The Curious Way
Good Comes Up; Bad Goes Down
A Reflection on the Gospel for August 28, 2016
by David Somerville
Soon after I received my commission as a chaplain in the army, I was sent with my fellow battalion members, to participate in their field maneuvers by visiting the soldiers while they dug their fox holes.
Being a little uncertain about what was to be achieved, I was making the rounds anyway to visit the men. It was a frustrating day from my limited perspective with a desk full of unfinished paperwork back at headquarters and a sermon to write. But the commander was adamant.
He wanted a daily briefing on troop morale —especially in the February sleet at the foot of Mount Rainier.
My ponderings that day were interrupted as I heard a small group of Pfc’s and E-4’s with their comedian/sergeant singing at the bottom of a slushy ravine. Sergeant Bill Goofnoff (obviously not his real name!) was conducting a quartet using his latrine spade as a baton.
It sounded like bluegrass. He did not know I was coming. The men battling the boredom of the day were crooning together, “Drop kick me Jesus through the goal-posts of life, end over end, neither left nor the right….
“Hey, guys,” stage-whispered one of the troops. “Shut up. It’s the chaplain!”
To relieve their embarrassment, I said with tongue-in-cheek, “I had no idea you guys were so talented! You should consider joining the chapel chorus!” I was being affectionately sarcastic. None of these ersatz choirboys had any idea of where the chapel was, nor had they ever expressed any interest in finding out!
What was striking about this incident was that it happened while I was going about a task, following the commander’s order—to assess troop morale, and then update him at 1700 hours (5 P.M.) every day. My action was simply intentional. I knew what I was told to do—function as a staff advisor. What Sargent Goofnoff was doing was the actual work of improving the men’s morale, by caring for their attitudes. But there was something about the old soldier that was not directly intentional at all. He, as he always was, ready for a hearty laugh. Goofnoff was doing what he had done all his adult life — including two tours in Viet Nam — making do with a life with so much meaningless nonsense in it. He was making the lives of his anxious, alienated young men more bearable. Goofnoff was giving them the kind of spiritual nurture that strengthened them without compromising their dignity. There were some younger lieutenants and captains that suspected that the man was disrespectful and that Goofnoff was a goof-off. They were mistaken.
Sergeant Goofnoff was not a theologian. He, who never talked— to my knowledge at least— about his personal relationship with Jesus, was doing something more spiritual than I was—by using laughter to spot the absurdity of anything that involved the inconvenience of form without useful function. Through this unspoken philosophy, Goofnoff was leading his people on a daily exodus from the misery of their attitudes, which, if not dealt with, could have ruined the esprit de corps of his organization. That negative spirituality was stuff Goofnoff knew well. Much of his acquaintance with it came from his own life—which included staying sober while away from his Twelve-step meetings in order to cooperate with a meaningless field exercise, designed by a lieutenant colonel who wanted to impress the general with his tactical expertise.
Sergeant Goofnoff had a salty quality of compassion borne of his recovering from addiction and traumatic memories of Viet Nam. They were the basis for both his affection and empathy. With his emotional baggage converted into a tool of wisdom, Goofnoff was overcoming both his, and his platoons’ anger issues about their meaningless labors. They could not understand how the “higher-up’s” were excited about some new theory on how to neutralize the OPFOR (Opposing Forces). All they suspected was that some of these field grade officers had hopes of gaining career promotion points. Goofnoff certainly acknowledged the need for combat training, but his major concerns involved his men’s welfare. For instance: What are the risks of CWI (Cold Weather Injury), and how can that be minimized? How about the timely delivery of hot meals from the cantonment dining facility?
Sometimes field orders would change without warning from the TOC (Tactical Operations Center). Then the dining facility staff with their truck full of hot meals would not be able to find Goofnoff’s re-located platoon. Those are just a few of the constantly moving concerns that cluttered Sergeant Goofnoff’s life.
While all of that was going on day-to-day, Sergeant Goofnoff kept his crew laughing, and as he did so, he sabotaged his platoon’s negative feelings— not by attacking these demons directly, but by surprising them through something like an unguarded back door. In another manner of speaking, the men with their stubborn, emotional maturity issues were being “fooled”, not “pushed”, into a different attitude toward their circumstances—as if the back door of grumpy stubbornness were poorly secured.
I believe that Sergeant Goofnoff was effective in the emotional leadership of his men because he did not know, strictly speaking, what he was doing. He was just doing it. How else could I describe Goofnoff’s salty grace? Well, on a theological level, it could be suggested that he was a vessel of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was working through him behind the scenes of both his and his people’s conscious awareness. On a psychological level, it was a variation of what existential psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl (†1997), did with his patients who suffered from self-defeating behavior, especially social anxietiy and irrational phobias. He also believed that certain other intangibles are inhibited by these adjustment problems.
Things like happiness, or success, for example, remain for these people out of reach until a change of attitude happens. Frankl taught that new attitudes can be allowed to“happen” if they are set up to “happen” inadvertently. The question is, what are the conditions that have to be in place for the therapist’s client to discover that he is freed from his trouble?
Dr. Frankl used to tell of a scholar who had to deliver his findings in a research paper before a university audience of his peers. The scholar’s problem was his stage-fright. Somehow Frankl talked his patient into walking up to the dais, and then begin his paper by saying. “I know that this is irrelevant to the subject at hand, but I have this ridiculous fear of public speaking! Would you please bear with me on that? I have this idiotic idea in my head that all of you are conspiring to make me stutter!” There was a sympathetic chuckle from a few in the audience. The scholar did not stutter, and the phobia vanished, never to return. Dr. Frankl’s patient used his technique of paradoxical intention.
The story of how Jesus observed the status-seeking behavior of the leading Pharisee’s guests led him to tell a parable. In his easy-to-visualize scenario Jesus challenges both the host and his guests to reverse their customary habits. It was everybody’s assumption there that God values more the lives of those who achieve great levels of prestigious prominence. Jesus knocks over this paradigm by teaching that the truly faithful soul is one that has the courage and discipline to act in a manner comparable to Viktor Frankl’s technique of paradoxical intention. The easiest way to explain how this works is to use another parable image slightly different from the one that Jesus used, but more compatible to us whose culture is contemporary Western, rather than that of the first century middle east.
So, then, let us “fast-forward” ourselves to the post-war baby-boom decade of the 1950’s. They were the years when fallow fields were becoming Levittown developments, and the gable-roofed schools with clapboard belfries were scuttled for sprawling, flat-roofed “consolidated” schools. These larger buildings typically had parking spaces for thirty or more buses.
One after another of the homes in these neighborhoods were of the same plan—three or four bedrooms, one bath, (and maybe an extra bath in the deluxe model). An unhealthy kind of competitiveness began to effect the people living in this modern milieu. It was in the one-upmanship of appearances expressed in coveting all the durable goods advertised through those boxy round-tube televisions.
Each house had a car in its garage — mostly two-toned Chevy’s, Fords, or Plymouths. But then there was that occasional family with the Cadillac or Chrysler with the bigger tail fins! They were the so-called “Jones’s” that the neighbors strove to keep up with. It was a world of competitive, face-saving. The advertising industries did much to wash the brains of our parents and their neighbors with consumerism by promoting things manufactured by such corporations as Magnavox and Maytag. They also were led to believe that the Good Life could only be had by being first on the block to have the best and the most of these products, not only to keep up with the Jones’ at the country club, but also to look good enough to be accepted by the “right” people.
To someone in the Jones’ neighborhood, Jesus could well have said something a little different, but parallel to, what we will be hearing the deacon or priest read to us next Sunday: “When you hold a backyard barbecue, do not invite the Jones’, or the the Park Avenue vestry, for that matter, hoping to get your daughter into next year’s debutant cotillion. Instead, invite the Goofnoff kids, and their widowed mom, Matilda, whose husband died in the Battle of the Bulge. After all, the man of the Goofnoff family now is Billy. Oh… and, of course, you know that Billy had to enlist for basic training. The Goofnoff’s, you see, could not afford college. Now also, it goes without saying, Matilda has no influence with the cotillion committee! So when you invite for Mrs. Goofnoff to your barbecue with her kids, you will be raised to a higher level of awareness about some new values for your life!”
“What could these values be?” one of these mortgage payers might ask Then Jesus would continue: “It will be your discovery that you are destined to join in the exodus with me to a promised land way beyond your present life of social climbing, competition, and personal achievement. I offer a life that is without the stress that has you saturated with it, and let’s face it. Your life has no meaning.
“Go to where you will find me—in the lower place in the material poverty of the physically blind and crippled. There I am, sharing in the meal which causes the death angel with his pack of lies about status and success to passover over you!”
“Oh, the skeptical home owner,” might say in a slightly anxious tone. “I’m not sure I can take the risk of investing in your proposition?”
Jesus’ response is quick: “Believe me! My credit rating is a lot better than yours or anything else you’ve been involved with! Just look at what I am ready to do: Crown you with the helmut of salvation! The angel’s sword will glance off and break because your helmut is forged from the tempered steel of truth. You will no longer be hooked by the idea that you alone are not enough to be valued by God because you do not have enough! You will no longer be spiritually blind and crippled because you cannot love yourself and therefore cannot love your neighbors. In the world I offer, your neighbors will not be competitors. They will be companions!