We were sitting up in the mezzanine level, the cheap seats, in the very top row. The game between the Knicks and the Charlotte Bobcats was about to begin. As the players were finishing their warm-ups, with music blaring through the arena, I noticed a man dressed in black was staring at me, a little too intensely.
He slowly made his way over and sat down right next to me. He sat there silently, looking at me and my mother. In his approach, I noticed the New York Knicks employee identification card. His official status with the Knicks organization made me relax just a little, but my first reaction was that I must have done something wrong. After a swift moral examination, I could find no fault with my behavior—I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t even yelled at an official or an opposing player-not yet anyway. Not that anyone would hear me, up in the rafters.
The strange man in black explained that we had been chosen as the Poland Spring upgrade of the game. If we would follow him, we would be given courtside seats. Our upgrade would include waitress service at our seats, video monitors, and statistics for the game by quarter, and also a group photo with myself and the New York Knick cheerleaders. The cheerleaders were very nice, a most comely group of Christmas elves. I only wish I had my clerical collar on in the picture. Or perhaps my Christmas vestments—that would have been simply fabulous. But who was I to complain?
Oh, and we also got a year’s supply of Poland Spring water. The fun part of the situation was my mother could hear none of the conversation; between myself and the mysterious man in black.
I said, seriously, to her.
“What is it?” she asked, a little concerned.
“I think we’re in trouble,” I told her. “Big trouble.”
She didn’t ask any more questions. She has known roughly since my birth that she can’t always get a straight answer out of me. As we made our way down through the levels of the Garden on the employee elevator, I whispered to her.
“I think it’s a new security procedure. We’ve been profiled. Dangerous white people…”
As we exited the elevator, we were each given a bag full of New York Knick paraphernalia, hats, shirts, the works. I don’t even like the Knicks, but who cares? It was free stuff. We entered the Garden at floor level through the players’ entrance. We were given Poland Spring hats and shirts that we were told to put on.
At this point, my mother was coming to the giddy Christmas conclusion that we were not in trouble—though maybe I should be. Another Knick employee told her that we were going to be on the scoreboard, so we should be ready for the TV timeout; when we would be announced as the Poland Spring upgrade of the game.
I prepared myself, contemplating a dance move, or two, to celebrate the big moment: on the big board at Madison Square Garden. I think they call it a Jumbotron. But then the moment came. There we were in front of 20,000 people. I stared at myself in the ridiculous Poland Spring hat and shirt, and all I could manage was a shy little wave. We looked like complete idiots. We appeared huge with the extra large shirts over our winter sweaters, and I had just a moment of disdain for our great benefactor Poland Spring water. I was their poster boy for a day. Me and my Mama. During our painfully long moment on the scoreboard, when not one of my mighty dance moves came to the surface, I was struck with a terrifying thought: what if a Kent student is here?
Hey, isn’t that? Yes, it is. Man, he looks bigger on the screen, he looks huge. He must really eat during the Christmas holidays. I still don’t know why it was terrifying, as a thought, that one of you might be there. It must have been the big shirts and silly hats; and the dizzying turn of events when our afternoon was turned upside down in front of 20,000 people in New York City.
As soon as the camera was off, I ditched the Poland Spring stuff and settled in for some NBA basketball on the day after Christmas. My mother was instantly on her cell phone, telling everyone her new upgrade story. Even when I went to the concession stands, I was spotted.
“Hey, it’s the upgrade guy.”
I just gave everyone the thumbs up. There are worse things to be. My own Christmas story is a story of reversal; of what it means to be surprised; of what it means to be given a gift when you least expect it. But I couldn’t help but wonder who in the world deserves an upgrade more than me—and more than any of us. I thought of what the world could be like if we dedicated ourselves to giving upgrades to those who deserve it most.
Radical reversals are part of the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus says that the poor will receive the kingdom of heaven and that the meek will inherit the earth. These are mighty promises for the future. Mighty reversals will come if you watch things go full circle. Is there any evidence for this? Maybe not.
Yet Jesus maintains there will be justice in the afterlife.
In Greek literature and history, radical reversals are a major theme. This gospel reminded me of the story of King Croesus and Solon in the history written by Herodotus. Croesus is the king of Lydia in the sixth century B.C. who ruled for fourteen years; he was fabulously wealthy. He met a wise man named Solon and asked him: Who is the happiest man in the world? Croesus believes he knows the answer: himself. Or Donald Trump. Solon sees the situation differently. Instead he speaks of a man who died fighting for his country and two brothers who got their mother to a religious festival before they both died suddenly. The last thing they did was a good deed. Croesus can’t be the happiest man in the world because he’s not dead yet. The king is stunned by the wisdom of Solon. He is baffled.
Reversals can still happen. Fate and fortune are fickle and mercurial. Here at Kent, you can go up, go down, and sideways all in one day. What happened to Croesus after meeting with Solon? His son died suddenly, his wife committed suicide, and the Persians destroyed his kingdom in 546 B.C. He became a prisoner and wise man to the Persians led by the great King Cyrus, and he does grow spiritually. He learns wisdom at the bottom of reversals, and he shares it.
The bottom is where faith becomes a very interesting question. Though I have been to the pinnacle in Madison Square Garden, my most important work has come at the bottom of life’s reversals. What you overcome is more important than what you achieve. I believe that.
Forty-one years later, my story is still hard to tell. When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. My childhood was shattered; it was a forlorn tour of duty. It all started with a broken leg and a tumor on the back of my head. The broken leg happened during a soccer game, and the tumor was initially thought to be a harmless cyst. When my local doctor tried to remove it, he sewed me up and sent me to Stanford Children’s Hospital. There were other potential tumors in my body. I was to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment for two years. I had cancer. I hated that word with every fiber of my being. My life had a radical reversal. I was down, on the bottom of life. I was like the poor man Lazarus, yet God came through loud and clear. God came through people. My people. God was a spirit of help, and God came through my mother who attended every chemotherapy appointment but one. My father did not go to any. God came through my Asian doctor who calmed and comforted me with her skill and compassion. I did not survive by a miracle, though I do believe in them. It was pure science, and yet it was still deeply spiritual. I began to understand a suffering God. One who was deeply beautiful and present at all times.
I identified with Jesus, deeply, in my suffering. Jesus got nails in his wrists on the cross; I got chemotherapy shots in the same place, where a bruise would emerge after a treatment. Jesus wore a crown of thorns. I got to wear a large rubber band around my head, so that I would keep my hair as long as possible. It didn’t work. Jesus was speared in the side by a Roman soldier. I got a large needle inserted into my side, directly into the hip bone, to extract bone marrow for chemical study. The first time this happened, I tried to scream but no sound came out. I related to Jesus, and he related to me. He came to me, in strange and diverse forms. When you have been to the wall yourself, your attitude changes towards those who suffer. You want to bring them hope because hard times come to everyone. You want to give them upgrades. I went into remission at the age of eleven; remission is a word I will always love.
God is in the ups and downs. From the gospel and the Greeks, the message is to be humble when things are going well, and to be faithful when they aren’t. When I was on top at Madison Square Garden, my thoughts went out to the truly poor in the world who really deserve a break. When I was down, I learned that I can help others just as people were there for me.
Let us help increase the upgrades in our world. For what we do to help others will eventually come back to help us. In the full circle of a God who pulls us forward; that we may no longer live for ourselves, but for the love that saves us. Amen.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Last year, on the first Thursday of the first week, I stood before you as the chapel speaker and made a confession; it was personal, and deeply embarrassing: I watch a reality show called Naked and Afraid. The show is ridiculous. I hate myself a little bit for watching it, but I do it anyway. Two naked strangers, like Adam and Eve--the first biblical survivalists, have to survive for 21 days without food, water, and clothing. It is the ultimate setting of personal discomfort. Who would want to do this? You would have to be crazy, right? They say there is no prize money; it’s all about the experience. When I first discovered the show, I thought it was a new low in television. Then I settled in to watch.
But something about the show reminded me of how I feel when I begin a new year. Everyone is a little naked and afraid. When you’re new here, there can be fear and certainly anxiety, and homesickness. Maybe that feeling is already gone. But maybe it’s lingering here tonight, on the fourth day of school. I actually find my own anxiety level increases during Early Week; maybe others do too. Just beginning on Monday was much better than waiting for the year to start.
On Tuesday Dean Kelderman spoke about the importance of being willing to be uncomfortable as she related her experience living on a sailboat. I’m following the same winds tonight. Being a student, being a faculty member, requires you to make peace with discomfort, and to expand your comfort zone little by little each day until the discomfort becomes something like confidence, and even peace of mind.
The episodes of Naked and Afraid show the peril and difficulty of living off the land. Here at Kent, we live close to nature in this beautiful setting, this lovely river valley. Take the time to look around and experience the natural world. Take a hike. On a daily basis, you can spot eagles, hawks, herons, turkeys, beavers, bobcats, and yes there are bears. I have had one bear sighting in my time at Kent. I was driving north on Route 7 just past the village when I saw something large crossing the road. My brain couldn’t process what I was seeing. Why is there a couch crossing the road? I asked myself. Someone is magically moving a sofa. Then my brain knew the word: that is a bear. Bear. It moved slowly, loping along with complete confidence, until it disappeared into the woods. Last year, there was a small white owl who was roosting on the side of the chapel. It was Mr. McDonough who first spotted the owl, resting in a small, circular opening on the chapel wall on the south peak. The owl was a huge hit on Facebook. We are close to nature at Kent, whether you think of it or not. Several years ago, I had a bat living in my chapel office. It rested on the wall near the door, very much alive. I let it be. Live and let live, I say. It stayed for three days inside my office, and I like to think we became close friends, though I never named it. One day it was gone, and I was filled with sadness. But you have to keep moving if you live close to nature. Nature has no place for sentiment and nostalgia; it’s all about survival. And if you love someone, set them free. Fly away little, brown bat. Live long and prosper.
So this chapel talk is “Naked and Afraid: Part Deux.” Subtitled “The Epic Controversy.” What in the world has caused me to speak of this ridiculous show a second time? Here in St. Joseph’s Chapel. To go to this sad, small well one more time. It’s all because the show is…fake. It’s fake. Phony, like Holden used to say. It’s all over the Internet, so it must be true. This accusation hit me like a ton of bricks.
Reality shows are supposed to be, well, real. Is it possible that Naked and Afraid is fake? Ok, let’s be clear. The animals really die on the show; that’s the most important thing, in my opinion. This part is undeniably real. That naked man with a machete really is killing an electric eel, and chopping it into pieces for a BBQ on cable TV as electricity shakes his arms in the struggle. No faking there. Sometimes the camera turns shyly away when there is a blow to the head of an animal. When women kill on the show, it is always memorable; I love those scenes the most, reversing hunter gatherer associations from our genetic past. The women sometimes have cleverly crafted traps for shrimp and fish. Women can kill animals if they get hungry enough. And they will often take the lead in cooking the animals. All of this gives me great faith and comfort.
So what’s fake about the show? The process of editing 21 days to forty-five minutes requires a certain storyline that may not fit the experience of the contestants. This is not raw footage that stands on its own, but rather a narrative that follows something like a script. Some contestants have complained that the show distorts their experience. In particular, the show likes to have villains or bad guys whom the audience is rooting against. The actual experience is much more complicated. Are there really heroes and villains at Kent School? I don’t think life works that way. I am reminded of the character actor James Cagney from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was famous for playing bad guys in the movies. When asked how he played the villain so well, Cagney responded simply: “I never played a bad guy.” Everyone can be explained, and we are always justifying ourselves…to ourselves.
As my investigation continued, I found the evidence against the show to be slim and anecdotal. The only hard evidence was the treatment of a female contestant named Kim. After eating the liver of a turtle, Kim suffered from food poisoning. She was fed with bread, rice, and baby food for several days. She also had two IV drips. None of this was in the actual show. There was another female contestant who regularly stole food from the camera crew, but none of her behavior was presented. And then there was Shane, one of the more annoying contestants. He limped around for the whole show, whining about everything under the sun. But the episode never revealed that he had three broken toes at the time.
That’s it? I started to feel better. I could face this coming school year with confidence, clothed and unafraid.. And then the NY Times, the paper of record, did a piece on the show. It was an unusual focus, but one that I had often considered myself. Who are the people who do the editing of the pesky body parts? Who are these people? They make it all suitable (more or less) for mainstream America on the Discovery Channel. These are the people who cloud over the nakedness. What kind of job is that? Are they hiring? Do I need to finish Kent to work there? Some of these tech guys thought maybe this was a dream job, but experience proved otherwise in the tedium of hiding the human body. And there can be zero mistakes. The turnover is very high in this department, and 25 people have left the position since the show began five years ago. The work is tedious and boring, and the workers are given to depression. One editor had this to say about the state of his existence working on the show.
“Thankfully we stay pretty hectic around here, so I don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the path my life has taken.”
So what makes us different from a silly reality show? Our common life is real. Our business together is deeply real and profound. Not that people can’t be fake here; there’s plenty of that. Our species, homo sapiens, is twisted and strange and tragic, but still capable of greatness and beauty and compassion. But to keep it real you need to let yourself be known. Be genuine. Seek your authentic self and draw out the best of those around you. This happens all the time at Kent, and you can be accepted for who you are at the deepest levels of being human. It will be uncomfortable at times, but keep pushing outward, past your limits. You may be holding on to pain, keeping you from throwing yourself into this crazy thing called life. Last year is not this year. The pain can go somewhere; it can actually do something. This can be the full power of forgiveness, which makes you eager to live again. And to love again.
If you really leave your comfort zone, you might encounter the most amazing presence in the natural world: the Spirit of the Living God. It’s out there, just waiting for you, knocking on your heart. The naked fear you experience now can become the deepest confidence and calmness in your being.
All will be well. I won’t tell you to keep it real this year because I know you’ll do just fine. You got this.