Torture

It has been nearly a decade since I read Bill Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, but it is very much on my mind this morning. I am especially thinking about his words about how pain turns the mind inward, drawing one so into one’s own body as to make community with God or others seem unreal – a fading dream or terrible illusion. For those who are tortured, removed from anything to think about but their present, past, or anticipated pain, removed from any persons but those who would cause them pain, torture becomes an anti-Eucharist, a ritual of stripping an individual from communion with anyone. The suffering of the individual makes them more individual than ever before, and even when released, their isolation can be impenetrable.

Last week I broke my tail bone. It is the fourth time in ten months that I have been sufficiently injured to be confined to the sofa for the better part of the day. I am beginning to have my own scale for injuries – this one the least bad of the four because driving, while quite painful, is in fact possible. Once I get going on the subject of it, it can seem that there is nothing much going on in my life but my ailments. I am concerned lest I become a caricature of an invalid – driving away what community I have by an insistence on cataloging my woes, my inconveniences, my various doctor’s appointments, until a sympathetic noise made at a nonsensical point in the conversation betrays that my audience is in fact bored beyond endurance, and has long since stopped listening. Pain can be isolating in more than one way.

It is painful to sit up and write, painful to bend over to tidy up or load the bottom rack of the dishwasher or put food in fridge or the oven. The most comfortable place for me is the sofa, on my side, with an ice pack wedged between my rear end and the sofa. Which is where I can be found in my alone time, mostly reading novels. In the past two days I have finished Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion. I am hoping to pick up Russell Banks’ Continental Drift again and finish that in the next day or two. And so, in addition to the assurance that my torment is localized, and will come gradually to an end, I have many opportunities for community: with authors and with their characters, with my daughter and my husband, with our neighbors and other friends. Through my memory, I have community with friends past and present, as my eyes light on books and other objects around the house that serve as reminders. And so it is that I have the assurance of God’s presence, too.

For Christians, Trinity means that Godself is communion, and Church means that God is made known to us through communion with one another. My pain does not make me wise or focus my mind. I am distracted and impatient and tired – and not able to think as clearly as I would like. But I am grateful that my pain is materially different from torture in almost every respect – and while not Eucharistic, is neither anti-Eucharistic.

Or better yet, I will endeavor that my pain might become Eucharistic, insofar as it might remind me to pray for those who have been intentionally separated from any but those who wish to increase their pain. Love is stronger than death, the scriptures tell us. For those who endure torture and who have lost all hope for release, may the subverting love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be for them stronger than their pain.
And may the Church find courage to embody this subversive love in defiance of those who would isolate any from that love which, in Christ’s own body (a body which was brought to death through torture,) was offered for them too. If we are to claim Christ as our Lord, then we may condone torture for none – for torture isolates the individual being tortured until the very notions of love and community seem impossible, in such a way as may never be undone. And that is the very opposite of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

This mandate – that we teach others of the love of God for them – for every one of them – if God is real, then there is no more expedient, no more practical work than reaching all with this news. But perhaps, for those who condone torture, Love is a weak thing, neither stronger than death, nor pain, nor fear. Perhaps for them, God is not love, and Christ did not die for all, and security means that we can keep ourselves safe through the biggest guns, the most money, the latest and best information – or, should “the worst” happen, with gas masks, off shore banking, and evacuation plans. Just admit it, please. So that it may be clear that you, my dear trembling sisters and brothers who place your trust in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” so that it might be clear that you, too, might rightfully be considered those who have still not truly heard the Good News:
“Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people…”

Cooking for Friends

I love cooking for people! Last night, I made a big pot of chicken and rice soup – enough to feed both my family and one other, and still put some up in the freezer.  I had been meaning to make soup for weeks, but committing to this friend of my daughter’s and her family (They just had a baby! Mazel Tov, Sadie!  Mazel Tov, Rex and Cynthia!) gave me the extra push I needed to get to chopping and simmering and stirring.

There is something hypnotic about making soup.  It is slow work.  The ingredients have their order, the stirring has its rythmn, there is a slow bass beat of bubbles popping, together with the treble rattle of the pot lid.  And the smells… Spending time over my soup draws me back in time – and all too often my memory takes me places where I would just as soon not go.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently posted on Facebook regarding funerals, and that took my mind back to my last visit with a parishioner who died about a year after I left the parish.  She had been fighting breast cancer for years, and that day – less than a week before the moving company came to whisk me off to North Carolina – that day was precious to both of us.  I believe that we both were fairly certain that we would not see one another again this side of the Second Coming.  And so I took the opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me:  what a tremendous witness her faith was to me, and what a beacon of love she was to others.  And she replied, “You really think so, Sarah?  I have always had my doubts about my witness, since I never cook for anyone.  [My mother-in-law] is always making casseroles for people who are sick, and [this friend] and [another friend], but I never do, and I just worry that I am not behaving like a Christian.”

This really struck a nerve with me.  I had not long before received an e-mail from someone who was angry at me, and who decided to illustrate how I “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk” with my failure to make a casserole for a family living 20 minutes away.  My first thought was to defensively point out that I was only a couple of days past having been on food assistance myself, having a 2 week old baby who screamed non-stop when not nursing something like 14 times a day, all the time preparing for my probationary elder’s interviews – a four hour ordeal that was immovably scheduled to take place when my daughter was less than a month old.  But an older and wiser pastor suggested that it was better for me not to respond.  As the pastor, it was not my job to make casseroles.  As the pastor on maternity leave, it was not my job to be available to the congregation for really anything.  Hence the word “leave.”  But it kept eating at me.  I called my Dad, and he said, “You have to let it go, Sweetie.”  But he couldn’t tell me how – he was an expert at having some parishioner or another angry at him, and inexpert at letting anything go.

And here was this dear woman, whose charitable heart knew no bounds, somehow receiving this same message that because she did not cook for others in need, she was not “walking the walk.”

I remember pulling out my Bible and reading about how we are all given different gifts.  “Can you imagine what would happen if every woman in this county showed up with a casserole when someone was in distress?  It would be more than the recipient could even freeze!  Why, we would just get sicker, trying to politely eat everything that was brought to us!”

“Maybe you’re right, Sarah,” she said with a laugh.  But she still sounded uncertain.  And maybe that is because I had yet to learn a better answer…

As I stirred the soup, I thought of what Rex had written in an e-mail in response to the hastily organized supper brigade: “I have to admit, I never experienced this kind of hospitality growing up and living in [urban center not in the South!]”

He didn’t say, “Wow, you guys are really good Christians!” – and rightly so – most of the other parents probably wouldn’t self identify as Christian.  Instead, he saw this response to their new baby as “Southern hospitality” – we were witnessing to our Southernness.

Here I am, for the second time in less than a month paraphrasing Matthew 5:43-48:

Do you cook food for your friends when they are sick or have a new baby or have a death in the family?  Every Southerner does that.  You are only proving that you are capable of conforming to cultural norms.  Do you wish to witness to your Christian faith?  Then consider:  how do you demonstrate your love for those who oppose you, who would seek to do you harm, who undermine cultural norms, or who have nothing in common with you?

And so I think that I am one step closer to learning how to “let it go,” as my father prayed that I might do.  I love cooking for my friends.  I do it because I like to do it – and because, when my daughter is out of the house or feeling cooperative, it is something that I now am able to do.  But I do not deceive myself that cooking for others is something that I do because I am a Christian – it is not something that is rooted in my life of prayer and worship, or in my study of the scriptures.  I am a Southern woman who likes cooking, and so I cook for my friends when they need someone to cook for them, and when I have the time and energy to do so.  When I am doing something because I am a Christian, it usually looks very different – often it looks weird and sometimes even dangerous – usually it involves transgressing cultural norms.  Not to knock cooking for our friends – it is very rewarding for everyone involved!  But doing it or not doing it doesn’t witness to much – except to whether we are living into the expectations encoded in the notion of Southern womanhood.

Speaking the truth in love

In seminary, my dear friend Alisa shared her checklist for loving speech: Is what I am about to say true? Is it helpful? Is it kind? Too often, what I say *almost* fulfills one of those three standards – too seldom does it fulfill all three. In the new year, I am going to try to do a better job of speaking thoughtfully – of pausing before I speak to ask if I am being truthful, helpful, and kind. Lord, help my words to witness rightly to your Word. Amen.