Monday, October 24, 2011

I like books that echo again and again

I like books that echo in my mind long after I have read them. Frederich Buechner, whose collection of daily readings I am working through, writes about his love for words that echo like the tones of a choir in a large cathedral. I would like to expand that idea to whole books that stick with me for several days, sometimes weeks, echoing and re-echoing, inviting me to reread certain sections.

One such book is Scott Turow’s Ordinary Heroes, a novel about the experiences of a son who discovers among his deceased father’s papers a letter revealing that he was engaged to another woman before marriage to his mother, and secondly, documents that show that his father, a U.S. officer in World War II, was court martialed at the end of the war and condemned to be executed. Yet clearly that hadn’t happened, for he lived a fairly uneventful life as a lawyer in the United States, married to a Jewish woman and raising two children. Using military archives, letters and his father’s own notes, the son uncovers the truth of his father’s life.

I had read the book before, racing through it to find out what happened. This time I stopped along the way to savor key actions of the main characters, both chosen and stumbled into, and the truths unfolding along the way. Turow also describes the almost indescribable horror of war as seen first-hand by a soldier in combat. Some ideas kept echoing in me, especially the main character’s thoughts about his relationship with his parents over the years. His parents had kept the details of what happened during and after the war secret. They had lived a lie. He comments that parents deliberately keep secret certain details of their lives.

Because I have been working on a biography of my parents’ lives for several years, I was forced to agree with Turow’s main character. In telling me about their lives in that faraway land of the Ukraine, Mother and Dad had picked and chosen what they wanted to reveal. Some of it was too painful to talk about, I think, so they hid it deep inside themselves. Now years later, as I try to piece together their lives I wish I had asked more when they were alive – but at the time I didn’t know what to ask.

I have long believed if my father had been freer to speak about his experiences during World War I when he was a medic with the Russian Red Cross on a hospital train bringing the wounded back from the front to hospitals for treatment, life might have been a little easier for him in his later years. Now and then a story would slip out, but in the main, the war experiences were a closed book. That and the horrors of the Russian Revolution and the famine, pestilence, destruction of property and lives by the anarchists, and loss of a much-cherished way of life in the Mennonite colonies. Someone has described this earlier ideal period as “forever summer, forever Sunday.” If a story accidentally dropped out of my father's memory bank, he regretted it. He knew it would come back to haunt him at night in the form of vivid nightmares.

Turow writes, “When our parents talk about their lives, they relay what they think is best, for their sake or ours. And as their children, we hear what we want, believe what we can, and, as time lengthens, pray and judge and question as our needs demand. We understand them in that light. And when we tell our parents’ tales to the world, or even to ourselves, the story is always our own.”

And so, as I write my parents’ story about their lives in Russia and in Canada, am I actually telling the story of my own fears and travails of the spirit? I wonder.

On a more humorous note: Buechner comments that the umlauts of the fathers are visited upon the sons. People with an umlaut in their name know that anyone seeing it written doesn’t know how to pronounce it and anyone hearing it pronounced doesn’t know how to spell  it. Umlauts are the burdens of children.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

What's in a name?

What does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name asked the leader of our Sunday morning discussion group. Is it necessary to say these precise words for the prayer to be effective? What about when one is asked to prayer in a multifaith situation as I had been asked to do the following week? There were varied responses.

We would not expect a Muslim to say a prayer in the name of Allah at a public function, said one person. In such events it might be better to be more generic even though some Christians think it is important to say the words “in the name of Jesus” at the end of every prayer, or it loses power. To such people the right words are a form of doctrinal correctness. Yet expecting people to say the "right" words can easily become a shibboleth, a way of judging the speaker. The language in a prayer or sermon becomes a test of the speaker’s authenticity. If you don't say the politically correct names for Deity you're off my radar.

So what’s in a name, any name? To know somebody’s name is to know the person. We may talk to people we meet on a plane, in a discount store aisle, or at coffee in the church basement, but until we know that person’s name, we feel we don’t actually know him or her. To know a person’s name breaks down an invisible barrier to communication.

For an unnamed infant to be known only as “Baby” for weeks is an insult. Even a pet has a name. When we give a baby a name, we give him or her life, an identity, or, according to some African cultures, the life of relatedness. To live without a name would be severe handicap. People would have to keep saying, “Hey, you there, with the blue shirt,” or “You with the heavy beard.” That, then would eventually become a name, as it did for the Anabaptist George Blaurock.

I used to think it was funny the way my Russia-born relatives born played the “name game,” climbing up and down the family tree with the agility of a monkey until they had located a relative on a particular branch. Every one of my mother’s eleven brothers and sisters, male or female, included “Franz” as their second name. Before she was married my Mother was Anna Franz Janzen. Stating her name brought in the whole clan sired by Franz. Naming father Franz invoked his presence.

In Old Testament times a name was the expression of the nature or identity of a person. A vital connection existed between the name and the essence of the person. To know someone’s name was to perceive and, to some degree, enter into the life story of the bearer of the name.

So when that essence or identity changed, the person’s name also changed. Jacob the Deceiver became Israel; Sarai, the scoffer, became Sarah, the woman in whom God’s promises became true.

So back to my original question. What does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? To merely say the words may be an attempt to manipulate God through a kind of religious magic, like uttering “abracadabra” over a top hat and expecting a rabbit to jump out or the money we’ve been waiting for to arrive by special delivery.

The best illustration I can think of to explain what it means to pray in Jesus’ name comes from my growing-up years in the Slavic community of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. Many local immigrants to this area were illiterate. When they had a check to cash, they came to my father’s store where I watched Dad endorse the check with the man’s name. The man would then pencil an “X” under his name and Dad would write “His mark” below that and sign it with his own name as one who could speak accurately as to the identity of that person. Dad's signature was as good as the person’s to whom the check had been made out. He was acting in that man’s name, on his behalf. His signature stated boldly, “I know this man.”

J.B. Phillips in Your God Is Too Small wrote that we tend to give God many names, such as Managing Director, Puppeteer, Magician, Resident Policeman. Over the years I think our names for God have changed to the giver of Money Purse, Power Dispenser, Success Insurer, and Security Provider--in short, God's name has become the means to the good life.

We do not name God. God has a name through which he wants to reveal himself to us. It is important to know the true name of God before we speak in his name.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thoughts on being old-old

It is now 21 years since I retired from college teaching and moved to the next stage of life. I recall feeling eager, yet a little shaky. I was like a baby learning to walk -- ready to explore this new life stage, yet concerned. Life without a daily assignment looked too daunting.

I faced one of the biggest challenges of my life. Two thousand discretionary hours had been handed me for the coming year and for each year thereafter I stayed alive. Do the math. Actually it's more than two thousand for someone like me who put in many hours beyond the required forty hours per week. I recall that, at the time, the main resources to launch me into this leg of the journey were tons of advice about eating right, doing my daily exercises, and managing finances. Gerontology was a new discipline. Among this plethora of advice I found little on how to ward off the lions, the Richard Parker's of Yann Martel's novel, The Life of Pi, crouching at the other end of the lifeboat,ready to pounce at the least sign of weakness.

When you retire, people at once shift you to the "old" slot. Now, 21 years later, I know I am there, well, actually, in the "old-old" category. Young-old or middle-old no longer applies. Not all organizations even have an 85+ category for people like me. We get dropped off the chronological map.

When I retired people were called old only if they had been born before you. At the first conference on aging I attended in Pennsylvania early in my retirement, I recall that presenters and participants only used the nebulous pronoun "they" when speaking about the cohort of people classified as old, never "we." There was no warm "we, the people" feeling here.

"Old" was a four-letter word. People avoided it. When I wanted to talk to friends about their feelings at being in this category,they refused to discuss it, as if just mentioning having birthdays over a cup of coffee might infect them. Old age and leprosy were in the same category. The warranty ran out at age 65. You were useless, kaput. I gleaned it was essential to good mental health to invest time, money and energy on looking young. Wrinkles, gray hair, bags under the eyes, were signs of this disease, signs to flee from. Treat them soon, fast. Aging is a medical problem. However, the birthdays kept coming, and coming.

In the intervening years, I have studied aging, written about it in several books (Border Crossing, Prayers of an Omega, Bless Me Too, My Father, and so forth), and lectured far and wide, to convince others --and myself-- that aging is part of God's plan, not a mistake.

I thought of that again this week when the oldest member of our congregation died at age 102 and a great-grandchild was born into our extended family. I tell myself that the challenge is to accept with grace and as much vigor as I can muster that this last stage of my life with all its strange feelings, misgivings, moments of great courage and bursts of energy but also times of weakness and withdrawal are all normal. To say good-bye to what can't be sustained and hello to the blessings of this time is a daily task.

Young people talk about having fun. Aging is not usually fun in that sense, but there are treasured moments I would never want to forgo. The last twenty years have been some of the best in my life. I appreciate being able to view life as if from the mountaintop -- the whole cycle of life. I relish the times I have to meditate, to ruminate, to enjoy my own company. I rejoice that I have been able to finish some long-term projects. Yet there are times when I worry about that tiger at the opposite end of the boat, but those thoughts are best left for another blog.