Tag Archives: Bach

Update from Heretic School

If you’ve been walking The Crooked Line with me for awhile, then you know that what I call “Heretic School” is more widely known in our popular culture as “Bible Study.” Maybe one of these days I’ll settle into calling it by its popular name. I did, after all, settle into calling myself a Christian after many years of running from and then wrestling with myself.

J.S. Bach

But I really love “Heretic School,” both the name and the practice of it. During the odd numbered months, at 7:30 in the morning on Tuesdays, we gather for Heretic School in the Emmanuel Room. That’s right: the God-With-Us Room. A large portrait of Bach watches over us from one wall. He looks a little like he’s sucking on a cough drop. Or a lemon. Mostly, I think his expression is a warning that the soundtrack for the path we’re on is less like the predictable, sing-songy “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” and more like the difficult, cell-rearranging Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.

Generally, the passage we discuss at Heretic School is the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday as outlined by the Episcopal Lectionary, which is a riff on the Revised Common Lectionary. For the past three weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of Luke, the very heart of this particular evangelist’s telling of the Jesus story.

Two Tuesdays ago, we worked on the story of the Samaritan who helps the beaten and robbed man by the side of the road. Last Tuesday, we took on the story in which Jesus appears to praise Mary at Martha’s expense.

Being the contrary Bull-girl that I am, reading these uber-familiar stories makes my brain paw the ground and snort in the face of what centuries of preaching and teaching tell us they’re about. I have no patience for how these stories, or any Bible stories for that matter, get used. What I want to know is how can the stories use me? That’s much rockier territory, and I love a good scrabble over uneven and uncertain terrain.

The reason I’ve said, “Okay, I’m in.” to Christianity is because I want my assumptions to be challenged. It occurs to me just now that the appeal of “Heretic School” for me, the reason it turbo-charges my Tuesdays in odd-numbered months, is because what I come to this particular well for is to strip away the importance of Believing so I can focus on Beloving.

What I noticed in the story about the Samaritan this year was Jesus’ reminder (from Leviticus 19) that the way to be one with Love (which is how I make sense of the notion of “eternal life”) is to show mercy by loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s not selective mercy, parceled out to people we already know or whom we already love. It’s mercy to anyone and everyone.

Far too often I’ve heard preachers talk about the story of the Samaritan and chide the priest and the Levite who pass by the beaten man. In the story of the Samaritan, yes, of course, we are being reminded to be merciful to the beaten man by the side of the road. Duh! But it’s clear to me that we are not to stop there. When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” he means we are also to be merciful to the priest and the Levite who passed the man by and, for whatever reason, did not help. We are also being reminded to be merciful to the lawyer whose testing of Jesus gives us this beautiful story.

The words “neighbor” and “mercy” rolled around in my head all week after Heretic School on Tuesday, July 9. So when I woke up on Sunday, July 14, to the news of the Zimmerman verdict—which did not surprise or shock me but rather made me feel sick and sad—I thought, “Shit. The story of the Samaritan is challenging me to show mercy even to George Zimmerman.” Shit indeed. What in the world would it look like to show mercy to maybe the most notorious and least neighborly Neighborhood Watchman of all time? How do I show mercy to someone who believes it was God’s plan that he kill Trayvon Martin?

I turned all this over in my head and thought, “Ugh. I hope I never meet George Zimmerman.” In fact, I don’t even want to know anyone like him, much less show them mercy! But of course I already DO know people like him—people who are very afraid of others who are different from them and think that guns will protect them. Or people who are very afraid and think that mass incarceration will keep them safe (see The New Jim Crow). Or that keeping poor people out of their neighborhoods (or their churches) will keep them safe.

With all this rattling around inside me, I took the plunge today and showed mercy to a guy who told me at least 20 times that he spent 25 years in prison for things he will only hint at. He’s probably a lot like George Zimmerman—suspicious, fearful, with a violent streak (though he insists he’s “not like that any more.”) We went for coffee and I gave him some money. The whole hour we spent together felt incredibly uncomfortable and slightly crazy. When I handed him $60 fresh from the ATM to help him get through the next nine days until his Social Security check arrives, his eyes popped and his mouth fell open. He sputtered, “I promise I’ll pay you back.” I told him I didn’t want him to pay me back; I want him to help someone else out someday. He said, “But I don’t know anybody good besides you and [PW].” I said, “Well, the person doesn’t have to be good. They just have to be someone who needs help you can give.” “Yeah. Okay. Well, God bless you,” he said as he hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek (which I accepted, despite feeling queasy).

Now, I know I can’t be giving 60 bucks to everyone who begs from me (though I usually give something). But while the details of this particular mercy are not sustainable, the posture and the intent can be if I stay connected to communities that support me in it. Which is one of the reasons I go to church. I don’t know if there’s a god, but I know what it feels like to love and be loved back, and I know I feel like a better version of myself when I lean into that. And I also know that I need mercy every bit as much as the guy I had coffee with today.

Like Mary Gauthier sings:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
And every single one of us could use some mercy now.

Like the rabbi says, “Go and do likewise.”

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Midrash at hospice, with dog

A woman from church and fellow music lover, E, is in hospice. When some mutual friends got her moved and settled into the residential hospice home some weeks ago, I asked them to tell her that I’d be happy to bring some music with me when I come to visit her, and to find out what kind of music she’d like. The answer came back: Bach, Bach, and more Bach.

Then, when PW was visiting E last week, the subject of our having a dog came up. E told PW to have me bring the Bach AND the dog with me when I came.

So on Saturday I took Lucy, our 75-pound, 8-year-old golden retriever to the Laundromutt to clean her up before our visit with E. The Laundromutt experience was one anxiety crisis after another for Lucy: being lifted into the tub because she refused to go up the stairs, the indignity of the bath, the air raid siren sound of the blow dryers, the nail clipping. You know how cartoon dogs shake and chatter with fear? That was Lucy, for a full hour, during what is normally her nap time. Let’s just say I’m glad she isn’t a human toddler.

Lucy chills out with crossed paws

I didn’t really know what to expect of Lucy at the hospice home, given that instead of a nap she’d spent the bulk of the early afternoon consumed with terror. But as soon as we got to the hospice, Lucy shifted into some sort of mysterious (to me) gear that I can only describe as Dog-on-the-Job. She’d never been there before, but she led me through the front door and right up the stairs to E’s room. When I took off Lucy’s leash, she promptly went over to E’s bed, jumped up on it, flopped down next to E, crossed her two front legs, and let E hold her paw (she usually hates having her paws touched).

After E picked out some music, I put a disc on the CD player and we chatted about all sorts of things. She told me about her early years as a journalist getting to interview the theologian Paul Tillich:

E: “Do you remember suits?? Well, I wore a suit. White gloves. Nice shoes…”

Me: “What about a hat?”

E: Sitting up in her bed for emphasis, “Well of COURSE I wore a HAT! I went to Simmons College, after all!”

Me: “So you knew from an early age how to rock the suit?”

E: “Yes, of COURSE! Well, anyway, I had written to Paul Tillich, a kind of thank you or fan letter, asking if I could interview him. He was a University Professor at Harvard at the time. A really big deal. He wrote back a lovely note telling me what time to meet him at his office. On the day of the interview, I took the elevator up to the top of Widener Library. When I got off the elevator, the only sign telling me which office was his was a little business card taped to the door that said ‘Paul Tillich, PhD – University Professor.’ I knocked, he invited me in, and we had a great conversation. After about an hour, I said, ‘Thank you, Professor Tillich, for helping me in my ignorance about the difference between existentialism and essentialism.’ He smiled, leaned forward, looked me right in the eye and said, ‘My deah Miss L, vee ah ALL IGnorant.’ I thought to myself, ‘Close the book. Put away the pen. That’s the perfect end to this interview.’”

E is the most exuberant hospice patient I’ve ever met. She volunteered, “I know that I’m terribly ill, I do, and yet I’m so at peace. Why is that? Why am I not raging?”

Me: “Well, it’s not like any of us gets to opt out of dying.”

E: “That’s right. Nobody gets out of here alive do they? But why do I feel such peace? This is a question I can’t answer, but I’m working on it with (a mutual friend). We’re hoping to figure it out so we can tell other people.”

Me: “It would be great if we humans could figure out how to benefit more from each other’s experiences.”

E: “Yes. I think if I can figure this out, maybe other people won’t have to feel mad or depressed or despairing when it’s their turn to die.”

Throughout our conversation we took turns marveling at the music, at the clarity and fullness of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s voice, at the beautiful view and the late afternoon light slanting into the room. Lucy settled in for her long-awaited nap.

E told me a little about her childhood, growing up as a Lutheran surrounded by Roman Catholics. “They all knew they were going to heaven, and they let us know it. But I recall that they insisted there was a way for us Lutherans to get to heaven. All I remember was that it sounded like a very complicated process and it involved fire. I would much prefer water.”

Me: “Or an escalator!”

E: “YES! With Bach playing as you go up!”

As the sun sank lower in the sky, E asked me, “Do you have time to do me a favor before you go?” I said that I had nothing but time. She asked, “Are you sure? I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

Me: “E, as long as I’m breathing, I have time.”

E sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide, stretched her arm out towards me, waved her hand, and said, “OH! OH! Yes! Write that down!! As long as I’m breathing, I have time! YES! That’s it!! Write it down.”

So I did.

I got Lucy leashed up and gathered the CDs E didn’t want me to leave behind. In the meantime, E had wobbled herself into a standing position with the help of the aide and her walker. I leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye. She apologized for not being able to hug me because she had to hang onto the walker with both hands. I said I’d be back. She said, “Within the week! Come back within the week. But not without Lucy!”

As Lucy and I walked back to the car, I thought about the space that I had just been invited into. It was like some sort of geological seam, the gap between a woman navigating the incomprehensible peace she feels at end of her life and a dog’s unfathomable certainty about what do as soon as she crossed the threshold of the hospice.

In the Jewish tradition the word for mining this sort of seam is Midrash, exploring the story between the words. I feel like I spent the whole afternoon in that space that is Midrash. And there still really aren’t words to describe what it felt like. But I can share some of the stories with you. After all, as long as I am breathing, I have time.