I did this last year so I'll do it again this year. Take the first sentence from the first post of each month, and string them together to make a new post. I'll cheat a little--if the first post is a quote from another source, I'll go with the first sentence of my original prose. Here goes!
Rural northern Missouri is a strange mix of "North n' South". If you've been following the news, you might have heard about the flap the "Atheist ads" a lot of the London buses are sporting. It would be easy to make this stanza totally about sexual morality, but I think it’s bigger than that. Ok, we start the versicles and a collect as we move towards the supplication....One of my medical students sent me this on Facebook...I had to post it...it is abso-freakin-lutely AWESOME! Ok, by now, many of you know I have a habit of sitting down and relating seemingly unrelated things.
Over on Ruth's blog, she got a ton of hits and comments for asking a very simple question...what do you think Heaven will be like? You know, one of the things rural folks seem to do more than city folks is "attend funerals and wakes." This movie was on the tube when I was sort of "napping, laptopping, and TV watching" in intermittent bursts over the weekend. Some of you may know I am presently up in Seward, AK visiting my blogfriend Robert this week. Ok, without getting totally gross here, I have to admit that when we are talking about that "stench" I have a VERY advanced handle on just exactly what that stench would have been like, having had rotations in my residency through the Office of the Medical Examiner. Last night, as part of my Advent meditation process, I sat out by my chiminea fire, took a walk back and forth on my road a couple of times, and hung out by the fire some more.
I did this last year so I'll do it again this year. Take the first sentence from the first post of each month, and string them together to make a new post. I'll cheat a little--if the first post is a quote from another source, I'll go with the first sentence of my original prose. Here goes!
I still remember when I first saw "The Great Santini." I was in college, and saw it at the Kennedy Theater in Kirksville, MO. I had been a little over a year from having left the tumult of a family life bullet-riddled with alcoholism and violence. I somehow sat through the whole movie, but promptly went home and threw up. It still is, to this day, "my PTSD movie."
I would not have thought of it today, had not a different discussion of PTSD crossed my path.
I am not afraid to admit that thirty years later, two scenes in this movie make me queasy.
Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall) is a warrior without a war. To assuage his need for war, he drinks too much and terrorizes his family, particularly his oldest son, Ben (Michael O'Keefe). Every family activity becomes a competition, every interaction between Meechum and his son becomes a bullfight. Meechum's wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner), somehow, in the midst of this, continues to feed a gentleness into her son, despite her husband's repeated attempts to beat it out of him, and keeps her own sanity via the depth of her own religious faith.
But to anyone who ever had one or more alcoholic parents, parts of this movie become very, VERY close to home--the "friendly games" that turned into physical violence, the hyper-vigilance to see "which version" of your parent came home from work today, and the times the alcoholic parent wasn't drinking and you realize how much you love him/her, only to have that person turn around and dash your love for them to the rocks yet another time, so you ask yourself, "Why did I ever bother? Why was I stupid enough to let my guard down AGAIN with this person?"
This movie is a reminder of the toxic residue that can be created when our desire to love fully clashes with those who are incapable of it because of their own demons. It's about this clash coming to a head at the place the abused must stand up for the strength of his or her convictions and walk away from the toxic dance.
It is a movie about giving up expectations and living in the moment from "that defining moment of the end of a pattern," onward.
In my own case, this movie was prophetic. In less than five years from the time I saw this movie for the first time, I had the moment where I stood up to the abuser in the room once and for all--and both our lives were forever changed, and I know for sure in my case, it was for the better; I think in some ways, both of us for the better.
The problem, though, arises in those times we come to that conclusion without that "final confrontation", without that one defining "High Noon" moment (to steal from another movie) where the demons are all named, and faced. How do we get there without "out-Santini-ing" The Great Santini? How do we get there in the spirit of love and reconciliation without a direct, no-holds-barred cage match between you and the abuser? How do we get there without the convenient ending we get in the movie, with the death of The Great Santini and Ben's admission that he had often prayed for his father to die?
It's much trickier, isn't it? It's much trickier when the abuser is still alive, or still in your family, or still in the shadows as the "ex", "because of the children." It's trickier because perhaps one of the most basic human survival instincts, buried way down in the limbic lobe of the brain...is revenge.
Revenge is not in our Baptismal Covenant, is it? Yet plenty of the the Psalms reek of the Psalmist asking (and maybe even gloating a little over it) for God's revenge upon whom the Psalmist declares as "wicked." People do all kinds of revenge in both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps it is one of the rawest, most human parts of our humanity.
I think back to an old saying..."The best revenge is to be happy."
That's a great saying, because when one truly becomes happy, the motivation no longer becomes "revenge" per se. Even if one starts pursuing happiness to "get back at the abuser," as one becomes healthier, that becomes less of the reason for pursuing happiness, and the real healing starts, and the need for revenge lessens.
The 12-step crowd has known this one for a long time. People who recognize they hold grudges, in their recovery process, are often told to "Pray for that person every day for two weeks. Repeat as necessary."
My personal experience doing this activity has taught me something. It has taught me that, if I earnestly pray for an abuser in my life, that my anger gives way to sadness. Not pity, but a true sadness. Pity dehumanizes a person, and that only does to the abuser what the abuser did to you. For me, it becomes a sadness about a world that can harm someone so that for them to feel good about themselves, they must abuse other people, or abuse substances, or both. In feeling the sadness of the world, we can honor our Baptismal Covenant to "seek and serve Christ in all people."
However, it will NOT make the PTSD go away. As I said earlier, there are still two scenes in this movie, thirty years later, that I have to force myself to sit through, and after I have, I still feel this slight "shutting down" afterwards. But I remind myself that, with God's help, I did not punch the "stop" button...and going through our lives without punching the "stop" button is a living reminder of the gift of grace.
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
Sorry for one of my "crappy cell phone pictures" but if you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see why I whipped out the cell phone and shot the picture "before it was too late." The streams of light over my barn were amazing! I have been joking I should call this photo, "The Transfiguration of the Barn."
All joking aside, back to that light. This verse is part of the text from this past Sunday, the first Sunday after Christmas. Every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary, after having been through the classic rendition of the Nativity in Luke, we go from the most concrete rendition of the birth of the incarnate Christ on Christmas to the most theologically powerful, but visually obscure rendition of the Incarnation in John 1 the following Sunday. Can you say, "Left brain, right brain?"
But in that reading (John 1:1-18), it is consistently verse 5 that jumps out at me in one way or another and becomes an earworm..."The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it." You can feel both Isaiah 9:2 and Isaiah 60:1-2 dripping from the pores of John 1.
The Greek word used for "overcome" in this passage is the word "katalambano," which can be used to mean to physically lay hold upon, mentally lay hold upon, grasp, catch, to take possession. The KJV version of this passage says the dark could not "comprehend" (mentally lay hold upon) the light.
The physical world, time and time again, shows us that interplay of the dark and the light. We slip into the darkest and longest nights of the year in the winter of the Northern Hemisphere. Each night, the sun sinks beneath the horizon. Clouds roll by and partially obscure the sun. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon blots out the sun.
But in each of these, light always wins. The moon's shadow abates. Clouds continue to move and the sun comes back out. Winter gives way to summer, and each morning, the sun rises again--sometimes with spectacular fanfare, as in my picture taken shortly after dawn.
Light always wins, given enough time.
In those scenarios, when you get right down to it, the light never really went away. In our darkest night of winter, it's the longest day of summer in New Zealand. Our night is noon in India. Obscuring clouds and lunar shadows are only obscuring because we're standing on the other side of the clouds, or the eclipse. The sun never physically stopped shining.
So in that sense, the thick darkness and deep gloom we might feel in our present moment is neither to someone else in the same moment. It's all about perspective. Our most profound grief, our deepest fears, our most intensely acute pain, is merely an opaque barrier that can only stand if we continue to choose to stand on the opposite side of the barrier from the sun. We speak so often about someone "losing their faith." it was never really "lost;" it was only obscured. In all those things, we forget these obscuring cloaks are only temporary.
I think sometimes about the nature of the times we have felt separated from God, or doubt His existence, or feel the black cloak of depression resting on our shoulders, or feel separated from those we love by the chasm of death. Over time, this separation can become a self-separation, where we keep hauling around this opaque screen in front of us all the time, and never know it, because our eyes have become accustomed to the dark. We somehow forget that it is the nature of all living things, even the simplest and most primitive organisms, to turn towards the light. So there we sit, claiming to be "alone in the dark", when in reality we are simply failing to respond to our instinctual desires to turn to the light.
But the light is always there--the light that cannot be overcome. We only need the faith of a sunflower to make it ours.
(Cartoon from Mark Anderson's website)
As we continue to revisit Advent on this blog this year in terms of the concept of our own "spiritual pregnancies," we are kind of that point in the year, the dawn of the day preceding Christmas Eve, where Mary's water has broken and the labor pains have started. No more "abstraction" exists in that concept of the arrival of that baby at this point--it's all reality, and no one knows the reality of it more than Mary!
The moment when a pregnant woman realizes "her water broke" is like the curtain rising on a new act of a "write it as you go" drama. For some women, the moment comes in a gush, especially if labor pains started prior to the event, and there is no doubt what happened. For others, it's merely a trickle, and she, for a time, might be debating whether it really happened, or whether she just wet her pants (again) a little. Only until the labor pains start does she figure it out.
Then there's that moment of "what do do with the other half of the story." Women, for millennia, have been temporarily hiding the moment from the more, um, nervous and prone to be excited "significant others" of their world, in a temporary (and usually mistaken) attempt to control the potential drama of the situation. Other women, especially in the first pregnancy, become afraid, and desperately seek the strength of their partner or close family member. Some are relieved that this show is finally getting on the road. Some go through all of the above, and more. In short, it's rarely drama-less, despite all attempts at drama control.
In all pregnancies, be they actual or spiritual, in all the tumultuous events of our lives, be they joyful or tragic, there is the moment when the abstract-ness of birth abruptly ends, and the reality of the impending birth reaches that "point of no return." Even in death--physical death, the death of relationships, the death of the "givens" in our lives, the underpinnings of new birth emerge from the shadows. But in all of these "births" there is one constant and unyielding truth--it will be messy.
Now, I freely admit I'm going to steal a little from the best Christmas eve homily I ever heard here, but add my own take to it. Birth, for all its wonderful-ness, for all its awesome-ness, for all its joyfulness--when you get right down to the gory details of it--well, it's messy, and sometimes a little gross, and definitely a little scary. There's pain and sweating and screaming and moments of fear and unease. It involves smelly fluids and blood and genteel body parts and a crowd of people standing around looking at the genteel body parts in a rather impolite fashion. There's a placenta to expel--a mysterious piece of tissue that is half-mom, half-baby, a portion of the lives of two people--that will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash or turfed to the surgical pathologist.
Not only that, when that baby is born, honestly...few newborns are "cute." They're slimy and bloody and wrinkled and have a bit of an odd smell and have nasty stuff in their hair. They have little scrawny arms and legs and swollen genitalia. They're not terribly happy, being kicked out of their nice warm temporary home where everything was predictable, and dumped out into the big, cold world into the arms of strangers. Never mind they no longer "fit" their former environment. Sometimes their mothers are dismayed that they don't immediately want to love this newborn--sometimes it takes a bit to adjust to the fact this slimy, noisy little alien is not that fantasy baby they imagined.
So it is with our spiritual newborns. We don't always want to acknowledge that "what we got" isn't exactly "what we expected," and we are a little dismayed that we didn't just take right to the business of loving it. Suddenly the harsh realization that it has been born, it will require our constant care, and it WILL turn our world upside down, can frighten us with one of the deepest sorts of fear. We fear we "won't do it right." We fear others will judge our ability to care for it. (Oh, they will, but it really won't matter.) We fear, oddly enough, the selflessness that will emerge from us to care for it--that somehow that might diminish us.
Something usually happens along the way, though, with those real babies, that melts through all that. Eventually, that baby begins to have a need to feed--and it doesn't matter whether you are feeding that baby with a breast or a bottle, there is just...well...this LOOK that comes over a contentedly feeding baby that puts the world totally right. For me, it's the fact that babies, unlike us older folks, can breathe and swallow simultaneously. They can feed and be half asleep. It's a magical window of time where what is impossible for me is possible and overtly visible for them. That simultaneous sound set of a breathing, swallowing, half-snoring, half-snuffling baby cannot be duplicated in any other facet of the universe. It's a moment when "all things are possible." Oh, sure, there will be pee and poop to clean up later, and burping and spit up curdled milk stuck in my hair, but who cares?
We go through the same process with our spiritual newborns. Despite all our trepidation and fear, if we simply consent to the power of our own awareness, a moment will come that will be that mystical "all things are possible" moment. We will see that baby for all it is and all it can be. Cleaning up the poop it generates won't matter.
I have thought many times how existentially hard it must have been for God to consent to give one of the best parts of Himself to the world in the form of a baby--a baby born in a rude barn, with a dirt floor, covered in rags, in dirty straw, laid in a feed trough, to such an ordinary set of parents. But even then, it was only a prelude to allowing that child to grow into a man who would be nailed, bleeding and scorned, to a wooden cross. To give freely and willingly all that that is God's love in that fashion is a form of trust in humanity I'll never have in this life. But the one thing it does do is empower me to eventually trust in all the spiritual births that have happened and have yet to happen in my life. I may not understand them at the time, I may not even like them at the time, but I at least can have the fortitude to wait them out and see how they grow. But I'll be the first to qualify that with "Not without the help of others, and not without God's help." I know I am powerless to handle that one alone.
My wish for all of my blog readers this Christmas season is to simply grow to love those babies destined to be born to you, and to keep feeding them. Merry Christmas!
"The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me."
Yep, you heard me right in the title of this post. I used the words, "alone," "Christmas," and "blessing" all in the same sentence.
One of the things I noticed as I was surfing Facebook the last couple of days is the number of my former medical students who are lamenting "their first Christmas on call." Some of this will be call physically in the hospital, some of it "home call." Some folks with families have sent their family members on to visit relatives, leaving them "alone on call." Also, as big winter storms threaten different parts of the country over these next couple of days, some folks realize they are staying home instead of leaving town because of the threat of weather.
But what it made me realize is there are a lot of folks in my world who are feeling a little uneasy about that prospect of a "first Christmas alone," whether "alone" means "not with my family," or "on call at the hospital," or "really truly solo." Well, I'm going to cut you in on a little secret.
I have purposefully spent several hours of my Christmas Day alone for the past eight years, and at more times than I'd like to admit, my call schedule put me "home alone" off and on in the past two decades...and if you've never spent part or all of Christmas alone, you've missed an opportunity to be visited by the angels.
How radical is that? The holiday that our culture screams is all about family and togetherness and love and presents? For most people, the concept of embracing "alone-ness" at Christmas seems at the very least, daunting, and at most, downright scary. It might even sound "wrong" in that, "Uh...that's just wrong" sort of way. But with the right frame of mind, it can be more "right" than you can imagine.
A quick Google search on "how to spend Christmas alone" scared me a lot worse than what I'm about to tell you. Some of the suggestions were things like, "play cheerful music," "forget all the bad stuff," and "indulge yourself." In other words, what I'd call "me-based distractions." Sort of the grownup versions of how we'd distract a toddler or pacify a baby. In my mind, this season is about a gift--God's gift of the Christ Child. The key to enjoying Christmas alone is to come up with ways to give in crazy, radical ways.
So here's a short list of some ways you might consider spending parts of your "first Christmas alone:"
1. Start the day with some quiet time for reflection and gratitude. List the things or people for which you are grateful and why. Pray for the needs of those people. When I am often "stuck" in my prayer time, I grab my laptop and "pray my Facebook page." I simply start reading the status reports as I scroll down and read what's going on in the minds of my Facebook friends. I can always come up with something to take to prayer from that.
If the weather or the situation permits, take a walk, and simply listen to the sounds around you and feel gratitude for the "little stuff of life." Try to see or hear things you never noticed until this moment. Feel gratitude for your new discoveries.
2. Plan a special meal for either yourself or others. If you are truly alone, this meal doesn't have to be a traditional "Christmas meal." Go for a "symbolic meal" instead. Try to think of a meal where each item on the menu symbolizes somebody or something important in your life--sort of a "secular Eucharist." If possible, another great way to spend part of the day is to volunteer for an organization that provides a Christmas Day meal. Most of those organizations are more than happy to take last minute volunteers even if you will be assigned one of the most menial tasks.
One year, when I was home alone for Christmas on "home call," I made a turkey dinner for each of the three shifts in my hospital clinical laboratory. It was not a fancy meal--it consisted of one huge turkey divvied up three ways and re-heated for the later shifts, mashed potatoes/gravy, cornbread stuffing, peas, and a pie for each shift. I made each shift promise not to tell the next shift what was going to happen. The look on their faces when I showed up an hour into each shift with that dinner was priceless.
Meals are one of the most basic ways human beings connect, and what they bring to the lives of others is miraculous.
3. Give presence, not presents. One year, when I was on call in the hospital, I walked up to the nurses' station and asked, "Who's the loneliest patient on the floor today?" I then, after asking a little bit about them, sat down and made a card out of the strangest things you can find in a hospital, went to the patient's room, presented the card, and we visited a little. Christmas is funny--people seem to open up and tell stories about their life with a little more openness.
A little creative thought can bring endless possibilities. Surprise a neighbor with a gift on the porch, in person or anonymously. Set an amount to spend, surf the Internet for charities that appeal to you, and make $5 or $10 gifts to them until you reach your spending limit. Write "thank you" notes to your friends for "just being them," or text message them with a simple, "I was thinking about you today, Merry Christmas!" Comment on your friends' Facebook pages with a holiday message. So what if it might seem a tad weird. In this era of global communication, we have more ways to give to others than humans have ever had the capability of doing so.
4. If sad or negative memories creep in, let those feelings come and sit with them. To paraphrase what angels are always telling people in the Bible, "fear not." Sad memories remind us of our own capacity to love. Negative memories create resolve to create and honor new traditions, new ways of living our lives. Ignoring them or distracting ourselves from them thwart our ability to grow and love in new and more challenging ways.
5. Finally, at the end of the day, right before you go to sleep, reflect on the things you've discovered from the experience. What did you learn? What new traditions can you create? For what new things do you find yourself thankful? Reflect on the "Christmas stories" in Matthew and Luke. Imagine yourself in the various roles in the story, or think about who the "shepherds," or "magi," etc. are in your life. There's something about that half-sleepy state at bedtime that can unbind our spiritual imaginations--take advantage of it.
For those of you spending your first Christmas alone, I wish you an incredible journey!
Pinched from Bob Rea on Elizabeth Kaeton's blog:
"By now Mary must have been feeling more than a little pregnant. I once opened a sermon with the words, 'By now Mary's water will have broken,' And talked about the stretch marks of the spirit."
I have thought about those stretch marks for a few days now. We are now in the week where we realize some of our wonderful plans for Dec. 25 are doomed to fail. Maybe it's that the stores ran out of some special item we wanted to buy for someone. Perhaps it's that realization that some of your friends will be getting their Christmas cards after the 25th. Possibly you got that phone call that a certain relative will not make it home for the holidays because of work scheduling problems. In my line of work, many of us realize we will be on call and might be yanked away from the festivities at any time. Even the best Christmases have some disappointments mixed in. None of those things are deal-breakers, they're just little tiny scars--stretch marks.
Like Mary's belly, we stretch to accommodate the little disappointments without much trouble, but they do tend to leave little scars--so when we look back, they are not totally forgotten. In fact, most of us, if we could just manage to forget the little scars, could have more "perfect" Christmases. But in looking back, we also realize we bore those little scars, usually, for a very good reason--love. We allow ourselves in this season to be stretched in all sorts of ways simply because we want to welcome that infant Jesus with the kind of love reserved for new babies. Even the most curmudgeonly of us tend to, on occasion, make fools of ourselves over babies. I think it's because babies simply suck up all the love you give them and never make fun of what a fool you're being.
For some reason, my mind wandered back this weekend to a very special baby who entered my life twenty years ago for only a few days. I was on my Well Baby Nursery rotation as a clinical medical student. I was not having a lot of fun on this rotation. First of all, you have to realize that Well Baby Nursery nurses and clinical medical students generally do not mix well--like gasoline and matches do not mix well. By and large, Well Baby Nursery nurses seem to behave like they're the only human beings on the planet capable of properly caring for infants--right down to often behaving like they know more than the babies' mothers, and CERTAINLY more than interloping clinical medical students who are there for a month and disappear!
I've always joked that Well Baby nurses think there are two ways medical students diaper babies--too tight and too loose! Clinical medical students are also incapable of wiping a baby's butt. No matter how clean the baby's butt appears, the Well Baby nurse will exclaim that you left poop all over it.
Well, I was "double doomed" on that rotation, when the nurses discovered I had no children and no siblings. I might as well have been the giant baby-eating monster to them. They were constantly yanking babies out of my arms who looked perfectly satisfied and yelling, "No, no, no, THAT's not right, you didn't swaddle that baby right/put that diaper on tight enough/put the little stocking hat on its head right/that baby didn't NEED a stocking hat, it's hot enough as it is/yada, yada yada..."
Then...one night...(kind of like that image I have of the first Christmas, actually!)...along came a baby they did not want to deal with. She was one of the infamous "crack babies." Our Well Baby nurses did NOT like crack babies. They cried a lot, with this shrill, kitten-like cry, and tended to upset the other babies in the nursery and get ALL the babies to crying. The Well Baby nurses also didn't like the crack mothers, either, surprise, surprise. This baby had all the earmarks of "trouble in Dodge City." One of the nurses basically summarized the case as "White crack mom, black crack baby, she's not keeping it, she doesn't want to even see it, call Family Services in the morning about it."
That was my first clue that this baby was going to be different. I didn't even know if "it" was a he or a she! Well, I had to write the admission note, and when I got the paperwork, I finally learned it was a "she." Sure enough, as I was sitting and writing the admission note, all hell started to break loose in the nursery. The new baby was crying in that "crack baby" way, and all the other babies were crying, and there were too many crying babies and not enough arms to hold them. So one of the nurses comes in the chart area with the "culprit"--the new addition to the nursery--sticks her in my arms (probably as "punishment"!) and goes, "Here--why are you charting when you should be holding one of these babies anyway?"
Then something magical happened.
That baby STOPPED CRYING.
Suddenly, it was like all time and sound stopped in the nursery. All the nurses stopped, turned, and STARED. I said nothing, just kind of grinned and shrugged. I had no idea why that baby girl liked me. Maybe I smelled good to her. To this day, I haven't a clue.
Finally, one of the nurses broke the ice. "Well, I guess she's YOUR baby now!"
Well, and for about six days, she was. In about ten minutes, I had "named" her, but I decided that name was between her, me, and God. I knew someone was going to give her another name. But until Family Services found a foster home for her, the Well Baby Nursery was her home--and as it turned out, I was a temporary parent by default on a 12 hour shift.
Then something else magical happened. The Well Baby nurses started letting me be. Sure, I was still diapering and cleaning and swaddling all the OTHER babies wrong, but they left me alone with this one. I found they were letting me hold this one and carry her around to my heart's content. I would write admission notes with one hand and hold her sleeping on my chest with the other. When the other babies were being allowed to go off with their mothers to be fed, I'd take her down the hall to the nursing station on the floor and we'd go "visit." The nurses let me be the only one to feed her on my shift. The other medical student on the other shift would call me at home and ask if I was coming in a little early--it was feeding time and "she doesn't eat for anyone else the way she eats for you."
Sometimes I would just sit and say nothing, and marvel at her little fingers and toes and nose, and listen to her breathe and squeak with my eyes closed. Sometimes I talked to her about the things I hoped would happen for her in her life, and say, "You're not gonna remember me, but I'm gonna remember YOU, so it will all be okay."
When Family Services finally were coming to pick that baby up to take her to her foster home, it wasn't on my shift. One of the nurses called me at home and said, "Hey, they're coming to get that baby this afternoon...so if you want to see her one more time you might want to get over here for a little bit." So I came by for a spell, and we just sat in the rocking chair in the "cry room" for a while with the door closed and I found the tears falling in a way I never figured I could ever do for "someone else's kid." I berated myself for being so stupid to love something all out that I knew was not mine to keep.
I think now and then about how that baby is now grown, and maybe even has a baby--or babies--of her own. If I saw her on the street, I don't think I'd know her. In my mind, she will forever be this precious perfect baby, who came into this world with baggage, who got one of the rudest starts imaginable, but yet she chose ME to bond with in a unique way, and she had the power to melt my heart in a way I could not belive was possible...and in a way, isn't that a bit how we imagine the baby Jesus this time of year?
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Pssst. C'mere. I've got a radical proposal for you about Zechariah.
Many of us, during Advent, are reminded in the Annunciation story in Luke 1 that before the angel Gabriel visited Mary, he visited both Elizabeth and Zechariah, and they had a little chat about becoming the expectant parents of John the Baptist. Zechariah asks for a sign, and Gabriel strikes him dumb, saying, "But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."
I like this particular artistic rendition above of the event for one simple reason: Gabriel doesn't look "punitive." The popular take is that Zechariah was "punished" by the angel for his disbelief.
Well...(lean closer...I'm whispering here)...I don't think Gabriel was being punitive at all. I think he's mostly going, "Ok, fine...you don't believe me...I can understand that. You say you want a sign? Okay, you've got it. But it WILL occur, and you'll know because you have your voice back."
I mean, why would the angel say, "Don't be afraid," and then turn around and give Zechariah a swift kick in the mouth? That does NOT go with "don't be afraid," unless you're some sort of abusive jerk.
The Greek word in this text for "believe" is the word "pisteuo." It literally means "be persuaded of," or "to have confidence in." So I don't really think Gabriel is saying, "You nasty unbeliever, you...THWAP! Whatzza matter Zach? Cat got your tongue? Bwahahahaha." It's more like, "Ok, I can see you don't have confidence in this notion. You will by the time I get finished, and I'm giving you a gift that will help you see it--silence."
Think of it this way. I'm just a mere novice at using "silence" as a spiritual reflective tool, and I can see how it reaps huge spiritual benefits in myself. Zechariah was one of the priestly class. He probably knew even more about the value of silence. It kept him from just blurting out babble about being visited by an angel. It gave him time to think about what both Elizabeth's and Mary's pregnancy meant. It meant, when he had opportunity to speak, he would know just what to say...and judging from the message in the Song of Zechariah, he evidently made good use of it.
The 14th century Dominican mystic, John Tauler, explains the gift of Zechariah's silence like this: “God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.”
This week, take some time to enter the silence yourself. This is the week of "rejoicing" in the Advent journey. Let God enter wholly into your being and see what seeds of joy reside inside of you, yearning to be released.
(Photo: Luis Gomez, "One Photograph a Day")
It seems sort of ironic that the third week of Advent, the week we assign to "Joy," bookends a week in which Mother Nature hurls us headlong towards the longest night of the year. The world is rapidly enveloping in as much darkness as it can muster. Paradoxically, people in liturgical churches often use this week as a week to reflect on what needs reconciliation, and sometimes we most palpably feel what cannot be reconciled this year. It's a week that our Sunday service springs that pang of desire for the Savior's arrival to lead us from that darkness--we start singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." We light that one pink candle in an Advent wreath throned with deep purple candles--yet even at the tops of the dark purple candles are light.
My quiet time this week has often drifted to what might seem like a strange image for "joy"--A single street light illuminating a dark intersection--a light valiantly resisting a large patch of dark. But as the meditation evolves, looking beyond that one light's power to resist, another light can be seen further down the street--and another--and still yet another--until the realization comes that the whole street is filled with many lights.
Then, suddenly, it's like in Isaiah 9:2: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined." In my mind's eye, I realize that at first what seemed like my own lonely little light, fighting a vortex of dark, afraid to venture beyond it, is really only a few steps from the light of another--and perhaps the person standing under that light had felt just as isolated, just as fearful.
Joy resides in the recognition of the light--both our own, and in the lights of others. The dark cannot be conquered by one, but it can by many "ones," all awaiting the coming of Light of the Prince of Peace
Last night in my EFM class, we were thinking of "metaphors for our lessons this week" and I brought up one of my deep dark secrets.
My year of EFM has been studying the Exodus as told in the book of the same name. When I think of "manna", my mental image is of this shapeless but roughly round wad of stuff, white and full of substance.--which takes me straight to the Shmoo of Lil' Abner comics fame. Even as a Sunday School kid, I imagined the manna that the Hebrews found each morning upon awakening as a field of Shmoon, all dying of happiness at the prospect of being eaten--finding happiness by bringing happiness.
The problem, of course, if you had ever followed the Lil' Abner story, was that the Shmoon multiplied so quickly, they could never be made extinct (although the residents of Dogpatch did try.) So the people no longer had any ambition, and simply sat around eating Shmoon and didn't work. (Actually, when you read the wiki link above, there are a lot of parallels in the saga of the Shmoon that sound supiciously like the story of Moses, the Exodus, and the time in the wilderness.)
In short, the more I thought about the story, the more I thought about how when I compared manna with the Shmoon, it reminded me of the very fine line between humility and codependency.
I've thought about that in an Advent way during this week, when the theme is "peace." Sometimes I secretly wish there was suddenly no war, no abuse, no violation of human rights in the world, no homelessness, no suffering, and no untimely death in the world. But frankly, that would be like the difference between giving us Shmoon instead of manna. We would become complacent about this gift and never work on repairing any of the fractures within our own souls. We would stagnate instead of grow.
Shmoon have a tendency to "over-gift." Manna is always "just enough." I thank God for the difference!
|Canticle 17 The Song of Simeon|
Nunc Dimittis Luke 2:29-32
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:A Light to enlighten the nations, *Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
and the glory of your people Israel.
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Continuing on with the traditional meanings of the weeks of Advent, the second week of Advent is about "peace." That is a hard topic for those of us who watch the news at supper time. An hour with the daily news pretty much confirms that the world has no inclinations to be at peace. War, violence, and hatred still seem to be pretty hotly traded commodities in how the currency of the world works.
The theme of "peace" in this week has a tendency to flare my emotions at a local level, too. My own thoughts often turn to wondering how many families in my town will be affected by domestic violence. I sometimes imagine how many family members are turning themselves out in the cold and fleeing from violent acts in this "season of peace." My local news channel ran a story last week about a man who was arrested for beating his wife with the branches from an artificial Christmas tree! I could imagine that story in my mind's eye--a family trying to have a classic happy time putting up the tree, and maybe liquor or economic hardship sparked a harsh word or two and next thing you know, decorations are flying and the lava from the volcano of anger burns everyone at the scene. Some of the things related to my own family of origin, unfortunately, allow me to imagine this scene quite vividly.
I sometimes wonder if Simeon in the Luke 2 presentation story wasn't a little bit this way. History doesn't tell us much about Simeon, which allows me to imagine a little. (I actually like it when we don't know much about Biblical characters--maybe that is how teaching through parable stories works, eh?) What little legend about Simeon is out there, is that he was a "just and devout" man; I wonder if he wasn't one of the "odd old ducks that hung out at the temple." You know, kind of like the older folks you might know in your parish that have "been there forever," and won't leave until they die. Sweet and a tad odd all at once.
I wonder if Simeon saw the world with world-weary eyes, as I sometimes do--which allows us to make things that are really good stand out. I think about a little boy I met Saturday. I had gone to town to support two of my friends that were ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. I had been teasing them that I was going to stand out front and sing the old "Salvation Army" song that was often done on high school bus trips:
"Salvation ARRRRMY! Salvation ARRRRRMY! Put a nickel in the pot, save another drunken sot! Salvation ARRRRRMY! Salvation ARRRRRRRMY! Put a nickel in the pot and you'll be saaaaavvvvvved!"
When I got there, I saw they had a little boy with them; he was the son of a co-worker. I was totally struck by his "exuberant sweetness!" Rambunctious, eager, a little hyper, but incredibly sweet and good-hearted." My day was better the rest of the day for meeting that little guy.
Yesterday, I had gone to the early service at another church where another friend is in the handbell choir. When I got there, I ran into other friends and their daughter, who is another incredibly bright, eager, smart little girl, whom I've been struck by for years. I was thrilled to death she wanted to sit with me and not with her parents, and I was more than happy to oblige.
When I see these kind of children, well...I know them when I see them, and all the pain of a weary world melts before me in the time I spend with them--and the experience lasts the rest of the day. I can't totally explain it except "I know these children when I see them."
I wonder if that wasn't what happened to Simeon that day in the temple. World-weary, crusty old Simeon, who felt the pain of the world enough to work hard at living a "devout and just" life in the middle of war, violence, sickness, and pain, came to the temple that day and saw a little guy that just bowled him over with the honest love that literally leaked from the child's pores. He knew it when he saw it--and wasn't about to let the moment pass without saying so in the temple.
May each of see one of those "holy children" this week.
(Painting: Master Bedroom, by Andrew Wyeth)
From the translation of Psalm 4 in the Compline service of the Breviary of the Companions of St. Luke, OSB:
"Tremble; do not sin: Ponder on your bed and be still."
Every now and then, I find myself needing to observe "The Great Silence." In the monastic sense, keeping the Great Silence involves being silent from Compline to Matins, with the last words you speak being to God, and the first words spoken as the silence is broken to God.
I've personally found that keeping the Great Silence now and then is very rewarding to me...especially after a hectic, busy day. It's especially rewarding during Advent--a time when "watching" and "listening" become even more important in the church year.
If you've never kept silence, it seems daunting. I remember the first time I was preparing for my trip to the monastery. I had no idea what or when I would have to be silent, but I knew that there was going to be silence somewhere. So I sort of practiced by having a few "silent Saturday mornings"--just being quiet, reading, not using the Internet. I had expected it to feel like quitting cigarettes cold turkey. But instead, it was strangely pleasant.
What I've discovered, in occasionally keeping the Great Silence is...well...it's not very silent. Silence, at least for me, seems to be neither dark nor empty. I've come to realize that when I temporarily remove verbal expression, another form of expression enters into play...the expression of my soul in ways that do not require words. I become more visually aware of my surroundings, and I find my mind actually racing with thoughts and concepts, but not at "high RPM's." It's like a transmission thrown into overdrive--the engine of our soul running fast, but smooth and unburdened.
Compare that with the stresses of a busy day where those transmissions in our mind are constantly being shifted from one gear to another as conversation starts, stops, interrupts, and we are often in a gear where we might be trying to "go fast" but the RPM's are much higher, unable to shift into that next gear smoothly. Anger and frustration grinds the gears as we shift, and sometimes reaches a point where we smell the smoke of burning transmission fluid.
I often dream vividly on the nights I keep the Great Silence, and oddly enough, in the dreams, many voices speak, but I mostly listen. What I often "say" in those dreams are a single thing, over and over--the thing that most matters.
Time becomes an odd player in my nights of silence. It does not seem to move at the "expected pace." Sometimes it moves more quickly, sometimes it seems to almost stand still. It's never the same in any two silent periods. Insight and creativity seem to spring forth from it. Silence is actually a very busy place for me, but a productive one. Not in terms of quantity, but in quality.
As Robert Persig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
"We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on "good" rather than "time" and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes."
So, this Advent, as we spend our time "watching and waiting," take some time to discover what a planned period of silence unlocks within you. You might be surprised how "not empty" it is!
Last night, as part of my Advent meditation process, I sat out by my chiminea fire, took a walk back and forth on my road a couple of times, and hung out by the fire some more. I have been thinking a lot about the whole "pregnancy" aspect of Advent this year, and have decided to consider it week by week in the manner of what the four weeks of Advent represent--Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This first week I have been cogitating on what is it like to be people "pregnant with hope?"
As I sat back down by my fire to contemplate this in the cold, crisp, moonlit night, my fire at my front, cool wind at my back, a very "non-wintery" image came into my head--a germinating seed.
I thought of all these seeds resting below the dark ground. It's a dark place, but it is just a tad warmer than the air above it. Dark but yet enveloping, nurturing. Much like the womb is a dark, wet, nurturing place for a fetus. Some of these seeds will never germinate. Some will, but at the wrong time, and they will die. But some germinate and live.
Those seeds actually germinate in the dark, but they can't stay there. Once they've germinated, the dark is no longer a nurturing place. It's a toxic place, because they need the sun to grow and bloom. So they pop their little pale shoots up and crane their little shooty selves towards the sun. The dark is still there, at night, and in its roots. But the important thing is the dark is a temporary place and a grounding place, not the existence of its being. They MUST turn to the light to live.
As those shoots sprout leaves, they come to learn in their own way, (however plants learn) to grow towards the sun and to crane their leaves so as to get the maximum amount of sun. They come to expect a certain amount of sun. They don't always get it on that day, but there's always tomorrow. They may grow "crooked" because of the best angle of the sun, maybe are not as "perfect" as the prizewinning flower, but they grow and thrive and bloom just the same, in their own beautiful way.
So it is with the hope that lies within our bellies.
Some of the seeds of our own hope, we might not even be able to bear to allow them to germinate. But some of them do anyway, despite any delusions of control we think we have over the process. When they throw that little shoot out, they WILL rise up and lean towards the light. We can't stop it, any more than we can stop the Mississippi river in a rowboat. We are powerless, but it's not to a raging force of nature, it's to a tiny, almost imperceptible force of nature. Who ever notices a single shoot coming forth from the ground, unless we are specifically looking for it?
To me, that is what this first week of Advent is all about...this tiny shoot of our own hopes, barely imperceptible to ourselves, arising from the darkness...just as how the hope of the world arose in this tiny newborn package we call Jesus.
(The painting above is "The Visitation" by Jocopo Pontormo)
For some reason this Advent I am really obsessed with the notion of Mary as theotokos (literally, "God-bearer.") The Greek word does not exactly translate in English. It implies a "bearing forth of truth and goodness" in literally an obstetric sense.
I think about my rotations on the Labor and Delivery floor in my training years. No two births are alike, yet all births are alike. All births--even the most routine ones--involve drama, expectation, fear, pain, fluids, and blood. The magic moment for me on that rotation was watching that baby's head pop out before the first breath is taken. The baby seems to be a mannequin of life, but once the baby is out, he or she takes that first breath, and all hell breaks loose, crying and wiggling and probably thinking, "Put me back where I was! It was warmer back there!" There is no going back at that point!
It's messy and beautiful all at once, and it actually felt kind of satisfying to be bathed up to my elbows in the wetness and smells of it all. I LOVED deliveries. I loved being the first person to catch and hold and cradle that baby before handing him/her off to the pediatrician. I wanted to believe that part of me would rub off, somehow. (It was the "gyn" part of OB/GYN I didn't like.)
I have thought a lot this week, how each of us, within ourselves, has a "holy child" of sorts, growing within us, but there is no time frame for when it's "due." The pregnancy could take months or decades. When we sit still, we might feel it "kick." Some of them occur in those of us who felt "barren" spiritually. Some of us, we might be "pre-pubertal". Some of us might be "of reproductive age." This pregnancy has no barriers as to sex--men can be just as spiritually pregnant as women.
This "holy child" within us comes with all the fear and anticipation real babies do. Will we be a good parent? Will we know what to do when it gets here? Will it have ten fingers and ten toes and be 'normal'? What will it grow up to be?
I kind of imagine God as the great baby-catcher in all this, like a father stuck birthing his own child in a taxicab. Maybe God is nervous and excited too. Maybe he sees this child take its first breath and says to us, "It's perfect! It's beautiful!" Or maybe it's maternal God who takes the baby and cuddles it for the first time, like a good midwife.
I don't understand why I am feeling this in middle age. I just know it's good. I know it has changed this month of Advent how I look at everyone in the street. I see pregnant people everywhere. Do you?
Well, in my mind it is not truly Thanksgiving until one sings the Rosannadanna Family Thanksgiving Prayer, the anthem for all of us who are accustomed to Thanksgiving being "not normal."
Long before Martha Stewart was a gleam in anyones TV eye, my mother, year after year, struggled desperately to have a Thanksgiving "like TV families have." In her mind, that was what families were supposed to be like. The problem was, she was dealing with a cast of characters for this production that ranged from James Dean to Don Rickles to Granny Clampett.
In other words, it just wasn't going to happen.
All the turkey printed napkins, matching plates, Butterball brand turkeys, and Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Decorating Hints were not going to change the fact that Thanksgiving in my family was going to be a collection of drunks, rednecks, antisocials, and smart-alecks eating a meal together, in a house not big enough to hold them all, and chairs enough not to feed everyone, with football constantly in the background, and a cloud of cigarette smoke in the air. I remember most vividly my constant need to go outside and get fresh air and "get away from all the people," and the constant pressure to "be nice" so as not to be named as the instigator when it all DID hit the fan.
One of my favorite stories was one year when my mom was simply tired of all of us, and wailed, "It's just not FAIR! Why can't we have Thanksgiving like NORMAL people? Why can't just once in my life, I can have a Thanksgiving where I am loved and appreciated for how hard I've tried to make this holiday special?"
My grandmother just looked at her and said, matter-of-factly, "Well, it's because we're NOT NORMAL."
I was about 12 or 13 at the time, and I remember the urge to laugh so hard I had to go outside to do it!
Well, and maybe that in itself is the miracle.
I'm going to be totally up front here. I don't do particularly well with either Thanksgiving OR Christmas. It is very important for me, on both days, to have some degree of "quiet alone time." I simply was not trained to learn how to enjoy large gatherings of people in a setting where the societal pressure is to "experience a day set aside for a particular purpose." I do great in impromptu large gatherings of people, where there are no expectations. In those settings, I can more or less let the joy evolve of its own accord.
But I admit Thanksgiving Day puts pressure on me to feel "thankful, or else," and if it doesn't look like the TV shows, to immediately go, "What's wrong with me? Am I a bad person because I don't enjoy this? Is something wrong with me because my first thoughts are not about my own happiness, but about the pain of those who are separated and alienated from this day of thanks because they are homeless, alone, or in pain?"
Thanksgiving Day has been a constant evolution in me in the past decade. I spent a lot of years simply trying to "be nice" and imploding. Most of the players in my immediate family are now dead, or divorces have estranged them, so that part of my family is now simply "my mom and me," and we have vastly different ideas on How This Day Should Be. It's also interesting that we have Vastly Different Memories of Thanksgivings Past. Hers are of a "day that never was"; mine are of "a day that probably wasn't as bad as it seemed to me at the time."
But what these various pieces of broken stuff have done, is forge a new, and good, role for me for this day.
I've discovered in the past few years, that I can earnestly and wholly fit into the role of Someone's Funny and Charming Thanksgiving Orphan. All the messed up stuff of decades past makes me the perfect flexible house guest for anyone's "Within two standard deviations, but not quite ordinary" Thanksgiving.
Why is that?
1. They're not MY relatives. I don't have to have a dog in the hunt when sides are chosen, and in fact, my indifference sometimes leavens the potential for conflict in others.
2. If my mom accepts the invitation, the presence of a room full of non-relatives gives her a lack of "hooks" on which to hang old patterns of difficult behavior (and my hooks, too, for that matter.)
3. I am generally very helpful and flexible about doing things like helping with the meal prep, bringing drinks and snacks to others, taking the various dogs out, and keeping an eye on various infants/children.
4. I get to hear different family stories, and enjoy the sharing and tag-teaming between their stories and my own. I'm a good storyteller, and people seem to enjoy me contributing in this fashion.
5. The expectation is to only hang around a few hours, and once the meal is over, and the cleanup finished, there's no pressure to hang out any longer than what I can stand to do before my, "Ok, this was all good but I'm ready to go home and be by myself" gene will allow.
I am incredibly grateful for this niche. So incredibly grateful, I barely have words to describe it. It is a spot in time and space where I can live and move and breathe, and both feel the joy of the season in a healthy way and the sense that I am contributing to a better holiday for others. I am grateful to God that I had the guts to try out this role for the first time a few years back, rather than be stuck in a rut of expectations in which I knew I could never live up. I have both the peace of part of this holiday alone, to reflect and pray for those who are alienated and alone, and be grateful at the same time for my own solitude, but not "alienation" or "loneliness," and the fellowship of others. Others whom I care for deeply, and care for me, and my presence fills their need to "do something nice for others" in this season.
It is all so very, VERY good.
May each of you claim your own special blessings on this day, unusual blessings blown your way by Ruach, the holy wind. She blows by all of us and leaves different things in our yards, doesn't she?
Well, we did a "provocative word" exercise tonight in EFM, and I want to take it a little further.
Here is the word they stuck in front of us...a very typical "Advent" word, since we are "preparing for the birth of Christ" in Advent:
We were then asked to reflect and describe on the word as it was shown to us.
Good old "geometrical me," I noticed first that the red "P" separated "Pre" and "are" into two equal halves. "Pre" as in the past, and "are" as in the here and now. The middle "P" is a "red letter."
Then this huge profound thought came over me. How in my life (and I imagine, in the lives of many others), there are all these things that move us from the "past" into the "present". They are often "red letter things." Red like how blood might be shed, in a psychological sense. How in our spiritual lives, as we move closer to the realities of God, we have to face old ghosts, shed old habits, and leave things behind on the journey into the reality of "now" that are not needed for this part of the trip. It's very much like when the pioneers went west. First they had to shed themselves of the possessions they would not need. No room for sentimentality. Then sometimes, on the journey, they discovered there was even more they did not need and left it on the trail.
How many times in our lives must we face "red letter days" to push us into the "reality of now?" If not for those "red letter days," we would never have faced "now." They are painful, but they are necessary. They allow us to turn our face forward, to face light instead of dark.
Then I thought about how that red "P" not only SEPARATES the word, it JOINS the word. Red, like the Blood of Christ. I thought about the Eucharist (one of my favorite things to think about). How the Eucharist joins what was, what is, and what will be. When "pre" and "are" seem so far apart in our lives, like two different planets, that red "P"--the Presence of Christ--can join them. They are never really separate when the Presence of Christ is in the middle of it!
Wow, that is a lot of interesting stuff all stuffed into one little red "P"!
I think I'm going to concentrate this Advent on that "red P". I think I'm going to spend the next few weeks looking for that Presence in all of the mess that I loathe about "commercial yuletide." I bet I find it behind the tinsel all over the place.
WARNING: Don't watch if you are easily offended by religious satire. Just remember, though, that if God is offended by this, He'd have to be pretty doggone thin-skinned. I just don't think He worries too much about this stuff!
Hat tip to my friend Bosco for the link.
The other day, I was trying to defuse the potential for one of my famous temper outbursts. Someone very close to me described my temper as such: "You take a LOT and say nothing, but it's kind of like blowing up a balloon that gets too full and then all of a sudden, someone lets go of it. You go zipping around the room, going "Pttffffftttthhhhhh," this way and that, banging into everything, and then all of a sudden you are out of air and you fall to the ground, limp and exhausted. Then you sort of lie there, dead. Then you look up and go, "What's everyone lookin' at?" That is pretty much how your temper works."
I've thought about how the image of the balloon works into our resentment and anger. There's a point where I have to stop and tie a knot in the balloon and let no more air inside. When we people of the "helping professions," or "caregivers," and we fail to find something that ties that knot, we overextend, and are at risk of shooting across the room. I am coming to realize that is part of where the act of prayer is a "space creator" for me. To stop, take time to pray for the intentions of others that I cannot take on at the moment, or to chant one of the chants from my monastic breviary seems to stretch the neck of my balloon to the point I can at least get a knot tied in it.
But even then, the work is not finished with the knot in place. That balloon is in danger of being carried by the wind to a dangerous place, like a sharp tree limb, and then, POP! Irreparable damage. It feels good to be free floating out there, and has the false sense of "movement" but the potential to take us to places that are not good for us, and we are filled with just enough of our own hot air that it seems "perfect."
I have come to realize there has to be a string on my balloon, to tether me. Too long a string, and the extrovert half of me dances around and bounces too much. Too short a string, and the introvert half of me pulls me in too close, withdrawing to the point I no longer feel the breeze. This string needs an adjustment depending on the wind. That is where the "connection" part of my prayer life comes into play. I have to be carried to the point where I can feel the "tug" back to earth.
The string itself is the act of discipline in prayer for me. To feel the connection to the ground each day. If I don't feel the connection, I can feel "set adrift", or filled with false adventure that can become dangerous, like a dog suddenly off his chain who knows nothing about cars, chained near the highway. I could simply "burst free" and, in that split second, be smashed by the oncoming car that I did not even see.
It's interesting that a single act of prayer represents "space", "connection" and "discipline" all at once in my life. If that can control my temper to some degree, what other things does prayer control in our lives that we sometimes find ourselves powerless?
I thought about how a loose balloon looks "endangered" and a perfectly tethered one looks so "free", dancing in the wind, weaving and bobbing with energy and purpose. It's an interesting paradox, isn't it?
22I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. _____________________________________________________________
"Well, you can't. As for you, my fine
friend -- you're a victim of disorganized
thinking. You are under the unfortunate
delusion that simply because you run away
from danger, you have no courage. You're
confusing courage with wisdom. Back where
I come from, we have men who are called
heroes. Once a year, they take their
fortitude out of mothballs and parade it
down the main street of the city. And they
have no more courage than you have. But!
They have one thing that you haven't got!
A medal!"--The Wizard of Oz to the Cowardly Lion
I have been thinking a lot today about all the acts of courage that people do every day, that they don't even realize are courageous acts--they might even feel they were acts of cowardice. Every day, someone--well, lots of someones, actually--do things that we don't necessarily think of as "courageous."
Maybe they change jobs where the new job may pay less money but lead to a more satisfying life. Perhaps they extracted themselves and possibly their children from an abusive relationship. They might have realized they have a problem with substance abuse and have agreed they have entered rehab. They might have answered God's call about something they have been trying to discern, or maybe even they simply have finally come face to face with something that we loosely define as "sin" that has driven a wedge between them and God.
If they had "run" from any of these things, they might feel they are not courageous at all, but cowardly. Some of the most courageous acts in our lives don't feel very courageous in that "epic" sort of way. We feel fearful and uncertain at the time we are doing them. We have no idea what lies ahead.
But the one thing that often happens that leads to that moment where we re-orient a part of our lives that feel out of kilter, is "indifference" in that Ignatian sort of way. Not that we don't care, per se, but that we no longer care if the outcome of this change is good or bad--we simply know it has to change from the familiar and uncomfortable way it has been. We only know it can't be like THIS anymore.
It's not that these changes don't have difficult consequences. Some of these consequences lead to "loss" in our lives. Grieving occurs. Some of it is the stuff PTSD is made of. We may even have moments where we look back and second guess ourselves all over again, long after we made the change.
Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't handle it better, if we simply could be like the Cowardly Lion, and have the Wizard hand us a medal. We could look at it and be reminded that we DID, in fact, commit an act of courage.
Did you ever notice the shape of the Cowardly Lion's medal? it's a cross.
The cross is very likely the second most common shape of a medal, with only the medallion being more ubiquitous. Lots of very famous military decorations are crosses--the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Croix de Guerre, the Victoria Cross, just to name a few.
You know, a lot of us already wear crosses or crucifixes. Maybe you're not the jewelry type. That cross they made on your head at baptism is also certainly a cross you have worn every day of your life. This is better than a medal. To win a medal you have to "do" something. The Croix de Christ is something we received simply for "being." The courage that emanates from it is already ours. But to occasionally think on those crosses, or look at them hanging from our necks, can be a powerful reminder that there is no feeling of fear or cowardice that can trump it.
What's interesting is that sometimes, simply having that cross traced on our skin can help us find the courage that already resides within us.
I'm kind of funny about Ash Wednesday. I actually LIKE getting that ashen cross smeared on my head. It's not about death and sin for me. It's about resurrection. In order to be resurrected we must be heated, like the logs in a fire, to the most essential parts of it. When that happens, the ashes are all that are left. It is the part that is not consumed. It's the purest, most rendered down part of us.
Then, what do we do afterward? We share the Eucharistic meal. We accept death down to ashes in order to be resurrected through the Body and Blood of Christ.
(Well, there's also the part where I like to go to Wal-Mart afterwards, just to see if someone goes, "Hey, you have a smudge on your head," but that's another story.)
Another time we can feel the tracing of that cross and the courage that resides within it, is when we ask to be anointed by a priest. I've thought about the last time I was anointed. I was going through a very difficult and uncertain problem in my life. I was afraid of losing so many things I consider "essential" in my life. The anointing was actually suggested, I didn't ask for it. I agreed simply to "go along for the ride." But as it occured, there was something really connecting for me that this oil, blessed by my Bishop as a symbol of his prayers for me, prayers uttered in the Prayers of the people for all of us in every Episcopal and Anglican church in the world, all representing the power of the resurrection of Christ, traced on my skin by the hand of a priest, made me feel a courage beyond me. It is odd how simple tactile sensations can become profound and mystic moments.
Sometimes, even praying with prayer beads or a rosary can connect us, simply feeling the outline of that crucifix-shaped dent in our palm.
When we are feeling a little like the Cowardly Lion, it's probably a good idea to get back in touch with what that cross that already is embedded in us feels like.
Those of you who have been following me and read a previous post know that have been working on some exercises that are Ignatian in origin, but I find them to be a really neat combination with my Benedictine leanings. My next few sessions in these exercises are difficult, in the sense that they deal with what is pretty much my least favorite spiritual topic--sin.
Sin is one of those topics that I tend to have this visceral knee-jerk reaction, because over the years, the things I have often struggled with in the years I had told the church universal to take a hike, centered around the way other people liked to beat me over the head with their concepts of sin. I'd rather just be like Calvin Coolidge and state "I'm agin' it," and let it go at that. We all tend to get just a little too self-absorbed about sin, either taking it to heart and over-personalizing it, or putting on our God hat and plopping our butt in the Seat of Judgment and proclaiming what's wrong with everyone else. I really get uncomfortable with my nature to do both of those things now and then.
I'm also very much not a fan of Hell, a la Dante's Inferno. I have a hard time buying into that concept. I mostly think the Hell of fundamentalist pipe dreams doesn't exist. But I do believe there is a "place" (and whether that place is spiritual, physical, or metaphysical, I don't know) where people can be totally separated from God, and in our quest to understand it or understand God's dominion over it, we assign a name to it, much in the same way that Adam getting to name the animals was a symbol of his understanding of his dominion over them. So we give that "place" names like Hell, Gehenna, or Sheol.
But one of the exercises asks me to ponder the nature of sin as it relates to the whole world, not just to me or to others. To think about what that feeling of separation is all about. To think about it in terms that even the angels have done it. To think about what its global nature is all about.
As I was sitting and meditating, an image for the power of how sin separates us from God kind of popped into my brain in a very innocuous package--the blind cave fish.
I've always been fascinated by these fish, even as a child--that they evolved over millions of years to have no pigment and no eyes. I've heard people refer to them as "ghost fish", and when you think about how a lifetime of sin without any desire for reconciliation and no insight from the metanoia of trying to do things better might affect a person, it probably is very applicable to think of those people as "ghosts" of themselves.
My mind's eye focused on a fish with eyes and normal pigment. I thought about how over millions of years, as these fish evolved, the slow, insidious, incremental loss of color they must have had occur, and the process of them "losing their eyes." Perhaps first their eyes clouded over. Then a thin membrane began to develop over their eyes, then fish skin. Then over more millenia, those eyes slowly shrank to mere stubs of eyes, then faded into nothing. Eventually, they were albino, and eyeless, with only divots to mark where eyes once were.
If you took these fish, and brought them to the light, they would not live their lives any differently in the light as they would have lived in the darkest blackness of a cave. They have no means to even see or appreciate the light.
Maybe that is how it is with our own problem with sin. Maybe that is what those people who are those people capable of the most evil atrocities in this world are all about--left alone in the darkness, evolving into a creature that no longer even has the sensory ability to recognize light. That thought filled me with an incredible sadness--that human beings with color and eyes to see light could evolve into eyeless albino ghosts with no color, nothing to link them with the color and vibrancy of humanity. They can't escape their fate because they no longer have the end organs that sense it. They are hopelessly trapped.
Then, as I was getting ready to find a picture for this blog post, something really interesting caught my eye as I was Googling for a picture. I saw a link to this article in National Geographic about something that is one of those "miracles of biology."
If you take these blind cave fish from different cave populations, and breed them to each other, within ONE GENERATION they can produce sighted offspring. Suppressed, mutated and inactivated genes from one population of blind cave fish are different genes in a different population of blind cave fish. In fact, the further the geographic distance the two populations originate from, the more likely they can produce sighted offspring!
That simple biologic fact buoyed me in a spiritual sense. When we think about that state of separation from God, and of concepts we have of these "places of separation from God," does this biological fact open a window of possibility and hope? Can the mutated spiritual DNA of these tormented souls, in the presence of each other, allow them to, in a sense, breed and give birth to a sighted being? I want to think it is something that might allow those people to "devolve" into an opportunity to at least see light, and move towards it--that they do not have to remain blind and colorless forever.
I realize that in some theological circles, this thought is out and out heresy--some might even consign me to that place for even saying I believe it--but I admit I really do like this thought and like entertaining this possibility. It's always seemed so "un-Gospel-like" to me to offer no hope for the hopeless, no relief of pain for the chronically and perpetually agonized, no salvation for any child of God who became overtaken by evil. After all, if Jesus conquered sin and death, there are mechanisms out there for that process. Perhaps those with a lifetime of being blinded by sin CAN eventually see light again.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
As was noted in our sermon today at church, this week marks Opening Day of the annual "Beg-a-thon" in the Episcopal church--stewardship drive season. The season of pledge cards and prayerful consideration of the same. I have heard this story many times about the faithfulness of this widow and her two copper coins, and all the praise heaped upon this poor woman for her ability to trust God. But you know, there's a back story here, and the back story is worth discussing.
I think back to something my buddy A. has told me in the past about "tzedakah." Tzedakah is one of those Hebrew words that doesn't quite translate. We think of it meaning "charity" but it really means "charity as it relates to fairness and ethical behavior." Judaism actually recognizes eight different levels of it, but the levels don't have anything to do about the AMOUNT. It has to do with the willingness of the GIVER, and the level of need the giver to be noticed or recognized for it. These levels range from the lowest one of "giving begrudgingly" to the highest one of "teaching the recipient to be self-sufficient by giving of not just your money but your time, your insight, and your love."
This is rooted in ancient Judaic law that outlines that all people have a legal right to the very basic level of food, clothing and shelter. When one cannot afford even the most basic, this law must be honored by those who CAN pay. In Judaism, it is not simply unjust for Jews to not give charity to those in need--it's illegal.
(Interesting when you look at that law in light of the recent health care debate, isn't it?)
Charity in Jewish legal tradition is therefore an obligation, a "self-taxation", rather than a voluntary "feel good" act.
The baseline in Judaism is in Deuteronomy 26, the base benchmark being the "tithe" or 10% of "what you have" whether that is money, grain, livestock, whatever. Rabbinic scholars have been wrestling with what that 10% is for thousands of years and we continue the tag team wrestling match. The Talmud defines it as giving at least ten percent of their annual net income to tzedakah. Maimonides later affirmed this. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5). Some schools of rabbinic thought argue that giving ten percent can be a "sin" if you are capable of giving more than ten percent. Other rabbinic schools of thought state that giving MORE than 10% when you are not able to give more is a form of sin because it makes some people lazy about giving their ten percent, or discourages others from giving their ten percent ("I can't be as good as Moishe over there.") There's not much agreement on much except that the nebulous 10% is the benchmark.
In our modern Christian culture, we continue to wrestle with this benchmark. Is this 10% before or after taxes? Is this just for the church, or is this ALL charity since other forms of charity outside the temple did not exist in Biblical times? Lots of opinions, very little consensus.
Therein lies the back story in this text. It's too easy to simply (as much as it should be done) "praise the widow for her generosity and move on." I wonder if part of the reason Jesus showed this woman to the disciples, as we say around here, "put the red-ear on everyone"--to shame them just a little bit by example instead of talk. This woman didn't give ten percent--she gave 100%. She gave all she had. She walked away with nothing, including the knowledge of where her next meal was coming from.
The scribes and priests, all of them so knowledgeable in Judaic law, who KNEW that basic food and shelter was a right--did they make ONE move to stop this woman from putting in those two coins?
When they knew that it was ILLEGAL to deny food, shelter, and clothing to the poor, they just took her money and said nothing.
Now, one could argue that Jesus didn't either, but one of the things I try to "trust" in the stories of the Gospel was that "maybe something happened that didn't get written." I like to think by showing this to the disciples, maybe someone in the crowd, or one of the disciples, gave her a hunk of bread, or pressed a bigger coin in her hand, or shared what they had with her. She trusted in God to provide, just as the Hebrews of the Exodus trusted for manna to show up each day. I want to believe that trust was rewarded.
Every year, I sit down with that pledge card and stew, as do many of us. We all wrestle with whether we have the guts for that 10%, and how much of that 10% is for our parish. So many of us learned conflicting and difficult lessons in our families of origin about "trust" when it comes to money. Many people have learned more lessons in guilt and shame about money (or the lack of it) than lessons about "tzedakah." Honestly, I don't think there is a "right" number, or even a "magic" number. Maybe the trick in all this is to think about our Biblical family of origin rather than our biological one--a weighty proposition, indeed, and one that does not reflect a dollar value but a value of justice in God's reign.
In my next move in the book of Job, I decided to go through each of the "cycles" of his speeches. Chapters 8-15 historically make up "the first cycle of speeches." Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, Job's friends, all mean well, but it's not making things any better. You need to read these chapters yourself to get the long version, but here's the "very short blunt version":
Bildad: "Aw Job, you can't be running around saying that God is not just. You're just asking for trouble. Your kids died because they were sinful and you can't do squat about that."
Job: "Bull. None of us are any more or less righteous than anyone else. Why would God whack one person over another? Leave me alone. I wish I had never been born."
Zophar: "You must have done something wrong. Maybe you're just stupid, and you ought to get your heart right with God and it will straighten itself out."
Job: "I'm not stupid, you know...and who the hell are you to tell me what I need to do with God? I just want my say with God here. I'm the one who's gotten hurt here. You're so sure I've done something wrong, you tell ME what it is."
Eliphaz: "Quit whining. You talk too much. Your wailing and carrying on is what is separating you from God. What can you possibly know what we, and the elders and sages don't know? Methinks thou protesteth too much, buddy. You're guilty of SOMETHING before God or else you would not be carrying on so much."
Job (I'm borrowing ahead in Chapter 16 here, we'll talk more about this in a later post): "Bite my ass, all of you. You just don't know. You can't possibly understand. I don't even understand why God has treated me like this."
So, in the first cycle of speeches, Job makes a shift. He had started out prior to Chapter 8, simply wailing he was miserable. Then he morphs from there to Bildad's speech where his reply is basically, "God, just kill me now. I wish I had never been born. I suck."
Zophar's speech ires him to the point that now Job shifts to a little more of the "I want my day in court," mode. Now instead of just being miserable in front of God, he wants to argue his case.
But by the time he gets to Eliphaz, now he's just tired of all of THEM, and lashes out at them, because who died and made them prophet?
How many times do we march through this drill when we've been hurt beyond belief ourselves? We withdraw in misery, sort of just wishing we don't exist. We ask God to relieve us of our pain, even if it means we die to escape it. That, I believe, is the place people get stuck when they decide suicide is an option. It just hurts so much, and they want it to go away, and if THEM going away is the way out, so be it.
That second shift in Job's attitude is that shift we see in the Kubler-Ross stages of death, dying and grief--bargaining. We want to have it out with the Almighty. We want some sort of "intervention" with others where we can have our say. We want someone else, or God, to be an impartial arbiter of our despair, and award us "damages" for it.
Job's third shift, I think, is that place where we just want our friends to shut up and get off our cases. I think of the well-meaning friends who urge us to just "drop it," "get past it," "let it go," and "get on with our life." They sometimes seem to side with the person who wronged us, or the situation that humiliated us. It's annoying as hell, even if there IS a kernel of truth in it. It feels like abject betrayal when they do that. It's heaping coals on what is already a furnace running at "red line."
But oh my gosh...it's so utterly human. It's timeless. It happened in Job's day, it still happens today. Painful as it is, it's also so REAL. I find the older I get, I'd rather take "real" even if "real hurts."