I Saw a Man on the Ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge Today

My family saw a man standing on the ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide today. We were on a bike ride across the bridge and back on a gloriously clear spring day. As we took some pictures near the south tower, we noticed the crowds strangely looking toward the center of the bridge and not out at San Francisco or Alcatraz, as is often the case. Two police officers on bicycles hurried up and a tourist near the tower pointed them toward a small group of people gathered near the rail about forty yards from us. One of the cops uttered, “Shit,” and they both pedaled hard to the location where a young man in a green sweatshirt and bluejeans stood beyond the rail, his back to the bridge.

My family stayed where we were and except for a few more onlookers, the majority of the pedestrian and bicycle traffic continued and seemed not to notice the crisis. I could see the two police talking with the man, who, at this point had turned around and faced the bridge, though he squatted on his haunches and didn’t look people in the eye. We eventually continued our trek across the bridge. At Vista Point, on the north side of the bridge we saw another police officer watching the scene through a pair of binoculars. I figured as long as he was there, the man was still on the bridge.

The Coast Guard deployed boats and jet skis near the bridge, but whether that is standard procedure whenever there is a possible jumper or only when they know they need to retrieve a body, I am not sure. I do not know what happened to the man. I only know that after several minutes, the police officer with the binoculars was gone and the Coast Guard vessels broke formation. On our return trip across the bridge, we saw no signs of the prior events. The crowd had dispersed, the police were gone, and new sightseers enjoyed their journey across the landmark, oblivious to the fact that just a short time before, a young man at least contemplated ending his life by jumping into San Francisco Bay.

The experience horrified me. Again, I do not know whether the policemen were successful in talking the man back onto the bridge. I pray that they were. I am not sure what was the appropriate response to this man’s situation. We left because we knew there was not much we could do—the police who work on the bridge are well trained in suicide prevention. During my internship as a hospital chaplain I saw death, but I have never seen a suicide. Today I did not want to watch a man take his life. I did not want that image in my memory. At the same time, I wonder if I should have stood as a witness, to be able to name I saw that man. To be a testament for him. To claim to someone his life is worthwhile. Should I have watched because though he may not want to live, I cannot accept that he would no longer exist?

I whispered prayers into my son’s ear as we rode along the bridge, asking for God’s mercy to be on that man. I asked that he might know the glory and hope of Christ’s resurrection. I prayed that he might know he is deeply loved. I hope he survived. I hope he came back onto the bridge.

For some reason, this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing comes to mind:

Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christian Theology, Spiritual Formation

Stop Learning and Start Thinking

In his TEDx talk, “Forget What You Know,” Jacob Barnett says we should at times stop learning and start thinking. Barnett is the world’s youngest astrophysics researcher. His thesis and stories form a compelling picture despite the talk’s organization and delivery being a bit rough around the edges. Through recounting the history of his field, he shows how figures like Newton and Einstein developed some of their most seminal theorems when they were prevented from participating in academia—in the case of Newton he was avoiding the plague and Einstein could only find work as a patent clerk due to antisemitism in Europe. Innovation happens when we are free to think freely.

I found Barnett’s thesis challenging since my instinct is to do more research. When I write, I rarely feel confident that I have an adequate grasp of my subject. There are always more books and articles to read. I worry I am missing some important bit of information that will either make my point stronger, or disprove it altogether, which will make me look like a fool. Deadlines save me from endless inquiry because they force me to think and write.

I wonder how I can incorporate Barnett’s exhortation better into my life. I love learning and I don’t want to give up on it. I have to fight the temptation to learn just for the sake of learning. Learning must have a goal beyond the accumulation of more information. The challenge is not only to use what we have learned, but also think of new possibilities. Barnett reminds me that space for thinking doesn’t magically materialize. We must intentionally make space. Put the book down. Close the web browser. Silence the voices of discouragement. And think.

Comments Off

Filed under Writing

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” John 13.14 (NRSV)

Osservatore Romano/EPA

I post this picture of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of people on Maundy Thursday of this year as a record, a reminder to myself of what Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the world is supposed to look like. This is one of the most beautiful and true and holy pictures I’ve seen in a while. I am challenged by my brother in Christ.

Comments Off

Filed under Prayer, Spiritual Formation

Civility Project: “I Never Argue,” or What Flannery O’Connor’s “The Barber” Can Teach the Internet

Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published short story, “The Barber” offers us much wisdom in our age of internet arguments. O’Connor tells the story of Rayber, a liberal college professor in a Southern town arguing about an upcoming election with a barber who holds segregationist views. Over the course of the story Rayber fumes, obsesses with proving the rude barber wrong, seeks solace from like-minded colleagues, and ultimately punches the barber when his arguments prove ineffective. The story calls out the futility of arguing with people who have no desire to change their minds. It also reminds us that others may not find our reasoning as persuasive as we do.

The comment sections beneath news stories and on Reddit, tweets, and the feeds on Facebook brim with arguments like those found in “The Barber.” Some people try to remain calm like Rayber, believing that sound reasoning will always win the day and that everyone is able to be convinced if they simply heard the best argument. Others take the barber’s tack, drawing quick conclusions about their opponents and throwing around dismissive insults. In many ways Rayber and the barber are more similar than they would like to admit. Both carry the conviction they are right and have closed their minds to other views. Both want the last word.

In my favorite part of the story, Rayber reads a paper to Jacobs, his colleague who teaches philosophy and holds similar views about democracy and race. Jacobs listens to the paper, which Rayber believes will prove his point against the barber.

“Well,” Jacobs said, “so what? What do you call yourself doing?” He had been jotting figures down on a record sheet all the time Rayber was reading.

Rayber wondered if he was busy. “Defending myself against barbers,” he said. “You ever tried to argue with a barber?”

“I never argue,” Jacobs said.

“That’s because you don’t know this kind of ignorance,” Rayber explained. “You’ve never experienced it.”

Jacobs snorted. “Oh, yes, I have,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I never argue.”

“But you know you’re right,” Rayber persisted.

“I never argue.”

Perhaps before we comment on a story or post an opinion we should ask ourselves Jacobs’s questions: “Well…so what? What do you call yourself doing?” Are we going into the discussion to learn more about the other person’s position? Are we willing to change our views? Do we want to add to the discussion with the hope that the community’s knowledge and wisdom increases as we consider different perspectives? Or do we want to prove someone else wrong and show them just how smart we are? Do we enter these discussions so that we might win an argument?

My point is not to say that all debate is futile—I do not think that is the message of, “The Barber.” Otherwise, we should simply retreat to our corners and interact only with people who already agree with us. Nor do I believe there are not some views that should be rebuffed outright. Rather, I believe most of the time we should engage different points of view when we are open to learn and change. I hope we can better discern when others are willing to do the same. That does not mean we give up core convictions, but that we allow our perspectives to broaden. We can then shape better opinions, meaning we are more informed when we accept or reject the other person’s reasoning.

In what has become an annual ritual, I have fasted from Facebook during Lent. I noticed again more peace in my life as I did not engage in so many arguments. Getting some distance from Facebook allowed me to better appreciate the story of “The Barber.” Jacobs’s words to Rayber stung. I’m guilty of wanting the last word and desiring to win rather than to learn. I need to hear Jacobs’s questions as well as remember his motto, “I never argue.”

If O’Connor’s story doesn’t make the point succinctly enough, I present this xkcd comic from Randall Munroe, who shows the reality of many internet arguments:

Comments Off

Filed under Civility Project, Politics and Society, Writing

Theology’s Task: Making the Familiar Strange

In a paper from last year, the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on how to write a theological sentence, riffing on Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One. Hauerwas writes, “a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” This is a truth worth exploring. I will riff on Hauerwas’s riff on Fish.

So often we think we must make the good news more respectable. We try to make the story of God palatable both for people who have not yet come to the Christian faith and those who are already the Church. In doing so, we run the risk of removing the shocking and radical nature of the gospel itself. Christian commitments to forgiveness, for example, often run counter to our common sense. Rather, our task is to talk about God (i.e., do theology) in such a way that the familiar becomes strange. That is not to say our talk about God must be unintelligible, intentionally obscure, or unnecessarily offensive.

Hauerwas’s paper offers several solid examples of proper theological sentences making the familiar strange. I appreciate the essay greatly because Hauerwas refuses the temptations to turn Christianity into only a set of ethical practices or philosophical ideas. Our lives must reflect our beliefs and the Christian story must mean something true. One sentence from that essay has haunted me since reading it. Hauerwas recasts the common challenge, what difference does believing in God make in the lives of Christians? He crafts a sentence that cuts deeper: “We live lives that would make sense if the God we worship did not exist.” This sentence stops us in our tracks. It immediately requires reflection. If the God I worship did not exist would my life make sense? Do my values and actions correspond more to the dominant culture around me or to the values of Jesus Christ? Are my commitments to my socioeconomic class more important to me than my commitment to God? Hopefully reflecting on Hauerwas’s sentence will lead to our repentance.

My church is currently looking at the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans for our sermon series. As we have read and reread this very famous work, I am once again struck by how Paul is an excellent theologian. So much of what he writes makes the familiar strange. Take his descriptions of the Christian life in Romans 6. In this chapter he describes being united with Christ as joining in Jesus’ death and being enslaved to righteousness. Even stranger, Paul sees such death and slavery as good things. This kind of God-talk shakes us from our stupor and makes us reconsider our commitments. In contrast to much contemporary Christian talk that turns Jesus into a motivational speaker helping us improve our marriages or deal with stress at work, Paul’s shocking images make the familiar strange. A familiar idea would be Jesus wants to make us better versions of ourselves. But Paul makes that familiar idea strange when he writes Jesus wants to kill our old natures and bring about altogether new lives. When contrasted to the truth of the gospel, the idea that Jesus is a self-help guru is certainly strange. Jesus has no interest in making us more comfortable. He wants to give us real life, which requires our death and resurrection.

Or consider Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (NRSV) This verse has been repeated so much its strangeness can be lost on us. Let us stop and appreciate the twists Paul writes. Living sacrifices? That image alone could make us stop us in our tracks. How does a sacrifice continue to live? If Paul’s statement is true, if real life can only be found in offering our lives in worship to God, the idea of a living sacrifice makes our pursuit for self-fulfillment strange. Paul does the work of a real theologian. He takes what we assume to be given and brings it under the light of God’s love, revealing our givens for what they truly are: strange assumptions.

In the tension between the world and the Church, something has to give. It depends on where we stand. If we accept the world as normal we will see the Church with its commitments to God and sacrificial love as incomprehensible. If we agree with Paul that true life can only be found in giving our lives to God and others we will reject the familiar selfish demands — self-fulfillment, self-protection, self-satisfaction — as strange.

Comments Off

Filed under Christian Theology

Readings, Prayers, and Candles for Lent

March 5 of this year is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent offers us space to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Through fasting and other acts of penitence we come to terms with our need for God’s grace. During these forty days we repent of our sins so we can recommit to God’s mission in the world.

Observing Lent is a deeply personal experience, but it runs the risk of becoming private. We have to acknowledge our families, communities, and churches need to repent as well.  Recently I learned about a growing practice of communal Lent observation using readings, prayers, and candles. The idea is not that different than the wreaths of candles used during Advent. Whereas Advent begins in the dark and we light another candle each week until Christmas representing the growing presence of Jesus, the Lent candle cross begins fully lit and each week we extinguish another candle as we move toward Good Friday. This growing darkness reminds us we had Jesus physically with us, but we rejected and killed God incarnate. We tried to snuff out the light of the world.

A Lenten candle cross is easy enough to make. It has places for six candles, one for each Sunday in Lent.

A Lenten Cross

The first Sunday begins with all six candles lit, the second Sunday with five lit, and so on. My church is going to include this observation during the season and I have written some readings and prayers  for our services. I have included these readings and prayers in a PDF. Feel free to use them and adapt them however you wish. Just don’t sell them.

Readings and Prayers for Lenten Candle Observances

Comments Off

Filed under Christian Theology, Prayer, Spiritual Formation

Civility Project: Finding Commonality, Letters from a Working Mom and an At-Home Mom

In her post, “A Letter from a Working Mother to a Stay-At-Home Mother, and Vice Versa,” Carolyn Ee publishes two letters of mutual appreciation between people who often find themselves pitted against each other. Some people think at-home moms have capitulated to outdated standards of gender hierarchy. Others view working moms as selfish women unwilling to put the needs of their family above their desires for career advancement. The moms writing these letters don’t accept those reductive and uncharitable descriptions of the other. They don’t express feeling threatened in their lifestyles simply because someone else took a different path. Instead they exhibit civility in a beautiful way. By naming the contributions of the other, the moms who write these letters show their admiration. In expressing their empathy for each other they discover that they really are on the same side.

Take these two examples.

In her letter to the at-home mom, the working mom writes:

SAHM, I don’t know how you do it. I admire your infinite patience, your ability to face each day cheerfully and bring joy into your children’s lives even when they wear you down. I admire your dedication to being a constant presence in your children’s lives even if it isn’t always easy. I admire the way you work without expecting any reward – no promotions, no fame, no salary. I know you want your children to feel important and loved, and SAHM, you do this the best.

In her letter to the working mom, the at-home mom writes:

I see you everywhere. You are the doctor I take my children to when they are sick. You’re my child’s allergist, the one who diagnosed her peanut allergy. You’re the physiotherapist who treated my husband’s back. You’re the accountant who does our tax returns. My son’s primary school teacher. The director of our childcare centre. My daughter’s gymnastics teacher. The real estate agent who sold our house. What sort of world would it be if you hadn’t been there for us? If you had succumbed to the pressures of those who insisted a mother’s place had to be in the home?

So often we fall into the temptation to think because we disagree on a topic or have taken different paths in life, we are diametrically opposed to one another. These letters show that if we take a step back, we might see that our intentions are often the same. In the case of these mothers, their similar goal is to care for their families, even though they have chosen different means of doing so.

I often find in our rhetoric, political and otherwise, a knee-jerk assumption of the worst motives in those who disagree with us. It is not enough to think someone’s views are wrong, we also assume they have malicious intent. But what if we made it a practice to say what we appreciate in our opponents? What if we took the time to verbalize our gratitude for their contributions and affirmed their good intentions (no matter how wrong we might think their views are)? We might discover, like the moms who wrote these letters, that we are not so different as we think we are.

That is not to say we are going to agree on all matters. I don’t believe that is the goal of civility. Instead, civility creates the space where we hash out different points of view. Because of civility we can listen, understand, and accurately agree or disagree with one another.

The kind of civility these moms exhibit requires a great amount of humility. We have to allow ourselves to believe that other people have a contribution to make and we may not have all the answers.

Who would you consider your enemy? Which people do you find yourself disagreeing with on a regular basis? Take a moment and consider what they contribute positively. What do you appreciate about them and how might you learn from them?

1 Comment

Filed under Civility Project, Politics and Society