Ordinary people, Socrates, and the Psalmist

Last Sunday was my first experience with the Adult Forum at Trinity Episcopal Church. It was a brainstorming session for the church’s adult faith formation program.

A woman introduced herself as “the octogenarian in the group” to lots of laughter since a number of them were well on their way to their 80s. She proposed “living well in anticipation of dying and death” as her topic of interest. The group’s response was immediate. They were hungry for it.

DenialofdeathcoverThey went immediately to the practical considerations like Living Wills, leaving clear instructions for children. But the discussion soon moved to the deeper matter of mortality itself, our culture’s juvenile denial of death (a la Ernest Becker), and the desire to go deeper into the philosophy and theology of wellness, death, and dying.

Two days later at last night’s Republican presidential debate, when Senator Marco Rubio drew roaring applause for his put down of philosophers – “We need more welders, less philosophers” – I wanted to invite the senator and everyone in the auditorium to join the 20 people  next Sunday in the Fireside Room where ordinary people will heed the wisdom of Socrates to “apply themselves in the right way to philosophy”:

“Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death”

Death is always the elephant in the living room. So is philosophy when it is scorned. It’s easy to be glib about it, to knock it, ignore it, or mock it. Not so easy to face it “of [our] own accord”, as Socrates and the psalmist urge those who would live well – with gladness and and mercy – in anticipation of dying and death.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. … O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – Psalm 90:12,14, KJV

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2015.

Sober and Drunk

Socrates, The Louvre

Socrates, The Louvre

Is it true Socrates said
we should argue every problem
sober and then drunk? Well fed
then hungry? Free then enslaved? When
we try to ascertain truth,
historical or otherwise,
science, engineering, math–
is the answer that we all prize
irrefutable? Will all
bow down to its logic, reason,
pertinence? Or will it fail
to win the imagination,
hearts as well as minds–dreamers
as well as the philosophers?

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 18, 2013

What QUESTIONS did you ask?

“When I would come home from grade school, my parents would NOT ask, ‘What did you learn at school today?’” reports brilliant scientist Ellis Cowling, North Carolina State University Professor and later Research VP at the University of North Carolina.

“My parents would ask me, ‘What good questions did YOU ask today in school?’”

Thanks to Steve for sharing this memory from his friend at NCSU.

It occurs to me that the question to Ellis is a good one for adults, as well for children. What good questions are you asking today?

A critical mind may not be the key to bliss, but it is the only antidote to answers that make no sense. “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). Which also means, I suppose, that “the examined life IS worth living.”

After two weeks of partisan convention answers without questions, “What good questions are YOU asking?”

Share them here, if you like. NO platitudes, please. No answers. Just good questions.



The Strangest of Gifts

Socrates is reported to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Judas' conscience - G.E Nikolaj (1891)

Any honest self-examination knows that to be human is to experience betrayal. We betray and we are betrayed.

Would it help to think of God as being closer to our betrayals than we ever dare to be?

Would it help, perhaps, to see your betrayal of others and your self-betrayals, as scenes in a drama with many different scenes and acts, a drama bigger than betrayal?  A drama of One who knows our nature. Our fears. Our dashed hopes. Our un-trustworthiness. The side of us so ugly that we dare not look it in the eye – the side that, for thes moment, cannot imagine the larger dramatic piece and the hopeful theme we have forsaken: the persistence of love, of forgiveness, of life out of death, the resurrection of love itself…here and now…not just then and there.

There are two traditions about Judas, disciple of Jesus whose betrayal has been handed down across the ages, the scapegoat Betrayer we don’t want to be.

According to the first story In Matthew, “when Judas, [Jesus’]  betrayer, saw that [Jesus] was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver…and throwing down the pieces of silver…he departed; and he went and hanged himself.”  The first story puts Judas at the end of his own noose. But there’s an altogether different tradition according to which Judas exploded from within while walking across a field. In this story, the Betrayer is a walking dead man, walking with such self-hatred – a self-loathing so profound – that he could not live with himself, and as he was walking, “all his bowels gushed out” (Acts of the Apostles 1:18).

A few of us have attempted suicide. Most of us have not  All of us, if we’re honest, know something of what it’s like to walk through life with unsettled stomachs and intestines. The prescriptions we take for upset stomachs or roiling bowels cannot touch the issue of betrayal when we have betrayed or have been betrayed.

But – stay with me a moment longer -here’s the thing I’ve come to see. The word for “gift” in New Testament Greek is didomi. The word most often translated “betrayal” is paradidomi – to give over –  para (over or across) and didomi (gift). Tradition is handing over the gift from one generation to the next.

Interesting…strange, even…that these words are so closely related. In Christian tradition, Jesus is the great Gift. Judas, the Betrayer, unwittingly passes on the gift, gives the gift over, hands the gift over… to the authorities…and to us…with a kiss.

With Judas’ kiss the story of Jesus the betrayed becomes OUR story: the story of the Betrayer and the Betrayed, the tradition handed over to us across the millenia.

Betrayal Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, 2012

J. seemed a friend–he chose to join the group.

We trusted him.  We let him keep the purse

we held in common.  We would meet for supper

often–yes, our hands would touch, we’d curse

the same opponents, be amazed and shake

our heads at miracles.  We later learned

he stole, and made a secret deal to take

the silver from the Priests–from grace he turned

to greed.

Soon after,  he was overcome

with shame:  he threw the money at their feet.

J. left us then, he had himself to blame

and took his life:  Disciple of Defeat.

The greatest miracle of all he’d miss

because he betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

Betrayal is not the most importance scene in life. Stick around for the next scenes and acts that transform the laments of examined lives into anthems to the One who is closer to our betrayals than we ever dare to be. The examine life is worth living.