Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Affection, Family and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Two years ago I was sitting at my mother's house in Texas, one of those rare get-togethers in which all her children (and their children) were in her home. We were all chatting about our childhood in one of those conversations that starts out nostalgic but has the potential to veer into resentment and anger. My sister said a magic sentence, a string of words that sounds innocent enough in itself, but is so loaded with old arguments that it could be a powder keg. On any other visit, it would have exploded. I probably would have lit the match.

"Let's not do this," I said, looking down at something I was fiddling with. I sounded humorously weary, and I knew it. Everyone laughed. And we did not do it.

Aha, I thought. This is the moment. This is the moment when we become those people: people who are old enough and wise enough to not relive the same argument over and over. This is the moment where we all decide we love each other so much, we'd rather disregard past hurts than bring them up again. So this is what that's like.

My parents moved to my city this past summer, and I see them several times a week. Getting over the past for a family reunion is different than getting over the past for someone you see regularly, but we're doing okay. There's not that much to get over, just the usual things, significant to us. My parents are good people and odds are, you would like them (but please don't bring up politics).

I was reminded of that moment by a novel I finished reading today. It is a good novel, but there is no slot to fit it easily into, and people usually wants slots.  So I will just say that if you loved Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler, and have been wondering how to combine that kind of originality with an unabashed love of sci-fi, pick up a copy of Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Yu presents regret as an actual force, the energy that makes time travel possible, to the grief of everyone who participates in it. His novel is about longing for an uninvolved father, combined with a recognition that children become like their parents. From other writers, this would be a novel of recrimination, something with good guys and bad guys, a story that climaxes with a promise to "not be like you, Dad!" Or it could be an exercise in near-despair that concludes no one ever changes, and no one ever escapes their origins, and none of it really matters anyway.

But Yu believes in affection, and that changes everything. Affection - that human tendency to love things with which we have regular contact. His protagonist has affection for the software persona of his time machine, his boss (who is only a computer program), and his non-existent dog. Simple presence - even non-volitional or non-sentient presence - is enough to begin that accumulation of sentimental attachment. And in a world where affection has power (like our real world), a son can love a father who is never emotionally available. He can love the man who is only ever half there.

A few weeks ago, our pastor preached a sermon on Luke 17:1-4.  
He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

It was the first time I realized that Luke contextualizes the command to forgive seventy times in the  inevitability of harming others. I had always read that stumbling block passage as though it were about other people doing the harm, but now I realize it's about me. The vulnerable will, inevitably, face harm. Even worse, some of that harm will come from me.

I have been mulling over novelist Marilynne Robinson's definition of original sin this year: original sin is our inability to refrain from doing harm. As a mother, despite all my best intentions, I cannot refrain from hurting my child. Not ultimately. Sometimes it will happen. And knowing that, says Jesus, should inspire the humility I need to forgive the person who hurts me. Even seventy times.

Yu's affection functions like that humility. His narrator does not pronounce forgiveness for his father exactly. He doesn't need to pronounce it. His affection is enough. Affection is the longing for the presence of someone missed, even when they are missing by their own mistakes. Affection is eager to soothe and welcome the person who caused its own hurts.

The books I treasure most are the books that, through the mysterious alchemy of reading, somehow make me kinder. I have a new one to add to that list today.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Doing Church

My parents moved to our town last summer. They wanted to be closer to my children, so they sold their house in Texas, bought a lovely old home in the nicest part of our seedy old neighborhood, and moved in last August.

My dad decided he wants my kids to see their grandpa attending church every Sunday. He is thinking ahead to the day when they only have memories of him, and he wants them to remember him praying and worshiping. So even though my dad is a retired Baptist minister, he and mom come every week to our congregation of Presbyterians.

It has been hard for my mom, who prefers churches where visitors are made to stand up during the service to get a big sticker so everyone can identify them as such. This makes her feel welcome. It would make me feel hunted, but then my mother and I are very different people. She wants a Sunday school class where everyone talks about their feelings; those classes make me itch. I like being in an introverted church where I can go weeks without anyone hugging me; my mother suspects introversion is a liberal plot to suppress the gospel.

So they come to church with us, but every now and then my mom skips out on "God's frozen people" and attends somewhere else. I remind myself that she misses her friends in Texas, and I try not to take it personally. But it started me thinking about how people choose their congregations, and how I ended up where I am.

When I first met my husband, he attended a small Presbyterian congregation in the neighborhood we lived in at the time. I asked him why he went to that particular church and he said something like, "Because Jesus wants me to love people, so I go where there are people who are hard to love." I blinked at that. Until that moment, I think I had always considered church the place where Christians go to receive comforts and encouragement, rather than the testing ground where they deliberately try to live out the faith. I thought of church as a place to rest, not the place to exercise.

Since then, I have come to see things his way. I have seen a lot of people - maybe most of my Christian friends - cast around for a congregation where they feel at home, a place where the style of worship suits their tastes and the political expressions match their own. They stay until some burr in their experience there gets too uncomfortable, and then they go somewhere else.  Sometimes the reasons are significant and understandable; sometimes they seem petty. But the search for a new church usually means a place where most people are the same age or the same social class. Homogeneity, we learned in Church Growth class in seminary, helps congregations grow.

One of my own biblical heroes is Tamar, who remained faithful despite years of mistreatment and betrayal from the house of Judah. She has been an example to me for many years of the scandalous faithfulness that God has for me. If I am to show that kind of faithfulness to others, sometimes it has to be hard. 

So I don't want to go to a church where most folks are like me, and everyone "shares the vision."  I don't want to go to a church where everyone is friendly, or even friendly in an introvert-acceptable way. I want a church with cranky old folks and lazy young folks. I want to be where there are stuffy curmudgeons who never crack a smile, and fragile weepers who consider my sarcasm a sin. When I sit down next to an eighty-year-old woman who is mad at the children for squirming as all children do (except for hers fifty years ago, supposedly), a woman who resents the shade of lipstick on the preacher's wife (or the preacher), a woman who firmly believes that she has not been listened to properly for the last thirty years and somehow it is your own personal fault and now she will explain why - when I sit next to that woman at fellowship hour and love her, then I know I have been in church.

Church isn't the place you go to find people who are always nice to you.  Church is not the place where you fit seamlessly, no scratches or pinches, like slipping into a favorite pair of jeans. It's not even the place where you can depend on everybody believing the things you do. Church is a community of people, brought there in the name of Christ (knowingly or not), each with their own flaws and sins and virtues. Church is the wheat and the weeds sown together, awaiting the harvest.

I show up with grace for the flaws of others, and lean hard on those who have grace for me. I bite my tongue sometimes, I remind myself to speak up others, and even (have mercy upon me, O Lord) accept the occasional hug.

And I hope, in that distant (please God) future when my children have only memories of me, they remember me going to church with kindness for the unkind, patience for the impatient, and love for the unlovely.

And if they don't, may they have the grace to forgive it.