Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Doubt

This blog contains spoilers about the movie "Doubt", so skip it if you don't want to find out about the movie.

What an interesting movie. Gena and I saw it together, and we had the same conversation going home that I suspect most couples did after seeing it: "Well, was he guilty or not?" Gena says yes. I say no. Gena says she is about 80-20 sure he is guilty. I say I am about 60-40 sure he is not.

In the aftermath of all of the priest sex scandals over the past decade or so, it is easy to see why many would decide Father Flynn is guilty. On top of that history, consider things like the clues that are dropped, his clear abuse of his power in little things like taking Sister Aloysius' chair when he comes to her office, Donald's mother's suspicions/intuition, and Father Flynn's own resignation in the face of the accusations, and you can see the point of view that says he is guilty.

On the other hand, there is no evidence of his guilt. Not an iota. Even Sister Aloysius admits that.

Add to that the fact that we like Father Flynn and we don't like Sister Aloysius. Add to that the fact that we like Sister James. And of course you cannot forget the consistent denials of the priest, a man who otherwise appears to be honest and righteous. You can see how the movie makes the case for his innocence, or at least for our finding a way to find him innocent.

I am addicted to evidence. That is of course a function of my job as a trial lawyer. It is also a remnant of my debate training. I think evidence is crucial. Before we toss somebody out on his ear, before we accuse him of immorality and of abuse, before we conclude that he is a pervert, we need evidence.

On the other hand, we absolutely must protect our children. Is it wrong to act on "certainty" based on your experience, as Sister Aloysius does here? Shouldn't we err on the side of protecting the innocent?

I hope that the confusion generated by this movie and the resulting conversations we have after we see it teach us all something about how we treat other people, about how we reach our conclusions. Are we gossip-mongers? Are we guilty of listening to and relying on gossip? Do we ignore the facts because of our preconceptions? Or, do we ignore the obvious because we don't like the source? Do we choose not to see what is there to be seen because we demand a level of rigorous proof that is unreasonable?

I am fascinated by talking to Gena about this movie. Here is a very intelligent person, more well-read and better educated than most jurors I will ever see, and she concludes that it is much more likely than not that this man has horribly wronged young Donald and, by extension, his church. And, more importantly, she is willing to reach this conclusion while admitting that there is no real evidence to support it - rather, it is a "feel", a reaction to body language and indirect suggestion, a reliance on experience and understanding. And she may well be right. I am, after all, reaching my conclusion based on my "feel" as well, for the movie gives no evidence, other than his own bare denial, of the priest's innocence either.

That teaches me a lot about talking to juries. It is not enough for me to paint a clear picture based on the evidence. People need more than evidence... they need to know that they are right. They need to feel it.

Life is rarely as clear as we would want it. How do we deal with the cloudiness, the imprecision, the guesswork? How do we treat other people? How do we react to problems that should be apparent?

Obviously, I don't have the answers to all of this. Just questions right now.

But I do know these two things: On one hand, I know that innuendo alone can never be enough to create a value judgment when it comes to another human being. I know that gossip is destructive. I know that preconceptions are often misconceptions.

On the other hand, I know that we have to act when we find injustice. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Life is not simple. To paraphrase the movie, life is full of doubt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Mystery of Christmas - Where Is the Child?

Some are offended by the suggestion that there is "mystery" in Christmas. They hold onto the truth of the coming of God to earth - the reality of Emmanuel - with their very lives, and to suggest that this truth encompasses "mystery" somehow suggests that the Christmas story may be less than true. It is as if they have grown beyond any mystery in Christmas. A child born of a virgin is simply true. An inexplicable star needs no explanation beyond God's plan.

And I agree with them, as far as the truth of the story goes. I believe in that virgin birth. I do not believe the Magi's star was a supernova or a comet - I just believe it was God's miraculous sign. And I too hold on to the reality of Emmanuel with my very life.

But I still find mystery in the story, not in a scary or demeaning sense but rather in the idea of challenge, of complexity beyond my ken, of seeing through a glass darkly. After all, we walk by faith, not by sight. Maybe a better way to phrase it is to talk about the "questions" of Christmas. I hope that, in holding onto the truth of the gospel found in the events of the narrative and the reality of shepherds and angels, we do not stop ourselves from asking natural questions.

There is, of course, a completely different side of the coin. For some of you readers, the Christmas story is so commercialized, or so fairy-tale, or simply so unbelievable that you choose not to ask any questions that might actually lead down a road of faith.

We all (from the most churchgoing among us to those of you who never darken a church door) know the Christmas story well, from the word going out from Caesar Augustus to the days being "accomplished that she should be delivered" to the swaddling clothes to the heavenly host to the flight to Egypt to Mary keeping all of these things in her heart. Some have trouble coming up with any questions about it beyond “What Child is This?” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” After that, our questions of Christmas most likely are wondering which of the twelve days has those leaping lords and who in the world are Jeannette and Isabella?

To me, "mystery" is not a bad word - it is a recognition of the supernatural that cannot be fully comprehended by us humans. And when we cannot think of the questions, we have bypassed the mystery. We have wandered without a guiding star and grown too old to remember the glow of Decembers past when the child in us asked about mangers and shepherds and wondered about gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And therein is the key - we have grown too old, or too jaded, or too cocksure, or too uninterested, or too busy. We need, for a moment or an hour or a season, to reverse that growth process and find a child within us.

We need to find a child within us so that we can once again open our eyes to the wonderful mysteries of which we sing this season, lest we lose all the happiness of caroling. It is the child within us who wonders why the Christ child has not even a cradle in which to rock or a soft pillow for His head. That our Savior, Shepherd, and King could come with a mission to die and become our brother, lamb, and servant is a puzzle around a mystery wrapped in a question.

We need to find a child within us to ask “Why Joseph? Why Bethlehem? Why Mary? Why trust such an apparently ordinary girl with the One who would walk on water and deliver us all?” We would have thought that God would come with kingly crowns and a regal throne. If we take the time to ask the questions, we shrug our collective shoulders and scratch our heads - after all, to us, this is such a strange way to save the world. Where is His splendor?

We are not going to provide, nor can we find for ourselves, all of the answers. Trying to understand fully all the aspects of the loving gifts of the God of the rainbow and of the manger is like trying to capture the wind on the water or measure a mother's love. The questions lead us to more questions. Yet, somehow, although we do not understand it, God's coming down to Bethlehem turns December to May and transforms a chilly morning to a smiling field ready for harvest.

But I think we have to ask the questions. We ask not to demonstrate any lack of faith or to explain that the story is less than real. Instead, we ask because we have to find the child inside, to get past the old traditions and the adult rush and the grownup's too-quick and too-simple answers. We ask the questions to see the mystery and to wait with faith to hear the angels still singing their song. Where is that child? How do we find a child within us?

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

To find a child in you, I think you must find the child in you. When you let that child's peace find you, you once again see the mystery, share the wonder of the ringing bells, and, with the angels, sing “Alleluia” to our king in the silent night.

While we cannot answer all of the questions, with the faith of that child we can answer the question “Where is the child?”. He is with us. That is the reality of Emmanuel, one I do not question. He is our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace. To those who are asking, "Where is the child?", let us tell the story of the Jesus child. The One who brings us light. Our Savior and brother the same. Our heavenly king. The Savior of all. Surely this must be God's Son.

Gloria in excelsis!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Technology and Friends

What a difference a generation makes.

Tonight, I got an email from one who has been a friend since we were in the third grade. This week, I have had telephone conversations with four friends who live in other states. I routinely talk with my best friends, who are in Nashville, San Antonio, Waco, and other places that are not in the same area code where I live. Through Facebook, I keep up with a number of friends and have reconnected with many more.

I remember how precious long distance telephone minutes were when I was growing up. We would speak to my grandparents occasionally, and only briefly. I remember the first time my Dad's job had a Wats line (that's free long distance for you youngsters) ... We would pack up the car on Saturdays and go to his office to make some calls.

I remember when I was about 13 meeting for the first time the man who was my Dad's best friend growing up. The same man was best man in my parents' wedding. I had never met him before, and my Dad had not talked to him in years.

I remember hearing stories about friends of my Mom's but never actually seeing them or hearing about Mom's actually talking to them. Since Mom has always been a letter writer, I would occasionially know when she was sitting down to write a long epistle to Carmen or Sue or Edith or somebody else to catch them up on the last several months or years. Occasionally, one would come to visit, and it would be a grand reunion to review the past several years of no contact.

The change is not because I am a better friend than my parents are. It is a function of technology. Email and cell phones with free long distance and Facebook and the like have made long distance friendships so much easier. Yes, it would still be better to be in the same town and see these friends face to face, but how good it is that we need not wait years to catch up.

Come to think of it, I guess this blog helps too.

I am grateful for this technology. I am more grateful for my friends.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Professional Perspectives

I am married to a singer. Not just a wannabe, shower-singing, little-ditty-humming singer, but a degreed, qualified, professional singer. A voice teacher. The kind of singer whom people (like me) want to hear again and again.

She is a trained musician, and that gives her a perspective that I don't have. Oh, I am a "singer" too, if you count community theatre roles and a lifelong church choir habit, but I am not in her league. I have never had a voice lesson, and nobody is going to mistake me for a real soloist. Gena, on the other hand, gets asked to sing the national anthem at major civic events. She is a real musician.

And that can be a curse to her.

This last Sunday night was our annual singing of Handel's Messiah at our church. For me, it was all good. It was inspiring, uplifting, and transcendant. For Gena, it was enjoyable, but... you see, Gena knows things that I don't know. She sees things in a vocal score that are invisible, or at least indecipherable, to me. And that means that she knows when a soloist is less than perfect.

I don't mean to suggest that Gena is overly critical or that she did not enjoy Messiah, because neither of those things would be true. I only mean that her perspective is so different from mine that we experience concerts very differently.

I suppose it is not all that different from how we watch "Law and Order" together. She follows the story; I am astounded by what I consider to be outlandishly poor courtroom antics. I still enjoy the show, but I see it through an entirely different lens.

I think there is a lesson here. It may be our professions that determine the lens through which we look, but often there are other factors. It could be simple experience, socioeconomic background, age, deeply ingrained "truths" learned long ago that we cannot now even consider to be "wrong," or any of a number of other things. I suppose even race and gender shape our lenses (as much as I do not want to admit it), at least on some things.

There are two points from this lesson:
1. Recognize your perspective. No matter how incomprehensible someone else's view of the same facts you see may be to you, the differences do not necessarily make either of you wrong. If I learned nothing else from competitive debate, I learned this: there are often more than two sides to every question, and reasonable people can see the same thing quite differently.
2. Don't forget to enjoy the show. Even when your perspective alters, clouds, or defines your view, remember that most of those in the audience (who have never had a voice lesson or tried a case) are content. That is not because they are ignorant; it is because the music is beautiful.