Letter from a Hospice Chaplain in Las Vegas

Here’s one from Matthew Metevelis: I work as a chaplain for a non-profit hospice in […]

Mockingbird / 2.8.17

Here’s one from Matthew Metevelis:

I work as a chaplain for a non-profit hospice in Las Vegas. Anyone who has served as a chaplain will tell you that the work can be routine but it is never dull. The problems and situations that you find yourself working through with people in hospice run the gamut from the touching to the tragic to the hilarious (“hospice humor” is a thing – next time you meet a hospice worker, ask). But one thing has never come up in seven years. Nobody has ever asked me if they’ve gotten their politics correct. I’ve never heard a confession that someone had not stood up for marginalized people enough. Never have I had to absolve somebody on a deathbed for “being complicit in unjust structures.” There has never been a long dialogue between a hospice patient and me examining if the Kingdom has been sufficiently brought about by someone’s earthly efforts. Politics has a way of becoming a non-factor in one’s life after a terminal diagnosis.

Lately this has been a total blessing. I used to love politics. My parents paid very close attention. I remember being glued to CNN during the first Gulf War before I was 10. I debated through high school and college. I still miss the animated conversations I would have with friends in the college cafeteria – especially the shouting match with a libertarian friend about whether nullification of federal laws could still be a thing.

But that was when politics was fun. That was when I could be friends with people who like to get into shouting matches about politics and then get a beer less than an hour later. Now politics has become a game of very high stakes. We’ve all experienced it over the past 18 months. We’ve heard the stories about mass “unfriending” of people over social media. It’s broken up families. I’ve gotten into more than a few scraps with people that have not brought out the best parts of me. And I’ve had people who were close family friends when I was younger suddenly emerge on Facebook to tear me apart and shame me all because I voiced an opinion critical of their preferred candidate. A therapist I work with even shared with me the intense psychological damage the election was doing to her clients.

Contemporary politics is not only nasty, but incredibly pervasive. I couldn’t watch the Super Bowl without being appealed to in a political way by a beer commercial. What happened to the Bud Bowl? What about the talking frogs? And at the center of it was the spectacle of an entire nation holding its breath wondering if a woman who made a career of singing club music and wearing meat dresses was going to make a political statement. Can’t we just either enjoy or hate the show on the merits of the art? My non-political wife who is a huge Gaga fan just sat back, sang along, and loved the show. Part of me was so jealous. I only half paid attention to the show because I was waiting for the statement that would touch off our next national tweetable moment.

Art has become almost entirely political. I miss when music was just about music. A simple metal sculpture can’t just be pretty to look at without somehow representing the decaying ethos of late capitalism. Remember when Shakespeare could be taught because of the Bard’s insight into the human condition and not blamed for being a conduit of white privilege? Or when Star Wars was just a goofy space story about jazz playing aliens, lightsabers, and giant four-legged robots that shot lasers out of their teeth? Now every new movie comes with a dozen articles to let me know that this was a Star Wars movie to guide us through this political moment. Really? Where is Trump keeping the Death Star plans? Sign me up for the resistance immediately!

Similarly, politics has been transformed into art. This doesn’t just make art boring, it makes politics boring too. It’s why cable news is now only a serious-looking subset of World Wrestling Entertainment. Depending on where I tune in I can expect the political figures I like to be faces and those I don’t like to be heels. Amid all the flashing graphics and the breaking news, I watch as the participants engage in the intellectual equivalent of flexing muscles for the crowd and breaking chairs on their opponents. Then I can hop onto social media and post about how a total jerk got “owned.” All I do when I consume politics is learn when to cheer and when to boo.

I don’t want to live in a world in which politics is everything. Last summer I read Julian Barnes’ short novel The Noise of Time. Barnes imagines the life and career of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived almost entirely in the Soviet period. Through the whole novel Shostakovich is unfree. His entire life can be sunk by a negative review from Stalin, but even more he is expected to represent proper Soviet values in every facet of his work. In the book’s most poignant scene he is forced on a cultural exchange trip to bash his musical idol, an expatriate to the West. The novel shows the tragedy of an artist who is so buried in politics that he’s only an artist in a very limited sense. When everything becomes a matter of politics, people are threatened with the loss of personhood and must instead become signs representing ideologies. Shostakovich can’t compose music; he must compose Soviet music. In the same way, his neighbors can’t just be people; they must be Soviet people.

As a preacher, I am often tempted to feel this way. The political nature of our public life has spilled into the church in a dramatic way. I don’t want to preach a conservative gospel. I have no interest in preaching a liberal one. I just want to preach the gospel in same the way that Shostakovich just wanted to compose music. But from nearly every corner I feel pressure to use politics to beef up the message. A retired pastor in my congregation, a former missionary and a great saint, once scolded me saying, “I hear too much about me in your sermons. I want to hear about us.”

Political events shape me too. Now even the president pressures me. He wants the Johnson Amendment repealed so that I can be encouraged to preach endorsements of candidates. No longer should I live in fear, he says. But this freedom is exactly what I fear. I don’t want the freedom to become a cheerleader in alb and stole. The churches belong to Christ and we have no right to sort them according to labels like moderate or radical. I can hear Paul’s voice echoing down to American Christians saying “Is Christ divided? Was Rachel Maddow crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Rush Limbaugh?”

Politics is too often turned up to a volume where it seems like a matter of life and death. It isn’t. In actual life and death situations politics falls flat; it sounds silly. There isn’t liberal dying or conservative dying. People’s deepest needs involve belonging, being loved, having some sense of purpose, and experiencing a hope to get through the junk they have to deal with. Jesus, not any kind of idea or opinion, pulls us back from the abyss. That experience of being loved, valued, approved, blessed, strengthened, and given life from the crucified one who has bled and suffered with me saves my life. When I share the gospel I want to share that experience – I want to share a message that actually is an urgent matter of life and death.

But I’m not arguing against the sermon getting political. Indeed, preaching and hearing the gospel without entanglements in the law is the most political thing we can do. This is not because the gospel encourages us to be better people or because it results in a better world, but because the gospel confers upon us a real citizenship in a better world that is a done deal already. “It is finished.” In this world we are freed from the burdens of being the righteous ones. We don’t need to be “woke.” We’re liberated from the need to be right. It’s okay if we are not the ones who have the best plans for carrying out God’s preferred future — that job has been taken. Future candidates without nails in their hands and crosses on their back just won’t be considered.

Free of our self-appointed righteousness under the law, politics can actually be about politics again. We are free of all the imaginary people that need our activism. Our neighbors stop being images and ideas, so we can actually start to give them the things that they need – our time, our cash, our labor, our prayers, our food, our drink, our compassion, every so often our voice, and at all times our ear. As an added bonus, some of us even get to enjoy my wife’s off-key but very enthusiastic rendition of “Bad Romance.”