Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Yes, I've got one. Pain in the right temple, threatening to spread behind the ear and down the neck. Noticeable tension around the rest of my face. I have been walking around all day with my mouth set, my teeth clenched, and my eyes squinting and scowling. Now, nearing bedtime, it feels strange to relax my face and jaw. Letting go of tension feels unnatural. I notice that I'm tired and achy from the effort it takes to present myself to the world and shield myself from its light and noise.

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

Perverse Lutheran

I've been posting to this blog on and off for about six months. It's time to write about the title.

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

More Than Enough

Sunday morning. I've been back from vacation for two days. It's mid-August, prelude to September, when the cycle of school and serious work and life accelerates and things have to get done. The sense of peace and calm I cultivated while doing nothing but reading, writing, swimming, and eating for five days did not survive the drive home. When we switched from listening to CD's to listening to the car radio, the news was of bomb plots foiled and continued turmoil in Lebanon. Bills in the mail, a cell phone on the blink (necessitating an encounter with a cell phone salesman), paperwork for school enrollment, family stuff, and ninety minutes at the movie theatre watching "Barnyard" have ganged up on me here at home. I am back to feeling like a frightened, foolish woman, who does not have a hard enough head or a thick enough skin to survive the real world.

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.