Sunday, December 31, 2006
But first comes the night, and as Steven Sondheim said in a song, "there are mouths to be kissed, and mouths to be fed . . . in the meanwhile." In the dark, there will be parties, penance, toasts. Truths to tell, truths deferred, temptations. Movies to watch, curled up on the couch in pajamas. Emotions to master, feelings to indulge. Glitter, gaiety, the unfettered festivities of all of us who live to see another year begin. Bitterness, sorrow, confession, forgiveness.
Tonight's passage is like the part of a Shakespeare play where the characters are transported to the Forest of Arden, or the magical isle in The Tempest, a place where fools and clowns play at a story line that parallels that of the noble characters. Life is turned inside out or propriety is laid aside, showing lovers and tragedians their flaws, mistakes and folly. At the end of Act Five the ones whose fates we have followed most intently emerge with greater self-understanding, prepared to love unselfishly or repent in preparation for death. Drama and poetry make meaning of the whole mess of life.
But what meaning is to be found in tonight's revelries? Today, December 31, the news is full of year-end stories, attempts to find significance within the arbitrary dimensions of twelve months of calendar time. What was most important in 2006? Who mattered most? Where are we--heavens!--trending? Is there wisdom for the future encoded in the Top Ten This-and-That of 2006?
It's simpler just to look at the hard news of the day, which included the story of the hanging death of Saddam Hussein, and reports on the funeral events of a 93-year-old ex-president of the United States. Different heads of different kinds of states. Different ends.
I read a news story this morning summarizing comments from European governments on the execution of Saddam. Foreign ministers affirmed sovereignty of Iraq and the execution of justice but deplored the execution itself. Someone (I suppose I could go back and look it up) said, more or less, that revenge gets you nowhere, especially in a troubled, violent society. "Live by the sword, die by the sword" is not, apparently, a recipe for peace.
Stories about Gerald Ford have focused on his role in healing the nation after Watergate. He pardoned Richard Nixon, despite accusations that a deal had been made, that letting Nixon go was a corrupt and cowardly thing to do. I remember friends who were outraged that Nixon was not brought to trial, not held accountable deed by deed, document by document, tape by tape. Yet the passage of time has vindicated Ford's decision. What would a Nixon trial have been like? What would the punishment have been?
My evening begins at church, where fortunately, there is a box of Kleenex on the organ, near my choir chair. I do not much like meditating on the passage of time. The years gone by are too evident in my face, in my attitude toward life, in my growing and near-grown children. Later, I must dress up and go to a party, where I will be wise and witty, or more likely, dim, dull and out of it.
The high points of life--the times of real insight, joy, deep pain--do not come at calendar celebrations like New Year's Eve. They do not come with fireworks at midnight, confetti, champagne, or beef tenderloin. The real Forests of Arden or the storms on the heath that transform us come in the course of living, when we must seek peace and not revenge, ask for and give forgiveness, seize happiness and serve our neighbor.
Yes, there are mouths to be kissed and mouths to be fed, but as part of everyday life. Which is kind of the point of Sondheim's song, in which the singer finally states that she will settle down someday and marry "the miller's son."
Time to get ready for the evening. Peace to you in the new year.
Monday, December 25, 2006
Fortunately, the Perverse Lutheran was mentioned as a site that our not-so-cyber-savvy pastor actually looks at from time to time, not as an example of a diary-on-line by someone compelled to publish her every thought.
Clearly this is not a blog where I post everything I'm thinking. If it were, you'd have to worry, because the dates of recent posts would suggest that I'm not thinking much at all these days.
Which is not the case. I'm doing as much thinking as ever. It's what brains do. But somehow, my thoughts of late do not strike me as all that edifying for others. Grief is private. My grief about the loss of my husband is so private I barely speak it to myself.
The rest of me has turned extrovert. Peppy, perky extrovert--because that's what it takes to keep an 80-voice children's choir on task as they prepare to sing--and sing, and sing some more--on Christmas Eve. There is little room for thought, no words of my own. Just the beat, the cue, the cut-off, and the occasional glare.
The children sang very well, and looking at them brought me great joy. What will I remember from all the music and singing of last night? Children's faces shining solemnly with the joy of singing together on Christmas Eve. Some sang with serenity, some with great anticipation. Some with mischievous happiness--isn't this fun! Some with thoughtful scowls. Some with no thought at all, just enthusiasm.
Children turned inside out as they proclaimed 'the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ."
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Advent began last Sunday. Advent includes the four Sundays before Christmas—all the way up to Sunday morning, December 24. We have an Advent wreath here in church. Maybe you have one at home. Maybe you also have an Advent calendar.
We often think of Advent as the time when we get ready for Christmas or even when we count down the days until Christmas. We do our Christmas shopping, or we make Christmas gifts. We plan parties, cook special food, have Christmas celebrations with friends and family. Here at school we spend a lot of time during Advent practicing music to get ready for our Christmas Eve service.
But celebrating Advent is not really the same as getting ready for Christmas. There’s a lot more to Advent than doing all the things we do to prepare for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The Advent season is kind of like walking into a time machine—an imaginary machine that can send you back into the past or forward into the future. Time machines are just pretend—we can’t really travel into the future or the past. But during Advent, in our minds and hearts, we do travel into the past and the future. We look at Jesus in the past, the present and the future.
This next part is going to sound more like an English grammar lesson than a chapel talk. We’re going to talk about the word “come.” What kind of a word is come? A noun? A verb? A preposition? Who knows? It’s a verb. How do you know this? Conjugate it. I come, you come, he, she or it comes.
But what if we talk about coming to school yesterday? I --- came to school yesterday, or last week, or last year, or long ago, when I was just five years old. That’s called past tense. It happened in the past.
What if we talk about coming to school tomorrow? You will come to school tomorrow. You will come next week, you will come back to school in January after Christmas vacation. You all will keep coming to this school, and then high school, and then college, for many, many years. When we say “will come,” that’s future tense. It’s in the future.
We’re going back to our Advent time machine now. When we are inside this Advent time machine, celebrating Advent, we talk about Jesus in the past, the present, and the future. We go back to the past and say, “He came.” He came to earth long ago, as a little baby. A lot of people were waiting for him to come, because God had promised to send a Savior. So besides thinking about how Jesus came in the past, we also read about the people who were waiting for Jesus to come. Jesus’ coming was in the future for them, even though it’s in the past for us. (Got that? Today is yesterday’s tomorrow.)
We also think about Jesus coming in the future when we are in this time machine that we call Advent. We say, Jesus will come again. You remember that after Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven. But he told his disciples he would come back some day, and when he came he would come as a king, who would rule over a new kingdom, where there is peace and justice and love for everyone. Because we are inside this Advent time machine, we do things to help that new kingdom show up in the world right now. We take care of people who are less fortunate than we are. We take care of our world, of our planet. We pray for wars to stop.
We talked about the past tense—when Jesus came. We talked about the future—Jesus will come again. What haven’t we talked about yet? The present. How Jesus comes to us right now. And since we don’t really live in a time machine—we can only live in the present—this might be the most important part.
How does Jesus come to us right now, during Advent? Will you watch for Jesus coming today? Maybe you will see Jesus in your friend’s smile. Maybe you will see Jesus in a teacher. Or Jesus will come to you as you pray, or when you sing. In our first hymn today, which we sang as we lit the Advent candle, we sang “Christ is coming soon.” That doesn’t mean when we tell the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. That doesn’t mean sometime in the future. It means now, today. Watch!
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Death is on my mind, grief and grieving. I went to a college chapel service this morning where we prayed for a young woman, mother of two children, whose husband was killed in a car accident. The preacher in his sermon spoke of a promising college student who'd had to quit school to help support her mother and siblings after her father died. The litany at the close of the service mentioned those widowed and orphaned, a group that now includes me.
In my mind, I've practiced saying "I'm a widow." I try to say it brightly, in a way that makes me sound interesting: "Actually, I'm a widow--" Like I can be upbeat about it, because I'm over this, I've moved on, the sad part is in the past. In truth, if someone I was meeting for the first time asked about my marital status, I would probably sound almost apologetic: "I'm, like, a widow. . . . Yeah, my husband died in September, but it--it's okay. I'm okay." I'd fumble my way through the answers to follow-up questions. Even if I tried very hard, I would not be very convincing with the "moved-on" attitude, though I might move the conversation quickly on to something else.
It is hard to count myself among the widowed and orphaned, to be at the receiving end of concern and pity. Hard to repeat a standard answer to the question, "How are you doing?" to everyone who asks. Hard to listen when others project their own grief experiences onto me. Hard even to look closely at my own grief.
I learned this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins via a musical setting by Ned Rorem.
Spring and Fall
to a young child
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Here is an excerpt from Rorem's song, sung by Donald Gramm.
I am not a young child, like the Margaret of the poem, who grieves over fallen golden leaves and "things of man" that pass away. I know that few things last, that last year's good times cannot be recreated next year, that children grow up and grow away, that change is the one constant in life. I also know that I will get through the winter, see light and new birth in the darkest days of December, and rejoice when the grape arbor in the back yard turns pink with budding leaves next May.
But still I mourn--a husband, a life, years lost to Alzheimer's, loss of security in home and family. I wonder how these things can pass away. I wonder what will replace them. I wonder if a loving God will untie the knot in my throat and the one in my gut. I wonder what words like "redeemed" and "eternity" mean to my husband now. Do human words have anything to do with life in eternity?
It should be so obvious that we all die. Are Abraham and King David alive and well and living in Tel Aviv? Is John Marshall here to advise the Roberts Court on how to interpret the Constitution? People are born, they grow old, they die to make room for more of the same.
We're coming up on the end of the post here. Where I quote from the last act of Our Town, or from the end of The Once and Future King (the favorite Camelot novel of my youth--"some of those drops do sparkle," more or less). Here's where I consider, for myself, what it is that gives life this side of the grave enough weight, enough meaning, enough joy, to soften the hard angles of death.
What does Scripture say? You could read 1 Corinthians 15, Paul's long argument about Christ, the first fruits of the dead, and the perishable body putting on imperishability--the classic Easter/funeral chapter. Paul finishes strong, no mean rhetorician he: "O death, where is thy sting?" and "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
But the promise of immortality seems like a huge leap from Hopkins' "blight man was born for." The distant trumpets of heaven are faint comfort when there's an empty place in a family home. What can fill the vast space in between earth and heaven?
To know the answer, ask what it was that made Christ the first fruits of the dead, what brought our Lord and God to the cross to die, becoming "wanwood leafmeal" like us?
Love. Pure, simple, radiant. We live on even as we mourn, because of divine love, which we see not just in the promise of the resurrection, but--thanks be to God--breaking into our life on earth.
Friday, September 08, 2006
It is hard to explain this to people who either A) go into a panic at the mention of anything involving needles and fiber; or B) think "crafty" pastimes are trivial and simple-minded. It's odd that knitting occupies this "between place"--frighteningly complex to some, barely worth the notice of others.
Each project has a history--for whom, why, how, when and where it was made. My most vivid knitting memories are of where I sat and worked on something--the old couch in the playroom of my childhood home, the bed in my college dorm room, the end of the sofa or the chair in the window. Some projects are connected to events--rehearsals for a certain show, the older or younger son's basketball season, doctors' appointments. Putting on a sweater or even socks I have made recalls the time when that yarn and work filled my hands, my lap and my knitting bag.
I learned to knit when I was eight, and most of the time since then, I've had something on my needles. It may have been languishing in a tote bag or on a shelf without being worked on, but my knitting is there, waiting for me to finish it, waiting for a time when I need to knit.
Knitting creates a kind of industrious peace. It is a way to stay awake while watching TV and a way to calm myself before going to bed. Have I ever fallen asleep with needles in hand? Yes.
Some people say they meditate or pray when they knit. Some knit prayer shawls to comfort the sick and dying and to shield new parents and others embarking on great adventures. Sometimes I knit gifts to mark important occasions for family members and friends, but the finished product often arrives late. I don't knit on deadlines. I do knit for friends to thank them for their presence in my life.
And now a word about ripping. I must interrupt this pleasant post to report that I just ripped out six inches--two full repeats--of a complicated celtic cable pattern. I have finished the left front of the cardigan, and I am working on the right, but when I set up the pattern for this side, I followed the wrong chart. The cables were the same as the ones on the left side, rather than their mirror image. Would this have been noticed by anyone but me? Yes, designs like this should be symmetrical and I'm not the only one who surreptitiously checks other people's garments for this quality. Besides, this is an heirloom sweater for an 18-year-old niece who has been closely involved in its design. It will take as long as it will take.
But hey, it's only yarn. Pull out the stitches, wind the charcoal grey wool back into a ball, and get it right the next time. Give me a week or less and I'll knit those six inches again and enjoy doing it. But now you see why I don't knit for deadlines.
This week I'm knitting to feel more comfortable in my own skin as I take in the changes and look again at the sorrow connected to my husband's death at the end of many years with Alzheimer's. One of the prayers early in the memorial service for him on Wednesday night asked God to knit together his people. I hadn't noticed this in other funerals I'd been to and checking the Lutheran Book of Worship shows that it's not in the text for the Burial of the Dead. Guess somebody put it there just for me.
But here's another confession: I know too much about knitting to go along with the "knit us together, Lord" metaphor. Where does it come from? I ran a search on "knit" and came up with this in Ephesians 4:15-16:
"But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love."
A mouthful, thank you, Paul.
There are some problems here. According to fiber historians, there was no knitting in the first century. So what word did Paul use really? The New Jerusalem Bible says "fitted and joined together," which makes more sense to me. Knitting uses one long strand of yarn to make fabric. It doesn't join lots of parts together (well, there is the three-needle bind-off, but that's a technical detail we don't need to go into here).
"Fitted and joined" suggests a cabinetmaker at work and some trimming, planing, and sanding that has to happen for things to come together properly. "Fitted and joined" also suggests piecing and quilting, where the quilter collects fabrics, cuts shapes, joins them together and makes something new. something that warms, covers and encloses. The designs, even when carefully planned, can surprise you. Paul was a tentmaker. Fitting and joining with scissors and stitches would have been skills that lived in his fingers.
The search for "knit" in the bible turned up another reference in Psalm 139:13:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I like the idea of being God's project, whether it's quilting, knitting, or cabinetry. I hope the process of knitting me together brings God some genuine pleasure.
Saturday, September 02, 2006
Those words cover a lot of ground--seven, eight, maybe nine years in which the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's confused and then destroyed Lon's mind. I should say his brain, because that's where the anatomical disaster struck. Mind is something else, but something hard to describe. Perhaps it's the content encoded in all those neurons and neurotransmitters, content that was obscured by Alzheimer's. Maybe it's the "ether' of the brain, to use a word from the nineteenth century (or earlier). Webster's first definition for ether is "an imaginary substance regarded by the ancients as filling all space beyond the sphere of the moon, and making up the stars and planets." Go small with this concept and you have a mysterious something in the infinitely small spaces between nerve endings, the spaces between brain cells, inside molecules and between the particles of atoms--something that makes structures come to life.
Ether, anatomy, biochemistry--I don't know much about any of these. But I watched while Lon struggled with the complexities of daily life, of a job, of relationships. He lost the ability to understand time, to count money, to write checks and pay bills. He lost the ability to write--to be accurate when writing for the newspaper. Journalism was his career, his passion, his vocation. But rather than journalist, he preferred to be called a newspaperman, or a reporter, an editor, a critic. These words said what he did. They were alive and active, with no pretentious "ism" behind them. But these parts of who he was were stripped away by the disease. He was relieved to stop working, to stop making those demands on his mind.
The world no longer made sense to him. No, that's not quite right. His brain kept trying to make sense of what he saw and of what happened around him, but what his mind created was at odds with what everyone else knew to be true and real. He attacked the pictures on video boxes. Our tall but gentle younger son was greeted with a raised and shaking fist. People wearing Cubs jerseys made him angry. When he wet his pants he blamed the guy who came in and threw water on him.
Through all of this, Lon's mother worried about the humiliation he must have felt. For the Lon of old to have known what would happen to him would have been devastating. He could not have borne becoming an impotent object of pity. In the early years of this battle with Alzheimer's, I was angry with Lon for many, many reasons. He, for his own deeply personal reasons, could not tell me what was happening inside his head. We fought bitterly, with no resolution, and he would sometimes exclaim, "Just shoot me. Why don't you just shoot me?"
The deepening dementia relieved his frustration. The depression lifted. The eager-to-please child that he carried inside appeared as the responsibilities and prerogatives of adulthood faded. The fog of Alzheimer's enveloped him, comforted him. and finally carried him away.
Yesterday evening, I stopped to use the phone at my family's church, where my younger son is an eighth grader in the parish school and where I direct children's choirs. There was an envelope waiting for me, full of die-cut paper angels with messages written on them by students in the sixth grade. Many were addressed by name to one of my three children, and they said things like "God is watching over you" and "You are not alone."
One in particular made me smile. It said, "God will not leave you astray." It's a malapropism, a confusion of words because of the resemblance in their sounds. Did the child mean "God will not lead you astray"? Or perhaps "God will not leave you alone"? This one was addressed to my older son, who at nineteen, has plenty of opportunities to go astray, though I am confident he will come through this great grief in one piece, compassionate beyond his years.
Still, that sentence sticks in my mind: God will not leave you astray. Lon was astray in so many different ways and places through all these years with Alzheimer's. Sometimes literally he was lost and not sure how to get home. He was increasingly astray in the ether of his mind, because the neuron pathways in his brain were twisted and obscured. He was astray spiritually, when the thing he counted on most in life--his intelligence--left him.
But God did not leave him astray. God was there in the fog. God granted him peace and people who cared for him, most importantly in these last days, caregivers at the nursing home who sincerely loved him. And God led him home.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
This morning I spilled coffee down the front of my white shirt. The top on the cup leaked and dripped, unknown to me. I looked down and saw a teardrop-shaped stain three inches in diameter.
Makes you want to go home and start over. Or go home and stay.
Instead I kept on with the work in front of me. I changed to a black t-shirt offered by a friend, the church youth director. It had a bible reference on the back--3 John 1:5--in pink letters and said "making the faith visible" and "message remix." I'll get the bible out and look up the verse.
Can't say that I've ever read the 15 verses of 3 John and after having read them, I can't say that I see the point of verse 5. The words on the page are thin and sharp and the effort it took to read them has sent the headache pain into my neck and shoulders.
Bleach may remove the coffee stain from my white v-neck t-shirt. Or it may not. Sleep will cure the headache. A little yoga in the morning may help with the struggle of getting through the day. And I did find something in the 11th verse of 3 John:
"Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God."
An imitation, we think, is a bad thing--a knock-off, second-rate, not the genuine article. We pride ourselves on being genuine, on being authentic, on being who we are, not who others want or expect us to be. So what's good about imitating what is good? (I'm starting to sound like Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.)
Art imitates life. Art creates images. If I am to imitate what is good, I should make images of the good. (Oh, gosh, am I now imitating Plato? Or Aristotle?) I should be a good vocal example to the children in my choir tomorrow, and that means I have to warm-up in a good way tomorrow.
Ultimately, what is good is God, or is from God. Seems simple. But making an image, a living image is complicated, detailed, an experiment.
I'll let you know how tomorrow goes.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
First, the story: I was editing copy for some publicity material for my church. The copy included a three-part trinitarian statement of what the congregation believed about an important facet of its ministry. The language was a little overblown and a bit dated, and the origins of the statement were uncertain, and this led me to ask some questions, via email, of our pastors and two other congregational leaders.
I knew I was being a pain in the butt. I was supposed to be finishing the publicity brochure, not questioning essentials, much less asking whether the essentials were truly essential. But hey, I believe that words should be carefully chosen, because someday, someone is going to take them to mean exactly what they say. Graphic designers who say they know, because they prepare lots of printed material, tell me that nobody reads all that grey type. But this does not dissuade me from considering how specific words will be read by the various individuals who encounter them.
In sending these essential questions around, I did what I often do when I'm afraid that being too smart and too critical is going to make me unpopular: I added humor. Ingratiating, self-mocking humor. The idea is that if I can let you know that I know I'm being a pain, maybe you won't hate me.
So the email went out with a subject line that read "Questions from a perverse Lutheran" and an introductory paragraph that turned the refrain in Luther's Small Catechism "This is most certainly true" into a question--"Is this most certainly true?"
The questions I asked did not get resolved. They were good questions, but were postponed to a vague group process in the vague future. But this was not the end of the Perverse Lutheran. When all the emailing was done and we were all politely acknowledging and thanking each other, one person wrote to me, "I like questions from a perverse Lutheran. It sounds like the title for a blog."
I had hoped to be clever in this blog, to turn established thinking on its ear and have fun upsetting whatever monuments of Lutheranism, substantial and otherwise, seemed ripe for the picking. I hoped to write quickly and casually enough that mixed metaphors (refer to the previous sentence) flew by uncorrected by self-editing. I saw myself writing more from the head than the heart, attempting to razzle-dazzle 'em, rather than play on their emotions..
It hasn't turned out that way. (Perverse, huh?) So many questions come from the heart, not the intellect. The head gets involved when something doesn't feel right in the gut. The brain, with its creeping branches of neurons, tries to organize our visceral reactions. It is the higher organ. It likes to think it's on a journey that makes sense, that follows a discernible path, that has a goal. We need this kind of understanding, but . . ..
Too often, in religious thinking, the head's efforts to explain life and speak for God produce answers that defy or deny the heart's reality. Received religion may tell the believer's heart what it should be feeling or what it should give up and confess, shamed by God's goodness and power. The Lutheranism of my chilldhood did this. It was "stiff upper lip" Lutheranism, the kind where you said, I have faith, I can face anything, and then worried that something would happen one day that would reveal your cowardice and the whole Christian community would know that your faith was not strong at all and that you weren't worthy to be called Christian.
I try not to tell my heart all the time that it is wrong. This makes my troubles more complicated. (The Complicated Lutheran--that would be another great name for a blog.) But it recognizes that much of what the head is doing, even sometimes its most rational thought, is just an attempt to make sense of the feelings that begin in the gut or the brainstem or what we call the heart. This is not all that perverse an idea for a Lutheran. Luther's great drive to proclaim the gospel came from his own gut-wrenching experience of feeling guilty before God.
Faith, to me, is not about trying to be good. It is about seeking, speaking, testing, and feeling truth.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Is it better to not read the paper, not listen to the radio, and to avoid animated kids’ movies? What difference does it make to the world if I have an opinion on the polarization of American politics or on healthcare reform? Even if I launch that opinion into the blogosphere, who will care, especially if that opinion is expressed quietly, in nuanced language, with respect for those with other ideas? And on the home front, can someone like me, who can't even achieve mastery over the weeds--the big ones--in the backyard, make sense of health insurance, retirement accounts, or the best deals on phones and internet access?
I suppose this next paragraph could be the one where I take refuge in spiritual insight, or at least in a spiritual question, a spiritual slant on life that transcends the mundane stress and despair of daily living. Something about eternal truth or nothing new under the sun. I could call up imagery from my vacation on that island in Lake Michigan, where the view of water stretching to the horizon and clouds floating in the infinite sky above never fails to invoke in me the psalmist's reaction to a similar sight: "Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens."
But how do I fall back on that love as a safety net in a world where plenty of sentient human beings just like me starve or die from AIDS or watch their children suffer and get into enormous trouble? Disaster can follow disaster within even one small life. My own future holds plenty of questions marks, and I know it is arrogant and wrong to see one's own prosperity as a sign of God's favor. Or to view one’s troubles as God’s wrath or judgment. It’s not just theologically simplistic, it’s dangerous.
I started this post with my morning coffee, but it is now early evening. I’ve been to church, been to lunch, had a beer, and finished off two (count them, two!) tedious tasks that took too much time. I’ve been busy, trying to pack down my anxiety one step at a time.
The sermon this morning, by the excellent Craig Satterlee, circled around two themes: that a little knowledge of God can limit our ability to experience all that God is, and that God is super-substantial, far more than we can know.
So I must go back and reconsider that love stretching to the infinite heavens. It is more than justice, more than right or wrong, beyond loss or gain or human success or sorrow. It is infinitely small as well as bigger than the universe. Specific and universal. It may not give me the confidence to confront life’s petty details and come out a winner. But if I take a deep breath, stop rehearsing my own worries over and over again in my mind, and go fold some laundry, I think I will remember that it is enough. It is more than enough.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. Ephesians 2:14, 19
As has been the case for many Sundays now, I was not concentrating all that well on what the pastor was saying. My mind was jumping forward to the afternoon and its performance of The Music Man. I am the director of a summer, community/church-based production of Meredith Willson’s “valentine to small-town America.” We’ve been rehearsing on Sunday afternoons, starting at 1:00 p.m., which means that my 11:30 a.m., sitting-in-church thoughts have inevitably tended toward what needed to be accomplished with my cast in the afternoon.
So the walls that flashed into my mind during last Sunday’s pre-performance sermon were from Harold Hill’s “Trouble” reprise: “Oh, think, my friends, what a handful of trumpet players did to the famous, fabled walls of Jericho/Oh, billiard parlor walls come a-tumbling down.”
Small fictional potatoes compared to, say, walls between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East (which is where the sermon ended up)? Sure. Music Man is a microcosm kind of musical—it doesn’t take on big or complicated issues. It’s just the fun story of people in a small town in 1912 who get caught up in the excitement created by a con man’s vision of a River City Boys’ Band.
But the sudden interest in culture—barbershop singing, ladies’ Del Sarte programs, everyone singing Beethoven’s Minuet in G and dancing the Shipoopi—does bring down walls in River City. Down comes the wall between the mayor’s daughter and a boy from the other side of the tracks. Down come the walls between bickering school board members, walls erected long ago for reasons probably long forgotten. Down come the walls between the married ladies and the snippy young spinster. And down comes that wall between the con man, with his dashingly crude pick-up lines (“I’ve got some wonderful caramels over at the hotel”) and that snippy single lady, who sees right through him at first, and then looks deeper and sees something more.
Near the end of the show, Harold, dressed in a white summer suit, is arrested and led off to appear before the citizens of River City—which is kind of a Christ-like image. It frightens me to say that—way too heavy an analysis for a fun summer show--and way more than any actor playing Harold Hill should even think about. (Forget you read it, Brandon.) But there it is.
Of course, Harold is far from holy. Yet he is saved at the end by a miracle, a transformation that is part “Think System” and part the faith of the woman who loves him. But it’s not just romantic love that delivers the big pay-off at the end of the show. What Harold brings to town—or maybe just brings out in the people there—is genuine love and affection, the kind that flows from the open hearts of people who recognize, respect, and appreciate one another’s virtues and flaws.
Meredith Willson wrote that kind of love into the characters in this show, because he had that kind of respect for the peopl he was remembering from his boyhood. My huge, wonderful company of performers (47 of them, plus crew) makes that love and respect come alive onstage, and backstage as well.
Which is kind of a “household of God” thing.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
I'm afraid of not being able to sleep, and I knew that chances of sleeping well last night were not good. So I made a point of winding down before going to bed. I watched TV and talked to my son for a while, did some gentle yoga, answered a few very short emails, cleared away some dishes, and then I went to bed with a book--a boring one.
I dozed off quickly, but then I woke up and started to worry. Dozed off again, woke up, stayed awake, read, worried some more. Thanks to the yoga, my body felt relaxed during all of this, but my mind could not let go and sleep. I was gripped by a big, tense hand that wrapped around me as I shivered under the covers. it gave me a good shake every now and then, just to be sure I was still awake and paying attention to my problems.
I prayed during the night. Prayed for quick answers, for the telephone to ring with news tomorrow. I prayed for wisdom to recognize slow, transcendent answers, prayed about my guilt about being lazy, shy, fake. I prayed for the drug of sleep to creep through my veins and turn off the recordings playing in my brain.
Then I worried and wondered about these prayers. The basic theme was "God, show up right now and help me (even though I'm not sure that I'm the kind of person who believes you're going to do that)."
What should we pray for? God's will be done. Help me accept what your will is, O God. (And by the way, could your will for me please include a happy ending for my problems?) Make me mindful of your presence. Remind me to be grateful. (And if I'm grateful enough, will you give me what I want right now?) Your kingdom come, O Lord. (With peace and justice for all, and a good seat for me.)
These are my selfish little prayers, prompted by tossing, turning and trying to warm my feet in the night. The fear of things not going so well in the days ahead puts a hard edge on prayer. No spiritual niceties, no praying for a deeper faith. Just fix this now, so I can stop feeling so uncomfortable.
I wish I could report that insight and a better attitude arrived with the dawn, or that these signs of spiritual maturity arrived at all. The day dawned, the alarm rang, just as it seemed that sleep was finally within my grasp. I dragged my body downstairs to the bathroom, on bare feet because I couldn't find my smelly, easy-to-slide-into navy blue summer slides. I considered skipping the coffee so that I could go back to bed after getting kids off to day camp and summer school.
But I never skip coffee. I stayed awake and tackled jobs that needed to be done. Unpleasant jobs, such as sorting through the medical bills, making phone calls, cleaning my desk. I tried to take a nap in the late afternoon, but as things turned out, I read, dozed off and was awakened by the telephone.
The work I did today may have sown the seeds for solutions to some of the problems I worried about last night. My sleep-deprived numbness made it easier to just keep doing what needed to be done, without my brain running off to play or exaggerate the difficulty.
An answer to prayer?
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Asked my 19-year-old son for a topic and that's what he gave me. He and his younger brother went to the driving range today, with their garage sale golf clubs--girls' clubs, I'm told, but how would I have known that when I bought them? Things did not go well at first at the driving range. It's been a year since they've done this. But then, they said they remembered Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler in a movie, not someone on the PGA tour) and how he said to put your hips into it. The balls took off.
Golf. How did they learn anything about that? There are no golfing parents in this house. Yet any mother of sons, any Cub Scout den leader, can tell you that boys have a natural affinity for swinging sticks around and hitting things. There's a broken window in our basement that can attest to this. So forget the idea that golf is a product of civilization, course designers, and lawn mowers. No, that whacking instinct is utterly natural. That same urge to use the explosive power of the body to force an object to fly through space also explains baseball. And spiking in volleyball. And all that dribbling, spinning, leaping, and turning that finally propels the ball through the net in basketball.
I don't have these urges. Never did. The closest thing I've ever had to an athletic obsession involved a balance beam routine in high school. No believe me, there was no careless leaping there. At the moment I have a pretty good case of tennis elbow, but I did not get it from hitting balls around the court. It's from snapping my fingers while conducting. It won't go away because I aggravate it every time I sit down to knit. Here, however I do have something in common with professional athletes: I can knit through pain.
Still, I love to watch my sons play Frisbee or shoot hoops in the backyard. An email survey sent by a friend once asked for my favorite sport. "Whatever Kurt is playing at the moment," I said. When Kris was his age we watched him play soccer and speed from one end of the field to the other, challenging guys much bigger than he was. When they play Frisbee, they run, dive, and jump after a disk that often spins by off in unexpected directions. Oh to be young--and have that much faith in your body.
These guys need space. If all this energy erupts late at night in the kitchen, while a certain thirteen-year-old is waiting for the pizza rolls to come out of the toaster oven, dishes may break. Heads may crack--not that he notices. This kid has bruises and scrapes up and down his legs, arms, shoulders, and he doesn't know where they come from--which headlong dive into the dirt caused which area of damage.
Spirits live in bodies. We don't actually know of any other places they live. In yoga, you put the physical body on, around the breath body, and then they move together, motion activated by breathing. That's about the extend of my athleticism, these days. But when you get it all working right, you soar, just like the ball when you put your hips into the golf swing. It's so satisfying, so pleasing.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Can you see the whole world from rural New Hampshire? That's where Donald Hall lives and writes. Is his home up on a hill, with a less obstructed view of the horizon than I see from my window overlooking backyards in suburban Chicago? How can one man's gaze take in the whole world? How does one connect the inner world of the mind, where sentences are formed and experience is questioned, with how the big world works?
Artists, writers, and performers both specify and generalize. Anne Lamott, in Plan B and her other collections of essays, skids across the page, veering wildly from her own quirky, narcissistic existence to statements summing up how God works in the world. There's a whole genre out there that I'd call "And isn't that a lot like life?" Fill in pretty much whatever you want--knitting, quilting, daily walks, childrearing, schooling. Sewing together little bits of cloth or ripping out six inches of lacework is supposed to reflect some larger pattern, or steel the soul for encounters with Big Issues.
Does anyone write down observations about banking and life, or playing the stock market and life? Or do the people who do those things take it for granted that what they do is real life? Does the poetic urge in some of us--the urge to organize the material of experience into an object or a performance or a blog--live alongside the assumption that what we do day in and day out somehow must hook up with a larger purpose?
Glory. Why can't I just write about recipes or something? Of course, I couldn't type up my chocolate chip cookie recipe without commenting that it comes from my sainted Aunt Clara who clipped the original from the Chicago Tribune and then tested and refined it before passing it on. It is a recipe held in reverence by me and my sisters, and no matter how deep a ditch I might try to dig around it, some observation about family, food, and childhood memory would leap out from the list of ingredients and start a little brush fire somewhere else, one that would crackle away with "Isn't that a lot like life?"
A gaze that takes in the entire world, of course, processes data from many more sources than one life or one family's traditions--almost an infinite number of sources. There are worlds of politics, economics, development in Africa, art installations in Paris, and censorship in China. There's the world you would see swimming with the fishes on a coral reef northwest of Kauai and another one to be found in the human genome. That variety of topics and more can be found just in one day's headlines (today's).
What protects a poet from being overwhelmed by the many specific stories that crowd his gaze, each with its own unique details? Drawing a little lesson from each one would produce a surfeit of shallow truths. Zooming in to let the subject speak its own truth might be more in line with the aesthetic of a 20th or 21st century poet. Giving up, living one's own small life, unchallenged by a wide-world gaze, is another option.
Those neurons in our brains, however, insist on hooking up. The wide world we gaze on may be no more than an illusion constructed by those neurons and neurotransmitters, in response to sensory stimuli. Oh, cripes, was my real calling philosophy? I am getting all weirded out, like when I was a child and would lie in bed at night wondering if I was really a robot, experiencing things that were not real at all.
Words on paper, or on a computer screen, seem real. The struggle I am having with them this morning is real enough. My neighbor's fence and bushes and the blue and white garage beyond her yard don't offer much in terms of gazing at the world, but they remind me to look beyond the mess of papers and bills on my desk. Maybe I need a birdfeeder, too, on this corner of the house. Then I could contemplate the consciousness of little brown sparrows.God's eye is on them.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
That's a line from James Agee's poem "Sure on This Shining Night." I know it from an exquisitely legato song setting by Samuel Barber. It seems to describe today, June 14th. Not quite summer by the calendar, the day is nevertheless everything you could want from the season: warm, green, gentle, promising. The birds sing, and this afternoon, Jack the dog will take her nap in warm sunshine, on the lawn chair on the patio, rather than on the couch in the darkened living room.
Barber's vocal line soars over the beating heart of repeated chords in the song's accompaniment, while the words describe "hearts all healed" and kindness and wonder. Many important words in the poem begin with h: high, holds, healed, hearts, health--each one exhaled, each one a letting-go. High summer holds the earth, and we walk in that blessed space beneath sky and stars, where kindness watches us, as Agee says, "this side the ground." It is a space that, to me, seems to be filled with God's love, explicitly in the molecules of oxygen that I breathe, in the humidity of the air that touches my skin. In high summer, gentle, nurturing love seems suspended in the atmosphere, and even in the grey of winter, the cold air that reddens cheeks and freezes fingers enfolds me with God's care. The Psalmist says, "Your tender love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens," and that is a vast and infinite love.
Listen to the song here: Sure on This Shining Night
Saturday, June 10, 2006
The liturgical color for Pentecost is red, yet the color for the Pentecost season is green. Red and green sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Mix them together and you get a muddy brown. The red of Pentecost stands for fire, as we pray God to "kindle in us the fire of your love." Green is the color of plants that are getting plenty of water--not the kind that go up in flames in the late summer dry season.
So what can we make of these opposed colors? Plants are green because of the pigment chlorophyll, which absorbs light from the sun. That absorbed energy powers photosynthesis, the chemical reactions that transform water and carbon dioxide into glucose, food for the plant. (Food for us, too, and the herds of cattle that become steak and ice cream.) We absorb the sunshine of God's love, all the energy of Pentecost's wind and fire, and it turns the ordinary material of our lives into nourishment. We live and flourish because of the fire kindled by God's love--Pentecost red transformed into the green of the Sundays after Pentecost.
That's all pretty abstract. But as I sit here at the computer looking out the window at all the "volunteer trees" in my yard, weedy things that grow as tall as the house in a single summer, lush green growth is real to me. I don't fertilize these things or water them. They just grow, fed by air and sunlight and the water from the downspouts after rainstorms. If only my soul flourished so readily.
Ah, that Pentecost red is also the color of the blood of saints and martyrs, which has nourished the Church through the centuries. Red stands in for pain, suffering and sacrifice. We are not plants that develop from air, earth and water, that are lifted by the wind and battered by rain and hail, yet feel nothing. Passion flows through our veins--the passionate love of God and each other, the love of the sun and the earth, the love of truth and justice. Passion makes us act, not always wisely, not always rightly. It burns, like fire, warms us and lights the way, but it also destroys, without caution or control.
So what lies ahead in the next 5-6 months of Sunday mornings, as we listen to Gospel lessons from Mark about Jesus's life on earth, followed by sermons on what Christ's ministry means for our lives? Does the Spirit's pentecostal fire inspire passion or give energy for steady, daily growth? Both, of course, in the same way that making art or making anything requires both enthusiasm and discipline. Inflame our hearts, Lord, but also set off that steady chain of chemical reactions that turns energy and light into food for ourselves and for others.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
But do I know what I think about any of this? Does any of it matter? What to write about? Oh, gosh. I'm clearing my throat again, hemming and hawing instead of coming up with a direct and interesting first sentence.
My husband, in his reporting and writing days, would think up his lead before he sat down to write the story. This meant that on some weekday mornings he was in the shower for a very long time, but when he emerged from the bathroom, he knew what he was going to say. If it was an idea he really liked and felt compelled to share, I'd have to weigh in on it while packing lunches and finding the kids' shoes. My reaction was usually something along the lines of "Yeah, good idea. Sure." (Critical thinking is not compatible with multitask mothering, especially while the coffee is still brewing,)
I've tried to emulate his good example, often with success. But I can't think of first sentences in the shower. Shower-thinking, for me, is 85 percent emotion--great for coming up with arguments and rationalizations, but not too good for rational thinking. My best first sentences are thought up behind the wheel of the car. Maybe it's the need to consider all those other drivers on the road that focuses my attention on presenting my experiences to others. Or maybe it's just the boredom of driving laps around my suburb, from school to supermarket to home.
Is thinking and driving as dangerous as talking on a cell phone while driving? I don't think so. Phone conversations yank the mind here and there with news and petty irritations. They demand attention. Thinking is a slow and steady climb up a rocky mountain, with frequent pauses to adjust your socks or look about you. It's a lot easier to stop thinking than it is to stop talking, and very easy to be distracted from a thought that's not going anywhere. Flip down the turn signal, complete that left turn, and your mind as well as your vehicle may take off in a new direction.
I have noticed that thinking while driving may affect the car in funny ways. One morning, while taking my daughter to school, I was thinking about a knitting problem, and the car decided to go to the yarn store, rather than the middle school. Go figure.
I've run on for too long without stumbling into a topic. Will tomorrow's errands be sufficient time for me to think?
Friday, April 21, 2006
A friend spoke today of recent events and conversations in her family and how she felt they must all fit together. She just didn't know how. It was enough, for now, to put them away, like puzzle pieces, and save them all together in the same box. One day, when she knows more about the whole picture, she will be able to put them together, in three dimensions--not just the flat drag-and-drop of the computer monitor--and understand her life in a new way.
"O Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, through paths as yet untrodden through perils unknown."
That's from one of the prayers in the Lutheran Book of Worship's Evening Prayer service. I think it is older than the LBW. It comes, perhaps, from the Book of Common Prayer?
I love the rhythm of the words, how the syllables keep moving forward through the paths and perils and "un" words, like the repetitive shapes of puzzle pieces scattered in confusion across the table. Indeed, we "cannot see the ending." We don't know what that final picture will look like.
We had Mark's Gospel last Sunday for the Easter story--with the abrupt final verses of the book: "And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid." (RSV) (The NRSVs seem to walk away from my desk like they've got feet.)
"They" were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They took some puzzle pieces with them as they fled the tomb: the rolled-back stone, the young man dressed in white, words like "risen" and "goes before you to Galilee." Trembling and astonished as they were, they tucked these bits of information away in the back of their minds and said nothing to no one.
At least for a while. Something new was happening.
As servants of God we are called to keep moving forward, though we cannot see the ending. Wait a second--forward is pretty much the only way we can go. Time moves in only one direction, at least from where we human beings are standing. It's scary going forward, when we cannot see how the pieces fit. God our Creator endowed us with minds that endlessly try to make sense of things--even at 4 a.m.--but the insight doesn't always fall into place just because we're trying.
The prayer ends: "Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Led by God's hand, pushed along by God's love, seeing where we're going doesn't matter. Pieces of the puzzle may click into place as we pass by, or as sometimes happens to me on Jigzone, the browser quits and the puzzle vanishes when it is only half done.
My friend doesn't have all the answers to her life. I'm looking at lots of questions myself. But courage! Something new is happening.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Easter follows the full moon--the first full moon after the vernal equinox. In other words, the first full moon of spring. How delightfully pagan that this most Christian of days is subject to the cycles of the moon.
The moon grows full as the days lengthen and the smell of awakening earth weighs on the night air. The sequence leads inevitably to Holy Week and Easter.
Moonlight meant more in the days before streetlights. You could walk home by the light of the moon. It made the darkness less dangerous.
Did moonlight shine in the Garden of Gethsemane the night that Jesus was arrested, as he prayed? Did it light the streets as he was hauled from priests to Herod to PIlate? Did the light of the moon allow the crowd to gather, allow the people to see each other's faces, so that they fed off each other's fears and became an angry mob? Did the moon rise the next night over the new tomb?
Light is not benign. Sunlight can bleach fabric and burn skin. Moonlight casts sharp shadows where friends watch, wait, betray. Yet we seek light when we want to know what's true. Don't do things in secret, we say, do them in the light of day. Enlighten me. Light a candle and hope. Light makes things possible. My computer screen uses light to show me all the information on the internet.
Jesus said, I am the light of the world. But on Good Friday, he took that almighty light into darkness: the darkness that covered the whole earth, the darkness of the tomb, the impenetrable darkness of death. And brought it back triumphant on Easter Day.
Friday, April 07, 2006
There we were, slugging through Romans 8. Slugging, as in making our sluggish, slow, chapter-by-chapter, digression-by-digression way through the book. (After seven months we're on chapter eight.) We paused a while to consider the Holy Spirit's corner of the Trinity and to think, but not speak, of times when the Spirit has interceded for us with sighs too deep for words (v. 26). (Apparently it is hard to talk of those experiences--no words!) We went on to side-swipe predestination (v. 29-30). We scraped it a bit, but didn't stop to make the full accident report.
But something happened in the middle of all this amateur theologizing. I forget just when, and I don't remember why. But the woman who was speaking had to stop for a moment. Her eyes focused on the wall, the ceiling, as she tried to collect herself. And then she spoke of something that has been bothering her. Deeply. Persistently.
We all listen. We want to help. What does she need? What can we say? We talk of anger, of quirky revelations, of emotional burdens, and of how the dull tasks of daily life provide no significant distraction from the passions that eat away at us from within.
But most tellingly, we talk of sharing the burden. Not the actual anger, worry, hatred and frustration tied to this one story. But the fury and the guilt and the fear of being consumed by it all. Let us take that, we say, and carry it for you until time can heal the other stuff. Till you can feel like yourself again.
"Let us do that for you." It was a familiar phrase. It echoed this woman's own words of comfort to someone else in a similar situation, months ago.
Another of those circle-the-wagons moments: "I don't know what you all will think of me." We said, "Think of you? Oh please, let us think well of you."
"I feel so alone" was the cry in the grey days of mid-winter. "Why do you have to bear it alone?" was the reply. "Let us carry it for you."
And so it goes. We rally around. No one person--not the pastor leading the group, no single stand-out saint--takes the lead. We circle around, and we all bring something to the communal pot: beans, cabbage, seasonings, a spoon, a ladle, garnish. Each gift is offered hesitatingly. Will this make good soup? Is this the right time to add this new thought? A little salt? A little of something else? Is it soup yet? Substantial enough for a soul in need?
We take great care, careful in the way that women are--careful not to offend, not to be offensive. We stay circled until the trail is safe again, for all us.
Eventually, with just a few minutes left before it was time to go, we charged ahead to the end of Romans 8, at full-speed, though we will have to go back and retrace our steps when next we meet. At the finish line was this great crescendo of a promise, one of Paul's best moments:
"For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."
With friends who pick up and carry our crosses for us, making themselves like Christ, even the nasty, brutish stuff inside us will not separate us from God's love.
Monday, April 03, 2006
I get stressed just thinking about all the ways I could organize my life better so that I will be less stressed.
But there were other ideas too. Ones that rely more on being quiet and less in control. Like "talk less, listen more." Laugh. Develop a forgiving attitude. Laugh some more.
And be grateful. The last item on the list says, "Every night before bed, think of one thing you're grateful for that you've never been grateful for before. GOD HAS A WAY OF TURNING THINGS AROUND FOR YOU. 'If God is for us, who can be against us?' (Romans 8:31)"
I wonder what the many different people who have received this email think of this divine promise at the end. What do they want turned around for them? A business? A relationship? A life? Or themselves?
I'm thinking that God doesn't turn "things" around for us nearly as often as God turns us around. God spins us in circles, like we're playing "Pin the Tail on the Donkey." Hands us things in life that confuse us, challenge us, surprise us. When we can again focus on the horizon, we see it differently.
Thinking of things you're grateful for that you've never been grateful for before is a way of saying, God, turn me around. Help me to see how you, God, are for me in all things. I am stressed as I struggle to get my life under control. Yet letting go and, as item 35 in the "Destress" list suggests, reminding myself that I am "not the general manager of the universe" frees me to see the grace of God at work.
Friday, March 31, 2006
A week's worth of stuff litters my desk. Books opened, referred to and abandoned. Forms filled out but not yet mailed. Schedules, a dirty glass, a pile of bills, and a frightening number of bright pink stickies, with penciled notes about things I simply must take care of or remember.
I've recently become much busier, which is good in many ways. But I have not had much time for thinking or being quiet or observing myself and the world. My busy-ness is very extroverted. It's like I'm the TV and I'm on. But I am so on that I fear that I am running out of material, like a sitcom limping into its seventh season. But I'm writing now, looking to see what's in my brain.
I'm reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. I've read many books about Lincoln. What got me going on this one was a trip yesterday to Springfield, Illinois, with my son, his teachers, and his junior high classmates. We saw the new Lincoln Museum (first time for me) and Lincoln's home (my fourth visit, if you don't count a memorable Sunday morning walk around the exterior last fall).
We then visited Lincoln's tomb, where the kids, a group of 40, were admonished to walk through silently, reverently, respectfully. Which they did.
In that four or five minutes of silence, entering the tomb, examining the statuary, trying to read the bronze tablets on the walls with the speeches, and finally looking at the tombstone, Lincoln came more alive for me than anywhere else in Springfield. His actual body lies beneath that heavy stone. The actual bodies of Mary and Willie and Tad and Eddie are sealed behind the stone wall opposite. Real people, not just the wax figures in a story told in a museum that struggles to be accessible, accurate and entertaining, all at once. Real people who walked through those rooms in that brown house. Who would look today and say, yes, the wallpaper was exactly like that, but we usually had the sofa over here.
This one man LIncoln stands at the center of the biggest story in American history, and the biggest continuing conflict: slavery, racism, and what it costs to achieve liberty and justice for all. I suppose the legend benefits from the assassination. Martyrdom is less controversial than decisions made while trying to govern. Yet he shouldered an enormous burden, placed on him by God or fate or necessity, kept his balance politically, and led the nation, while articulating what it all meant.
As I've being reading (Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk), I've realized that Lincoln is one of my models for writing. The book quotes heavily from letters and from poems Lincoln wrote. In the writing you see both the puzzling out of his own thoughts and the care for how his words will be interpreted by others. A style that says here's how it looks to me, let me help you understand my truth in your heart, and feel it, too, because of the rhythm and appeal of my words. And it's not just the perorations ("government of the people, by the people, for the people" "with malice toward none, with charity for all . . ."). It's the hard words, the hard ideas in that Second Inaugural: "And the war came" "'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" That is a fearless speech.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
But it is Sabbath and my mind needs a rest. Maybe it's better to bypass the thinking and relax. Where is it in the Bible that Jesus says someone--Pharisees, probably--think they will be heard for their "much speaking"? My "much thinking" must fall in the same category -- something that needs to be let go of sometimes. So no picking my way through all the ideas and images of the day to create complex connections. Instead, just a few words to take into the week.
Words from this morning's sermon, quoted from some ultra-Lutheran writing of the Reformation era. "God's love does not find what is attractive to it. It creates it."
More words, from a hymn sung this afternoon: "But when, within my place/ I must and ought to speak/Then to my words give grace."
The grace in the words comes from God's love, which has created them in me.
There have been times in my life when I have listened as others have found graceful words for critical moments. The word of comfort, the word that exhorts and persuades someone in trouble to accept help, the words that explain sad realities while protecting us from despair and confusion. I have spoken these words myself, to my friends, about their deepest troubles; to my children, about sorrows we share and about growing in good ways from those sorrows. And I have heard them spoken to me.
It is a remarkable experience to find those words, to hear them come from your mouth, even as they form in your brain. Somehow the circumstances that call for them are never situations I've rehearsed in my mind. I am forced to improvise, in the middle of other things. Exhale, relax the mind, listen with the heart, and let God's love create the words.
Okay, yeah, in moments like that my brain is still zinging around, editing, revising, searching for a theme. Trying to enter the other person's experience, to identify what she or he needs to hear, and find some truth that matches that need. Leave out the cruddy stuff. Share fears, don't feed them. And rely on the power of God's transforming love.
Monday, March 20, 2006
Orfeo--grief in C major. Orfeo is offered the chance to bring his beloved wife back from death, with the warning that she will die again if he looks at her face along the way. The Lyric production offered simple but stunning visual images of a funeral procession, of shrouded souls in Hades, of love and music reaching beyond death. But as Orfeo avoided looking at Eurydice, with sharp, hurtful movements, it became more painful for her to be with him than to be separated. Distance that grows between lovers's minds and hearts is more painful than physical separation. Eurydice died again, Orfeo mourned her ("Che faro senza Eurydice"--I sang this in college--"How shall I live without her?") Then the goddess of love reappears, brings Eurydice back to life as the lights change, and you get a domestically reassuring, though false, 18th century happy ending. Eighteenth century Reason will not tolerate the premature death of a beloved spouse.
The stark grey set, the naked emotion in the opera leaves room for feeling one's own way into the myth. Each of us will experience the death of loved ones in our lives. Yet somehow it comes as a shock, something we don't want to believe. Something we try to deny. Or, we journey with our loved one to the door of death, almost losing ourselves in the process, yet we, the living, must return to the reality of the everyday world leaving the beloved behind.
Unless the goddess intervenes.
The problem is, the happy ending on this opera, at least in this production, feels so wrong, so fake, so contrived.
And another problem: my Lutheran upbringing--or is it my reserved, polite stoical German upbringing--taught me to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of death. Because the one who has died has gone to a better place where there is no more sorrow. So why should we mourn? The sorrow is ours here on earth, and it's not productive to feel sorry for ourselves, is it?
Darn it all, I keep meaning to write something light and funny for this blog. And it all comes out so serious. Blame it on Lent.
Here's something funny related to the opera. Afterwards, as we waited for the elevator, person after person discovered that the call button would not light. People in the back of the crowd would remind people in front to push the call button again each time an elevator loaded up and left. The people in front would say, "But it doesn't light." And everyone could see this. But person after person (myself included) would get near that button and have to try it for themselves. LIke it was going to do something different this time. Like we could bring it back to life.
Conversation brought me to life this weekend: a talk-fest with friends over dinner, speechifying at the basketball party, where words in praise of players and coaches brought the fun and hard work of the season back to life. Arias and choruses, domestic drama, comedy, tragic doings that we don't understand but need to remember.
Friday, March 17, 2006
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
I have probably sung this hymn at least once every Lenten season since I was old enough to open a hymnbook and find the right page. In grade-school choir (grades 5-8 for me), we always sang a three- or four-part arrangement of this hymn on Ash Wednesday. I've sung othr tortuous arrangements in other years and in other choirs.
Tortuous? I don't mean to cast aspersions on the tune. I'm perfectly happy singing the melody here at my desk--quietly, a whole step lower than in the hymnal, tripping along at a sprightly tempo of my own choosing. The torture is in my personal experience of singing this with choirs and congregations, of fighting hard to keep the major third of the scale on the high side, to not let the pitch or the tempo sag, to make whole steps whole and half steps narrow, and then dig deep to find new energy and resolution for yet another stanza.
Funny how a hymn with "uncomplaining" in the title inspires all this complaining from me.
I complain well. Good verbal skills enable one to gripe and groan at a high level, even to make it entertaining. I suspect that my dislike of this hymn goes way back. The exasperated parent says, "And you'll do it without complaining!" And my childish mind says, "How fair is that? Make me do the dishes but don't deny me an outlet for asserting my own opinion."
Jesus, of course, has to show me up, ever the obedient Son to the Father who has set him on a difficult, even hopeless path. "To slaughter led without complaint" it says in The Lutheran Hymnal translation that I learned in childhood and that will persist in my memory all the way to the grave.
Again the focus of Lent becomes my failings. Which tends to be unproductive. I'm not saying that I don't have any failings, or even that I don't want to think about them. I often think about what's wrong with me. I'm impatient, lazy, fearful. I resist doing things that would be good for me. I get snarky about other people. All these things twist around in my mind and keep me from living a better life.
Boomer that I am--human being that I am--I do have a way of making everything all about me. But--surprise, surprise--the hymn is not about me. It's about God and God's son--at least the first three stanzas, with the Father speaking in stanza two ["Go down, my child" (LBW); "Go forth, My Son" (TLH)], and the son answering in stanza three ["Yes, Father, yea, most willingly" (TLH); "My Father's will is my command" (LBW--isn't this translaton a little trite?)]
We could now take a detour here into a critique of atonement theology, as I did earlier this morning when I googled this hymn and ended up reading Other Stuff. There are some drawbacks to a God whose uncompromising justice compels him to kill his own Son. It's a stumbling block for many in their understanding of Christ. Violence, vengeance,and victimization become prominent Passion themes. I read that one of Gerhardt's verses of this hymn that is left out of modern hymnals describes the torture Jesus underwent at his Father's hand. Gerhardt lived at the time of the Thirty Years' War (not one of Christian civilization's brighter moments). These images may not have been as foreign to his parishioners as they are to suburban PC Christians today, though there are places in the world (some not all that distant from America) where this kind of suffering is known. And now and in the past, there are plenty of examples where human understanding of God's actions has been used to justify violence.
There's a lot more that could be said here, but in the interest of finding a way to close this post, let's skip ahead to the understanding that God's grace transforms human cruelty. (I've got work to do this morning.)
Gerhardt's original hymn had ten stanzas. (Those were the days! Here's the German text for six of them.) TLH has six stanzas and the LBW four. The LBW translation of the hyman collapses Gerhardt's last two stanzas into one where the focus is on heaven. What's lost is most of Gerhardt's stanza nine--about the comfort Christ's Passion brings us while we are here on earth. Here's the TLH version:
Of death I am no more afraid/New life from Thee is flowing;
Thy cross affords me cooling shade/When noonday's sun is glowing.
When by my grief I am opprest/On Thee my weary soul shall rest/Serenely as on pillows.
Thou art my Anchor when by woe/My bark is driven to and fro/On trouble's surging billows.
Of course, the original German is much better, by virtue of being simpler. Here's the end of stanza nine:
Und wenn des Kreuzes Ungestuem/Mein Schifflein treibet um und um,/So bist du dann mein Anker.
My German is elementary, but here goes: Instead of the English translation's obscure word "bark," there is "Schifflein," just a diminutive of the plain word for boat. When that little boat (me) is driven (treibet) this way and that (um und um--I love that) by the Ungestuem (had to look this one up--impetuosity says the dictionary) of trials and suffering (Kreuz), Christ will be my anchor.
"Driven this way and that by the impetuosity (like maybe randomness?) of trials" sounds like my mind at work--worrying about my failings, complaining about my life, "um and um" about the same human condition stuff. But Christ will be my uncomplaining anchor.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
This is not an inspirational book about overcoming disability with pluck, courage and faith, or about sharing with others the meaning one has found in one's own suffering. Not at all. These are stories from Harriet's life ("nearly true tales from a life" is her subtitle), adventures told with wit and intelligence. She writes really, really well.
(I am painfully conscious of how much less sharp and incisive my writing is. I am sinking into dust jacket language writing about her book. I am also conscious of not wanting to write and rewrite this till midnight.)
Harriet Johnson has picketed the Jerry Lewis telethon for children with muscular dystrophy for the last 14 years running. Why? Because she says it dehumanizes people who are disabled. It turns them into objects of pity, or inspirational examples, and by doing so, takes away their individuality, their right to be recognized as the whole persons they are.
I am not a disabled person, at least not at the moment. But I know exactly what Harriet Johnson is talking about, because it has happened to me, though in a different way. I have faced some significant family challenges in the past five or six years. And during that time, people have tried to buck me up by telling me how strong I am, or what a saint I am. An inspirational example.
I absolutely hate this. Because as soon as that halo appears floating over my head, I become someone different from everyone else. Those other people don't have to think about the specific difficulties I face, and those other people can stop feeling vulnerable. My sainthood protects them from being struck with troubles themselves.
A couple years ago I talked about this with someone whose husband had recently died. Her grief and loss were intense, beyond the comprehension of casual friends. She, like me, saw many ways in which people kept their distance from her experience by focusing on her strength or the wisdom of her choices.
When I was young, a teen, a twenty-something, I was sure that it was only the families that were strong enough to take it who had really bad things like cancer happen to them. These were the people who would know how to bear up. And then cancer struck my father, and we were the ones who had to bear up. I learned quickly how much confusion, conflict, and despair are behind that facade of strength.
I am talking Lutheran strength here, the kind that says we don't fear death because we have faith in the Resurrection. The kind that is reluctant to reveal a chink in that armor of faith, and so is embarassed by grief and by human weakness. Where does a theology of a suffering Christ fit into all this? A question for another day, another post.
I have wandered a long way from Harriet McBryde Johnson, and I have perhaps distorted her protest story with my own prickliness.
Stereotypes of all kinds, positive or negative, stand in the way of us getting to know and learn from each other. And they stand in the way of telling--nearly true tales.
Friday, March 10, 2006
In Chinese restaurant scenes in movies and TV shows, the actors-Asian or not-all use chopsticks to eat the food in front of them and sometimes to help themselves to stuff on other people's plates. Even in scenes where actors are eating out of take-out cartons in New York apartments, they're using chopsticks. Clearly, all the cool people know how to do this. (Though in a quick look around the restaurant last night, I found that all the customers were using forks. Clearly, midwestern suburbanites don't qualify as cool.)
Now we had a very obliging waiter last night, on his best behavior because he was training someone new to the place. I asked him to recommend a beer and he pointed right to a Japanese brand at $8 a can. He hovered around me like I was an 80-year-old grandma who might need help getting into my chair. (And believe me, there is nothing about me that telegraphs Good Tipper, despite the air of noblesse oblige in dealing with waiters that I have picked up from a friend.)
I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some help with the chopsticks thing. So I asked him to show me. His response was to run off to get some different chopsticks--chopsticks for beginners. What he brought was a pair of the same wooden chopsticks I already had, but with the non-eating ends rubber-banded together, padded with the red paper sleeve folded and jammed in between. He showed me how to hold them--nothing tricky there, and what do you know? It was easy. After five minutes practice with the chopsticks-for-juniors, I moved up to the regular ones and cleaned my plate.
You can teach a middle-aged woman new tricks.
Isn't it interesting that to manipulate the movement at the eating end of chopsticks, you have to keep the opposite ends together and relatively still? Surely there's a moral there, a meal to be made out of eastern philosophies' embrace of contradictions. (Or am I going to far? What is the sound of one hand clapping anyway? And Indians eat with their hands. What might that mean?)
But what will happen today if I pay attention to both the thing and its opposite?
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
My apologies for the awkward construction, but I hesitate to choose between "himself" and "herself." "Himself" conjures up the patriarchal male images of God, and I wouldn't want to do that carelessly, just in passing. "Herself" inspires other images in my mind--sometimes a kindly grandmother, at other times a feminist fury--Susan Sarandon maybe, but with more meat on her bones. Or maybe an Irishman in a pub referring to the wife who's going to be mighty angry when he gets home.
Does speaking of God as "she" rule out speaking of God as "he"? Or vice versa? The need to choose one or the other calls attention to the limitations of the English language. Also to the limitations of our imagination.
Or maybe the two pronouns are useful as a dialetic: not he, not she, but something emerging that encompasses (or contradicts?) them both.
I may be playing with language here just for its own sake. But language is what we have. Words mean something. So does the way you arrange them.
Contradictions in God--anger and mercy is one that I heard about yesterday. Righteous anger (and I mean genuinely deeply righteous) coexisting with mercy that knows no boundaries.
Is this one way in which religion runs afoul of science? Either something is true or it's not. The opposite cannot also be true. Though perhaps there are some exceptions to this--something to do with string theory or anti-matter? I've had these things explained to me, and they make sense as long as the speaker is talking. But since I don't use string theory very often in my daily life, it just doesn't seem to stick in my mind. Duh.
I like contradictions. (Note the title of this blog.) I like the part in the yoga class at the end, when the teacher says place your palms together, uniting earth and sky, body and spirit, uh, this and that. Why can't I remember more? My teacher rattled off an unbelievable string of opposites this morning.
As I sit here at the computer with my palms pressed together--well, I did this a moment ago, I can't type in that position--I feel my lower back find its natural alignment and sink straight down into the chair. The troublesome muscle in my left hip relaxes and my breath feels lighter.
The trick, I've learned, is that the palms must be pressed firmly together. Not just fingertips touching, or the cupped hands that meet at the heels and the tips. No, you have to press those contradictions together firmly and experience them to feel more at home in God.
Monday, March 06, 2006
Where are the movie roles for those women? Aren't there stories to tell about people my age?
And if a movie were to be made that starred Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, would Hollywood pat itself on the back vigorously? Racism, prejudice against gays--it is hip to be aware of these things. But it is not hip to be a middle-aged female.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
This morning it was an argument with my daughter that burst the bubble. My facts were right and hers were wrong, but my sarcasm and exasperation were as wrong as her assertion that I didn't know anything.
Stepping away from the world of hymns and prayers into "What's for lunch?' and "Can I have my allowance?' is so hard. Even harder than getting everyone out the door to go to church in the first place. All that takes is determination. Going home again--clearly I'm no authority on how to make that work.
What were Sunday afternoons like in the Luther household? In Bach's? Capable wives saw to it that lunch was ready when the men returned from their morning's duties. (And I should mention their names: Katie Luther, Maria Barbara and then Anna Magdalena Bach.) Did they ever resent being jerked back into their practical lives, while theological or musical discourse continued around the table among the men? I can't say that I remember my mother enjoying the preparation of Sunday dinner, and then the waiting for the organist husband to get home to eat it.
There's a Transfiguration hymn that ends "And since you bid us leave the mount, Come with us to the plain."
That would be plain in the geographic sense, a contrast with the mountain-top experience. But it's plain on the plain (despite the rain in Spain--never mind). And there are children there--all of whom want something different out of Sunday than mom does.
Eleven hours after leaving church, that same daughter is still arguing with me! It has been going on all day long, and I continue to have little or no patience.
Opportunity for Lenten spiritual practice here? Acts of love toward my offspring? I'm looking for acts of love from offspring tossed in my direction. I have to admit, though, that loving forbearance on my part toward them would probably be an act of love toward myself. I wouldn't end up feeling so cranky down there on the plain.
Still, it's easier said than done.
Friday, March 03, 2006
But it will take yoga to do that. To unite quietness within and quietness without, breath and body, spirit and flesh, my waywardness and God's will for me.
Nobody will leave me alone long enough for me to get to that state. And my spirit is not happy in my body, because my body is working really hard to digest a hot dog with everything and french fries.
I just read again the Ash Wednesday Old Testament lesson from Joel: the day of the Lord is coming and it devours everything--but it may not be too late. "Yet even now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. . . . Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"
Repentant people should fast and mourn and rend their hearts and all that, but they should also act like they expect God to come and help them. ("C'mon God, do you wanna look bad here?")
Repenting witnesses to God's good will for us. Let it be said among the peoples of the world, "Here's a God you can trust."
I'll go do the yoga--the thing that is good for me--and trust that God's quietness will arrive on its own, whether I'm interrupted or not, no matter how those onions are sitting on my stomach.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
The big idea behind Lenten services this year at my church is
spiritual practices. So I got to thinking during the Ash Wednesday
sermon last night: maybe this blog should be my Lenten spiritual
Am I full of myself, or what? Such a betrayal of the modesty learned
in my Lutheran upbringing! As the pastor pointed out in his sermon,
Lutheran spirituality has always been thought to be an oxymoron. In
our great justified-by-faith eagerness to avoid works righteousness,
we dare not do anything that smacks of trying to earn heaven.
Came across a better idea this morning, in a seminary magazine (a
Lutheran one): "Spiritual practices are ways we learn to 'ask, seek,
and knock' at the door [that] Jesus promises will not be closed to
us." Ask, seek, knock--things I need to learn to do.
The Ash Wednesday bulletin cover grouped spiritual practices into
four categories: repentance, prayer, fasting, and acts of love. (Or
was that list in the sermon? Or in both places? My bulletin went into
the recycling bin in the choir room. But parts of the sermon are
preserved in that untidy recycling bin otherwise known as my brain.)
Oops. Another problem. This blogging idea collides with Jesus's
words in the Ash Wednesday gospel lesson: don't practice your piety
in public. This blog is a public place (though whether I am
practicing piety here is open to question. Usually I'm aiming for
impiety. Or at least irreverence.)
But let's put it to the repentance-prayer-fasting-acts of love test.
Repentance? In asking questions, I am repenting of accepting easy
answers. (Though I may also need to repent of needlessly complicating
Prayer? I am trying to think about serious and not-so-serious stuff
mindful of the presence of God. Sounds prayerful to me.
Fasting? Since writing, for me, is often fueled by snack food, there
will be no serious dieting here. But maybe working on this blog will
cut back on the time I waste every day at jigzone.com? Still, jigsaw
puzzles help me think. Perhaps writing every day is a discipline akin
Acts of love? I will write with others in mind, showing love to them.
I will also show love to myself.