Living in a Different Way

A lot of black men die early. And many die from preventable diseases and the sticky consequences of them.

When I read of John Singleton’s death, this came back in an undeniable brightness. I grew up loving his work. I didn’t know how young he was until obituaries began.

Then, I visited the catalog in my mind. The men I’ve loved as an adult who have died, namely my father Mardell Culley and my then father-in-law John McKinney. There’s the list of men I’ve served as a leader, a list of those living who, like Singleton, struggle quietly.

Among the responses to Mr. Singleton’s death, researchers have turned again to the problem of black folk dying, particularly black men. Dr. Clyde Yancy, a cardiologist at NM whose work around social determinants of health I respect, grow from, and learn from is a consistent care provider around these issues.

Dr. Yancy says bluntly, “I want this message to be explicitly clear: Check your blood pressure. That’s a hard stop. That’s the takeaway; and especially if you’re an African American man, check it today.”

That is within reach. Drop-in clinics, CVS, Target, your doctor, your cousin’s doctor, your family friend who is a nurse, your ex’s distant friend from third grade. Check your blood pressure.

Speaking about the rates of disease in the black community and after stating the men he has lost, Dr. Yancy sums it up, “It’s just unacceptable. We can live life a different way.”

It’s true. We can. And we can struggle while making noise for the health of our beautiful selves and the health of those we love.

Read the full, brief piece here.

Reading Humane Insight

Humane Insight explores the ways we see people, the ways we look and notice the experiences of people through the history of experiences of suffering and death.

“Humane” is a word that intends to point toward a particular “kind of looking,” one that “seeks knowledge about the humanity of that person” (5). Baker’s book about seeing pain focuses on the ways Blacks have been represented visually and how those visual portrayals express, challenge, or ignore the intense suffering within black life.

In investigating (or re-searching) how black suffering has been identified, she illuminates possibilities for maintaining the humanity and protection of the black body. The particular kind of looking that she invites readers to is a looking through the experience of African Americans in order to preserve humanity and dignity. Dignity threads the pain-filled pages. It lifts the project to purposes beyond seeing, allowing us to look and to, in my view, hope.

There are a number of conversation partners in Baker’s work. She listens especially to liberationists from the past with Ida B. Wells and Mamie Till as two notable survivalists. Baker points to how these folks have contributed to “the image of the African American body in pain and death” (6), making visible black experience in order to call for change despite what is the extremely private event of a person’s body. Noticing black particularity is a means of understanding how to notice broadly. Baker calls this noticing empathic and political, active and ideological. Her book takes what is seen and interprets the visual into discourse. In using language for this translational purpose, Baker “reveals how black pain has been made to make sense” (7).

Baker takes the reader through discourse (i.e., language) in order to construct a critical understanding of humanity. She brings into dialogue theorists who are steeped in empiricist and scientific ways of seeing, such as Darwin and Schmitt, in order to put forward good questions about the acknowledgement of vulnerability as universal and how racial identity impacts perception. The construction of photography and enduring images from history are her tools to interrogate race, culture, and the various ways black pain and suffering are re-presented.

She traces the re-presentation by lifting up expressions of culture as a component of how humanity is expressed, drawing attention to the abolitionist movement in order to situate the term image, turning to lynchings as a social controlling mechanism, exploring the political and emotional power of Mamie Till-Mobley’s insistent decision to show the world brother Emmett’s brutalized body, and activating imagination for the connected civil gestures of nonviolent direct action. The book ends with a recounting of the destruction around and in Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Baker doesn’t exactly hold her reader’s hand through the text. You know she cares but you don’t always feel it when you meet the deep wisdom in her scholarship. This seems good. Responsible critical discourse, even if it ends in one’s growth, is not first about the emotional. The sentimental is present in the book but there is a wideness to those available sentiments. There is disappointment and anguish in the pages. There is appreciation and gratitude for those who have fought, resisted, lived, died, and made babies who took pictures with their lives and passed on their stories so scholars and teachers and other black people could keep the life alive.

I couldn’t read Humane Insight without seeing more of how I see. I think Baker’s meditation on critical race watching has contributed to my “sensitive” sighting of race as an enduring, political, and ideological tool that can construct, dissemble, and reconstruct how we see beautiful black bodies. Baker’s work makes me think of the body and she helps me reconsider how the body is depicted in popular media and in decidedly theological discourse.

Related, black bodies that have been afflicted by pain–be it through sickness or violence–are particular, and the re-view of such bodies takes and develops care. I would be interested in seeing a similar analysis by Baker on black photographic resources and materials. She highlights the important role of black newspapers in portions of US history, but her primary work is to interrogate the ways mainstream images have constructed views, calcified understandings, and sustained images of and about Blacks, images which don’t represent true expressions of suffering and death in African American life.

How you see matters. How you see people matters. I’ve known this and Baker tells me a lot more about what I know. She deepens my knowledge in a relentless, thorough, painful, and captivating way. She shows and tells a truth about how black bodies have been shown and how black bodies have been told or spoken or languaged into existence and death. In creating such an engrossing, scholarly project, Baker has given a gift to the world, even if it’s a gift that’s hard to fully appreciate. Gifts remarking upon pain are no less valuable for the spread of responses we have to them.

Ashes to Ashes

I’m reblogging this from 2016 to mark this meaningful moment in the liturgical year. It’s written post the event and I’m repurposing it to look ahead to this Wednesday.

On Wednesday, all day long, me and a group of chaplains were going about the hospital saying a version of the same thing. “You were created from ashes and one day you will return to ashes. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Repent and believe the good news that God loves you and longs for you to be whole.”

I’d ask for the person’s name, look her or him in the eye, and pronounce these words so that each word was clear, pronounced. And for each of us, me and the individual, we heard the echo of our limitation in life. We heard that we could respond to the good news and that we were going to die.

I have acknowledged two Ash Wednesdays in a hospital, and it’s a deeply sobering experience. Level 1 Trauma Center. Downtown Chicago. All kinds of people. Many different reasons for their hospitalizations when they’re patients. Just as many different stories when they’re on the staff. And my role—with other spiritual caregivers—is to remind them of their wonderful and simple createdness while also reminding them of their eventual end.

I have thought, on more than one occasion, about dying. Not all the details of my death. But the broad vague fact of it. You can’t flee from it when you see death a lot. When you’re alongside a doctor who checks for a pulse and who tells a wife that her husband of five decades is taking his final breaths. Or when you walk with people on the cusp of it. Or when you listen to last breaths being taken and released. Or when you hold all those tears of loved ones whose burdens are unutterable.

The contemplation of death is a prerequisite for the minister. The articulation of some hope in the midst of it is as well. Part of our articulation is in the hope hinted at during Ash Wednesday. We hold both life and death in our mouths. And we pronounce that both are true, that both are to be accepted as (now or eventual) gifts.

It’s not a conversation starter, this ashes to ashes business. It’s not something you want to open the day with. And yet it happens to hundreds of people. It’s the one day I’ll see people as Christians. Non-Christians don’t get “ashed”. Catholics almost certainly do, and many Protestants will as well. Dark crosses become an acceptable part of the otherwise identical uniform. Some wear that chalky cross and some don’t. I tell myself that these are the people who are more closely aware of their ends. They know their limits. They realize that death is coming.

And the coming of death for the Christian, ashed or not, is a confusing experience. We don’t welcome it because we love life. Yet we don’t see it as something worth running from when it comes since “to die is gain.” And of course as I’ll say in upcoming posts, the experience of grieving after loss is another long matter.

Approaching the Eternal

I’m writing this a few weeks after your diagnosis. It wasn’t an intimate event at all, so public and so known. It started me to thinking about you, about the role of public service and how you might heal as a public servant. I’m considering you and the things you might be dealing with. I waited to send this to you, wondering whether it was worthy. And then I saw a story last night that pushed me to send.

I’ve thought about you in the moments after your exam, after your vote on the healthcare bill, and after your remark, now, about this considerable enemy. I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing or how you’ll change, how you’ll heal. Perhaps the parade of it all can be a picture of your healing. Of course, healing may not include a cure in your case. You knew once the team explained that this might be the thing that ushered you into the rest of life, the new life, the eternal side of life. You’ll die and this may, as far as we can tell, be how you die. And then there’s the other how in how you die, the nature of your dying rather than the medical cause.

I wonder how you will respond to that slow movement toward newness. It seems that death is a bad thing to most of us. As you see it, I hope you tell us about it as much as you can. I’ve seen spiritual leaders do this, taking the notes of their sufferings and writing them into the records of their followers. I wonder if you will do something like that. Political leaders are also, simply, leaders. There’s no reason why you can’t embrace how you might offer spiritual insights as a politician. You are more than one thing.

I encourage you to tutor us in the eternal’s approach. Before you go, whenever you go, leave us with as much as you can. You’ve served honorably in so many areas of your life that it would be consistent if you did. Of course, it’s completely understandable if you decide that this final approach is a more private one. Maybe all I’m reflecting on is the paradox of living as a servant in a public way all the way til the end. Maybe you’ve already shown us how to live and how to die.

Either way, thank you, Senator McCain.

Giving & Receiving Hugs

I approached her the way I would anyone in her situation. Softly. Gently. Quietly. My head was bowed. It was a form of what I’ve explained to my wife is my chaplain walk.

The woman was crying. It’s not all she was doing but crying sums it up. More broadly she was at the side of her dead father. I had already been with him. Now, I got to meet his daughter and stand with her to witness life once father is gone.

I came to her side. I asked her if I could touch her shoulder. I did so, recognizing the tender permission you give to a stranger you realize is only there for you. You may never see him again. You may never have to explain yourself. You may never have to re-live that moment. So you say yes with a shrug that can be interpreted as a grief heave, even though it’s the answer to his question.

My hand was on her and at some point, she turned to me. She asked me if I could hug her. My arms were already open. That opening was not planned, though it was intentional somewhere in my soul. My posture knew what it meant to be there, knew those tears. I knew something about that woman’s grief. And we both gave and received each other’s hugs.


A guttural cry

A low throbbing

An increasing urge to yell

An emptiness previously unknown

A sharp, intense plunging

A penetrating silence

An identification with the past

A wrecked soul

An image of what God didn’t intend

A fullness of extremes

A numbing of it all

A deep seeing of reality

A wordless suffering

A breaking that doesn’t end

A desire to destroy

A scratching at hope unfelt

A splurge of pain

A hollowness that’s hard to hold

A descending into depths

Another splurge of pain

An unutterable scene within

A weird desire to die

A corresponding desire to live

An eventual opening

A difference in everything

A new world

My Blog: Waiting

I have occasion to stand as a witness before, after, and when people die. The first time this happened, in my residency year two years ago, I was in the medical intensive care unit where I still spend most of my time as a chaplain.

I sat with a sister as her brother died. He was a scientist, believed nothing about the supernatural, and sitting with his sister was undoubtedly a holy moment to me. We talked together, mostly her talking and me listening. She laughed as she told stories.

Explaining that she had never imagined being a sister in this way, I heard her walk through the upset of thinking it’d be the other way around, that he would be the one who watched her breathe her last breaths. She was faithful to him in those last moments. “I won’t ask you to pray,” she had said earlier that morning. “But will you come back and wait with me?” Waiting is what I did.

When Suicide Happens

by FreestocksI’ve read of the suicides of many people in the past, and no such story is a good story. Whether it’s a person who’s in the public eye or a person who was hardly noticed, we lose a person. A mother devastated by her toddler’s death. An actor who suffered in bruising isolation. A seminarian whose struggle was largely unseen. A doctor who couldn’t continue under mental anguish. A pastor who was overwhelmed by everything.

The loss is aggravated by the circumstances surrounding the death. Those left to respond  rotate a series of questions, all of them in big-deal categories. We question life, ours and theirs. We wonder about God and faith. We query our social relationships and relatives. We turn to the tragic circumstances that form around an individual and try to see them.

Here are a few things I think are worth doing–commitments worth making–when someone commits suicide, in no particular order. They sound too general because I’ve written them about “a person” and I fully intend for that be come across as a person who comes to mind, a particular person, a designated individual or individuals who you love:

  1. We commit to being and not only doing, to tunneling into the beautiful wonder that is the self and to emerging from that wonder with a stubbornness for searching for the same in others.
  2. We commit to grieving, feeling as fully as possible, the deep fissures in us when someone kills herself or himself.
  3. We commit to becoming more human by relating to individuals differently and based upon their uniqueness all the time.
  4. We commit to the hard work of paying attention to what turns a person, lifts up a person, spoils a person, hurts a person.
  5. We commit to loving as much as possible in the present moment.
  6. We commit to getting mental and emotional support for ourselves and our communities in the forms of clergy who are permanently slanted in the direction of full liberation; therapists who are helpful in pursing with us our own deep change in the face of psychologically rough worlds; spiritual directors who can listen us into freedom as we journey into the company of God together; family members who embrace us unconditionally and love us lavishly; and friends who are just like family and who stay in place when family diminishes, drops, or dies.
  7. We commit to asking better questions, even when the question is “How are you?” and staying around for the response.
  8. We commit to telling another person how they impacted us, how we felt because of something they did or said, and how we are changed specifically because they matter.
  9. We commit to standing close when a person feels abandoned, reminding them by our physical presence when our unheard words ring hollow that we are with them.
  10. We commit to responding after any death with a voracious invitation to our own special life, to cultivating healthier relationships, to dealing with the destructive dynamics in our own lives, to being different and better people, and to advocating for everybody’s healthcare and self-care.

Also, if you’re in Chicago, consider attending the National Day of Solidarity to Prevent Physician Suicide.

Rohr on Resurrection, Transformation, & Humanity

by Felix Russell-SawI might quibble over a point in this, but today’s meditation was a gift to me, given recent challenges to my soul, recent deaths I’m dying. Here’s part of it:

Resurrection is not a miracle as much as it is an enduring relationship. The best way to speak about the Resurrection is not to say, “Jesus rose from the dead”–as if it was a self-generated miracle–but to say, “Jesus was raised from the dead” (as many early texts state). The Eternal Christ is thus revealed as the map, the blueprint, the promise, the pledge, the guarantee of what is happening everywhere, all summed up in one person so we can see it in personified form.

If you can understand Jesus as the human archetype, a stand-in for everybody and everything, you will get much closer to the Gospel message. I think this is exactly why Jesus usually called himself “The Son of Man.” His resurrection is not so much a miracle that we can argue about, believe, or disbelieve, but an invitation to look deeper at what is always happening in the life process itself. Jesus, or any member of “the Body of Christ,” cannot really die because we are participating in something eternal–the Cosmic Christ that came forth from God.

Death is not just physical dying, but going to the full depth of things, hitting the bottom, beyond where you are in control. And in that sense, we all probably go through many deaths in our lifetime. These deaths to the small self are tipping points, opportunities to choose transformation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people turn bitter and look for someone to blame. So their death is indeed death for them, because they close down to growth and new life.

But if you do choose to walk through the depths–even the depths of your own sin and mistakes–you will come out the other side, knowing you’ve been taken there by a Source larger than yourself. Surely this is what it means to be saved. Being saved doesn’t mean that you are any better than anyone else. It means you’ve allowed and accepted the mystery of transformation, which is always pure gift.

If we are to speak of miracles, the most miraculous thing of all is that God uses the very thing that would normally destroy you–the tragic, the sorrowful, the painful, the unjust–to transform and enlighten you. Now you are indestructible and there are no absolute dead ends. This is what we mean when we say we are “saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.” This is not a cosmic transaction, but a human transformation to a much higher level of love and consciousness. You have been plucked from the flames of any would-be death to the soul, and you have become a very different kind of human being in this world. Jesus is indeed saving the world.

Sign up here for meditations from Fr. Rohr, if you appreciate this kind of material.



An Unfinished Act of God’s Love

Photo Thanks to Greg Rakozy

Photo Thanks to Greg Rakozy

I finished James Loder’s The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective, a book I’ve owned since seminary, a book I’ve returned to a few times, a book I couldn’t read through until the last couple months, 10-11 years after buying it.

I’m not even ready to attempt a review. That’ll take me a few years, but he weaves and integrates physics, science, philosophy, cognitive and psychoanalytic theory, and theology into what is a strong presentation of how we are created as a product of the Creator Spirit, for creative purposes, which despite the losses, changes, and injuries in life, find ultimate repair in the face of God, the person of Jesus. Trust me: there is so much to the book. I’d loan it out but I don’t trust you’d return it to me, evidence, for sure, of my continued need to rebuild torn portions of my self in the face of God.

Nonetheless, I think this quote, his last words in the book, capture the broad, grand work Professor Loder accomplished in this fascinating work. It may not take you ten years to return and read through this material, but if you’re at all inclined for the disciplined reflection hinted at in the words below, be courageous:

In actuality, human development is never experienced as a cycle or a sequence; it often feels more like a few decades of searching, finding, and losing an uncertain fulfillment. But in each person the search is a longing for the eternal intimacy of a love that may be grasped only unclearly and proleptically, but nevertheless profoundly, in the face of a beloved caretaker. At three months of age, before the sense of abandonment begins to dawn upon consciousness, the prototype of the face, the configuration of a gracious presence, is set down. Even in the absence of the face, the longing appears and persists. This anticipation cannot be fulfilled in human terms; indeed, every human effort to solve the dilemma posed by the abyss underlying development only intensifies the difficulty. When the longing for that intimacy is satisfied by the Spiritual Presence of Christ, the Face of God, then the answers to our basic questions may dawn on us. A lifetime is an unfinished act of God’s love; it is intended that we complete that act by returning ourselves to God, directly and through others, in love. In this recognition, we discover that the fundamental data about us are not merely that we are alive and developing, incredible products of a vast expanding universe. Rather, as each life unfolds, gets torn open, stripped of its survival techniques and its passing pleasures, and discovers itself as spirit, then it appears from under the surface that we have been created for nothing less than the pure love of God, whose universe is our home.

Photo Thanks to Michal Kulesza

Photo Thanks to Michal Kulesza

Planning for Later

Every now and then, I want to point to the increasing need for people I love to have hard conversations about life, about living, and about dying. As an educator and pastor and father and relative, this video touches upon some critical issues worth talking about.

I don’t agree with literal exactness that we can or should choose the way we die, but I do agree with the intentionality behind living well, planning for later, and communicating with loved ones over these matters. I do believe in exercising as much right as we have. And we have the right to communicate our wishes around intensive medical treatment, aggressive and life-sustaining measures, and so forth.

This video feels close, real to me. Even though that rapid response team is small by the comparisons at NMH. I’ve seen 15-20 people in a room and crowding a hall easily, cracking ribs, pumping and sticking, and pounding and trying. And then a nurse, timing the scenario, calling for another person to step up and take over. I’ve seen that for 30-45 minutes.

Beyond that, listen to the story of the video and talk to people about an advance directive for healthcare. And if you can, let that be a part of other important conversations.

And that’s not including talking about money and life insurance and diet and family history. There are many conversations to have. But this one is important.

It’s not morbid. It’s responsible. It’s not short-sighted. It’s visionary and realistic. It’s helpful for you to think through things about your care. It’s relieving for those you love.

“Uncomplicated Conditioning and Deep-Down Knowing”

Perhaps I am a cynic, but my uncomplicated conditioning and my deep-down knowing about the ubiquity of racism remind me that the invisibility of a symbol is not the same as the absence of racist hate.  I have had numerous interactions with white folk in nice suits, who would turn their nose up at a “redneck” racist, who share the same views but don’t literally wear it like an ornament around their neck.  It’s 2015, it is not okay to wear your racism on your sleeve (or your t-shirt), but that doesn’t mean it is not still carried around.  And that is what worries me.  Deep-seated, hidden, structural, institutionalized racism is just as (if not more) dangerous as out in the open racism because we don’t always recognize it or see it coming.

…In a moment when some faith seems to dictate that some black folk need to forgive (and forget) while some white folk stubbornly hold on to a flag and revisionist version of history that condones their racism and insistence for white supremacy, we have a lot more to worry about than whether or not the rebel flag will live on.  What we know for sure is that nine churchgoers who went to study the bible last week won’t.

Racial oppression doesn’t occur in a vacuum so it cannot be neatly or conveniently taken down (or away) without the residue, implications, consequences and permanent scars of its existence, and neither can the confederate flag.

Go read the rest here.

Thank you, my sister, scholar, teacher, proclaimer of truth, Dr. Robin Boylorn.