Monday, March 31, 2014

Facing Reality, Facing the Future

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Lent includes I Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41. This poem opened our service, that morning:


Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1998

The fourth Sunday in Lent is nicknamed Refreshment Sunday. As if, midway through this penitential season, we need to kick back, lighten up, and start rehearsing for Easter.

Whatever I might have imagined preaching on, this Sunday, is at least partially eclipsed by the news that has shaken us all in the North County, the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital. I say “partially eclipsed” because I see a couple of ways in which our readings may help us look directly at that difficult decision and its impact. So by the end of this sermon I trust we’ll have had not just current events, but some recollection of scripture.

But for sure, and first, I want to revisit Richard Wilbur’s poem, which he entitles “Mind”. He says that the mind “in its purest play is like some bat that beats about in caverns…” using a “senseless wit not to conclude against a wall of stone.”

The poet isn’t describing the mind only in its thinking function: he says “Mind in its purest play,” to include the whole of its functioning, not just the cerebral cortex that sits enthroned on the mammalian brain, which is atop the reptilian brain, but all those layers, their instincts, the wits we have with and without such senses as sight and hearing. The poet holds the bat in high regard: “It has no need to falter or explore; darkly it knows what obstacles are there, and so may weave and flitter, dip and soar in perfect courses through the blackest air.”

You might even say that a bat navigates far more impressively and successfully than human beings do, even with our global positioning devices (if we’ve learned how to use them). The bat in our poem beats about alone: put two or three human beings in a car, and though they face in one direction, they’ll find it tempting to argue what direction to go in next.

How perfect is this simile: “The mind is like a bat”? In this one way it’s an imprecise comparison: “that in the very happiest intellection a graceful error may correct the cave.”

I don’t know what Richard Wilbur means there. If you do, I’ll look forward to hearing your theory later. But I can’t help wondering if he doesn’t mean to remind us of the allegory of the cave in Plato’s “Republic”. Here’s a pithy little description of that allegory, straight from Wikipedia:

“Plato has Socrates describe a collection of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to assign names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. Socrates then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”

Correcting the cave, reorienting perception within the cave, revealing what is real and true from what is distorted and false, all this is the work of the philosopher, the one who dares break his or her captivity, and turning, turning, comes round right and becomes the truth teller.

So let’s consider the image of the cave. An engulfing crisis (the closing of our hospital, for instance) can feel like a cave, dark, foreboding, confusing, threatening, and while the fire in the cave may give light and warmth, we’re probably not facing it: more likely, our eyes are glued to our ipads, as we search the news sites for… news, with all its shadows and distortions.

Things are not necessarily what they seem. That’s true in Plato’s cave, and it’s true at that ritual gathering at Bethlehem, where the prophet Samuel was looking to anoint the next king of Israel and had before him all the sons of Jesse—all save one, the youngest, the cocky one, the boy Jesse was hoping to train by setting him out to keep the sheep. The Lord God of hosts whispered nothing in Samuel’s ear as each of the more impressive accomplished sons of Jesse filed by, the men in suits, holding their smart phones; but when ruddy David appeared, the Lord said to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him: this is the one.” This scripture calls us to recollect that things are not necessarily what they seem.

That insight is worth keeping as a balancing influence as we ride the waves of the hospital closing. We value transparency in our institutions, but an equally important piece of the puzzle is that we pay attention, keep learning, and, recognizing that the process of sensitive negotiations cannot be turned into public discourse, trust our trustees to have done their very best in a dire situation. Unlike most of us, they have seen the whole picture: not the shadows on the walls, but the real situation.

While seeing is the evident theme of our Gospel today, notice how it vies with another theme: blaming. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” ask Jesus’s disciples. The disciples! Not the Pharisees or the Sadducees, but Team Jesus. Talk about being chained to a wall: that attitude perpetuates and aggravates the suffering of those who are already suffering. If this blind man in John’s Gospel is blind by some sort of retributive justice wielded by God, what a perfect excuse to abandon him to his isolation and do nothing to help him. Before he can touch and heal this man, Jesus must demolish a theology that is chained to the cave wall.

There is another insight worth holding as a balancing influence as we experience the tension rippling out from the closing of our hospital. Blame, fed by what people don’t see, don’t understand, blame chains people to the wall of their cave. I believe Mayor Alcombright set the right course when he said, last Wednesday, that he will not waste his energy dwelling on why things happened as they did, when every ounce of his attention is needed to find new solutions.

I want to end by sharing with you some of what I have seen, this week.

More North County clergy gathered for one purpose than I have ever seen in the past—evidence, I hope, that this crisis will teach and require our eleven communities to work as one community, more than ever before.

At First Baptist Church in North Adams Thursday evening, in a congregation with sixteen of its members grieving at the loss of their jobs at the hospital, a prayer vigil was held. Chief among its themes was thankfulness for the truly remarkable personal care for which North Adams Regional was rightly known and justly proud. Praying was intense, as Pastor Dave Anderson invited us to consider the needs of so many.

Walking back to my car around 8:00 p.m., my eye was drawn to the TD bank building, where all the lights were on and crowds of people were lined up, cashing their final paychecks issued just a few hours earlier.

Just a few days earlier, some of those nurses and aides, housekeepers and doctors, had generously, graciously cared for one of our parishioners and his family, during his final days. I saw that hospital staff circle the wagons around this family, anticipating their needs and going well beyond ordinary expectations to ease the way.

This kind of extraordinary care we’ve all seen at this hospital, and it’s frightening to imagine our future without it.

Yet we know that all human institutions and communities go through cycles that embrace decline as well as growth, death as well as birth. As people who believe in the redeeming transforming love of God in Jesus Christ, we believe that the human cycle, by the grace of God, is embraced by resurrection. On Easter Day, God corrects the cave.

In that greater cycling, death precedes resurrection. Unless we die, resurrection cannot get hold of us. Martin Smith says in his Lenten book “A Season for the Spirit”, “In the end the Spirit will recruit the disintegrating power of death to break us up enough to be remade whole…”

We pray that resurrection get hold of us here in the North County. We pray for grace and courage to accept the death of the old order at North Adams Regional Hospital, and so free ourselves to find good solutions.