Sunday, June 9, 2013

Heidegger's Hammer & a Grieving Woman

The church roof was leaking so on Sunday morning the priest made an announcement asking for help to fix it. A dedicated member known for foul language approached the minister after the service and said, “I’m not much of a carpenter, but I’ll give you a hand.” The next Saturday the two went up on the roof with a stack of shingles and got to work. Just a few minutes into the project the parishioner hit his thumb with his hammer and, in a moment of pain, shouted out, “Damn it! I missed!” The priest looked at him and said, “You know one of these days God will strike you down for cursing.” The parishioner apologized and went back to work. A few minutes later, he hit his thumb again, “Damn it! I missed!” The priest looked at him and said, “One of these days God is going to strike you down for cursing.” Again the parishioner apologized and started hammering. Sure enough, a couple of swings later he hit his thumb again and yelled out “Damn it! I missed”! But before the priest could say anything, a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck the reverend square between the eyes. The confused parishioner looked up to the heavens from whence he heard a deep, booming voice exclaim, “Damn it! I missed!”

Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the last century, would have enjoyed that joke because in his 1962 book Being and Time he used a hammer to illustrate one of his most important concepts. Heidegger believed that we don’t exist independently from this world, but rather are a part of it. As such, he wrote that there is no way for us to step back and observe what is happening in a detached manner because we are a part of what is happening. And what is happening all around us, he said, is happening so fast that we don’t really have time to think about it. Most of what we do is reaction based on instinct.

Think about your drive to church this morning. How many conscious decisions did you make? Were you aware of turning the wheel slightly in order to negotiate a curve in the road? Do you recall touching the brakes or pushing down on the accelerator? You drove here by instinct and reacted subconsciously to most of what was going on around you. Think back for a moment to the time when you were learning to drive. Do you remember how every aspect of operating a motor vehicle required intense, thoughtful action? Can you imagine if every moment and every task in life required that kind of awareness? You’d be a basket case in a matter of hours (as would everyone around you).

Heidegger states that when it comes to negotiating life we simply act. We only analyze an action after we have performed it and most often, according to Heidegger, we do this only if the action did not go as we expected. Here is where the hammer comes in. When we are hammering a nail we don’t focus on the hammer. We simply pick it up, hold it in our hand, and use it. Heidegger famously observed that we only become aware of the hammer when it is broken. That is when we stop to reflect and analyze what went wrong. Only when we have it figured out can we get back to the process on acting and reacting to life.

Heidegger’s broken hammer helps us to understand something important about today’s gospel reading where we meet a grieving woman from the town of Nain. It is about a day’s walk from Capernaum and sits on a hillside over-looking a plain. There is a spring in the heart of town which provides water for olive and fig trees. The word nain means “pleasant” and we can imagine that most of the time it was a pleasant place to live, but not on the day Jesus arrives. The town is mourning as they process toward the cemetery to bury the only son of a grieving widow.

Any time someone close to us dies it is a ‘broken hammer moment’ – a time when our unconscious acting in life and reacting to the blinding pace of everything comes to a screeching halt. We are suddenly aware of everything going on all around us. Even our experience of time itself changes. Life seems out of control in a way it didn’t the day before. It is an experience of reality that is overwhelming and often forces a grieving person to shut down in some form or fashion. We talk about life getting back to normal, but what we are really saying is that we have found a way to get back to auto-pilot; to be able to hold the hammer in our hand and use it without having to think through every detail of hammering; a time when we regain confidence in acting without thinking.

The grieving woman from the pleasant town is a long way away from that. She has been down this road before. She has buried her father. She has buried her mother. She has buried her husband. She has figured out how to pick up the hammer each time, but this time may be different. She is burying her only son. In the patriarchic society of her day, she no longer has a status. When she was born it fell to her father to protect her. That responsibility shifted to her husband when she married. When he died she became the responsibility of her son. Her identity, her status, her legal standing, her property, everything about her was tied up in him. Losing a child is never easy, but for this woman in this society it is even more devastating than we might imagine. She is now no one, alone and hopeless.

The way Luke recounts this story is somewhat puzzling. Bringing a person back to life is a big deal, don’t you think, and yet Luke presents the episode in a nonchalant manner. There is a sort of ‘ho-hum’ tone to the whole event, especially when we contrast it to how John tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Luke doesn’t record any specific teachings Jesus wrapped around this miracle; no “I am the resurrection and the life.” Pretty much what he tells us is that Jesus had compassion for the women, told her not to weep, and then directed the young man to rise. The people of Nain instantly associate Jesus with the great prophets Elijah and Elisha who each brought a person back to life. From Luke’s prospective, the event serves to elevate Jesus in the eyes of the people, but little more.

But you can be sure it meant a lot more to the woman. Her grief gives way to surprise and joy. Her identity and place and role in life are restored. Once again she can pick up the hammer – whatever that looks like for her – and do the work God has given her to do.

From my reading, the most interesting detail in Luke’s narrative is found in these six words, “Jesus gave him to his mother.” Think about what Jesus could have done. He could have invited the young man to follow him in discipleship. The young man would have come in pretty handy as Jesus and his band moved from town to town. His testimony would have been gripping, to be sure. Think of the converts he could have won. But Jesus knows that the young man is needed at home. He knows that the young man’s mother needs him both as a provider, but also to perform the function that society designated for the eldest male in the family.

Jesus demonstrates a sensitivity to and respect for the place each of us has in family life. His action communicates that our daily acting has a sacred sense to it. You do not need to renounce everything and enter a monastery to be holy. You simply need to be faithful in the place where you are. You do not need to be ordained in order to carry out a special purpose for God. How you function in your family and contribute to your community is as spiritual as anything I do while wearing the clergy collar.

If we were to blend Heidegger’s thinking with Christian spirituality we would say that the goal of life is to pick up the hammer and be conscious about how we use it to the glory of God. We would develop an awareness of how all of life is lived in the presence of God. We would be attune to how our every task has a purpose in God. Nice words, I know, but not so easy to do. For most of us most of our time is spent on spiritual autopilot. Being aware of who we are in God’s eyes and how our work is done in God’s sight is not an easy discipline to master, but it is a rewarding one. It helps us to find the holy, sacred dignity to the day, the very dignity Jesus affirmed when he gave the young man back to his mother.