Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

More simplicity!

O Christ, hear us.
O Christ, hear us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

So, what are the origins of the Kyrie?

The Kyrie is incredibly ancient, being used (minus the Christe part) in pre-Christian times to invoke the presence of God. The Christe part has been around since the 2nd century. St. Gregory was one of its more famous shameless promoters.

But in active Greek, although it translates as “Lord have mercy” and “Christ have mercy”, the active voice is more like “The Lord is being merciful,” and “Christ is being merciful.”

It is one of the simplest prayers, mostly used during Advent but also used during Lent, in many liturgical denominations. The various eastern orthodox churches make frequent use of it, often responding three times, and in some settings, doing the Kyrie forty times.

Sometimes in my life, when things are the hardest, simplest is best. I find that when I am truly distressed, the Kyrie, the eastern orthodox Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), and other single line, easily repeated prayers can take me where my heart needs to go and my brain can’t take me. It is probably my OCD-ish tendencies at work in a good way.

A friend and I were chatting one evening and we got to talking about how, although everyone makes a big deal at how a lot of hard times seem to come in people’s lives in the Advent/Christmas season, it also seems that Lent has its own share of dark spiritual mazes. Maybe it is just the natural cycle of the hard winters in our lives coming to an end and spring not seeming to come fast enough. Lent, a lot of times to me, seems to be a time of “letting the hard parts go.” The things I stew about and let fester in the dark of winter, at the beginnings of spring, the itch to be renewed hits, and I have to open the windows and let in the air, even if the air is cold and biting, with only a hint and a promise of warmth.

I have had to let a lot of illusions in my life go this winter. I have had to realize that there are some parts of what I envisioned for myself nine years ago when I first returned home, are not to be. But the tradeoff is to become more grounded, more centered in what is here for me. Some of it has been surprises I could not imagine. Some of it is “not the way I ordered it” but has proven to be rewarding in ways I could not fathom. Some of it is painful and stabbing. But it is all so very real.

The real of the Resurrection is coming. But we have to live through the deep gloom of the tomb to get there.

...was the last Facebook status update my blog and Facebook Friend Lee McKinley Davenport left. Unfortunately, as it turned out, Lee turned to the prospect of premature eternal rest. Lee left this world, by his own hand, sometime Sunday.

I found out this morning as I was getting ready for work. Stunned was an understatement. What? Lee? He seemed to be doing ok, despite fighting a metastatic gastrointestinal stromal tumor, finding life after divorce as well as coming to grips with his sexuality in the face of family members who found this hard to handle, being a good father to his two children, and fighting to get on disabillity. I knew Lee had previous problems with depression, but he had a ribald wit that was in full view, and it seemed the the return of his daschund Willie had brought some stability to him. His new blog was even entitled "Lee's Fresh Start." In fact, Lee's last comments on this blog were his showing concern when I told the story of my head injury and his admonishment to me that I was NOT foolish for seeking medical attention, that it was the proper thing to do, and he gave me the ultimate ribbing--"Physician heal thyself".

I only knew Lee from my blog and Facebook; I had never met him in person. He was one of a kind on Facebook. I think he sets the record for "most virtual gifts given to me." I'd seriously get annoyed with him. I would come home, get on Facebook and see he had left me six virtual gifts at a pop, and think, "Jesus, Lee! I can NEVER have the time to reciprocate all these!" He also had a real habit of referring to Willie as "his weiner" and would go on for HOURS with one string of double-entendres after another along that line. I would think, "Oh, God, Lee, I can only take so much 17-year old humor." But just when you wanted to be mad at him, one of his ribald quips would show up on status comments or on your wall that actually made me double over in laughter, and you knew there was no way I could stay irked.

I have to confess that the main emotion I have to go through, every time someone commits suicide, is anger. Anger at the person who killed him/herself for leaving loved ones in the lurch, especially children left to fend for themselves in this mess. Anger at leaving ME in the lurch. Anger at those who hurt him/her so much that they would choose this way out.

I always worried about the overload of virtual gifts. What was it he wanted to accomplish from this over-display? I knew something lay under all the "flip and ribald." I knew, because I hide my own darkest demons with the same veneer. Comedy is tragedy plus time. I know for myself, I get told that I am "incredibly funny and witty." I know that some of my wit comes from deep pain. I always suspected Lee had deep pain under there.

But most of us in that situation learn to draw on that wit to heal our tragedy. We use it in gratitude to God for being alive. There was a place, I believe, where Lee could not make that jump. The psychological demons between his ears sang too many siren songs. Perhaps he even, in a sense, became addicted to the dance between his pure heart and the toxins that the pain of his life secreted.

The full picture of this dance came out today. His last virtual gift to several in his internet community was a series of posts on his private blog, his semi-public suicide note for the chosen few to see, timed so they appear after his death. He was so consumed by this pain, he could not fathom the pain he left behind in an internet community stunned by his loss by this "gift". I think the Lee I chatted with, the Lee I laughed with, would not have intended this pain. But if we take the story of the suffering of the demoniac to heart, we know the things that made the demoniac suffer were legion, and silent to the rest of us.

I'm going to be up front. I have cried tears today for the loss of a good internet friend but mostly for the potential that was within him, and the torment he must have felt within himself, and the mess it left behind. I always grieve in a hard stony way about suicide; in the back of my mind I wonder if in that last split second that realization of "this is a bad idea" falls in and oops, it's too late. I remember a story of a friend of mine who once pondered jumping off a bridge to his death. What held him back was a single thought: "What if I get halfway down and change my mind? I'm screwed."

I would like all of us to make one promise to each other in the blogosphere. Please promise to reach out, even if it is to your internet community, should you realize you have this much despair. What I have learned from my own life in the internet community is there is the capability for much love, a pure and holy love, even for those of us who find the face to face world a harder place to show our true and pure souls.

Rest in peace, Lee. I pray to God you have finally found the grace and peace you deserved. I pray for your children, your family, and your friends. I only wish you could have seen the love that was out there for you in what seemed like a rocky and barren land.

Well, at this point we finish with all the “beseeching,” and we’ve moved on to the Agnus Dei:

Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us.
Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Grant us thy peace.

I’m so familiar with the Agnus Dei, have always loved the Agnus Dei for its simplicity, but I really don’t know much about its origins. So...I Googled a while.

The Agnus Dei was introduced in the Roman Mass by Pope Sergius (687-701). It may have been added as a defiant act against the Byzantine empire. The Byzantine church had ruled that Christ shall not be depicted as an animal. It was one of the last things to be added to what we now recognize as the modern Eucharistic liturgy, as was the Nicene Creed.

By guidelines of ecclesiastical art, at the bare minimum, the iconic figure of the Agnus Dei should include a lamb crooking a cross aloft with its foreleg. Later, the Anglican tradition was to add the Cross of St. George flag, the original flag of England, but other countries in Europe use other colors for the flag. Some renditions show the lamb atop a book with seven seals as in the book of Revelation. Some versions show the lamb with a halo and others show a gash in its chest with its blood flowing into a chalice, as in the cup of communion.

I learned something new and kind of cool, too. From the ninth century, onward, “Agnus Dei” can also mean a disk of wax made from last year’s Paschal candle stamped with the familiar “Lamb of God” icon. Historically, the archdeacon manufactured the Agnus Deis on Holy Saturday from wax taken from last year’s Paschal candle, mixed with chrism, and blessed. Then they were distributed by him to the people on the Saturday following Easter. In ancient days, these wax Agnus Dei medallions were thought to protect the owner from perils from storm and pestilence, from fire and flood, and also of the dangers to which women are exposed in childbirth.

It is also interesting that the various Eastern Orthodox churches, although they have no problem with using the phrase “Lamb of God,” in keeping with the original Byzantine belief, do not use the iconography of the Agnus Dei because of their prohibitions on depicting Christ as an animal.

I have, as long as I can remember, been more drawn to the icon of the Agnus Dei as a symbol of Jesus than any painting, icon, or statue depicting Jesus, even as a child. I am sure some of it is that even my childhood brain looked at renditions of “Truck stop Jesus” and “Jesus on the wall of every old lady’s house” and knew somehow these were not “real.” As a child the only rendition of Jesus I was drawn to was the one where Jesus was holding a lamb. But for me, oddly enough, the icon is more “real” to me than human depictions of Jesus. Part of it is the Lamb holds the cross on a staff in victory. There is a part of me that wants to believe that, ultimately, the holy and innocent parts of us will triumph over evil and death. The Lamb of God, I believe, is the only “innocent” thing that resides in me. But for some reason, an iconic representation of Jesus seems more real to me than a human artistic representation of Him. Maybe that is because any human representation, I know that no one really knows what Jesus looks like, therefore human representations of Him seem "not authentic." However, an iconic representation of Him shows what He is really about, and is therefore more "real."

I like to think that all the jading of the world cannot take this holy and innocent spotless white bit of my soul from me. The Lamb is the holy Christ that lives within me. Some days, it is the only spotless pure thing I have. I may be dark with sin on some days, yet, even in my dark days, inside me is still the purity of the snow white Lamb. Frankly, it is hard to imagine the purity within myself; I am not sure I even could if not for the fact the Lamb lives within me. It is the part of me that can accept mercy. It is the part of me that can grant me peace.

It is how I CAN offer myself as a living sacrifice to God; the Lamb has been there before me. Just as it seems that the Holy Spirit can be seen more or less directly by me, and is at least perceived by my five senses through the actions of others, The Agnus Dei is the only direct line I seem to have on Jesus. I can touch the Lamb of God. I can eat and drink the Lamb of God. Jesus, in some ways, seems a dim shadow of history to me...but the Lamb of God is very, very REAL!

That it may please thee to grant that, in the fellowship of
[__________ and] all the saints, we may attain to thy
heavenly kingdom,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Hmm. "Attain."

I dunno. I don't think there's any attaining. I think it's just there, if you know what I mean.

At the risk of sounding like a universalist, sometimes I wonder if the "evil within us" dies when we die. I mean, first of all, we're all human. We have all done some degree of evil. We all fall short of the glory of God. None of us are going to attain salvation on our own merit.

The other problem, of course, is that matter of corporate guilt. It took me a long time to even acknowledge the possibility of "corporate guilt." But then if I believe in corporate guilt, then the converse would be corporate salvation, now wouldn't it? Maybe I think along the lines of Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, when he says, "Hate not atheists, the teachers of evil, materialists, even the most wicked of them, let alone the good ones among them...Remember them in your prayers, thus: "Save, O Lord, all who have no one to pray for them, and save those, too, who do not want to pray to Thee."

Judgment is kind of a problem for me. There are plenty of things I dislike, people I dislike, people whom I think are "evil." There is much about the world I loathe. I really loathe our culture of conformity, of artificial, of eternal youth, of "appearances." I am bumfuzzled at how the homely, the obese, the dorky, and the nerdy are so easily discounted when it has been my experience that a lot of very sweet souls live within these people.

I have a hard time grading "evil." Sure, we can all point to the Joseph Mengeles and the Saddam Husseins and such, and come to a consensus on some forms of evil. But what about all the silent evils that occur right under our noses? I think about a friend from my past, who years later I discovered that her ex-husband liked for her to go out dressed up in whorish clothing so men would look at her and he could pick fights with them, then go home and get her to agree to sexual acts that she found fairly degrading. Or I think about mothers whose sole subconscious aim for their children is to grow up to feed their narcissistic egos and to raise them in an environment where "nothing is ever good enough", to hell with their children's own personal growth.

I am certainly not immune to participation in such forms of evil. My hot temper is a willing participant in such events. I have dressed down trainees till their ass was on fire. I have "cut off my own nose to spite my face" at times not to let someone else that I really disliked have something. There are a few people in this world (mostly people who have not done ME dirty, but did my friends dirty) that I really, probably, lie in wait for the first chance they ever cross me in the sole hope of verbally "letting them have it with both barrels." Well, hell, and then there's that line in the Reconciliation of a Penitent, all those "other sins which I cannot now remember." Hell, the ones I do remember include lust and greed and pride and hoarding (I guess that is either a form of coveting or gluttony, or both).

So, you know, I'm just not the person who can evaluate someone else's salvation. I'm not going to let my personal feelings about some people get in the way. I am saved by grace, not because I wandered down a church aisle and said a magic sentence, not because I was baptized or confirmed, not because I jumped through a bunch of denominational hoops in a certain way. That means people I don't like get the same deal. Some of the things I've done, some other person might not think I'm worthy of grace.

Yet I think it pleases God if we all show up to his party, sins and all. That is really an impossible one for me to figure out, but I think it is the one thing that drives me wanting to not just be a better person, but to continue to let go of some things and "put them under my Christ."

Ok, I'm coming in from the cold to some degree.

Many of you know I was mostly AWOL this week. I did manage to schedule my reflections and have them post automatically.

Well, actually, I was here. I decided to take a personal retreat for four days. I wanted to see what happened in a world where life basically revolved around liturgy and meals and everything else was secondary, in an attempt to identify in my 49th year, the beginnings of my "Jubilee year" what are the debts that need cancelling in my spirit, and the slaves I need to free. I will be blogging a lot more about this experience as my thoughts process and evolve. Today, I am just adjusting to my world again, feeling grounded in a new way.

I had a sense what the big one was already, but this trip affirmed this.

The world of "instant availability" has the potential to blow me to bits. It is the root of 90% of my angry moments.

I thought about how "call" has evolved since when I first started being on call 20 years ago.

Twenty years ago, we all had voice beepers and no cell phones. When you were on call, you could easily miss your page or it was garbled. It was not a big deal if you took 20 or 30 minutes to call back; people knew you might be out looking for a pay phone. People did the best they could until you responded. They would wait 20 minutes before calling you again, if they wondered if the message was garbled. You stayed home more on weekends on call because of this, maybe only ventured out to the grocery store or church, because you knew you needed to be mostly home. People often called your house first BEFORE they paged you. People were more mindful of "bothering you at home" with less important things or would say on the page, "call at your convenience."

Then came digital pagers. The need to repeat pages lessened. But people sort of stopped calling you at home first. You didn't have to scramble to write down a phone number, the pager saved it. But you still might have to scrounge for a pay phone, and people were still fairly ok with time lags. But there was no system, really to distinguish "call me now" vs. "call me at your convenience." Sometimes people might enter "911" after the number, as a code for "call me back right now," but we really did not have a code for "take your time, don't rush." Also, with the voice pagers, you knew WHO it was before you responded, and could take things in consideration like "what that person usually gets worried about." With only a number, you didn't know who it was, just sometimes WHERE it was, so you were less prepared for what this call might bring.

Next came cell phones. The first thing that happened was those of us who were resistive to cell phones kind of got pushed into them. I had resisted because, frankly, coverage still was not all that good. But when word got out that "Dr. So-and-so always answered right away, and YOU drag your feet," it was no longer acceptable that you were trying to find a place to call or a place where the cell phone actually worked, it was that YOU were "irresponsible" and Dr. So-and-So was "more responsible than you." Something was wrong with YOU. Everyone suddenly was expected to answer within 5 minutes, and no one seemed to care if their problem was URGENT or just administrative. People were still using the pagers, b/c incoming calls cost money too, and there weren't package deals yet. So at least they weren't calling the cell phone directly and wasting your money.

The other thing that emerged in the "pager/cell phone" era was those of us on call started venturing out from home more, and doing more things outside of the home...which meant we were interrupted more, and we became ANGRY more that we were being interrupted. Those calling became ANGRY more that we didn't answer fast enough.

We are morphing to a world now where at some point, we will ditch the pagers, but not just yet. People still "in-house" at the hospital still need pagers, because in some patient care areas cell phone use is not permitted. But it has created a paradox for those of us who take call outside of the hospital. Some people page you and some call your cell phone, and sometimes when they call your cell phone, they don't leave a message, and because of HiPPA, the hospital phone numbers come up as "Restricted" so you don't know WHO to call back...lots of weird new quirks set up to make more people angry you didn't respond in the appropriate time frame. Also, the pager systems are starting to be more in disarray as fewer people have pagers, and the coverage isn't as good, and the pages don't go through like they used to. Well...just more reasons for those calling me to be angry, and for me to be angry.

I am starting to see how this potential for anger is encroaching into the rest of our world. This year's 2nd year class is the first one that has been visibly upset that I do not check my school e-mail on weekends. I do not believe it is my duty as their instructor to be "on call" for questions about the exam on Monday at 10 p.m. on Sunday. I had one student in the past vehemently line ME out that he pays x amount of tuition and he EXPECTS me to be available for HIS questions because HE PAID FOR IT. He did not care for my response that I was not a happy meal at McDonalds, cooked to his specifications the same way every time. I said, "I hate to tell you this, but piss-poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." He complained to one of the deanlets. Thanks be to God the deanlet just laughed. But I knew had he complained to the right person, I could just as easily have been lectured on "my duty to be responsive to student needs," and it would have ended the way these conversations usually end between us, with my telling him to go to Hell and to hire someone else if I don't suit the mission of the institution.

I am realizing in this word of text messaging and Facebook and Twitter that these things, which in some ways are a godsend, also have the potential to make me fall prey to everyone's expectations. We have all become less mindful of interrupting other people, trusting others to "just put us on voice mail if they don't have time for us." But we forget maybe THOSE people also might suffer from the pressure of "expectations" and answer instead of putting us on voice mail, and then they are annoyed they are interrupted. I know there are certain people in my life I rarely put on voice mail; some are because it might be work related, but honestly, some are because if I put them on voice mail, they will call me again and chew me out for putting me on voice mail! Others get their feelings hurt b/c they see my putting them on voice mail as "I don't want to deal with them, I am dissing them." So instead of being honest with myself and my needs, I answer them, and then get mad that they called about BS. I also know some of my friends have had their moments with me.

This world of "expectations of instant response" has created a lot of insecurity-based anger. People's neuroses and our own neuroses really come out in spades. I recognize it is 90% of my own angry outbursts.

But the biggest, hugest thing I had affirmed on this retreat is that my insistence of my own "quiet times" is to be guarded and enforced except in case of emergency. I'm going to be frank. My "bullshit tolerance level" is way smaller than most, and what constitutes "bullshit" in my world is much larger than most. Despite my gregarious nature in public, I can only be in that mode for a short time, and when I've hit my limit, I break down very quickly. I have sensed for years that the thing to do is just leave. My friends joke about my party skills. I stay a little, am the life of the party, and the next thing you know, everyone goes, "Where'd Kirk go?" I had left, disappeared, sometimes without so much as a goodbye, and sometimes with just a quick, "gotta go, tnxbye." This really offends some people until they understand. Some never understand.

This is why Facebook, when used properly for my world in the way that is healthy for me, is a godsend. (Now, Facebook chat, I can mostly do without. Too much instant expectation.) But I am grateful to God that Facebook gives me the outlet to be social without the physical and temporal pressures of it. I just have to discipline myself not to use it as a time suck for empty space, but rather a positive means of communicating with old and new friends.

But I am realizing that I need regular, stable quiet time like some people need air, and I've been living like someone with emphysema in that regard. I can live more fully and be more forgiving and less angry about the pressures of my job when I have time for just being quiet, praying, and recharging. Facebook allows me to be social in a community in a way that does not pressure my physical need for "alone time." I'm sure there is some expert out there who will say this makes me a reclusive nerd or some psychopathology is at work, but my short answer is, "No, the more quiet time I get, the more I feel alive when I DO interact with others."

There are little glimpses my body has given me (none serious, but some enough to rule out some serious and scary medical issues) that as I age, I can no longer "do everything." I have chosen to listen to my body in this regard. I find I can do what I choose to do more freely and boldly when I have ample recharging time. This is a very liberating thought, and to journey to a place where I feel less shackled by the unhealthy expectations of others is relieving. We will always labor under expectations of others, but I am realizing so many are "unhealthy" and so few are "healthy." Maybe some of this is none of us feel free to admit what it is we really need, me included. I know in my case, I tend to prefer to be silent when what I want to say is "No," and my silence too often is read as tacit approval.

The Catechism in the BCP (p. 848) says one of our duties to others is "to speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence." We all have a habit of either silence or the unfeeling "yeah, sure" to some degree when we mean "no." I have definitely been this way about my need for solitude, because I sense my need is off the bell shaped curve compared to most others (it has the potential to appear "weird"), and I don't think people see this need as "authentic" in me because I'm just so damned gregarious and windy and comical when I'm "on." But it is real, and this trip has affirmed my need to understand this need more in myself.

That it may please thee to grant to all the faithful departed
eternal life and peace,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Well...Even though I'm not yet 50, there are many people who used to be in my life who are gone.

Once upon a time, b/c of all the divorces in my family, I had eight grandparents. I am down to one. I have lost at least four high school classmates to the spectre of Death. I've written many times before about my uncle R., who died in a hunting accident at age 11. Many of the people I grew up with in my home town, people of "the greatest generation", that made up the productive life blood of my home town, are gone. I really miss that bunch. I would love to hear what they would have to say about this present economic crisis. (I have a feeling they would say, "stop whining and do the best you can--that's all you can do.")

I can sit and miss those people at the drop of a hat. But sometimes I can still feel them in my heart.

You know, in some ways I know a TON about death. My job is a constant walk alongside sickness and death, rendering diagnoses that sometimes will almost certainly end someone's life sooner rather than later. In some ways I'm pretty fatalistic and downright cold about it. I know better than most that we all will die, no matter what we eat, how much we exercise, and that our "healthy habits", although laudable, are just prolonging the inevitable.

It's why I don't worry a hoot about trying to look alluring. It's why I chose to go gray. It's why I don't even OWN a bottle of moisturizer. I know full well I will gray, wrinkle, sag, and degenerate. I don't have time to waste on people who want me to be an image, and I don't have time to waste on "artificial". If they don't find my soul attractive, my heart young and loving, well...they can all go to Hell (My grandmother's favorite response to any form of rejection..."If they don't like (fill in the blank), well, they can just all go to Hell.")

Yet, most of Death, I haven't a clue.

I think we all have a disconnect. We cannot get beyond some variant of "imagining ourselves alive" when we imagine ourselves dead. We just sort of imagine us, as we see us, but in another place. It's just "live us" in a different locale.

I can't imagine "light perpetual". I can't see "light" without the counterbalance of "dark", just as I can't know "hot" without knowing "cold" or "room temperature."

Then comes the really really weird part. I think the closest I've ever been to feeling the presence of God, it's in the dark silent places. But God is light. What's up with that? For me, he's a warmth or a wind in the middle of dark and silent.

I have this very Jesuit notion about the moment of death. When we die, the world we know melts all around us and we discover that the Kingdom of Heaven was right here with us all along. It's my version of "All will be revealed." It was all covered with this little Japanese rice paper screen, this flimsy and fragile illusion of "life."

In my 30's, I used to have this recurring dream. I dreamed that my life was, well...a dream...and when I woke up, I found I was not a professional, had never gone to college, and I had remained in my home town, putting together chicken pot pies at the local ConAgra plant. It was a scary and awful dream. I'd wake up sweating, and unsure if I really DIDN'T put chicken pot pies together for a living.

But I'll tell you something I miss about not having that dream anymore. When I would finally wake up and realize where I was, I had such joy, such gratitude, such delight for WHO I WAS, warts and all.

I want to believe at the moment of my death, what I see will be so awesome, so powerful, so amazing, it makes the best moments of the time I have been allotted on earth look like making chicken pot pies at the ConAgra plant...because it means the hardest and most painful parts of my life will become nothing. That thought is a delight!

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to
comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who
fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Well, as an expatriate Lutheran, the one part of this I already know how to do is "beat down Satan under our feet" with a lot of enthusiasm and vigor. It's been said that I can sing "A Mighty Fortress is our God" in a way that sounds like I'm planning to singlehandedly whoop the Devil's ass.

But here is the paradox with the rest of this stanza. I am pretty ok at comforting the weak-hearted and raising and strengthening OTHERS who fall; but I am very very lousy at doing these things in myself. I am the first one in line to kick my own ass, sometimes shoving the other ass-kickers out of the way to be the head of the line.

I have been mostly AWOL from the internet and the cell phone this week, mostly by design. At some point I will reveal more about that design but right now I just need this to evolve. There have been things evolving in my life over the last year and a half that have taken me by surprise to a fair degree, and one of them has been a marked increase in my desiring "alone time." I have spent decades "not listening to God's still voice" (Hell, not even listening to my own still voice!) and beating down the empty spaces rather than exploring them. What I learned last year working through all the Psalms was that I am curious as to "what's down there in the bottom of the dark craters of my heart."

I have historically had a tendency to overfill every waking moment of my day, to control every detail and dynamic of my world. Now, on the job, many of these things have to be done--I'm the boss, for cryin' out loud. But my return to a life of liturgical worship awakened a sleeping giant. I am still not sure what the name of this giant is. I have been struck by how the three most powerful and noisy things in my spiritual world are found in a realm of silence: The fact that, other than getting the sacraments on Sunday, I prefer the Wed. AM prayer service to Sundays; the fact that God seems to speak loudest to me when I'm working alone on fixit projects at church, and the fact that God seems closer than I've ever experienced when I'm out "fire sitting" or just kicking back in my reclining lawn chair, staring up through the hole of the "sacred space in my yard."

Let's just say, "This is not the church experience I expected."

The historical part of me says this is non-productive; "time-wasting"; "lazy," and weak. What I am learning, though, is it is forcing me to a new challenge. All my life there have always seemed to be "missing parts" in my psyche. I won't go into the details (I'm not even sure at this point I can explain them, because they come up in weird ways) but certain psychological attributes that most people have, I just don't seem to have them. It's almost, in a sense, "localized autism." I think over the years I have conditioned myself to respond at least semi-appropriately in settings where at least the appearance of them is needed, but at the deepest levels, they are not there.

Yet, as human beings bound by our Baptismal Covenant, we are constantly charged to love more fully. I am realizing that I have to figure out how to love more fully, despite seeming to have "missing parts" when it comes to some of this stuff, or at the very least, "have the parts but they do not seem to be hooked together all the time; there's shoddy wiring between one and the other." I have a very strong sense, though, that this is not something to be "fixed" in the sense I will ever acquire these parts. I just have to learn how to love more fully with the parts I have, and this appears, at least at the moment, to include a lot of reflective/contemplative stuff. Yet I am the kid who, in kindergarten, could not lie on the mat and be still. Hmmm.

I am not afraid to go to the dark places. In fact, I kind of want to go there. Now I have to learn how to hear what needs to be told to me there. I am not particularly patient with myself there. I need to learn to give myself the patience to stay there and the fortitude to decide "weak" is okay in this instance. What a paradox!

I have been doing a lot of reading and reflecting this week. A lot of it is "How to be the best believer I can be with the me I've got to work with." I think we're a lot like birds. We molt in the seasons of our life. We look fairly messy when we molt. Molting season is about stripping the illusions of our feathers and growing new ones for the upcoming season. When our feathers are all ragged, some real truths come out. Here's the biggest one for me and my spirituality: I will never be a "nice Christian." I kind of like Alan Jones' take on his own belief and the problem with "nice":

"I don't think I am a particularly nice person. In fact, one of the reasons I count myself among the believers is that I cannot rely on my being nice to pull me through."

I know one thing for sure. I feel myself becoming a much more grounded, much stronger believer than I ever have in my life, but I don't feel a damn bit nicer. Don't mistake what I'm saying here. I am capable of kindness and generosity, passion and love, compassion and a compass of following the truths in my heart. But I'm just not "nice" and there will always be this bugaboo in my life that on given days, I don't like humans very much and secretly want to believe I am the offspring of space aliens so I don't have to claim any allegiance to the illusory world of "nice." I see a world of pain and death and tragedy and abandonment, yet I wake up every morning with the thought I just might see hope and delight, and I am always pleasantly surprised when I do. This, I believe, is the paradox of the "surly Christian".

The reality of Jesus for me resides in all this negative stuff. Otherwise, Jesus is just a cartoon mascot, like Fredbird, the big fuzzy bird mascot of the St. Louis Cardinals. He's not a real ballplayer to me unless his salvation resides in the dark tragic recesses of the world. It drives me to the belief that to really "put all things in subjection under your Christ," he has to be more than my Sunday hobby, or my morning prayer time distraction. But so many books on spirituality are all just too damn cheerful. The affirmation of Jesus for me lives in the danger zones of my life.

So I sat today with the Nicene Creed. I have fought and fought with the Nicene Creed for all sorts of "pretend" reasons, for decades. I fought over gender. I fought over whether some of this stuff actually happened. My scientific mind does not handle mystery well. I feel pretty "special ed" when it comes to theologic mysteries. But I decided today, "You know, but somehow, in this thing, there is all my reason to believe. Why is that?"

I decided to think about what the Nicene Creed means to the "Surly believer." Here it is....I changed the "we's" to "I" but we are talking about one individual surly believer at a time here, and other surly believers can change what they want to fit. It's a recipe, not a legality.

I believe in one God,
The Father, the almighty.
Even though paternalism scares me to death, I somehow believe God the Father, for lack of a better term, has my interests at heart better than any earthly parent could ever have.

He is maker of heaven and earth,
Of all that is seen and unseen.
It doesn't matter HOW he did it; it's okay if he used particle theory and evolution to do it. Somehow, life in the universe came from nothing, and here we all are.

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God (for me, anyway.)
I don't have to deny other paths to God for other people to say that.
But He is the one I chose, so there He is.

He was eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
True God from true God,
Of one being with the Father.
Through Him all things were made.
I'm pretty sure we all get a little bit of this, it's just that Christ was connected in ways that are unseen and unprocessable by our five puny senses.

For us and for our salvation,
He came down from Heaven.
That is why we don't need to fret about jumping through the right magic hoop to be saved.
He came, He saw, He conquered, and that pretty much covers it.

By the power of the Holy Spirit
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made one of us.
It's a long story; again the "how" is not important; it's that He was flesh and bone, joy and sadness and temper and sullenness, just like us.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
People who tell the truth and ultimately are proven right are not always dealt a great hand.

On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures.
You can take that however you want; it doesn't matter, the end result was the world changed.

He ascended into Heaven
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
As far as I'm concerned, God's right hand is big enough to hold all of us. It's not a big deal if Jesus gets first chair.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
And his kingdom will have no end.
It's a good reason not to take on God's job description when it comes to "judgment."

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Thanks be to God; it's the only part of this concept of the Triune God I actually get to see for myself.

He has spoken through the prophets.
"He's" more than likely a "she," best as I can tell from the Hebrew, but never mind; we are talking about entities without genitalia. For that matter, the prophets aren't all dead. You, me, or anyone else could be a prophet to someone if they are in desperation and you help pull them from the brink of a spiritual grave.

I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Notice it's the last "C" that is capitalized. That is the point. The Church is not a particular denomination. Now if only others besides me could get to that concept...

I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Frankly, I think the "one baptism" means Jesus' baptism, not mine.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
...and for the life of me, I don't know exactly what it means, but it is the most grounding aspect of my faith while I inhabit this earth. I have no facts, no figures, no evidence but the little fire in my gut, but I believe. Praise God, I believe.

That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors,
and slanderers, and to turn their hearts,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Well, this one is sort of not feeling really connected to me. I don't really have "enemies." I don't really have "persecutors." Ehhh...slanderers? I don't do enough these days to get me in trouble. Most of what people talk about me behind my back is pretty much at least partly true. Annoyed with me? Yeah. Pissed off at me? Sure. Fed up with me? Uh-huh. But I'm just not important enough or powerful enough or in control of enough to have enemies, persecutors, and slanderers.

Hmmm...I think the closest I can get would be is my paranoia of "The great unknown case I'll screw up and get sued and go down the chute for the million dollar lawsuit, and my malpractice carrier will drop me and if I'm un-insurable, well, that's the end of my career."

I think it's a lot like the advice given in the old movie "All's Quiet on the Western Front:" You'll never hear the bullet with your name on it. The case that is probably out there to get you, you'll never know it's there.

I have a small handful of cases I still go to bed at night and wonder if they could do me in. I have had a tiny handful that could have, but by the grace of God it didn't happen. This is something that is very hard to talk about outside of the doctor's lounge. Non-medical friends do NOT want to hear you EVER screwed up. EVER. Any physician who tells you they never screwed up a case is lying, or is a space alien. Mercifully, most of our screw-ups are minor. But it is part of what drives our medicolegal climate. We are not allowed to admit our humanity, because someone potentially got hurt or died. So to the bulk of the world, I carry those cases in my heart as sharp swords silently piercing me through and through.

The first thing you have to realize in my job is "I am not a diagnose-atron." I will never be 100% accurate. (Since Doxy likes my invented word "retrospectoscope", I get to use it again here in a minute.) Being distracted is the killer. I have to be anal retentive to the point of nauseating about things like "this slide belongs to this jar which belongs to this patient." Screw that one up, and give the wrong patient the wrong diagnosis, you are at the point of no return.

Most of the screw-ups in my profession are retrospectoscopic screw-ups. The original biopsy had the finding but it is very subtle, and is not "noticeable" until a later biopsy shows it in spades. I had a case like that once. Some are "multiple screw-ups" where more than one person, in the chain of command, messed up a little bit and you are one of many holding the bag.

But, as I have told my priest, "It's hell to sit in God's chair when you know damn good and well you are not God." Be found out for one and you are suddenly incompetent at best and a murderer at worst.

So, yeah, I guess I do have persecutors. They are little glass slides and little paraffin blocks of preserved tissue that have the power to do me in. I pray every day to make them few and far between, and for the ones that exist, that they do not cause great harm, not just to me, but for those who could be victimized by my humanity and fallability.

That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive
us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue
us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit to amend our lives
according to thy holy Word,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

True repentance. Hmmm.

I had a lot of trouble with the word “repent” until I learned more about the etymology of the word, that it comes from the word, “to turn.” So in my mind, “true repentance” doesn’t just mean “turn,” it means “turn and walk towards.” Make a move in a Godward direction (to steal from the title of my friend Tobias’ blog.)

Then we ask forgiveness in this stanza...not just for our sins, the things we know we did, not just for our “sins left undone” (our negligence) but for even one more thing—the things we did wrong that we were too dumb to know we even did anything wrong, and may never find out about. Things like complaining about something at work and little did you know that the person who poured their heart out in the thing you are complaining about was standing right there. Those sorts of things.

I used to be so not into asking forgiveness for things “I was too dumb to know I did” but being a laboratory director changed all that.

When you run a hospital clinical laboratory, if one of your phlebotomists draws the wrong person and the person who needed a transfusion gets the wrong type of blood, and the patient gets sick or dies as a result of it, guess what? In the eyes of the law, YOU, the laboratory director, are “at fault.” Now YOU didn’t draw the blood. YOU didn’t mis-identify the patient. You might have had an in-service on “patient safety errors in phlebotomy” the day before, but if this happens, and there is a lawsuit, they are not going to sue the phlebotomist; there’s nothing to be gained there. They are going to sue the hospital and the laboratory director, because it was YOUR responsibility. All laboratory directors are very cognizant that “the buck stops at the Laboratory Director.”

Well, it’s not an exact analogy but it is close enough that you get the drift.

I was also thinking about how when we ask forgiveness, are we asking in a true sense of repentance, or are we asking “just to make this difficult thing go away.” If we are just asking for the most expedient, heuristic way to get out of our jam, we are not truly entering with a “spirit of repentance.” We have to have the courage to realize that we can’t just be forgiven, we have to walk towards what we need to do to get right with this difficulty, even if it hurts and even if it knocks us down a little. It’s a hard task!

Just wanted to let everyone know that the next few days' reflections may come sporadically. I will be DOING them; it's just not that I will always be in a position to POST them in a timely fashion. Thanks for your patience!

That it may please thee to have mercy upon all mankind,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Little stanza, big order.

All mankind. That means “People we don’t know, people we don’t like, and people we think are evil and awful and disgusting and would just as soon spit at than look at them,” as well as those we love and care about.

It is really hard for me to pray for people I don’t know or don’t like. I confess I do it sort of half-heartedly, and almost always in an “institutional prayer setting”. I don’t do it on my own.

How does one remove self from this? I am very judgmental when it comes to things I find as “evil.” I would like to personally stomp them into the ground, remove their existence from the planet. I would not think twice. It’s the classic “gun owner” argument. If someone broke into my house, and threatened me, I would not even blink as I emptied my 12 gauge shotgun into their chest. It’s just that simple. Afterwards, I might have a problem with it. But during? Nope. Wouldn’t blink. I have a tremendous self-protection mechanism. I know this. I have stood up to people at times one of the risks was to be beaten or even killed.

I remember a night at the Armory about 25 years ago. Back in the day, a lot of local bands rented the Armory, and there were always kegs of beer. One of my friends was being beaten up. He was a sort of “gay-ish” looking fellow. Honestly, I don’t know if he was really gay or just “artsy”--we have fallen out of touch over the years so I have nothing to back me up either way. But a few of the locals were pounding on him and I know the word “faggot” was being tossed around. Now, I had about three beers under my belt, but they were a slow three beers (I had been dancing a lot) and I was pretty much in control of myself. But I walked right in the middle of them and said, “I’m taking him and we’re going home.” There were several epithets hurled my way. Mean, beer-smelling redneck guys. I looked at each of them and said, “You know what? I suppose you could kick my ass. But your fun is over. I’m taking him home, and if you want to come after me and beat the shit out of me, I suppose you’re welcome to it. But we’re going home.”

My friend was a mess. Split lip, two black eyes, lots of contusions on his face, and tipsy to boot. But I walked right through those guys and no one followed me.

How do I pray for people like that? How do I pray for people like my cousin’s ex-girlfriend, who mis-parented their two children?

I’ve told you this before. The best I can do is pray, “Bless so-and-so. Change me.”

I wish I could do more. Maybe some day that “Change me” will catch. I think sometimes it has a little. I don’t get ballistic mad over a few things that were guaranteed to make me ballistic. But it’s a pretty darn small change. I am grateful for the little changes it brings. But it is still very hard.

That it may please thee to support, help, and comfort all who
are in danger, necessity, and tribulation,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

I was thinking about how have so many different people in our parish with “tribulation” right now. We have illness--both people and pets. We have relationship issues. We have loneliness issues. We have substance abuse issues. We have job change issues. For a small parish, we have lots and lots of issues. Some are acute, some are chronic. I probably only know the tip of the iceberg, not even TRYING to know; I'm sure there are far more that I don't know squat about but can only hope my own prayers reach them.

I think about my own tribulations, 9/10 of which most people don't know, because work and HiPPA and other confidentiality factors come into play.

Tribulation is defined as, “Great affliction, trial, or distress; suffering,” or “An experience that tests one's endurance, patience, or faith.” It comes from the Latin word for “oppress.”

Oppress is a good word for this. All of these things feel oppressive, like a weight.

But it’s not just the sudden or cataclysmic events in our lives that are tribulations. Some tribulations are slow, insidious chronic processes that, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water that is slowly heated; they come upon us so slowly we don’t know what is happening until we are almost cooked. A lot of my own personal tribulations have fallen under that category. Some of them, I didn’t even know they existed until it was over, and saw them through the “retrospectoscope.” I looked back and thought, “Wow...I had been through a lot with that. Hmmm."

For that matter, “comfort” is not necessarily a “there, there,” pat-on-the-back, compassionate thing. Sometimes, comfort is simply the end of the suffering. The Old English word for comfort actually meant to poke and prod and spur someone into doing something positive. One of the Hebrew words for “comfort”, the word Nacham, can actually mean, “To be sorry” in certain contexts.

I was thinking something along those lines the other day. Just as there is a wonderful comfort in just being in the presence of people you trust or the beauty of God’s world, there is a similar comfort in having made up after a rift, or a similar comfort in that magic moment when you start to feel one of your “bad days” turn around. This is a hard feeling to explain but I call it my “The moment I am in is a very okay place” feeling. It’s not just a feeling of satisfaction and love, it’s a feeling with hope. A feeling that says, “There are even more good feelings out there for me.” It’s not a feeling of things bursting out all over; not an enthusiasm, not a “gee whiz.” It’s a very calm feeling filled with love and laced with hope. That’s the best way I can describe it. I think it is what grace feels like to me.

It’s liberating. It’s releasing. But it doesn’t appear unless you’ve first “been through something.” It’s fleet and elusive; try to grab for it and it falls apart between your fingers. You can only feel it and long for its return. The elusiveness of grace—it flows and it goes. I could stand as much of it as will come my way. We don't ask for grace. We don't look for grace. But somehow it finds us.

Well, today was The Last Day, as Rowan the dog would say, for Bo. Bo started to go really downhill and just did not want to get up or do anything. His folks knew it was time. He left peacefully, and in the loving arms of his folks and with his buddy Miss Zera Ruth.

I'm incredibly sad, too, but I like to think now that our blog buddy St. Grendel is showing Bo all the sights where light perpetual shines on dogs. I'm pretty sure it's where light perpetual shines on me, too. As Will Rogers said, "If there are no dogs in heaven, I want to go where they go."

I can see Bo doing his "helicopter tail" with his new golden tail now.

Spring is really here, because half the town is putting out stuff on the curb for "Kirksville City-Wide Cleanup." (The other half will do it next week.) Every year, people can basically just dump anything and everything (minus a few flammable and explosive things) to the curb and have the city pick it up. I have always joked that there's no "clean up" to it...we are all just trading our stuff back and forth!

Now, since I don't live within the city limits, I don't get to put anything out to be taken away. But this time of year I often cruise the streets watching for goodies. Already this year, I found a perfectly good CD/DVD player in a box of junk. It's a seasonal treat, only here for a couple weeks and gone till fall.

Some even postulate that scavenging is hard wired in our human nature. Possibly a long suppressed survival instinct. But of course, the norm has always been that dumpster diving is not a "polite" activity so mostly those of us who love it keep it underground.

Oddly enough, I was, today, in my daily "spiritually cogitating time" thinking about this. Scavenging is a two-edged sword for me. At one level, I have thought about the difference between how scavenging during Kirksville spring cleanup is acceptable and downright "resourceful", since you are scavenging through things no one wants, and scavenging to survive, which is far less desirable and not well accepted. At another level, I wonder how much "free stuff" God puts out to the curb, with a hunch that our natural scavenging nature will just "pick it up?" Do we pick it up, or do we say it's not good enough, because it's at the curb?

Can someone else's spiritual trash be our spiritual treasure, and all it needed was the right owner?

In the big cities, gangs like to "take over dumpsters" and make dumpster divers pay for the privilege. Even this can be exploited. How many times does "organized religion" make us feel like we have to "pay" for what we should be able to pick up off the ground for free?

I think about all those serendipitous moments in my life where God just kind of "popped up while I was driving by" and it made me stop and explore the box it is in, just like how I was driving down the street many times on cleanup days and spied something at the curb that made me stop and explore what else was there. In those moments, I wasn't really driving by to scope out the curb. I just saw it. A lot of times AFTER I saw it, I actually DO start looking, and find nothing as good as the thing that just "popped up."

That's kind of the magic of God's grace. Sure, we look for understanding of God, but the grace just pops up, and we are amost never "looking for grace."

That it may please thee to visit the lonely; to strengthen all
who suffer in mind, body, and spirit; and to comfort with thy
presence those who are failing and infirm,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

I can’t help reading this one and not think of the times I have sat with the dying. Dying is something our culture has screwed up very nicely.

I’m not sure “religion” necessarily helps much, either. I recently read an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that shows an association with choices of more aggressive end-of-life care associated with people who regularly use prayer and interaction with God. Turns out people who engage in a high degree of "religious coping" with terminal illness are more likely to (surprisingly) choose life-prolonging treatment, including aggressive life-prolonging treatment, and are less likely to choose end of life "comfort measures only". That's a little disconcerting.

The only “hole” I saw in the study on my quick read through it was there was a fairly high number of Roman Catholics in the study, and perhaps recent statements from the Vatican about discontinuing things such as ventilators and feeding tubes and withholding food and water have skewed the results a little.

But if you’ve never sat with the dying, honestly, it’s not so bad, provided one has pain control.

I have been around the dying in pain. That one is pretty rough. But the one thing I have learned from that is “there are things far worse than death.”

But people who are just sort of sliding from this world to the next, there is a quiet and a holiness about it. Yet people are often terribly afraid to watch someone die.

I remember sitting with a friend's husband when he had only a few more days to live. She could not easily find someone to sit with him. I sat with him one night so she could go to her son’s graduation from Joseph Baldwin Academy (A summer program for jr. high aged kids at Truman State). It was actually a very restful evening except for the brief moment he was more lucid and insisted that I call the Vatican and let him talk to the Pope. I found this pretty funny considering he was an atheist. I finally got him to lie back down and rest when I told him, “You know, it’s like 3 a.m. At the Vatican. No one will answer the phone. You’ll have to call in the morning..” To this day, I kind of wonder what he wanted to tell the Pope. But mostly, it was an evening to watch TV and read a book, with the labored noise of his breathing in the background. It seemed odd that his breathing, as “white noise”, was actually a thing that calmed my mind.

I remember one patient I had on clinical rotations at the VA. He wanted to die at home. He was only, at best, a few days from dying. What he wanted more than anything was to go home. His wife pulled us aside and told us, “You have to leave him here at the hospital. I just won’t be able to stand him dying in the house. If he dies in his recliner chair, I’ll have to sell the chair, I won’t be able to stand looking at it. In fact, if he dies in my house, I think I’d have to sell the house.” I was so bewildered by that—that she would thwart his last wish like that.

So, he was left at the hospital to die. His family was too spooked to stay around much. I remember promising him that I would stay with him as much as my duties would allow. I slept by his bed in a chair the night he died. I heard that “white noise” of his breathing. Then I dozed off, and woke up because I no longer heard it. I doubt he had been dead very long.

I sat with my grandmother as she lay dying. I was the one who pronounced her dead, so as not to have to wake up the doctor that the nursing home had on call. I remember how my mom kept going in and out of the room; she could not really bring herself to stay for any great length of time. When Granny died, I remember listening to her chest for a time at least twice as long as I ever did when I was on the floors. It was for the simple reason that I knew if I pronounced her dead and it turned out she wasn’t quite dead, I would never live it down. I could even imagine being haunted by her over it! But she died of her small cell lung cancer, and the last few months had been very hard on her, so I was actually relieved that she passed so easily.

The last few days or hours of an “eventual” death, in the several times I’ve witnessed it, is mostly a gradual entry into a land of shadows. Oddly, it doesn’t scare me but gives me a certain feeling of groundedness. It is still hard for me to make peace with sudden death, violent death, death “before its time.” But a more or less “natural” death is actually an affirming event when you witness it. At least for me, it reminds me of the cycles of the seasons, the stars, the planets. I am still in no hurry to get there. But if this is the type of death that would eventually be mine, I think it would not be so bad.

That it may please thee to preserve, and provide for, all
women in childbirth, young children and orphans, the
widowed, and all whose homes are broken or torn by strife,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

This one covers a lot of territory.

First of all, we don’t think about women dying in childbirth much anymore. It just doesn’t happen nearly as much as it did in the days when people mostly delivered at home. But it happens. In fact, we just had a case early this week where it almost happened. It was a woman who was 18 weeks pregnant, whose amniotic sac was leaking. Conventional medical practice is to first “wait it out a little”--see if the sac more or less “repairs itself”--it is not unusual for this to more or less “fix itself” if the leak is small. But patients are always cautioned that if they do decide to wait it out for a short period of time, it does increase the risk of premature labor or infection. In this particular case, the woman became septic and almost died.

We still have orphans and we have tons of widows. Finally, that “broken or torn by strife” is rampant. That is the part I am most connected with, and the part that most resonates with me in others.

Talk about the ultimate game of Jeopardy: “Alex, I’ll take ‘broken and torn by strife’ for $100.” In my case, it was more like “which kind of broken and torn by strife” DIDN’T I have. We had a pretty good mix. Alcohol. Physical and verbal abuse. Drugs. Narcissism. Selfishness. Immaturity. Manipulation. Emotional abandonment.

I get angry at myself because I often catch myself behaving like an ACOA (Adult child of an alcoholic) all the time. It shows up in my hyper-responsibility issues, my anger, my placating and occasionally enabling behavior.

I engage in reclusive behavior at times b/c there is a point where I literally “can’t stand to be ‘touched’ by humans anymore for a while.” I look incredibly self-revealing and expressive on my blog, but in real life I am very uncomfortable with being self-revealing except to only a very close few. This is complicated by my outward gregarious-ness, which causes people to sometimes mistakenly believe they are closer to me than what they are, in my mind. I think in some ways, I will always be irreparably broken in my ability to have healthy close relationships. I have not learned how to be “whole” in my human interactions. I am pretty convinced that although I get better at it, I’ll never be within the norm. I developed a slightly curmudgeonly personality to basically set up a boundary fence between “the me I show,” and “The me I’m coming to know.” I need a lot of room to pace the floor and walk around the barn.

When I have a bad day at work, every bit of an old bugaboo of “I can never do enough for anyone,” often bubbles up. I spent a lot of my growing up years “avoiding”. I walked on eggs a lot so as not to anger the drunken, or give the manipulative reason to manipulate. I learned some aspects of a very sick sense of loyalty. I learned a lot of abnormal patterns that I grew up thinking were “normal” and it was only when I was at other people’s houses that I learned, “Gee, other people do not live like that.” I remember learning to escape when fights broke out, and only confront when absolutely cornered, then fight with all I had. I distinctly remember one day watching a big argument break out in the house that turned into a fight that destroyed the living room, and thinking, “I am never getting married because I cannot risk living in a marriage like this.” I was like 7 or 8 years old. I learned the only thing that I could trust reliably was me, and even then, some days...not so much.

Oh, my good days are pretty good. But my bad days are painful. That pretty much mirrors my growing up years. There were good lessons in my family, too—I know this—but for some reason they never make me feel as good as the bad ones make me feel broken. The good news is I don’t have many of those days, and I don’t dwell in the pit of it for very long. The bad news is I cycle there more than most people know.

This is why my struggle to trust God has been so damned rocky. For many years I wanted nothing to do with the God of the Bible, especially Old Testament God. How could I possibly worship a being who behaved like an abusive parent? I had a really hard time for many years connecting with Jesus, because if you hear some people’s versions of it all—this business of the crucifixion being “substitution”. I’m sorry, but what kind of idiot God demands the death of his own son as an atonement offering?

Yet there was something that never turned me away from a concept that maybe...just maybe...God was not all that. Maybe it was the people who wrote the Bible, and their culture, I thought. Maybe they missed the message in some ways and got it in some others. Of course, Biblical literalists would run from me, expecting me to have the lightning bolt hit me any second, for thinking such a thing. But it has brought me to some good realizations:

1. I can choose not to live like that.
2. I can choose to make healthy choices sometimes.
3. I can learn to weather the storms in my own head, and I often weather them best when I separate myself from the world for a spell to some degree.
4. I can choose to quiet myself, and when I can’t choose to quiet myself, sometimes I can consent to letting God help me with that.

This is where a lot of the disciplines of my faith come into play. I discovered a framework of regular activities centered around reflecting and musing about God quiet me.

“Quiet” is a hard term for me. Growing up, the only quiet I knew was when I escaped the house and went off on my own, whether it was goofing off in the woods, lying in a hammock in the yard, or even hiding in fear in a tool shed until I fell asleep. But the biggest problem to me finding “Quiet” is this little voice in me goes, “HA! If you get really quiet, and learn to enjoy it, the world will yank you out of it against your will, when you are most vulnerable.” So sometimes, finding my quiet is hard to do, because the apprehension that it will be “taken from me” outweighs it.

This, perhaps, is the biggest casualty that I suffered growing up “in a home full of strife”--the fear that anything I have will, when I am most vulnerable and least expect it, be taken from me. It is perhaps my biggest facet of the “slavery mentality” from which I desire freedom. I am slowly learning (really slowly some days) that “going off to be alone and quiet” doesn’t have to mean “I am hiding from something so everything I have will not be taken from me.” Maybe this is the biggest lesson I have learned from “my sacred space in the yard.”

When I heard the recent story about Natasha Richardson's death and Doxy had mentioned a little about it in my comments on my previous post, I noticed that a lot of people have commented on how such an apparently innocuous fall led to such tragedy.

I have to confess I never pay much attention to celebrity gossip, but in this case my ears perked up...because I had my own weird head injury experience about a month ago, and some real life experience with my friend SC.

About three years ago now, my friend SC agreed to be one of the volunteer stooges for a dunking tank. When someone finally dunked him, and he dropped off the bench into the water, the bench came down and hit him in the head. Not hard at all. Didn't even split his scalp. He kind of went "Ow" and went on his merry way.

Then a few days later, I saw him at the Friday night consignment sale. He was complaining about "sinusitis." It was a weird time of year to have sinusitus. He had also told me about the dunk tank. I looked at his head, and he had a TINY bruise. I said, "You know, maybe I'm being paranoid, but let me look at your pupils." I checked his pupils and they were fine. He had a headache, but he insisted it was his sinuses, from inhaling some of the water in the tank. I said, "Ok, that could be the case, but promise me if you have a bad headache, like the worst one you ever had, or blurry vision, or balance trouble, you'll go to the ER." He called me a worrier and a paranoid.

That Sunday he was found down in his house because a friend who usually goes to Mass with him came by. He was taken to the local ER, who immedately turfed him to the medical center at MU, who immedately had him flown to Barnes. He had a massive subdural hematoma. Luckily, he lived.

So let's just say I'm paranoid about head injuries.

Fast forward to about a month ago. I got clobbered with a door in the left temple by walking into it as it opened and I did not see it open as I had my head turned. Again, it was just "Ow." I seemed fine for several hours, but I felt myself getting "duller." My brain is this incredibly zippy, constantly moving organ. I have tons of thoughts going in it all the time at multiple levels. By evening, I was feeling really slow. It was like 1/10 of the thoughts were in there. I dd not have much of a headache, but I felt like I had to blink all the time. I just felt like I was getting slower and slower. I had trouble reading my computer screen. I started wondering what was happening. I thought about SC. But I also thought maybe I was just being a little paranoid.

So I called a friend of mine and asked him what had to seem like a very strange question. I go, "Ok, I just want you to talk to me and ask me questions, and you let me know if I'm answering them strangely." So we talked a while and after about five minutes, he goes, "You're answering appropriately, but you are answering VERY slowly and deliberately, like you're trying to put something is wrong past me. What happened?"

I told him about my recent bump on the head and the fact I have had two concussions in the past. I said, "I am embarrassed to say this, but I am considering going to the ER. I have not been a patient in an ER for twelve years. This is embarrassing."

He said, "I'll take you." We argued a little about that, I said there was no reason to drive out in the country, and I'd drive myself in. I lost.

I remember feeing very very dull riding in, but mostly embarrassed. I was pretty sure they would find nothing wrong. As it turns out, I was right, but it was also a good idea to be sure I was fine. As it turns out, with my history of two concussions, it just doesn't take much to "ring my bell" anymore. Ignoring it could have caused me to ignore something worse.

Even then, I was surprised that it took me the better part of three days to get rid of my "dullness." I started to wonder if somehow I'd done permanent damage. I didn't panic, but I was considering panicking. But then on the morning of the fourth day, it was like I woke up and I could feel all the thoughts zipping around again. Not quite as fast as "normal" but more like cars who needed the cobwebs blown out of them by a good fast run on the highway. It was an enjoyable day, feeling it all "come back to normal" over the course of the day.

So I am not surprised that the Natasha Richardson tragedy was over such a small spill. My own recent mild head injury experience reminded me, "It just doesn't take much."

That it may please thee to preserve all who are in danger by
reason of their labor or their travel,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

We just don’t even consider that every time we get behind the wheel of a car we are in “danger.” Of course, the insurance companies have entire actuarial tables on this one. If we are going to buy the farm on the road, it is most likely 25 miles from our own home—the place where we THINK we are the safest. We are deluded that “home” is safe. Most fatal falls occur in one’s home.

We don’t even consider the possibility we could be dead as a doornail five minutes from home.

Or think about “by reason of our labor.” I go to work every morning and am exposed to pathogens, carcinogens, and all sorts of toxic things. I can no longer take a tuberculosis skin test because I turned positive for exposure to TB in 1991. I had to take six months of Isoniazid and risk liver damage from the drug to remove the 4% chance that I could have it turn to active TB. I have cut in surgical specimens from people with HIV and Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. I don’t even think about it. Not a bit. I go to work and think I’m immortal.

I have cut myself while cutting in a surgical specimen now and then. I have had the Hep B shot but that won’t protect me from Hep C and HIV. I have inhaled God-knows-what over the years.

I like to brag that I gave up a lot of “risky behaviors” like owning a motorcycle, but the truth is every day I drive to work at the risk of being smashed to bits on the highway, I work all day in a literal cesspool of chemicals and pathogens, and I go home every day to feed large hooved animals who could kick me in the head and drop me like a rock. I like to claim that now owning a disability policy has changed my attitude, but I have no attitude at all about the things I do every day that truthfully, risk my life.

We just don’t think about these things until they happen. Then they are “freak accidents,” “tragedies,” and worse yet, the “What did you expect? He/she did/was around (fill in the blank.)” But we can be just as dead from the perils of everyday living as we can the riskiest of risky behaviors.

In that respect, every day of our life is a miracle.

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings,
to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of
heart as thy servants, and for the common good,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Oh, man. I have enough trouble thinking about ONE calling, let alone several! Not to mention I have issues with “compartmentalization” so “singleness of heart” is not exactly an easy thing for me, either.

It sounds odd, but it took me sixteen years to realize I was “called” to medicine. It took a job, that in some ways, to most people, would not want, for me to realize it.

Every upward educational move I ever made was based on the fact, “It’s a job where you can have respect and help people at the same time.”

When I went to college, my degree was a biology education degree, and I became a high school/junior high teacher “because it was a professional job with respect, and I would do some people some good in the process.”

When I went on to medical school, again, “it’s a good living, it comes with a title of respect, and in the meantime, I’ll be able to help people.”

But the word “calling” never set well with me. Saying one is “called” to something, in some ways, seems so “faux noble.”

I spent sixteen years even wondering if I did the right thing. It started with second guessing the wisdom of my medical school admissions committee. I knew people in school who would say they were “called to medicine”. Mostly, they were either fundamentalist Christians, or BS artists.

I had to work hard in residency, with not a lot of positive feedback; occasionally even some seriously negative feedback. I was known as a “hard worker” but not very “book smart.” I realize now that I have some aspects of a tracking reading disorder, and some facets of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It didn’t really reveal itself until I had to start digesting hundreds of pages of info at a pop. I had no desire to subspecialize. I liked being a generalist in my specialty.

I was the first person in our residency program in twenty years who failed both parts of their specialty boards the first time out. I was written off for dead, a person “who will never pass the boards”. I was encouraged to go into another specialty. I knew they were wrong. But I did not know who or what to believe. It drove me into a pit of despair and I did not answer my phone for six weeks, save being on call. I came incredibly close to killing myself—the only time I have ever ventured that far into that deep chasm. Loaded the shotgun and looked at it. Then I decided it wasn’t right to leave such a mess for everyone to clean up, and unloaded it and put it back down.

That is when I spent some time with the people who deal with learning disorders, and discovered that I was not someone with a “full blown” learning disorder, I was on the fence with it, and that the way everyone insisted I “had” to study in order to pass was the exact WRONG way for me to study. I learned I was a better at processing what I heard than what I read. I learned that in reading, to read all the headings and subheadings in a chapter first, and then outline below each in my notes, in my own words, then study the notes, not the book. I bought video versions of the board review lectures and outlined the notes on my computer as I watched the lectures. I practiced systematically going through each piece of tissue on my study slides under the microscope. I worked with the learning disorders staff on campus to do behavior modification techniques; although I was told that Ritalin might help me, I just did not want to do the Ritalin thing. I was afraid it would “dull me.” I have this strong sense that my creative skills emanate from this constantly zipping herd of thoughts in my brain and did not want to risk alienating myself from them.

When I took my boards the second time, not only did I pass, I tore the lid off of it. Although we were never “officially” given our scores, I got a phone call from one of the members of the board “on the sly” who told me, “Wow, you did REALLY well on the boards. Good job!”

Yet, I still did not “feel called.” I was a “jack of all trades” working in an academic setting where being an “expert” is more prized. I was told “well, you are an excellent teacher of medical students and residents, but no one ever gets promoted for being a good teacher.”

Something DID happen in those five years as a young attending, though, that told me “there is something about me worth salvaging.” We had a young resident, married and with two small children, who, mysteriously at age late 20something, had a stroke—a pretty good sized stroke. No one ever figured out WHY this happened. It left him in a position where it was questionable whether he would recover to the point he could finish his residency. When he came back on leave, it was very hard for him to “bounce back”--but he did, although it was a roller coaster ride. Additionally, he was pushed a lot to be “tested” to see if he could be “broken.” I remember one day he came into my office (he would bop in and out of my office some for encouragement now and then during this time) and he expressed his worry whether he could pass his boards.

I took a deep breath. I had not talked about my “failure experience” with any of my peers and former trainers. It was something I had put aside, like an affair or an illegitimate pregnancy, or a miscarriage—something that had happened, you didn’t talk about, you pretended did not happen. I took another deep breath—and then I started with, “Well, you know...I failed the boards—both parts—the first time. I learned something important from that. I learned that I did not learn the way everyone else did, that I was told bad advice, that the way ‘everyone did it’ was the wrong way for me. I had to learn to hear my own small still voice tell me how I had to learn it, in order to pass it. I had to get help from people who understand styles of learning. It turned out I was sort of on the fence for two learning disabilities I did not know I even had. Well, I am betting that part of how you have come back from your stroke was that you have continually had to deal with learning things a different way than you used to. My one piece of advice is listen to yourself on how to do this, and listen to the people who have helped you bounce back from this stroke, about how you learn, and decide now that these things will guide how you study. Hey, if you fail them, at least someone recently has been there before you and you won’t be by yourself.”

He passed.

It was not until I took my present position that I started to realize I was “called.” I work in a two person group in a small town, covering four hospitals. Three are “critical access” hospitals—hospitals in a rural area where it is challenging to keep a laboratory functioning. I realized being “jack of all trades” when most of your referring doctors are generalists—family medicine, internal medicine, general surgery, and OB/Gyns who do both obstetrics AND gynecology in equal amounts—need a general hospital pathologist to answer questions ranging from blood bank to surgical pathology to microbiology. The thing that was dissed in an academic setting was the perfect thing in this one. My job pays quite a bit less than the national average. But lifestyle is cheap here and I have more than I ever dreamed of having as a child, growing up with “not much.” There were few people who belonged in this setting...but one of the few was me.

Then another calling started to emerge. It was the call to be a part of a spiritual community. It took me several years to even darken a church door on a regular basis, but when I came to Trinity, I knew “this was the place.” I just sort of came in like a stray dog, turned around three times, and lay on the rug, looked up and said, “When do we eat?”

I discovered once again that being a practical “jack of all trades” was something our parish could use. I joke that I am the Jose Oquendo of the parish. (Cardinals fans recall that in the 80’s and early 90’s, Jose Oquendo was a utility infielder that, one year, was allowed to play every position on the diamond.) I joke that “I’ve done everything but pitched.”

Yet I still struggle with this half of my “calling.” Oddly enough, I am still very uncomfortable with a church “community.” I am sure it comes from being a lone wolf Christian, unchurched but studying all these years. I have had to deal in my spiritual life with every single doppelganger that hangs over from my personal life—my attention deficit and hyperactivity issues, my anger issues because of stuff from my past, and my feelings of inferiority from being an adult child of an alcoholic—the “even if you do everything, everything is never enough” stuff. These things are incredibly hard some days. A few days, I wonder if it is worth it. But I stick with it. I have a desire to watch these two callings in my life come together somehow, and a God-given stubborn nature. Yet another nature is emerging. I am not ready to give this nature a name. I am a 55% extrovert, 45% introvert. I don’t think I’ve fed my “inner introvert” much over the years. But I sense this new thing that is emerging comes from that 45% half. It is foreign and uncomfortable some days. VERY uncomfortable on a few days. I try sometimes to use my “listening skills” from the time I learned about my attention deficit problems to hear it. I will be the first to admit I have a fear of failure about it. I fear sometimes I will let my peers and my clergy down.

I don’t have a name for it—but I know it is a work in progress.

Not exactly St. Paddy’s day fare, but here it is:

That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the
bountiful fruits of the earth, so that in due time all may enjoy
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

You know, this isn’t just “agriculture.” It’s ALL the natural resources, if you get right down to it. Oil and coal are also “fruits of the earth.”

I keep finding myself “living more and more below my means.”

I’m not totally sure what this is all about.

I remember as a little kid, growing up with “not a lot.” I used to think about the people in town who got a new car every year and was absolutely sure that, if I ever made a good enough living, I was going to be one of those people.

Meanwhile...real life...I’ve yet to own a vehicle that I did not log at least 175,000 miles before trading it in or selling it.

I think I got so many mixed messages about “enjoying fruits” growing up. My dad could literally live with nothing; he could (and does) live in a shack with only a wood stove, as long as he has a few clothes and his hunting/fishing stuff. My mom spent a lot of money that she didn’t really have over the years trying to imitate suburban women and lifestyles like she saw on TV. She liked brand named clothes so she could “be just as good as those other women.” The only brand name that was important to my dad was “Charmin toilet paper.” He did like his Charmin toilet paper.

My grandparents were Depression-era people. They did not believe in owing any money, save a house mortgage. If you could not afford it, you did not buy it. Brand name items were only bought on sale, unless for some reason you gave one as a gift. You bought the “store brand” of groceries, not the “name brand,” and were told, “It’s all from the same place.” You bought things at auctions and estate sales. You saved everything--”You might need it someday.”

Surrounded by all this, somewhere along the line, I learned “not to want much.” I watched all this mish-mash of variety of money and possessions and wants and needs and desires, and somewhere in the middle of that, I became very uncomfortable with money and possessions—torn between a lack of desire for “things everyone has” to the point of almost feeling out of touch with the world on this issue, and my habit of “hoarding.” I have never been comfortable with making a “good living”, oddly enough. There is that part of me that always believes disaster is just around the corner, so I need to hoard. I need to “not have a lot” so if I lose it, I won’t miss it. I don’t enjoy the fruits of the earth OR the fruits of my labors worth a damn, in some ways.

But perhaps, in a very simple and qualitative sense, I DO enjoy them. In the middle of winter, I long for the taste of a fresh homegrown tomato. I look forward every year to that tiny window of a few weeks where the morel mushrooms pop up. I love the smell and taste of a piece of meat from the grill, cooked on a muggy summer night with the crickets chirping in the background. I realize these things are impossible to hoard. You can’t hoard a season. You can’t hoard a finite window of time.

How do I transfer this simple joy of the minute details of the fruits of the earth to a joy in learning to live more simply? How do I free myself from hoarding things of little value and cherishing the tiny things that have value beyond its possession? In fact, if you try to “possess” these things, the value leaves them.

How do I give away my own “fruits of the harvest?” This spiritual journey that I have been on, despite being very much “in the desert” at times, has already shown signs of a harvest. Then the trick becomes how to give them away and not let them just rot in the field. These are all hard questions, and I continue to work on them...because I am still not quite sure how to resolve these things.

That it may please thee to make wars to cease in all the world;
to give to all nations unity, peace, and concord; and to
bestow freedom upon all peoples,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

I’m afraid as long as there is pride and greed in the world, there will always be wars. Part of me says, “This is too tall an order.”

Part of me says, “How can I possibly pray for something that, in my heart, I do not believe will ever happen?” That part of me is the part of me that refuses to even participate in “Polyanna fantasies.”

But what is at the core of this? The answer to that question is incredibly scary, and incredibly simple.

I cannot believe it because there is no such thing as “total peace” within myself.

Here’s the ugly truth on a small scale. There are times, when I’m out of sorts, that I will just, as my grandmother used to say, “pick fights just to be pickin’ a fight.” Oh, sure, I have some trumped up reason that maybe something was taken from me, or someone did something to piss me off, or I’m mad at how someone treated someone else. Or maybe I say something snippy to someone who horned in on the parking place for which I was patiently waiting, or someone cut me off in traffic, or someone just said something a little snippy to me that I don’t care to ignore.

If that is what I can do on a small scale, well, then, how do I expect it to happen on a large scale?

So, okay, I can’t believe this will ever happen. Why pray it? Why bother? Why beat my head against the wall? I had to think about this for a while...and I got an idea.

Maybe I pray this, because what is really being asked in this stanza, is for God’s reign to be in charge. If this happened, we would not be in charge. We’re not capable of it. The only system I can imagine where there would be “no war” would be a system in which God did all the ruling. Even then, I think it would be a job because all those humans would have to sort of “stop being human.”

That “freedom” thing is also, in my mind, not attainable. Again, as long as there is pride and greed, there will always be a human need to subjugate and enslave others. Again, I look to myself. When I am in no mood to reason or compromise, I can get bullish and inadvertently put someone else down, even if that was not even my intent. Maybe when I am asking for freedom for others, I am really asking for my own freedom from the parts of myself that can subjugate other parts of myself.

Perhaps part of this stanza is one of those “Reach for the stars, and even if you can’t reach them, you can catch a planet on the way down” sort of things. Maybe by praying for the impossible, some degree of “good” still happens. Maybe it’s about the increase of good by asking for the impossible. That seems more reasonable.

What do I need to do in myself to “quit warring with myself and those with whom I share a common life?” What do I need to do to cut myself loose from my own “self-enslavement?” Oddly enough, I am studying on that a little in my own prayer life, it seems...and perhaps the answer to this impossible wish is in there.



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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