Forethought and Afterthought
In Greek Mythology, the titan Epimetheus, short on understanding and long on afterthought, jumps right in and dispenses all positive traits to the animals he had created and had nothing left for his brother Prometheus to give to humans. Long on understanding and long on forethought, Prometheus so loved the creatures he had created that he stole fire from the gods and gave it to them for their own human comfort and protection and for the technological advancement of civilization. Angered by the theft, Zeus, king of heaven, punishes Prometheus by binding him to the side of a mountain and directing a vulture to tear out his liver daily.
I wasn’t a bad person growing up, but my mother says I was hardheaded. I was given plenty of advice–the Do’s and Don’ts. I heard the words of my elders, but too often I rejected them because I lacked the experience to fully understand and receive them. And too often I embraced words that prevented me from growing into a fuller human being.
Go figure. Isn’t it ironic that in order to gain the experience to evaluate things, we need to get experience–jump right in. We learn as we go.
So I entered into the fray not as a Prometheus of Greek myth, long on understanding and long on forethought, but as an Epimetheus, short on understanding and short on forethought. Like Epimetheus, I jumped right in and relied heavily on afterthought.
As an afterthought, I have learned the truth of what Jesus teaches as forethought: “He who does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
In 1990, I chose to carry the cross and follow Jesus. I jumped right in and attended seminary, and after graduation became an ordained minister. I was assigned to one church, then another. The journey was not orderly, but it happened, was exciting, if unpredictable, and in instances the cost was indeed high both for myself and my parishioners.
But thanks be to God that I have been allowed to come into my years with my faith intact. Now, I said to myself, I know from experience, and I may even have the understanding to exercise some forethought.
I retired from pastoral ministry officially on July 1, 2003. I jumped right in and spent the next two years landscaping our yard and finishing our basement. In the meantime, we learned from our doctors what ailed Joan and made her early retirement from ministry necessary. It meant a major operation for her, but we were glad to find out what was going on with her. No amount of forethought could have prepared us for what followed.
We jumped into her recovery stage from open heart surgery, then from hip replacement. After six months, the district superintendent asked if I would pastor a church in a nearby community. After talking to Joan about the stage of her recovery, she encouraged me to take the appointment, and I said yes, on an interim basis. So, with no clear forethought, I jumped right in and one year turned into two years and two years into three. And then I was ready to jump back into retirement. And I know Joan was ready too.
Yes. I’ve jumped right in again and again, leapt into chaos, and learned to relax, to keep afloat, to trust in God. But I have also learned to be ready, to be prepared, as Jesus tells us again and again. There is a blessing and a new order. God’s reign is near. Somewhere along the way, in my journey, suddenly, I will discover this new order, God’s reign, and everything in my life will be redeemed. That is what Jesus promises.
I thank God for the myths that inform our various cultures and I thank God for the scriptures. I know with both and with the help of afterthought, which others call hindsight, I’ll discover God everywhere in the details of my life. I strive to remember everything, the pleasant and the unpleasant, the happy and the sad, the pleasurable and the painful, the good and the bad, for in all of the events of my life, in all of the particulars, I may discover the wholeness of being God has always been calling me to.
Maybe the Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ metaphor of the falcon and the falconer is so meaningful to me because as a boy I raised homing pigeons. I loved those birds and knew every check and bar on their wings. I loved the popcorn on their noses, and how they cocked their heads to look up into the sky.
I remember the first time I let a bird out of the cage. It circled so high overhead I could barely make it out. In my heart I held this hope, that as its gyre widened and widened, it would remember me, and all the love and care that I had given it, and return home. It did. At last on the roof of my coop, it dropped through the trap, drank from the water dish, tossed a few grains down its gullet, and returned to its familiar perch.
Sometimes a bird did not return. Sometimes it flew off looking for its previous owner, or got lost. And I grieved something awful.
I imagine that’s how God is with us, seeking us in his heart, wanting us to come home, wanting not some rough beast, but himself in the form of His Son to be born in our hearts.
I spent many a twilight looking up into the sky, waiting for my pigeon Blackie to come home. When the sky was empty, and I was discouraged, and lost all hope, then I did not know what dark beast was coming into being in the Bethlehem of my heart?
But when I was full of hope, and the sky was full of the birds of God’s promise, I knew God was with me, and I knew that Blackie was winging his way home. In the Bethlehem of my heart my homing pigeon would roost and coo in the rafters of the stable where the Love and Light of the world had so recently been born.
It’s our faith and our hope that allows God to bring the kingdom of Love into being.
The Body’s Truth
When my eldest daughter was about to give birth to her first child, she invited my wife Joan and I to be in the birthing room with her and our son-in-law.
I’d never been in a birthing room before. When Joan was giving birth to our children, I was not allowed into the birthing room. I was ushered out into the hallway, where I promptly fell asleep on the sofa for expectant fathers. I was awakened only after the baby was delivered, and I saw Joan in the recovery room. She suffered the hard work of birthing without my active support.
My eldest daughter offered me a hands-on opportunity to be a part of her birthing process. It was a rare privilege, and I’ll forever be grateful to the Spirit that moved her to ask that we be present at our first grandson’s birth.
My son-in-law had taken a La Maze class with my daughter, so he showed me how to help my daughter breathe properly as the next contraction appeared on the horizon. He was keen on seeing my daughter give birth naturally. I took my turns huffing and breathing with my daughter. I saw how marvelously and courageously she bore the birthing ordeal.
After 23 hours of labor, we saw that my daughter was still not dilated enough. She was in pain and tiring. The nurse came in and asked if she wanted an epidural. My son-in-law, with all that he had learned about the benefits of a natural birth in his mind, said No, we don’t want to do that. But my daughter, whose body knew the truth, said Yes!
Finally the doctor looked in and consulted with daughter and son-in-law. The doctor said it was time to consider a Caesarean section. My son-in-law held out for a natural birth. But my daughter, whose body knew the truth, said Yes! My daughter was wheeled into the operating room. My son-in-law was gowned, capped, masked and booted so he could be with my daughter.
Only my son-in-law was allowed in the operating room with daughter. Long ago as a surgical technician, I had helped with a C-section, so I knew what my son-in-law would witness: the awesome birth of a beautiful baby boy who weighed ten pounds, nine ounces.
He was so big, and daughter was so small. The doctor said, “If I knew that the baby weighed that much I would have taken you in for a C-section hours ago.”
It was a joy to see my daughter and son-in-law and little David after the delivery. They had given David my first name as his middle name.
The Incarnation–the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh–changed our relationship with God, whose body knows the truth, once and for all. God is not simply above us or “out there.” God through Jesus Christ is with us as a tangible presence, because he is within each of us.
For me, being with my daughter and son-in-law at David’s birth was an experience of Incarnation, in which God’s presence was with us and the Holy Spirit moved deeper into my life.
Spending Is Living
The parable of the rich fool makes me think of myself, foolishly storing up the wrong kind of treasures, and it makes me think of my youngest son Take, spelled T A K E, short for Takeo.
I named him Takeo for two reasons. First, it was my younger brother’s name, who always seemed more aggressive and calculating than me. Second, Takeo was a name that suggested the hardness of bamboo. I thought, at that stage of my life, that I wanted my son to be tough but flexible, the way I thought I was not and the way I knew bamboo was.
One day on the beach at Waikiki, as the song goes, an elderly couple walked by. They looked at three year- old Take and offered us a million dollars for him. They were serious. We refused, of course, and kept our “bamboo kid.”
Take was a special child. At an early age, he had the ability to notice things about people, little things they had done to their hair or the way they dressed. Any change they made, he would comment on, positively. The women especially loved him for this attentiveness.
My wife could walk in with a new haircut, and I would be oblivious to it. Then I’d hear three or four year old Take say something like “Your hair is pretty, Mom.” Why couldn’t I learn to do that? Then, beaming, Joan would ask, “What do you think, honey?” And I’d say, “I love it.” But it never had the same impact.
Take, at a young age, was naturally responsive to the important people around him. One day, when he was a year or two older, he came up to me and asked me for money. I looked at the tyke and said, “You little shrimp, what do you need money for?” And he said to me, “Spending is living.”
I was so amazed. Spending is living? I moaned aloud. I said, “I have lost my child to the world of commercial television! There is nothing we can do to save our children!” Spending is living…Yuck! I was thinking, How do I teach this little kid the value of the almighty buck!
But on more recent reading of the parable of the rich fool I have revised my vision of myself back then and my vision of my son Take at that early age when he was teaching me so much.
Take wanted the money to buy things for his mom and me and for his brother and sisters. He spent hours shopping, hours thinking about the little things about us he took the time to notice. He gave to us the neatest gifts.
When you received something from him, you knew he had thought about you, and not about himself. So for little Take, whose name when first encountered by other kids was pronounced “take,” as in “Go ahead and take one,” spending was living. He was rich toward those who were important to him. He saw the goodness in others, their hopes and aspirations, and he brought gifts to that goodness. His actions brought the shape of his faith into the world around him.
I have learned a lot from my youngest son, who’s now a grown man. He taught me lessons I had to painfully learn: how to relate meaningfully to others, especially to those nearest and dearest to me, especially on Mother’s day.