Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Screwtape 2009

“Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on Earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.” The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

In 1942, CS Lewis penned the Screwtape Letters – a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape and his nephew, an apprentice tempter named Wormwood. The letters chronicle the advice and counsel that the elder demon provides to his willing associate to help him corrupt a mortal Englishman known only as ” the Patient”.  In the correspondence between the two demons, God is simply referred to as “The Enemy” and Satan as “Our Father Below.” Character is a sin and sin is character. Wormwood’s task is straightforward:  Lead the Patient, by whatever means necessary, away from The Enemy and to eternal damnation. Lewis’ creative narrative is timeless and gives clever context to the temptations that erode our morality and the strong temporal winds that conspire to blow us off the straight and narrow path.  While Lewis was a Christian, his allegory transcends any denomination in focusing humorously on our common fragility as human souls.  His demons have spent centuries examining man – attempting to exploit our weaknesses, especially our propensity to not learn from the past.

While Wormwood seeks to trick and trap the Patient into great sins and spectacular moral missteps, Screwtape is constantly counseling endurance and vigilence. A demon’s job, not unlike a lion resting near a herd of gazelles, is to be patient, hanging back in the shade, waiting for an opportunity to confuse, distract or separate his prey from the rest of the herd. Damnation, it seems, is best achieved through separating one’s prey from The Enemy and from others within his community who might seek to protect him.  Hell, after all, at its’ most fundamental level, is separation from The Enemy. Spiritual decline starts imperceptibly through self pity and self indulgence.  We are, in Screwtape’s view, toads that can be cooked to death by merely bringing the water of self interest to a gradual boil.  If you make things too hot, too quickly, he cautions Wormwood, the patient will leap from the cauldron and escape.

In 1942, Anglican England was  less concerned about politically correctness around issues such as the separation of church and state.  Britain was infinitely more preoccupied with physical survival against the Nazi war machine. Mid-twentieth century  society still enforced tighter guardrails around morality, religion and social conformity. As war raged in deserts, mountains and at sea, there was a battle for the soul of man that flashed every moment of a person’s life.  Lewis’ Great Deceiver sought to exploit the fear that permeated the corners of every community. He dispatched his minions to cultivate new values – a morality of selfish pleasure, self seeking and self interest. As one reviewer opined, “Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as good and neither demon is capable of acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it.”

What advice might Screwtape proffer to a more seasoned Wormwood in 2009? Would he be pleased with the state of our society? What kind of exchange might we intercept between the experienced corrupter of men send via his blackberry to his brash novitiate tempter?

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Greetings from Venezuela, dear Wormwood.  I regret not bearing witness to your coming of age across the great green Atlantic. While I am nostalgic for the mist and slow moral decay of England, I do enjoy the turbulence of Central and South America. With such poverty, despotism and half the population under 20 years old, this is fertile ground for multinational corporations to exploit the poor, political fundamentalism and a great cup of inexpensive coffee. The closer you get to the Equator, it seems the hotter it gets – literally and figuratively. This is where all the action is. How goes your new assignment, nephew?

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I was delighted to get your card and photographs.  How did you get Hugo Chavez to pose in women’s clothing? I am off to a very good start since being reassigned to America from England last September.  The October financial meltdown was perfect brimstone from Our Father Below. Everyone is afraid and as you have so often lectured, fear and faith cannot occupy the same space.  As people get more paranoid over their material circumstances, they become myopic to the needs of others.  Self centered fear is tinder dry hope and I spend most of my day as a spiritual arsonist setting little fires – destroying peace of mind – releasing carcinogenic defects of character to sicken and weaken Patients.  People become selfish, irritable and discontent.  They blame others. They fight, hoard, hate and best of all, worry only about themselves.  It’s a beautiful thing, really. Yours, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: What a plum assignment! You even have cable TV and an economic crisis. Is it true what they say that 90% of Americans believe in the Enemy but they gratefully think it is politically incorrect to mention him or talk of him? I have trouble in some of these more religious Latin American countries as the churches are constantly sending mixed messages to my target audience. I try to convince those less fortunate that The Enemy has abandoned them and that religion is an opiate designed to medicate them in their dire circumstances – but the power of hope and faith is strong. I suggest working through reality television, the internet, violent video games, fashion magazines and the music industry.  Keep casting shadows, Screwtape.

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I am doing my best to create unrest playing politics. I learned from you the art of hedging and playing both sides. I have started a non profit group called America First which I use as a shell to promote scandalous anti-liberal propaganda.  I also fund another group called Government for The People where I try to discredit conservatives and moderates who might interfere with the massive expansion of social programs.  Fortunately, most Americans have short attention spans and can only handle 144 words at a time.  Thus, the creation of Twitter and decline of print media. It’s much easier to undermine a nation with an entrenched two party system.  I particularly like to discredit Blue Dogs and non-profit groups who preach being of service.

Everyone thinks the freshman President is an agent of Our Father Below but the fact is, he won’t even take our suggestions.  Even we are uncertain where he stands. It’s amusing and exciting  to not be able to find anyone who will admit voting for him.  I am constantly whispering in potential Patients’ ears about how the President is going to ruin the country. I haven’t seen this kind of angst and animosity since Neville Chamberlain gave his “Peace in our time” speech. Warmly, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org:  My brave and noble acolyte, remember the key to social decomposition is a multiplicity of factions and fundamentalism. You must create suspicion, self centered fear and doubt.  Focus your Patients on what they do not have and what may be denied to them. If someone looks they might do the right thing, cast doubts about their own circumstances.  Use the media to promote the notion that the world is a hopelessly screwed up cat’s cradle of self interest and we have to get whatever we can out of it.  Make everyone think they are on their own. It’s a cold world out there – well, except down here in Sweatville.  Have you read Sarah Palin’s new book? Our Father Below was clearly the first angel to “go rogue”. Perhaps we should recruit her? Would she recognize you if you joined her husband’s snowmobiling team?  Respectfully, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I have not read her musings.  I have already signed her ex-son-in-law to a kiss and tell book deal. It will actually be written in comic book format as he has a low IQ and nothing to say – a perfect recruit! I may leave a few copies of her book on Barney Frank’s doorsteps for giggles – although I think Barney would rather read Levi’s book.  I listen to rap, hip-hop and have force my posse to watch MSNBC and Fox each night to grasp the polar extremes.  I preprogrammed one patient’s TV to an infomercial channel that promises him $ 10,000 a week from buying and selling houses using sub-prime loans and government money.  I have corrupted Patients through infomercials – urging them to clean their colons, quit their jobs,  become day traders and on-line poker players.  (I usually let them win a few hands at PokerStars.com and suddenly they have mortgaged the house thinking they are Phil Ivey). I am a huge fan of transfats, high fructose corn syrup and sugar. What better way to displease The Enemy than helping hawk junk food to kids and obese adults.  Have you ever seen a morbidly obese person try to tie their shoes? – G2G, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: LOL. I am off to tour the Amazon this weekend and drop in on President Lula in Brazillia. He is hosting Ahmadinejad from Iran. We have done such a good job in Sao Paolo, it is too dangerous even for a demon.  I had two pitchforks stolen from the valet’s closet last trip.  The Enemy still lurks in the shadows of the slums and in despicable do-gooder groups. However, they can only do so much   Antipathy toward and from the US is creating new enemies and shutting down critical channels of communication and financing. Your admiring uncle, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org:  Uncle, I do worry about the Christmas season.  There’s a lot of regression in America this time of year.  People become aware of one another’s circumstances.  There’s less self pity.  The Enemy seems to go on the offensive every December.  It seems like every January First, we regress back to square one. Worried, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Don’t forget the tried and true New Year’s recipe for creating distance between the Enemy and his Patients.  For women, the “3 Ms”: men, muffins and Mastercard.  If you can get them into bad relationships, eating to medicate feelings and mindlessly shopping, it will surely lead to a negative loop of behavior that will drive greater self loathing.  Our Father Below loves self loathing.  For men, the “3 Ws”:  women, wealth and worth.  Once men start to feel sorry for themselves or believe that they are their masters of their own destinies, they self destruct. It is beautiful to watch.  They have affairs, indulge, posture, and wallow in self pity.  They have less time to parent, lead in their communities or carry the Enemy’s message to others.

Christmas is a tricky time but like rich fudge, its sugar high eventually wears off. G2G. Hugo is about to nationalize the food industry and then we are off to Kabul for a two week vacation in the Pashtun.  Can’t wait. Your loving uncle, Screwtape.