Splash! Splash! Splash!

For those who have been reading my Patheos postings, you’ve no doubt noticed I keep referencing Icarus, the mythological risk-taker who flew too close to the sun and perished from his tragic fall back to earth. The inspiration which sparked my recent article came from an Oscar Wilde poem:

Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all, is never to feel the burning light.

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Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (ca. 1558) is famous for relegating the fall to a scarcely noticed event in the background — red arrow [added by me] marks the spot.

Lately, I’ve been questioning why I’m obsessed with making inferences to Icarus. After all, it’s a tragic story traditionally accompanied with warnings for the over-ambitious and reckless. There’s even an attributed psychological term called The Icarus Complex: a person who is fond of heights, narcissistic and obsessed with fantastical, far-fetched, imaginary cognition.

Psychosynthesis ties this complex to those whose religious/spiritual ambitions exceed the reasonable limits of their own personalities. They are characterized by self-gratifying, attention-seeking behavior and obsessions with apocalyptic “crash & burn” predictions. Interestingly, they also have an emotional fascination with fire (e.g. burning sexual desires, moral works tried by fire, scorching eternal punishment, etc.).

To say the least, there’s enough with all of this to keep me busy for months, writing and making inferences!

The Red Arrow

As it concerns my recent articles, my chief motivation can be found in the painting above. Icarus’ fall (red arrow marks the spot) is depicted as an unnoticed non-event. Farmers, travelers, fishermen, sailing merchants, they all continue their day-to-day tasks, unconcerned with the tragic splash below.

So, what is it that best represents the uninteresting splash? Without knowing the painter’s intentions, I’ll attempt to offer my own insights.

Splash! Splash! Splash!

Maybe the uneventful splash is symbolized by all the rising/falling religious-spiritual fads, trends, obsessions, predictions and ever changing, contradictory dogmas? You know, the elusive transcendental stuff. If this painting were a contemporary work, we could theorize the splash to be the numerous rapture theories or Zionist Temple Mount predictions featured by Charisma Magazine each month.

Or, we could point to the televangelists’s hyper theatrics serving up hot, steamy love songs to God followed by oratory hell-laced admonitions to the Divine’s captive bride.

Or, our thoughts could turn to Oprah’s recommended reading list and all the eager Super Soul Sunday guru guests.

The splash of week-old TV ratings certainly constitutes as a non-event.

Cable specials about angels and demons, books left out of the sacred canon, dinosaur-sized giants, ancient aliens, Nessie and Bigfoot exposes and alchemy secrets revealed… splash! splash! splash!

The latest, greatest study bibles promising word-for-word translations, religious programming’s annual pledge drives, right and left wing talking points, political call to arms and Church/State promises to use your tithes and taxes to honor God and country… SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!

Who Gives A Crap?!?

For many, if it doesn’t impact grocery and gas prices, vacation resort deals, or 401K gains… who gives a crap?!?

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, many have learned to ignore the splashes. It’s just entertainment after all, right? Umm…

I’m a romantic, so I like to think the splash is not Icarus sinking into Davey Jone’s Locker. I like to envision him getting close enough to the burning light of reason, he realizes his world is upside-down. He no longer fears falling and sheds his father’s wings. He’s actually flying; for real, he… is… flying!

Think Neo being unplugged from the Matrix.

My romantic self likes to think of the splashes as being all the social, religious, political, inhumane mechanical bodies–the dim promises of transcendent flight–plunging into the waters of stupidity far below. Like Icarus, I envision myself shedding my inherited biases to soar high, far above the superstitious storytellers, religious dogma and prejudiced contemporary philosophers.

Together, we live without regret in the brilliant light of free thought and discovery.

Have I peaked your interest?

More romantic, sentimental musings to come soon… #Icarusflew #noregrets

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Daedulus and Icarus drawing by Lyle Saunders – click pic for link

I Work With Death Daily

Fred Grewe has been my dear friend for 20+ years. Our friendship, through many seasons in life, has enriched my life in countless ways. Fred has a new book out right now, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in London and Philadelphia: Time To Talk About Dying. He’s a brilliant storyteller and his insights about life and death are always thought provoking.

Check out his Amazon Author’s Page here.


Why is the Grim Reaper so Grim?

By Fred Grewe

I work with Death on a daily basis and over the years have come to know him quite well. On an average week I visit about twenty dying folks, more than three hun51eiXTG4j-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgdred terminal individuals annually, and over the past twelve years I have provided spiritual care for nearly two thousand people who have died.

I’m a hospice chaplain.

A little context might be helpful. Nearly all of the folks I meet and serve are north of 70 years of age. Most often, people in their 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s. Also, I work in a relatively safe middle-class environment. By and large, the people I serve have at least had a shot at a good life. These facts color my experience with Death. I’m sure ministers who work with dying children or in places of great poverty and privation might have different feelings about my friend Death.

Now generally I don’t tell people what I do for a living. I mean, when you tell someone you’re a hospice chaplain, they tend to just tilt their head knowingly and look at you with big doe eyes like you’re Brother Teresa.

And I’m not.

It’s not that I don’t love what I do or am not proud of it. Actually, I find my work both inspiring and refreshing, inspiring because of the courage and strength I witness everyday by patients and family members.

Refreshing in that I encounter very little in the way of nonsense. By the time I get to meet our patients most of the nonsense has been kicked out of them – either by a doctor’s terminal diagnosis or by some painfully failed therapy – or both.

Most clergy by and large have to put up with a lot of nonsense. I sure did when I was a pastor. It usually sounds something like this: “Why do we have to sing the same songs every Sunday?” or “You know, if we could just get out 15 minutes earlier we could beat the Baptists to all the good restaurants.” or “That was a wonderful sermon pastor, one of your best!” Pure nonsense.

Hospice patients know they don’t have time for such silliness. Every alert minute takes on profound importance when you know there are precious few left. I find the brutal honesty of conversations with such people incredibly rich and refreshing. There’s so little pretense, so little posturing. The sacredness of such moments often demands my full attention and it feels as though time simply stands still in silent homage.

That’s not to say such conversations are always serious. They’re not. But what they are is real.

For example, I remember when Carolyn was telling me about how depressed she became after her doctor told her cancer was inoperable and she only had a few months of life left.

“I stayed in bed for three or four days just crying,” she said. “I didn’t get dressed or shower – I just cried. Then one morning my daughter Jennifer came in and brought me breakfast. I started yelling at her that I didn’t want any God damned food, and if I’da had a bag I’d just put it over my head and end it all right now!

‘Paper or plastic?’ Jennifer asked.

Well, how can you stay depressed when someone treats you like that? So I got up and ate and decided to continue living until I can’t anymore.”

Such folks are daily reminders for me to live intentionally now – while I can. Because the reality is none of us is promised tomorrow. I would say this is the supreme lesson the dying have taught me about living. I call it the dying well paradox: contemplating my death compels me to live a fully engaged life now and living a fully engaged life now is the best preparation for my death. I imagine you’ve heard something like this somewhere before. So the real question is how do we engage this wisdom to actually impact our day to day existence? How can this insight shape our spiritual maturation?

Vital Signs

What can be considered as evidence of spiritual maturity anyway? Church attendance? Tithing records? Number of memorized Bible verses? Faithful rotations in the nursery? I suggest signs of an authentic spiritual life must go deeper than these.

Now one of the drawbacks in being a minister is most everyone lies to you at a first meeting about their life of faith. For example, when I meet a new hospice patient or their family as a chaplain and ask, “How is everyone doing?”

They usually all say, “Fine.” Or, “Praise God, I’m good … I’m just waiting to go to heaven.”

Often those are simply deflections.

Those are the responses we’re all trained to tell the minister to keep him or her far away from doing any harm. If we actually tell the truth, the minister would likely try to probe deeper and unearth all the little tawdry dark family secrets that have caused enormous pain for years – and no one wants that!

To circumvent the social niceties that deflect against really getting to know folks I’ve developed a list of spiritual vital signs to help determine what’s really going on inside someone’s soul. Here’s my list of spiritual vitals: gratitude, generosity, submission to reality, and an ability to shower the people you love with love. (I know I stole that last one from James Taylor.) These are the qualities I look for in meeting a new patient to help determine the relative health of his or her soul. These are signs I look for to see if someone is really alive.

Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has famously promoted the mantra, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” A brief scan of the TED Talks library gives you an indication of the growing awareness on the importance gratitude holds for spiritual and mental well being. I’ve learned that gratitude is something we cultivate. It’s also magnetic. The more I express gratitude the more I find to be grateful for. Sadly, I’ve also learned the same is true for ingratitude. The more I bitch – the more I find to bitch about.

In recent years there has been a growing body of research to demonstrate that simply doing three kind things a day for others can help lift depression, improve sleep, and increase spiritual resilience. Generous behavior is evidence of a soul that has been humbled by the reception of grace and understands the deep connection we all have with each other. I have never met a truly generous person who was not aware of how much they have been given as gift and the natural response is to share that gift with others (see the story of the four lepers in 2 Kings Chapter 7). Conversely, stinginess and a sense of entitlement are symptoms of a grace starved soul.

By submission to reality I mean one’s ability to simply and humbly accept the impermanent nature of life. All living things die. Over the years the folks I’ve met and served who can accept this fact generally die a much less painful death. Those who insist on fighting the inevitable, who refuse to give up when the end is in sight, often need far more analgesics (heavy duty pain killers).

In serving nearly 2,000 departed souls I have never once had someone say to me, “I wish I had gone to more football games.” or “I wish I had spent more time on line.” or “I wish I could have gone shopping more often.” What matters most to those at the end of their life are the people they love and those who love them. Jesus taught there is no more important investment we can make in this life than loving God and those whom God places in our lives (see Mark 12:28-31). For so many years as a practicing Christian I thought this is what I needed to do to make God happy. To my joyful surprise, I have discovered that this what truly makes me happy.

So these are my spiritual vital signs, signs to give me an indication of how really alive someone’s soul is. Are they truly awake to the wonder of life? Or are they asleep, simply eking out an existence without truly engaging this miraculous gift?

Why is The Grim Reaper So Grim?

In the years that I’ve worked with Death and felt his presence at the bedside of a dying patient, I’ve thought about his costume. I mean, what’s with the hooded cowl?

I wonder if Death uses the cowl to hide his own grief, grief at having to come and collect folks who have never really lived? Never given their hearts freedom to love and be loved? So afraid of what others think, seduced by culturally unachievable standards of wealth, beauty, and knowledge, or traumatized by painful life experiences that they spent their limited precious moments in a self absorbed sleep walk. Why is the Grim Reaper so grim? Maybe because he aches so deeply for the missed opportunities we all had to really live?

Of late I have been working to strengthen my own spiritual vital signs. I want to be alive while I still can. So I look for opportunities to be generous, especially with my time (which is very hard for me)–surrendering to the things I cannot change, battling the ones I can and praying to know the difference between the two. I start each day praying for the grace and courage to be Chaplain Fred for yet another day and ask God for the openness of heart to use the day as a treasure hunt. In the midst of my tasks – the daily phone calls, traffic, charting, emails, meetings – I pray to really see at least three people this day. I mean really see them, see what is beautiful and special about them, and then find some kind way of communicating that to them. Then as I sit for prayer in the evenings I try to reflect on those folks I saw and pray for them. What I find can be big or little – but I want to find and bless at least three people. I so want my life to be a blessing for others.

I have come to the realization that all I seek at this point in my life is to be a good man. I want to spend my remaining days telling the people I love why I love them. I want to reflect back to them the beauty I see within them. I want to be a conduit of God’s grace rather than a participant in the fear of “not enough.” I want to be kind and generous – trusting that if I give myself to these tasks I might become the son God dreams me to be. I want at the end of my days as I lie on my deathbed for the last words to cross my lips to be “Thank you.” I want my friend Death not to be crying when he comes for me – but to have a gentle smile and knowing glance indicating that I really lived.

The Eternal Love Shack

My follow up article to Only Human is live now on Patheos: Exit Plan. I confess, there were a few drafts, and obviously the one posted made the final cut. In no way am I inferring the current article is deficient in any way. IT IS NOT. Linda, the blog editor, and I worked hard to tell the story with enough detail to hopefully answer as many questions as possible.

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My working title was “The Eternal Love Shack”, which upon reading Exit Plan makes no sense whatsoever. For you following me on FreshLA.me, below is a portion from the first draft which reveals some of the backstory and emotions I started writing from. I would suggest taking 5-minutes to read Exit Plan so the below excerpts jive better for you:

But, before I reveal how this all came about, let me back up a bit with my story.

 I went to bible college in the early 90s when Christian Music (CM) had given birth to as many sub-genres as there were new modern bible translations flooding bookstore shelves. Christian Counseling was a popular major. Friendship Evangelism was the big breakthrough in proselytizing methodology. And, the topic of “accountability” was turning the age-old duty of making disciples into a sexy mandate! 

 In the late 90s, I started working professionally in ministry. By then, a dozen new CM genres and revised bible translations had been discarded for new and improved infatuations. Interestingly though, the attraction for accountability had never faded. The desire for it had actually increased, making it a steamy church-house obsession.

 To keep my story short, I’ll just say: For the love of Jesus, I do not want to be in a weird, three-way accountability relationship between me, God and you — all in the name of discipleship of course. If I want to experience something new and understand my potential, I’ll find someone who’s not interested in making me a love slave for all time and eternity. Sorry, no offense intended; feel free to do likewise. I won’t be hurt.

 For the group sitting on my patio, the idea of existing in the divine’s secret place of accountability was repulsive. For all we cared, you could tie a millstone on that #%@$! and drop it into the Marianas Trench! We could stomach no more. For us, Forest Gump’s sentiments summed it up best: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

 Thus, Patio Church originated from a shared ache to be free of compulsory bondage and stupidity. We all were just looking for a safe place to hide from the disciple-making-holy-match-makers. In a professional capacity, we each had lent our vitality to these religious, lovesick practitioners, and we were now desperate to be free. But was it possible? Could we really breakaway?

 A safe place was needed where we could rest, think freely, question critically and talk without fear of reprisal. We needed a haven outside of The Damn Dark Room — better known to me now as The Eternal Love Shack. Why? Well… my experience on the inside had revealed this space to be home-sweet-home to numerous pet fetishes and oppressive exercises. I (and my staff) had been exposed numerous times to 50+ shades of misogyny, abuse, racism and sexism rooted in sacrificial bloodletting rituals and foreboding promises of never-ending punishments/rewards. I needed an escape, and my staff likewise. In time, Patio Church served as the gathering where “exit strategies” were discussed and evaluated.

 After serving together in ministry at the same church for almost two decades, we slowly and graciously worked ourselves out of jobs. There was nothing sexy about it…

Exit Plan definitely does a much good job telling the story in a straightforward manner. Thank you Linda! For everyone following me here at FreshLA.me, I couldn’t help but share the above first draft excerpt. No doubt, it gives insight into my state of mind — sentimental with a dash of Fifty Shades of Grey… OMG! Actualy, I have plenty to say about faith and sex, but I’ll save that for another time.

Predictably, when I started writing what is now Exit Plan, I was jamming out to the B52’s timeless hit Love Shack. And… I still am. Bang! Bang! Bang! on the door, baby! I can’t hear you… YOU’RE WHAT?!?  The “Love Shack” was a rustic cabin with an outhouse where the B52’s wrote their music. Sadly, it burned down in 2004.

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Soul-licious!

Lately, I’ve been vibing out to the delicious, soulful entrees of Tash Sultana.  OMG!  WOW!!  I’d like to give a BIG SHOUT OUT out to my daughter SBeabz!  She came home from Coachella this year and screamed, “Dad, you gotta check her out!”

Seriously, I don’t what more to tell you.  If you don’t know who she is, get in the know now!!!  To use a “Trumpism” – Believe me!  Please don’t email me for that reference.  HA!  Instead, with your hungry-soul-plate in hand, rush Tash’s musical, hypnotic, soul-licious buffet.

Tash Sultana Coachella 2018

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Tash Sultana Review

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What If There Was A New Earth?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a promo for the 2011 sci-fi movie, Another Earth.  It immediately intrigued me because it promised to be a deeply moving, emotional sci-fi film about two earths, employing none of the usual sci-fi garb such as aliens and UFOs… interesting!  I searched and found it on VUDU, placed it in my wish-list, and finally found time to watch it late last night with my wife, whom I had successfully convinced to join me for the sake of “research.”  Convincing her wasn’t a chore; she was intrigued too.

Another Me?

Even though the movie has been out for four years, I want to be careful not to give away an spoilers, so I’ll be brief with the synopsis.  The storyline centers on a young lady whose life is filled with promise and possibility untea_anotherearthil something tragic happens, drastically altering the course of her life.  At the moment of this tragedy a second earth (Earth Two) appears in the sky and she, along with all the residents of Earth One, are captivated by this new reality.  Furthermore, they are challenged with the suspicion that there might be “another me” out there living a similar life but differently due to opposite actions, choices, and events.

This movie was made on an extremely low-budget.  The actors even did their own makeup, and the director created the Earth Two scenes on his personal computer.  However, you’d never know it.  The cinematography is great, and the depth of characters and storyline are superb.  Brit Marling did an excellent job playing the leading role of Rhoda.  She also was the co-writer of the movie script.  I’m sure you’ll recognize her from her many screen roles, namely in I Origins, and her role as Liz Garvey in the TV series Babylon.

Meeting Yourself

I was immediately drawn into Rhoda’s internal struggles and the new choices she labored to make in the light of Earth Two just over head.  The director Mike Cahill explains that Earth Two is “kind of this externalization of the interior world of Rhoda.  She could have dealt with those ideas of the confrontation of the self just by looking in the mirror, but I felt like there was something [more] powerful about really externalizing it,” by creating a situation where there really is another version of us all.  Co-writer Marling elaborated further by saying the image of another Earth provokes a primal reaction, “we all feel something [deeply] about looking back at the Earth.”  Definitely, this movie is a “feeling” movie, very personal, introspective, and surprising… especially the ending!

Ultimately, the movie is successful with taking a very high, external concept and internalizing it in order to explore the inner world of who we are, and what it means to be a human.  Rhoda has a strong desire to become an astronaut and explore this other Earth, but ultimately her greatest desire is realized—the exploration and discovery of herself.  For me, what makes this movie so deeply emotional is the use of the doppelgänger.

A doppelgänger is a look-alike or double of a living person, sometimes portrayed as a paranormal phenomenon, and in some traditions as a harbinger of bad luck.

In pop culture, when you meet your doppelgänger, “you see each other, and then one of them has to die, and so it turns into an action adventure movie in which one of them has to kill the other,” says Marling.  Another Earth “was never going to be a movie about an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style” confrontation, she adds.another_earth-1

Another Earth deliberately turns the usual idea of doppelgänger on its head.  Says Cahill:  “For me, I pushed completely the opposite [idea].  I think we, as humans, have this desperate yearning to connect, and we are so alone, no matter how many people we know, our close friends or whatever, we are ultimately alone.  And I think there’s a yearning to not be alone.  So, to confront someone who has your shared history and all your secrets… I think there would be the greatest amount of empathy.”

Don’t Watch It Alone

In short, this movie highlights forgiveness, hope, and our common need for redemption.  I love high concepts, and I especially love when they are employed in a pop culture medium that captures our imaginations while invoking a deep sense of wonderment and awareness.  This movie certainly did all of this and more for me.  If you’re in the mood to be entertained and challenged, watch Another Earth.  And I would advise not watching it alone.  Watch it with someone you love, someone you’ve dreamed with, and been forgiven by.  The impact will be greater.