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Monday, October 9, 2017

Ken Burns' Complexity

From National Archives
      I was glued to Ken Burn’s series on the Vietnam War.  Burns knows how to listen.  That’s why he can document American history in a way that leaves all of us all feeling heard.
     In his 1990 documentary, The Civil War, Burns wove the voices of Barbara Fields and Shelby Foot together without there being the slightest hint of an argument.  Seven years later, in the film, Thomas Jefferson, it was harder for me to imagine George Will and Gore Vidal agreeing about anything, but Burns had me sympathizing with them both. 
      Now, Burns has taken on the monumental task of listening to all the parties in the Vietnam War.   North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese officials, as well as diverse American soldiers and marines—they all have their say.  Their stories are woven into a coherent whole that leaves me wanting to carry along something from all of them. 
       Very few public figures can still convene such conversations.  If Burns is not America’s poet laureate, he is something more important.  For two generations he has used his combination of images, words and music to become our national storyteller.  He is one of our few remaining shapers of national identity precisely because he listens generously to everyone.
       Burn’s current film highlights that America failed in Southeast Asia precisely because we refused to listen to people on the ground.  We willfully ignored complexities.     
       Being able to feel what other people’s lives are really like is what Christians call compassion.  Compassion is a capacity to understand others even when their motivations for behaving like they do are complex or even contradictory.  Agreement is not necessary.  Compassion is something more fundamental.   It comes from the Father of all compassion.  It imitates the Son, who came into our world in order to sympathize with weaknesses.  Compassion is empowered by the Spirit who resides within us. This Spirit interprets our complex groans to ourselves, one another, and to God.  Compassion is very slow to speak and always quick to listen—even when it’s complicated.
        Only this kind of compassion is qualified to speak.

Aging Eyes

       My fingers seldom tap the keyboard without remembering Gene, my mentor in devotional writing.  In my early life his column helped to see that a Christian writer does not search for illustrations as much as he learns to see God’s activity in everyday experience.   
       While I was in my thirties I came to appreciate how this sacredness of the ordinary speaks to people from every denomination and walk of life.
     But by the time I was 40, I feared he was leaving young people behind.   I chuckled with my wife: “No matter what Gene writes about these days, he’s really writing about aging.” 
     Now that I am in my fifties, I know better why he did.  A month ago I went to the eye doctor for my annual exam, and he told me that I was less nearsighted this year than last.  I blinked. 
    “You’re kidding!” I said.  Every year since 1974, my optometrists have told me with experienced grace that my eyes were a half-diopter more nearsighted.  But after 43 years of this ritual, the athletic kid now doing my examination blithely told me my eyes had started to ossify. He teased about my having cataracts (and yellowing of the vision) to look forward to. 
     For a split second I wanted to challenge him to a bench press contest.  But he had no way of understanding how difficult this obvious metaphor would be for me.  The notion that my eyes had stretched as far as they were going to, and are hardening into a more rigid condition, devoid of creativity and growing insight frightened me.  I don't want to be old in mind. 

    Then, last Sunday, I experienced what’s since been diagnosed as a retinal tear.  The retinal debris and internal bleeding caused me to lose much of my sight in my dominant eye.  My optical surgeon assures me all should be well.  Yet, this week of impaired vision has helped me see clearly that all things will always be “all manner of well.” Whether my thinking is considered fresh or stale, I need not worry.  At any age even blind eyes fixed on Jesus are always given what is important to behold.