Friday, March 31, 2006


First, some clearing of the throat. (What do I mean by that? It's a term I learned from my husband--what a writer writes on the way to figuring out what she or he is trying to say. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)

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

To my words give grace

It has been a long Sunday, full of Lutheran music, Lutheran hymns, words, ideas ("Give up guilt for Lent") and questions to prompt more thinking and more words.

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

Death, talk and basketball

This past busy weekend left lots of material in the inbox of my brain. A gorgeous grey-and-black production of Gluck's Orfeo and Eurydice at Chicago's Lyric Opera. Much conversation with friends and family. A warm and funny end-of-season celebration for a junior high basketball team. Bright sunshine suggesting that spring may indeed come again this year.

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

A Lenten prayer

Dearest Lord Jesus, we live and move and work as part of a creation that longs for your redemption. In these March days, the sky holds the threat of snow while the earth warms with the promise of spring. Sunshine follows shadow, and our hearts look for Easter even as our feet tread the worn pathways of Lent. You go before us into suffering. Your Passion enfolds our grief and shame. Carry us through these cold days. Be with those who mourn, those who worry, those who endure pain, those who are lost. Help us to see your transforming love and grace at work in our trials, so that we may celebrate your resurrection in our earthly lives and with the saints in heaven. Come quickly, risen Christ! Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


On Sunday morning at my church, we sang "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth." The hymn was one of many contributing factors that made this particular service a contender for The Longest Sunday Morning Lenten Service Ever.

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

Yesterday I read Too Late to Die Young by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disability rights activist. She is a writer, lawyer, and disability rights activist in her 40s who has a neuromuscular disease and gets around in a power wheel chair.

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


My son and I ate at an Asian restaurant last night where the tables were set with chopsticks as well as forks.

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


A question: Can God contradict God's self?

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

Older women

My favorite part of the Oscars last night? Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep doing the Robert Altman introduction Altman-style. What bravura! Those two women have more acting skill, more daring, and more self-awareness and strength than those young things poured into designer gowns that held the stage the rest of the time.

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

After church

Sundays are usually not happy days for me. Whatever good feelings I carry away from Sunday morning worship evaporate on the way to the parking lot.

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

"Where is their God?"

March madness today: work, cleaning, meetings, drive and drive some more, then a very noisy grade school basketball game followed by a noisy restaurant. Now the quiet hum of the computer is almost soothing, the "om" of online. I wish the sound could move into my hip and take away the cramp there.

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.

Inhale. Exhale.

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

Blogging as spiritual practice

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 Still, jigsaw
puzzles help me think. Perhaps writing every day is a discipline akin
to fasting.

Acts of love? I will write with others in mind, showing love to them.
I will also show love to myself.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dust to dust

Ash Wednesday brings the reminder that "dust thou art, and unto dust
thou shalt return." What better day to go to the dentist and find out
that my teeth are returning to dust long before the rest of me. When
I die and my body is turned into ashes, will the thousands of
dollars' worth of inorganic stuff in my mouth survive?

Oh why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Time for a Luther-like meditation on dying every day to sin? On death
in the midst of life? On flossing regularly?

I am definitely not going to consider how life is like going to the
dentist. I'd rather forget that I've been there.

It's time to bake some Hot Cross Buns. Yeast is better than decay.