Offer the appointed sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
Our Advent season in my parish opened with one of the biggest comedy of liturgical and procedural errors imaginable. Eventually, it was downright comical.
Let me go through the list of everything I can remember that went wrong....
1. The organist got her wires crossed and did not show up.
2. I meant to fix the front door of the church (the latch plate needs adjusting) and it kept popping open.
3. Our music director played the piano, subbing for the organist, and he had a bit of a pregnant pause as he hunted for a piece of music.
4. The person who did Prayers of the People goofed and did two stanzas twice.
5. The person who normally does the organizing to pass plates at the offering was gone, and we sort of organized that on the fly.
6. The person who usually brings the kids up to bring the bread and wine was fashionably late with the kids.
7. The acolyte did the candles backwards both before and after the service.
In short, a good time was had by all!
I keep being reminded of something our interim priest told me when I felt nervous about doing things "exactly right" when I am serving as acolyte: "No one person can single-handedly break the Eucharist." I joked that "Well, even a bunch of someones can't break it--and we just proved it!"
So why are there groups out there that keep claiming not just that it can be broken, but are willing to name who will break it?
Yes, those who want to bar certain people (cough, cough, gayslesbianswomen, cough cough) have their reasons. They're scriptural reasons, in their opinion. But I am going to take another tack here.
Does anyone have any evidence that letting these (in their minds,) "notorious sinners" presiding at Holy Eucharist has lessened or dampened or nullified the Eucharist's transformational power?
I've yet to hear anyone who believes and lives Eucharistically say, "You know, I was at my church the other day, and I went up to the altar, and well...it didn't do as much for me as it used to...and you know, I think it's because all those gays and women are out there celebrating it. I think it's just not working like it used to in the church universal."
But here's what we do know...
We know that in the past, people who have committed horrible crimes later on, and people who live secret, dark lives outside of the canons and their vows of the priesthood have presided over God's table, and somehow, the people who had partaken of the sacraments served at that table were still transformed at that very same altar.
When people of that ilk have been discovered or exposed, I've yet to hear a bishop issue a memo that said, "Y'all who ever celebrated Mass with (fill in the name of clergy person) need to show up next week for a do-over of your partaking of the Sacraments, since those ones you got from (fill in name of clergy person again) are null and void now."
I'll be the first to agree that we should hold those who preside at the altar to very high standards. In the Episcopal Church, we ask those ordained to the priesthood to do a lot. We ask them to submit to the authority of the bishop, read and study Scripture diligently, endeavor to minister the word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant, and undertake to be a faithful pastor. We ask them to pattern their life and household in accordance with Christ's teaching, persevere in prayer, and offer their labors to God. That's a pretty tall order. We're all going to probably have some differences of opinion on just what that means, and I accept that.
But even on the infinitesimally minute off-chance that these folks are right about these things that they fear about the (cough cough gayslesbianswomen cough, cough) people in question, we still don't have any evidence that their presence at the altar has changed the fundamental nature of what we believe the Sacraments do insofar as their effects on individuals.
For that matter, I haven't even begun to address the moral composition of those of us who come to that altar and participate. We have plenty of sinners at the altar already. Really sinful ones of us, too. Yet none of our personal auras have tainted the Sacraments. So if we don't pollute it, how can anyone on the other side of the altar do it?
Therefore, I keep thinking we are looking for the wrong thing on which to base a family squabble. Not to mention, outside of the family, no one cares. The atheists down the street don't care. The evangelicals across the road don't care. Not in a real sense, anyway. Maybe just in that semi-voyeuristic way neighbors do...you know, the "The Barkleys down the street are fighting again, I heard them out in my yard," sort of way.
So here's my modest proposal. Let's just all keep coming to the table. Defy it to not transform you. And when someone has single-handedly managed to find a way that it breaks the Eucharist, let folks know. I'm not holding my breath.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
You know, it's the smallest words in the Bible that cause all the trouble.
All that is within me? Really? That's the thing that trips many of us up. After all, who knows better than us what's in there, and how quick we are to point out that some of "what's in there" is rather icky.
It reminds me of the surface incongruity in the opening line of the Reconciliation of a Penitent on page 447 of the Book of Common Prayer:
"Bless me, for I have sinned."
On the surface, it sounds like we are saying, "Hey, God! Bless my screw-up, would ya?"
But let's pull up the cover and look under that, shall we?
I keep thinking about the creation story in the book of Genesis. God did this, and God did that, and these "this and that's" are followed with statements that these creations were good. But in the very beginning of the story, he makes Light, calls it good, then he separates it...and there's a resounding "no comment." The darkness? It was always there all along.
But when I read that over and over, I get this feeling that maybe God wasn't so sure he'd rather have figured out a way to get the darkness and light to simply coexist, rather than separate them. Maybe God had a nagging suspicion that separating light from dark was going to cause trouble in the minds of created beings. But on the other hand, maybe since the darkness had always been there, God didn't give it a second thought. Maybe in the divine mind they were not truly separable.
So in that sense, maybe sin isn't as separating as we make it out to be in the human mind.
So much of contemporary Christian thought is rooted in the that sin is a form of "separation from God." Yet in the ancient Orthodox tradition, sin is more often defined as "misuse of creation." The Genesis story tells us that creation, overall, is a good thing. God's going "Wow! This is really good!" all over the place.
It really changes the dynamics when we start thinking of all those things we commonly view as sin--lying, cheating, stealing, shame, embarrassment, guilt, doubt, anger, rage, fear, etc. etc. etc.--actually have their roots in creation. Yet creation is good. So if there's any "separation" going on, it is our choice to separate. God's only desire is to bless all that God created.
So in that sense, our sins and our virtues cannot be separated, because they all are derived from the same holy stuff--creation. We are asking in the forgiveness of sin for us to simply "use creation better." But all of what composes us, is worthy of blessing. In that light, bringing our sins forward to God should not be something we should shy away from or feel ashamed. We should welcome the opportunity to allow "creation stuff" to be put to a better use.
Bless it, Lord. All of it.
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
I'm going to be honest; I'm not a big one for "causes." But this is one that if I pretend to look bored, I'd be the world's biggest hypocrite. I've been in too up close and personal when it comes to domestic violence and abuse.
I have helped someone steal their children back from an ex-husband who stole them from their custodial parent.
I have helped more than one woman escape an abusive home life, whether that violence was physical or psychological. I even helped one man escape an abusive home life!
I have taken on bullies who bullied my childhood friends.
I have had friends who were raped and molested. Sometimes by family members.
And sadly, I left a home rank with alcohol-fueled violence 32 years ago and never lived in that home again. I am still dealing with the scars of that life, sometimes in ways I can't believe still dog me after all these years, and come out in the weirdest ways.
I could tell stories. Lots of them. Gruesome and sick stories. I have told a few to trusted friends. Unfortunately, sometimes I have told them to people in power who used them as a blueprint for how to psychologically weaken and sicken me to feed their own sicknesses and make me feel like I was the "sick" one, and re-ignite the cycle where I did behave like a sick person, and hurt others. I am still learning, 32 years later.
But I don't tell the stories publicly because I have mostly made amends with the abuse, and frankly, we are now talking about elderly people, so in my mind, there's nothing to gain by my telling the stories. But I will tell you the big message the stories told.
The stories told me:
Girls are expendable.
Girls are a nuisance.
If you want to get ahead in the world, you'd better man up, because it's a man's world out there.
We expect you to be the man in the family. Never mind you're female.
Career comes over family if you really want to be a breadwinner and move up in the world.
You better be smart, because you're sure as hell not cute.
It doesn't matter how you feel, because you are supposed to be taking care of us. Our feelings matter. Yours don't.
You'll never get a man because you don't know how to let men win.
Respect my authority or I'll beat you.
Respect my authority or I'll ignore you and all that is good within you.
Respect my authority or I'll humiliate you, or abandon you.
You are less than a real woman because you're not all "girly."
Friends, these are the messages abuse sends to women and girls. Not all of these messages are delivered by men. Sadly, some are delivered by women.
The messages are not always sent by words. They are sent by hands and fists and blunt objects and guns and knives and by messages of absence, rather than presence.
No girl--no woman--deserves to hear these messages.
What saddens me, as a spiritual person and a practicing Christian, is that some of these messages are sent from pulpits. Some of these messages are sent through the books of the Bible. Some of these messages are claimed to be from St. Paul.
For some women, the notion of God they've developed is that God is just another abusive son-of-a-bitch, but a cosmic abusive male, which is worse than one on Earth, in some ways. Just another man who will say, "You're not good enough," in an ultimate and eternal sort of way...and who wants to spend eternity like that?
I'm going to be way up front here--before I could even begin to heal those scars in my own life, I had to heal the scarred way I felt about God. I was one of those people who hid from God for decades until I found a church that could help me begin to think of God in terms other than male. That God was neither male or female; that God was both male and female. I am grateful that God has a different role in my life other than "just another man I will never be able to please." But I had to learn to trust God before I could even begin to trust other people.
It's why I still get irked when people rail about "political correctness" in gender neutrality in addressing God in church. I don't mind that we often think of God as "father" anymore, because we have other times in church where we use a gender-neutral term, and I know now there are many names for God, and male ones are ok, as long as we are using other ones, too.
But I confess it is hard for me to think of God as a loving father. I don't really totally have a frame of reference. Likewise, phrases like "...and we are God's children," are kind of lost on me. I don't really have a frame of reference of what being a loved child is totally like. I barely remember even being a child. I was pretty much a "little adult."
But my story is not to evoke pity. It's to aid in understanding why churches need to stand for social justice, and why a lot of women avoid their doors.
The Episcopal 16 days website has several ways you can participate in this campaign. See what you can do as an individual and as a parish. Please join me in trying to spread the light of a loving God, one person at a time.
"What I know now is when it feels like shit, I am being fertilized to help me grow."
The Second Song of Isaiah Quaerite Dominum Isaiah 55:6-11
Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; *
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways *
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion, *
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens *
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, *
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; *
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, *
and prosper in that for which I sent it.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
--pp. 86-87, Book of Common Prayer
I read an interesting article today about one of the problems in organic farming.
As it turns out, 200 years of "modern" farming methods have reduced the organic matter content of the soil in the tillable ground of the United States to near-barren levels. If suddenly all commercial fertilizer were made unavailable, experts estimate it would take 100 years to generate enough compost to sustain all-organic methods of fertilizing crops. It is one of the major things that thwarts us in promoting the development of "community-sustained agriculture."
One of the major components of that organic compost is manure.
The challenge, oddly enough, is collecting enough manure to create that surplus of compost.
It's hard to suppress the giggles over this ironic revelation.
Our modern society has so effectively scrubbed the smell of manure from polite conversation and polite company that we are almost deluded that it doesn't exist.
We no longer live in a world where you can tell country people from city people b/c the country people have the faint smell of manure, thanks to running rural water supplies and electricity to heat bath water.
The major reason we oppose large scale livestock operations such as "meal to squeal" plants is because feedlots carry the stench of manure.
In our common interactions, we live in gated communities, "nice neighborhoods," and engage in polite but non-threatening conversations in church. We try to find God in our own ways in clean, sanitary situations while silently, out back, a giant compost pile grows.
What I've come to discover is that eventually, someone is going to root out the stench of our personal compost piles, or, one day we might look in the back yard and exclaim, "My God! How in the world did I accumulate a pile of crap this big?" Another possibility is we might try to create distance from the pile by flinging bits of it at the first person who manages to come near this hoard of compost.
Ultimately, we have two choices: To either continue to make the ever-draining effort to conceal the pile, or begin to distribute the pile in a way that we can create growth at the ragged edges of ourselves. But if we choose the latter, and plant flowers instead of weeds, there WILL be growth. Those flowers will grow, and bear fruit, and the wind will carry those seeds to places beyond our imagination. Growth will happen in places we never dreamed of.
But it all starts with recognizing our own compost piles, and when they are really big, seeking a community equipped to not only help remove the pile and re-distribute it in a useful fashion but teach us how to plant the flowers, and how to recognize the weeds from the flowers when they are just starting to invade the flower bed and they are hard to tell apart.
I can't prove it, but I am sure of it. I say that simply from repeated experiences.
Let's look at business of community. Part of our inner journey to take the toxic manure in our lives and convert it to helpful compost might include becoming a part of a church community. It is one of the places that is equipped to turn manure into compost.
But here's the glitch: Guess what? We humans, being creatures of habit, tend to bring the manure of "our families of origin" to church with us. We have spent lives of living in "families"--some functional, some dysfunctional--and we have "roles" ingrained in us from those family systems. A fellow named Edwin Friedman has studied this extensively and looked at it in terms of church leadership. But family members, bless their hearts, have the tendency to be able to identify everyone else's manure better than reveal their own. We all do it, because of those old demons of fear, shame and guilt. What we find as the church community transforms us--as the business of living God's plan for us transforms us--that we can't control what others think of us. It is something we have to let go.
A compost pile doesn't work unless we take all the refuse and pile it together and LEAVE IT. It doesn't work if we keep poking around in it and separating it. It only works if we leave it, and turn the whole thing over now and then. We have to let go of control of the outcome. It also only works if we keep coming back and piling more of our stuff on top of it--to continually leave our offerings at the altar. Our church community doesn't work if we only attend when "we think we need it." It doesn't work if we only attend when we "feel good about it." It only works if we keep coming back. Week after week. Good days and bad days. It takes "the others" to help us, and on the days we don't need help, we need to be "the others" for those who do.
It's all "organic," you know?
(photo from Boston.com)
O wounded hands of Jesus, build in us thy new creation;
our pride is dust, our vaunt is stilled, we wait thy revelation:
O love that triumphs over loss, we bring out hearts before thy cross,
to finish thy salvation.
-Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969)
It's ironic, I think, that on Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday that our goal is to be aware of "the reign of Christ's kingdom," our Gospel reading is a window of Luke's version of the crucifixion at a point where Jesus is at his most powerless, and his healing hands are nailed to the cross, unable to even wipe his own brow or scratch his own nose. The only thing his hands can do are act as anchor points as he strains upward on nailed feet to catch his own breath and remain alive.
It's quite striking to me that any act of physical comfort that Jesus could possibly attain in this setting is through the hands of others. In a few hours, it will be the act of other hands that will take him down from that cross and lovingly prepare him for burial. In John's Resurrection story, Thomas will hold and examine the nail holes in Jesus' hands. Belief in the resurrected Christ will commence because someone used their hands to examine the hands of Jesus, not just a pair of eyes.
Think about what we say about our deepest, most truest beliefs--we don't say we see them; we say we feel them.
Hands play a huge part in my dream world. My most comforting dreams often involve the sensation of hands locked in my hands, hands on my face, hands stroking my head or patting me on the back in a big hug. My most gruesome dreams involve mutilation of my hands or being party to the mutilation of the hands of others.
But Bowie's words above remind me of one of the miracles of grace: That somehow, God's kingdom is still maintained on Earth by the work of wounded hands. Sometimes I think it was the act of wounding the physical hands of Christ that underscored the perfect love that emanated from them--a love that could not be damaged, that holes could not cause the holy stuff inside him to leak out.
Yet so often we think our own hands are inadequate to complete God's work in his kingdom.
It's no secret that in my personal prayer time, I often look at my own hands. I know almost every cut, every scar, every divot, and can recall the stories that caused the injuries. I don't recall the injuries to the other parts of my body so well. I realize I have forgotten some of those stories. But I never seem to forget the stories of "what happened to my hands."
I watch them age. I realize my hands are starting to look more like my grandmother's hands did. But I often look at them in my prayer time and think, "God, what am I supposed to do with these? Am I doing your work with them? I just don't know."
But I have come to realize we don't find these things out until we let our hands touch others, either directly or indirectly.
I thought about that last week at the offertory at Trinity. Our Bishop's Committee turned in our pledge cards a week early to illustrate our pledges as an offering of ourselves. I sort of expected to just sort of plop it on the altar, and go back to our seat.
But our Priest Associate, who was presiding, did something wonderfully unexpected.
She asked each of us to place our hands over the envelopes over the altar, and it was an amazing thing to see all those hands sort of overlapping each other on top of the envelopes. Then she placed her hands on top of ours and prayed silently.
But it wasn't totally silent. I got the impression she was trying to stretch her hands in a way to touch the hands of each and every single one of our hands. That's no small feat because she has small fingers!
So in that sense, the prayer wasn't "Silent."
In that moment, it created this wonderful visual image of Christ's kingdom. Hands of all sizes, overlapping on a table where bread and wine would soon be consecrated in memory of Christ's own body and blood. Priestly hands on top of the hands of the laity--hands that could simultaneously bless people and consecrate gifts. Hands that when held in the orans position the ancient belief was that the Holy Spirit came down and occupied those hands to do all those things. The hands on the altar would return after "giving"--handing over pledge cards representing "Their life and labor" in God's kingdom--to "receive"--to take the consecrated elements and place them in the holy temples of their own bodies.
All those hands, going out in the world and doing work the rest of the week.
All those flawed hands...connected to hands that two thousand years ago, were nailed down in a vain attempt to keep immobile by nailing them to a cross.
It didn't work, did it?
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look around and take note! Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth— so that I may pardon Jerusalem. Although they say, “As the Lord lives,” yet they swear falsely. O Lord, do your eyes not look for truth? You have struck them, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to turn back. Then I said, “These are only the poor, they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the Lord, the law of their God. Let me go to the rich and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the law of their God.” But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds.
In this chapter, God challenges Jeremiah to simply find at least one righteous person in the streets of Jerusalem. Truthfully, I am pretty sure I would have similar problems roaming the streets of Kirksville, because, honestly, none of us are ultimately "righteous."
But as I was reading through some of this chapter, my mind wandered over to a commonality of "Northeast Missouri English"--the word "yoke" and "yolk" are pretty much pronounced the same. It got me to thinking about a little quirk about my food preferences when it comes to fried eggs.
You see, I prefer my fried eggs with broken yolks. I really don't like over-easy eggs. But the story of how that came to be is kind of funny.
As far back as I can remember, when my mom made me fried eggs, mine had broken yolks. There really wasn't any kind of discussion about it. I mean, I noticed that my parents were eating over-easy eggs, and they dipped them in their toast but I wasn't, and I liked the eggs I was eating, so I had this impression that my eggs were "special" and they were treating me "special" and that was fine. In my mind, I was thinking, "Well, their eggs are not 'done'. Mine are done." I thought maybe my mom wasn't very good at cooking eggs.
But one day over at my grandparents' house, I asked for fried eggs for breakfast, and my grandmother served me over-easy eggs. I looked at her and said, "These aren't done. Aren't you going to break the yolks so mine will be done?"
She looked at me in a sort of odd way. "What? This is how they are supposed to be cooked. How do you eat them at home?"
"They eat the ones like these. They're not done. I get the ones that are done."
My granny thought for a moment and said, "Your mother has pulled a fast one on you. She and your dad like over-easy eggs, and when she's broken some, or cooked them a little hard, she's pawned them off on you, because you don't know any better. Try them this way."
I took a couple of bites, cringed, and shook my head. "I don't like them this way; they're runny. Put 'em back in and break the yolks."
She just sort of sighed and complied with my request. I've eaten my fried eggs that way all my life. When I go to a restaurant, I tell the server, "Tell the cook to break the yolks. Not just over-hard. Smash those suckers."
Now mind you, I was a little put out that I was more or less the victim of a harmless scam, but that's not where I want to go with this post. I want to talk more on how so many times, when we start reflecting on our "sins of omission," there are many times we simply are not aware we've done something wrong, or wronged someone else. We don't know when something we've done innocently or in our obliviousness hurts another, because we have triggered some of their internal stuff.
For instance: Say we get a promotion at work. Obviously, we're quite pleased about that. But perhaps we were showing our excitement in front of someone else who was in the running for the promotion--and we were unaware that person was in the running. That other person hears our joy, and might think that we somehow "knew" he/she was in the running, and that we are "rubbing it in." Resentment sets in. Now suddenly we are "in trouble" with someone else and have no clue. We might never find out, and it manifests itself in some totally different run-in with that person.
Now, obviously, that obliviousness is not a "sin," but something sinful might result in a later interaction. Perhaps harsh words were spoken and feelings were hurt--harsh words we certainly could have controlled or tempered. Or the old perceived insult comes to light in the subsequent interaction, and it sends our minds scurrying back to the original episode. We start asking, "Was I a little big headed about my promotion that day? Was this more or less a thing of grace, and I might have over-attributed it to my opinion of my abilities?"
In short, sometimes in these sorts of encounters we find we were a little too big for our britches and had in a small way, broken the yoke of our obedience to God or burst from the bounds of living in a kind, loving way. We had not meant to do harm. But somehow a very tiny mustard seed-sized seed of self-aggrandizing bore a bitter fruit.
I honestly don't think we can stop these things from happening. We're human. We like rejoicing over good fortune. Truthfully, our bad habits are often our best qualities but the same quality in a slightly more "overboard" fashion. When these kinds of things happen, we simply don't know any better. We probably wouldn't have done anything drastically different even if we HAD the knowledge of "the bigger picture." But what we can do is when we do recognize these accidental slights, to show compassion and dialogue with the other person in a kind and loving way.
But in doing this, we must also realize that we have no control of how the other person feels about our story. They might choose to think badly of us. We cannot control outcome. But we can be honest with ourselves. We can simply accept that even accidentally broken yolks have consequences, and take these things to the altar in prayer.
The other question we have to ask ourselves is this: If we choose to "break a yolk" because "that's the way we like it," are we prepared to accept a potential consequence? We have an old adage in laboratory medicine: "Don't order a lab test unless you are prepared to deal with the possibility the result won't be what you expected." What will you do for the patient if it is elevated and you didn't expect that? What will you do if the result is unexpectedly normal? NOW what?
Our decision making processes often tend to be based on what we want, rather that what we perceive God wants. Do we examine our conscience? Do we examine how conscious we are in making this decision--are we aware and awake? Or are we asleep and oblivious? We don't always know.
When we think about "awake" and "asleep" in terms of our spiritual consciousness, it puts a whole new spin on the beloved Compline prayer, doesn't it?
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
In the Lord I'll be ever thankful,
In the Lord I will rejoice,
Look to God, do not be afraid,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.
--"In the Lord," Taizé hymn
In my week of walking through "The big three"--fear, shame, and guilt--we finally come to "fear."
Fear is, in my opinion, the most pervasive of the big three, the most difficult to face, and the hardest to overcome, because it is so strongly attached to an immediate, visceral, physical reaction, thanks to the protective mechanism of our sympathetic nervous system.
Shame and guilt are played out mostly in the mind. Fear is a systemic response and carries biologic value in the preservation of all thinking organisms. We are physically protected by our sense of danger. Fear releases adrenalin, which helps us to survive serious physical injury and helps us avoid danger. So when fear becomes pathological, it is very difficult to disconnect that physical reaction from something that in reality, is not dangerous, but we experienced a real reason for that fear, or were taught fear in situations that now no longer exist.
Fear can be smelled and tasted as well as felt. Some of our fears are reasonable and very real. But other fears we have are sometimes more a matter of our own projections than they are based in reality. Take a person who has a pathological fear of tornadoes. Now, they might have had a very real reason once upon a time to fear a tornado. Perhaps one leveled their house, or killed a loved one, or they had a "near miss." That's reasonable. But if they have moved to a place where a dark cloud makes them want to go to the basement, or they refuse to visit someone who doesn't have a basement because there "might" be a tornado, that's not reasonable. But that person may still hyperventilate, feel edgy or nervous, or break out in a sweat. That response is very, very real. So, in their mind, the fear is also "real."
But what we discover if we let our fears rule our lives is that every fear is a roadblock. Fear's power lies in its ability to create inertia--to force us to stop, turn around and go back the way we came, repeating the same old patterns. Fear freezes us, shuts us down, and puts blinders on us. As fear gains power, our vision becomes more and more tunneled. Eventually, if left unchecked, fear creates roadblocks on every single path we wish to travel towards the light of God. We find ourselves stuck, with no way out. We gain false comfort from clinging to the familiar when we are afraid, and it doesn't matter if the familiar is good for us or bad for us.
That, I believe is what happens when someone commits suicide. Their fears close them in, in such a way that they can no longer hear a kind word, feel a healing touch, or see any beauty in the world. It is a pain of such a magnitude they only way they can think of to remove that pain is to remove themselves from the world. Their blinders prevent them from seeing the light of God.
So how do we remove the roadblock of fear?
Honestly, I am not an expert. I succumb to my fears more than I care to admit. But this much I know: I often rely on my love of the Psalms, simply because the Psalmist is unafraid to spit his feelings out. I think of Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" Railing at God is perfectly okay. Even Jesus railed at God when he was hanging on the cross, and relied on a psalm...Psalm 22..."My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We so often attribute that in the Gospel as an original statement from Jesus, when in reality he was quoting a psalm. He relied on his understanding of the Bible to help him in his own suffering. I remind myself, "Ain't nothin' I can feel that Christ didn't feel before me."
I also remember that everyone, with the exception of Mary (who was not afraid, but "perplexed") is afraid when they see angels. Otherwise, why would the angels always say, "Don't be afraid?" I remind myself what sometimes feel like "demons" in my mind, might, in reality, be angels. I remind myself not to miss opportunities to see angels.
Finally, I also remember that in those same Psalms, in the same place where I hear the Psalmist rail against God and the world, are reminders that God is always present. Psalm 46 reminds us not only that "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble," but three times in twelve verses says, "The Lord is with us."
In my prayer life, I pray to simply move. I don't care about the direction. Fear paralyzes. Movement, even movement in the wrong direction, is life. Fear makes us wish to sit in the dark. I ask God to simply move me to the light. I know in the light, I can sort things out.
If we can simply be "the people who walked in darkness who have seen a great light," the darkness cannot overpower us. The darkness cannot win.
O God of eternal light,
When we are afraid, we cannot move.
Show us your light in the lives of others.
Remind us that the darkness that lives between our ears
is never darkness in your sight,
that the deepest night is, to God,
as bright as the daylight.
We ask that you not only show us that light,
but move our feet towards it...one step at a time. Amen.
With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit is faint, you know my way. In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
Look on my right hand and see— there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.
I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low. Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.
Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name. The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.
Continuing on in looking at our triad of "Fear, shame, and guilt," let's move on to guilt.
"Guilt" is one of the most common words used in our legal system. It implies a legal judgment as well as a committed crime. It assumes that as a result of guilt, a punishment will be leveled upon the guilty person. As humans, we have a tendency to assess these judgments. We like to play Monday morning quarterback about them. We like to say what the judge did was "fair and reasonable punishment," when, in our opinion, the punishment fits the crime. Otherwise, we might complain that the person "got off easy," or "didn't deserve that harsh of a punishment."
Of course, we don't know all the facts. But we judge pretending we know enough of them. We also know that since legal justice is meted out by flawed human beings, yes, mistakes are made. Recent stories of new DNA techniques exonerating people convicted violent crimes are all over the news. The fact is we have to live in a world full of flawed judgments as well as accurate ones.
Spiritual guilt is perhaps a little beyond that, although it certainly includes the aspect of "judgment by others." It has an added dimension of "judgment by God," or, more accurately, "our projections of judgment by God." Sometimes we use God as a handy "out" to project our feelings. When someone has harmed us, sometimes we pretend to let go by thinking or saying something along the lines of, "Well, they'll have to answer to God for THAT, not me." But we really haven't let go. We are still judging and pretending to dump the burden of OUR judgment on God's lap.
Guilt can be one of the hardest to pick up in ourselves when we experience it. Fear comes with all the adrenalin and most of the time, can be sensed rather easily, because it comes with bodily responses. Shame has a "closing in" effect most of the time. But guilt can be pushed off on others and possibly covered a little handier. It's a little more share-able, and the people we share it with don't always know we are doing it.
I always think of the story of a pet raccoon I had for a short while. When I was a kid, we had a mother raccoon get run over on our road and two baby raccoons were orphaned. One survived. I helped bottle feed it and care for it. It halfway became a pet as we were trying to prepare it to go back to the woods.
But raccoons being raccoons, and their little front paws being almost like hands, he became very adept at letting himself out of his cage, even if you had twisted wire around the door to keep him in.
One day he escaped and decided it would be really fun to lick the leftover food off the dishes on the counter, and since he needed water to "wash his food," (raccoons don't have adequate salivary glands, and they need water to moisten their food) he also figured out how to turn on the kitchen sink somehow.
Unfortunately, the sink was stoppered, and when my mom came home from work for lunch...well...you can imagine the mess. She let out a holler, and here's the funny part...
That raccoon jumped off the couch, went back into his cage...and wired himself back in!
It's no secret that our human nature is a lot the same way. We do something wrong. The reality is that God forgave us. But for some reason, we kind of got used to the coziness of that cage in which we were confined. Rather than shut the cage door behind us and wire it shut so it's a little harder to go back, we leave it open...and at the first sign of trouble, like that raccoon, we run back in and wire the cage door shut behind us.
This is true even when we allow someone else's guilt to push us into a cage. Then it gets really messy.
There's no doubt that people who are freed from incarceration have a hard time re-adjusting to life as a law-abiding citizen. Part of that is that others will often still see them as a "convicted felon," and over time, the freed criminal feels that weight, and will begin to see him/herself as someone still deserving of punishment, so it's not that difficult to make the choice to commit another crime.
That happens in our human relations, too.
I think of situations like one I continue to walk through. I ended up being harmed in some relationships because aspects of one of these relationships triggered an old need to "please people, even if their demands are unreasonable," in order to survive. Even though it happened some time back, it was only very recently I recognized I was still being hyper-vigilant about picking up the signs that I was somehow "not getting over this fast enough," and my focus moved from "getting over it," to "whether I was getting over it at other people's time frame." I was putting myself back in that cage...repeatedly.
The problem, of course, is when we do that, our guilt over doing that is such that we don't want to admit we are incarcerating ourselves, so we make others the "captors" and push back against "them" instead of ourselves. Now, that's not to say others haven't made judgments upon us that may or may not be fair, based on their own "stuff," but they don't twist our arms to go back into the cage. We willingly enter the cage. The problem is, it can result in an effect that is the polar opposite of the desired one. We want to have these other people trust us, but we end up doing things and behaving in ways that cause them to trust us less. We might even have irreparably broken the trust we tried to promote.
I don't know of any way out of that but to trust in God. I don't think God will make our relations "all square" with others, necessarily, but I think we can be aware of not going back into the cage and wiring ourselves in.
God of loving judgment,
our hearts know the wrongs we have committed.
Teach us to trust in the knowledge
that when we ask for your forgiveness,
we truly are forgiven; that you no longer remember our sins.
Help us to refrain from judging you,
that you did not "punish us enough,"
and keep us from placing ourselves in cages in which we do not belong.
Help us to see that the work you have for us to do in your kingdom
cannot be done from within a cage.
Remind us that your Son suffered on a cross
because of the wrong judgments of others,
yet was still resurrected and transformed.
Bring those resurrections and transformations
to our own lives,
Even when we don't know what they are, or how to ask for them. Amen.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
If you were to ask me what the "big three" issues that interfere with our relationship with God and have the greatest potential to paralyze us on our spiritual journey, it would be a tossup between "fear," "shame," and "guilt."
I thought the above Depression-era venereal disease poster was perfect to describe how shame works. Like a venereal disease, shame sets up shop in a "local" fashion--we suffer the primary infection of it somewhere specific in our soul, which can progress to a secondary lesion that can flare up and have re-occurrences in that area of our psyches. If left unattended or untreated, it eventually becomes systemic. In "primary shame" our response is, "I'm sorry for what I did," but in "tertiary shame" our response morphs to, "I'm sorry for who I am."
Shame's other similarity to venereal disease is, just like syphilis or gonorrhea, it can be passed on to those who share a certain level of psychological intimacy with us, and the next generation. I truly believe the abused children in this world suffer because of shame that the abuser suffered.
That's the problem with shame. It gets passed along so silently, so pervasively, but the effect is that it can distort things so drastically. It affects our vision when it comes to mirrors.
When we are feeling "normal" in terms of our self-image, we can look at ourselves honestly in the mirror and accept what we see as pretty much okay. But shame changes our abilities to see in mirrors. It affects our sight in a way that the mirror appears distorted, and of multiple images, much like the "hall of mirrors" in a carnival spook house. What was once one mirror becomes many mirrors, and in all of them we appear fat or ugly.
Shame distorts something good and God-given in us--our ability to feel remorse enough to have the courage to change things in our lives. It deadens our ability to move towards the light of God. Instead of seeing something we feel sorry over, and desire to rectify, and muster up the courage to change, with God's help, shame attacks us inwardly and eats upon our souls. Shame makes us hollow caricatures of ourselves. The other problem is that because we are creatures of reason, skill, and intellect, we have the power of memory. We remember our shame, and it can grow if too many similar shameful experiences pile up in us over time.
But this is where spiritual practices that focus on the words of the Bible can help us to catch shame in its "primary infection" stage, as well as palliate the shame that has already been ingrained in us. When we read ahead on the Scripture lessons for Sunday, when we use the Daily Office or a Scripture-based devotional for our ongoing spiritual practice, we have opportunities to read and reflect on the word of the Lord, and can use this reflective time to transform our lives. It gives us a better mirror. James chapter 1 explains this process. Let's take a look at verses 23-25:
"For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing."
We can see a truer image of ourselves when we hear, pray about, and respond to God's word. We can see our holy and true selves--the selves that God sees.
When you show us the light of your countenance,
let it illuminate the mirror that is our most true and holy self.
Shine your light upon us so brightly,
That the shadows that remain on it are of no consequence.
When we stare into those old, distorted mirrors--
those mirrors that are always with us as flawed human beings--
Allow enough of that light to reflect glimmers of truth
and soften the hard image of ourselves that those mirrors reflect.
We ask this in the name of the light that enlightens the nations,
your son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Photo of remains of foxholes in the Ardennes Forest from Bob Cromwell's website. These foxholes were dug in the winter of 1944-45 and still remain to this day.)
Isaiah 29: 1-11:
Ah, Ariel, Ariel, the city where David encamped! Add year to year; let the festivals run their round. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be moaning and lamentation, and Jerusalem shall be to me like an Ariel. And like David I will encamp against you; I will besiege you with towers and raise siegeworks against you. Then deep from the earth you shall speak, from low in the dust your words shall come; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost, and your speech shall whisper out of the dust. But the multitude of your foes shall be like small dust, and the multitude of tyrants like flying chaff. And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, all that fight against her and her stronghold, and who distress her, shall be like a dream, a vision of the night. Just as when a hungry person dreams of eating and wakes up still hungry, or a thirsty person dreams of drinking and wakes up faint, still thirsty, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not from wine; stagger, but not from strong drink! For the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers. The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot, for it is sealed.”
Veterans Day has become an odd holiday for me. At one level, I think about my gratitude for our veterans of the armed forces, and this is the level that I mostly display in public. But in private, it has been a reminder of how PTSD affects not just veterans, but all who have been through "war"--wars of abuse, neglect, hatred, bigotry. November 11 has become a day for me to personally reflect on my own civilian form of PTSD. For some reason, reading the stories of veterans give me a reminder that I am not alone in my PTSD. Many of us, in many ways, still have the remnants of foxholes like those in the above picture, in the recesses of our minds.
I invite you to start by reading Todd Donatelli's wonderful piece in Episcopal Cafe from Nov. 10. I found myself drawn to it by the interplay of "episodes of shelling" and "episodes of silence." Todd describes how the experiences of war, which happened near Christmas 1944, colored Christmas for his father for the remainder of his life--his father withdrew into silence roughly from mid-December until the New Year. For Todd and his family, it felt like a "cloud" descending upon his home.
Believe me, I get what that "cloud" was all about. There are certain periods of the year that I can feel that "cloud" descend upon me. Sometimes I am bewildered as to how a cloud from 35 to 45 years ago, that once covered a home that no longer exists, and a family that is scattered to the winds and mostly in the cemetery, still follows me. I have had reminders in my more recent past that remind me that with other faces, other places--that cloud can suddenly re-appear.
PTSD can feel much like the description we read in Isaiah--feelings of emotional hunger and thirst, but the cloud deadens everything. Common descriptions include feeling "blind" to feelings in some way. The phrase that jumps out in Isaiah for me is that feeling of being unable to "prophecy"--that is, I lose my sense of discernment of what is factual and what is the projection of old feelings that I bottled away, stuffed in drawers, or walled off. There is a hyper-vigilance that arises as this numbness sets in, and I can become more irritable and touchy in a way that bewilders those who love and care about me. Even genuine care and concern can feel "intrusive." This inability to discern tends to manifest itself in times of anxiety and stress, as well as within a seasonal nature connected with certain holidays and red-letter days in my life.
This has become more noticeable as my spirituality deepens and broadens. It is almost as if with each transformation I undergo to the positive as a child of God, I must also accept there is a period of a "dark night of the soul" that goes with it, and the more of my transformed self I become, the more glaring the episodes of PTSD become. They look "less like me" than they ever did, and concealing them is more or less futile. It's an odd juxtaposition-- the more a child of the Light I become, the more out of place the dark episodes feel.
I used to think this was "only about me"--that it was a private world between my ears and no others. But Todd's article reminds me that PTSD affects entire families and extended families. I have come to realize there are several people in my circle over the years I have harmed through my slowness in asking for the appropriate kinds of help. Over the decades, I've left a small trail of people once close to me who could no longer put up with my hurtful outbursts and angry episodes. I am grateful it is a small trail, but it is there nonetheless. There are people I've wounded; I continue to try to learn the skills to patch these broken relationships, and I slowly learn to make progress, but there will always be parts that remain broken. It is my own ration of stuff from a broken and hurtful world. What I am learning is that this is more universal in even mild PTSD than I once believed.
But before I turn this into a diatribe that sounds more like a pity party than it does a place of spiritual hope, I want to continue on about Todd's article.
He talks about visiting the place where his father's trauma occurred, and how this has been the first step in a journey of healing for him that continues. It is a story about using one cloud--the vast and grand "cloud of witnesses"--to lean into when the memories of that dark cloud loom in the horizon.
What I can tell you about that from a personal level is that one of the biggest joys in my life has been to learn that when I accept my own powerlessness in a situation, that there is comfort in that "cloud of witnesses." Some of the witnesses have dirty feet and stained robes. Some of the witnesses are already in the world beyond our physical space and provide presence when we feel alone. Some of the witnesses are people we've never met, who occupy our worship space. One of the joys for me of worshiping in a 90some year old church building is some Sundays, the walls feel thick with the residue of decades of prayers uttered in praise and desperation; in thanksgiving and fear. There's probably nothing I've ever prayed within the walls of Trinity-Kirksville that hasn't been prayed already. Nothing I can ever tell the old girl could ever shock her. There's a comfort in that.
When we learn to stop suffering alone--to simply accept the presence of the portions of the cloud of witnesses available to us, we have power beyond ourselves, and hope where being alone only fosters an endless loop of hopelessness. To allow ourselves to "be helped" allows others to live out THEIR Baptismal Covenants; it is not enough for us to simply focus on our own and how we should help.
I am learning that in being helped, I begin to see the face of Jesus in new places and in people I never imagined seeing that face. I am learning that some of that dark cloud was of my own making, but most of it was created by forces beyond my puny abilities to control. I am learning that I have to let some of these emotions show in order to sort them out and trust what other people tell me about them--even people I find annoying or difficult at times. I don't have to accept that when those red-letter seasons and days come, that I simply have to endure them. I can let this cloud of witnesses hold me up. There's actually a sense of adventure and fun in that cloud, as well as hope. There are hidden surprises in unexpected smiles. Buried treasure in pats on the back that I did not expect. I've never landed in a mosh pit before, but I have a feeling that is close to what I feel when I feel the strength of this cloud.
In short, I am learning not just to lean into, but to fall in love with the cloud of witnesses. To stand in awe of that cloud as a force for good. To see it change and transform all who choose to see it. Not just me.
It doesn't mean I won't trip in some of the old foxholes again, but it does mean I don't have to dig them any deeper than what they are.
(Photo from TonkaToys.com)
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
--from the hymn "Come Thou, Fount of Ev'ry Blessing"
Sometimes I look back and think about how my second grade teacher might have been the greatest act of grace that ever occurred in my life, and she came in a very, VERY unlikely form, that school year of 1967-68.
You have to know a little about the circumstances that caused Mrs. Ella Smith to intersect with my life that year.
Although my hometown high school integrated in 1955, right after Brown vs. Board of Education, and was actually written up in the African-American newspaper, the Kansas City Call, as a "model" of integration, the elementary school wasn't integrated for a few years after that, in the mid-1960's. But when the old Dumas Elementary School closed and everyone was brought to the "main" campus, an African-American husband and wife teaching pair, R.C. and Ella Smith, were also part of the package. He ended up teaching junior high science and she ended up teaching the 2nd grade (later moved to teaching the 5th grade.)
There was more than one 2nd grade classroom, and generally, students were more or less assigned by lot. But I knew something was up that 2nd grade year, because all the mothers seemed more interested in "which class their child ended up attending." Well...more like "finagling a way their child didn't end up with Mrs. Smith." Mostly very polite, you know. At its most polite, it was "their child was not used to a colored teacher." It was also an era when the n-bomb was used without a second thought, and in the less polite of these interchanges it was, "My kid's gonna have a nigger teacher over my dead body."
But it seemed suddenly many seven year old children in my hometown were "shy" or "nervous," or "had ulcers." At least that is what their mothers claimed and there was one doctor in town who seemed pretty willing to dole out "medical excuses" of why being in Mrs. Smith's class was a bad idea.
As it turned out, I was to be in Mrs. Smith's class.
I remember some of the mothers encouraging my mom to "go talk to the school." Now, my mom usually was pretty responsive to peer pressure, but to her credit, she did a very bold thing. She told them, "You know, people all over the country are having to get used to this. She might as well get used to this now. She is the one who is going to have to grow up with the changes." But my mom was actually a junior in high school the year our high school was integrated, and I guess she figured that had worked out okay. Ultimately, I think that is what kept her from knuckling under to her peers.
Now, I'll be honest. Mrs. Smith and I did not always get along. Sometimes not at all. But that probably had more to do with "me being me" than it did what color her skin was. I vividly remember a time she had wearied of me wiggling in my seat. She had me drag my desk to the front of the room and told me to start wiggling, and not to stop wiggling until she told me to stop.
At first this was great fun. I kind of enjoyed being the class comedian. She had given me a ready made audience. So I wiggled and made faces, and the other kids laughed. But after about 2 minutes of wiggling, I think my wiggler started to fade. I broke out into a sweat. The kids were bored with my wiggling, and had started reading their reading primers. Wiggling suddenly began to be hard work. I looked over at Mrs. Smith, and she sort of waved her hand dismissively and said, "You just keep on wiggling."
My wiggling got slower and slower and sllloooowwwwer. I was now wiggling at the speed of the slow motion in a Sam Peckinpah movie. My face had to be beet red. Finally, she asked, "You finished wiggling now?" I meekly nodded.
"All right, then, you put your desk back...and don't be wiggling any more."
But in between our go-rounds about my over-activity, my occasional temper outbursts, and "idle hands being the devil's workshop" (I often finished my lessons quickly, and easily became bored waiting on the other kids to complete theirs,) there was something about Mrs. Smith that I started to like. I realized I was learning a lot, and she quietly challenged me with more advanced lessons to alleviate my boredom, and she seemed to know to praise me quietly, not in front of everyone. I never liked being openly praised. It was too much attention outside of the attention I could control, like when I was being the class comedian.
I learned pretty quickly, though, not to say much in front of grownups around town that I liked Mrs. Smith. Grownups seemed overly interested to ask me how I liked her, or IF I liked her. Sometimes it wasn't even by name, it was "How are you getting along with that nigger teacher?" I remember always answering, "I like Mrs. Smith fine." I could tell that was not the answer those grownups wanted to hear. But they usually didn't ask me any more after that, and I was glad they left me alone. But I remember for some reason I would always answer them by saying her name. I didn't really understand everything this was all about, but I do remember feeling like it was important to me to answer back by saying her name.
But it was a fateful and embarrassing Show and Tell when I realized that sometimes I didn't always like her for calling me out about my spontaneity and temper, but I did love her in a very real way.
She had told us for the next Show and Tell, to bring our "most favorite toy in all the world, that we could bring on the school bus." Well, the photo above is a Tonka farm set that was very much like one I had at home--a nice selection of trailers and trucks. I loved playing with that farm set. I would make barns and fences out of Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs, and place all sorts of plastic farm animals in the "pastures," and haul them around from one place to another with my Tonka Farm Set. One of the advantages of being an only child was that I didn't have little siblings to tear my farm designs up, and I could play with "my farm" for hours. (The sad memory about that was that unfortunately, on occasion, my dad would tear up my farms when he drank too much, and by the time I was seven, I had already figured out I should lie to my mom and my grandparents when they saw my farm in disarray. I would tell them I was playing that a tornado hit it, and was rebuilding it. Well, you know, that wasn't exactly a lie.)
I decided the whole farm set was a little cumbersome to bring, so I would bring the panel truck and the horse trailer, and a couple of plastic horses for good measure--a brown one and a white one. My grandparents thought that was a fine choice for Show and Tell.
But when I got on the bus, I started to feel a little nervous.
I looked around, and every other little girl on the bus had a doll. Every one.
When I got to my class, I very quickly put the truck and horse trailer in the back corner of the coat closet, and covered it up with a box. As I watched the other kids bring their favorite toys, my heart sunk. ALL the girls had brought dolls.
As we went through Show and Tell, it seemed that each girl's story about her doll got louder and louder, and I felt more and more ashamed. Eventually we got to my turn. I simply looked at Mrs. Smith and said, "I forgot to bring a toy. I'm sorry." She said nothing and went on to the next child. I knew she knew I had lied to her. I knew it. The other kids looked at me dumbfounded.
You see, I was "the kid most likely to bring an odd thing to Show and Tell that would make the other kids giggle and shriek." I was the kid who brought a real chicken foot and showed how you could make the foot "work" by pulling on the tendons. I was the kid who brought a Kotex when the assignment was "bring something in the house your mom uses a lot." I was the kid who brought my tonsils in a jar of formalin. I guess I was already displaying signs that I was destined to be a pathologist, even back then. I was no stranger to bringing something "different" to Show and Tell. But somehow, I knew this "different" felt like a "bad kind of different." Taking a zero on Show and Tell seemed way preferable to showing that truck and horse trailer.
At the end of the day, I wasn't sure how I was going to escape on the bus unnoticed with my truck and horse trailer. I took the "second bus"--the kids who lived in the country always had to wait for the "late" bus and the town kids took the "early" bus--so there would be fewer people watching--but I was already scheming how I could take it home, a piece at a time over three days, smuggled in my book bag.
But when it was getting close to the time of the bus, I was busted.
Mrs. Smith came up to me and said, "Don't forget to take home the toy you forgot to bring."
I didn't know anything to do but cry. She whisked me out in the hall. I was so afraid I was in trouble for lying. But a miraculous thing happened. She said, "If I put your toy in a box and bring it out in the hall, would you Show and Tell it with me? I can give you credit if you do, instead of a zero."
I agreed, and she brought out a box with my toys. I don't remember a lot, but I remember showing how the trailer hooked on to the truck and how the horses fit inside. I remember just saying off the cuff, "I have a lot of plastic horses. Here's a brown one and a white one and they fit right in here and they ride around together just fine."
That's when I looked up and saw her crying. "Oh, child," she exclaimed. "You don't even know what you just said...and I pray to God there is a day that all the brown horses and the white horses can someday all ride around just fine." I remember she stroked my hair as I put the toys back in the box. I could tell that somehow I made her feel good, even though she was crying, and I really hadn't even tried to do that.
But when I look back, and I think about all the things that were going on in our country in 1967 and 1968, it was a moment of shared grace. She made me feel valuable when I had previously felt ashamed, and she had seen hope at a time there certainly must not have felt like there was a lot of it.
I'm ashamed to tell you I never really kept up with her life as I grew up. I was just another of many 2nd graders she turned loose to the 3rd grade, and, eventually, the world. She passed away several years back and I really don't know how much she kept up with my life, other than seeing my late grandmother at the grocery store at times. I often wish I had made room to tell her how years later, I figured out how important it was that our lives had crossed paths. But I never did. Never even considered it until it was much too late.
But I believe with all my heart she is part of the great cloud of witnesses I will meet in Heaven, and I like to think she'll greet me with a brown plastic horse and a white plastic horse.
I was a little surprised and, I admit, a little sad to hear New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson's retirement announcement. So to cheer myself up a little, I re-watched his appearance on the Daily Show--I still totally crack up at the chess references early in the vid.
You can read the full text of his retirement announcement on Mark Harris' blog--here is the link.
But I am not ashamed to tell you "I really really admire this guy." What's funny is that my admiration for him really doesn't have anything to do with "teh ghey" except that it is just who he is. It's that I have always sensed when I look at him that we share a common link--the link of the "silent sufferer." It's a link where clergy and physicians intersect in very deep ways. My admiration for him comes from watching the parallels in his journey and mine to become less of a silent sufferer and to learn to offer our troubles to God.
Bishop Gene is the bishop of a small rural diocese in a small church denomination.
I am a part owner of a small rural practice in the second smallest medical specialty. (Only nuclear medicine is smaller than pathology.)
I suspect he knows the parishioners in his diocese by name and face better than bishops in larger dioceses. I imagine he knows their life struggles in a way slightly more intimately than most bishops.
I can tell you, when you read out surgical path specimens in a town of 17,000 vs. one of 170,000, a lot of names cross your desk that you know. I put my signature to the bottom of a lot of surgical path reports that change the lives of people I personally know in a hard way.
I imagine a small diocese like New Hampshire has money woes of a different nature than larger ones.
Believe me, small medical practices have the same problem.
I read his autobiography, and there has been a fair amount of pain in his life that other people might not totally understand.
Me too--just for different reasons.
He was elected Bishop at about the same time I was walking through a tremendous life difficulty--one that had the threat of totally changing my life in the practice of medicine. It was also a time in my life I had not yet re-discovered church, and had not yet joined the fold of the Episcopal church, and the life of Trinity-Kirksville.
Bishop Gene doesn't know it, but he is part of what brought me to the Episcopal church.
Something told me, "Pay attention to this guy. He has something to teach you."
My inner skeptic said, "What? This guy has nothing in common with you."
But as I heard him speak, as I read what he said, as I simply followed him from a distance, I saw he had a relationship with a God I could stand to be around. For much of my life, God was a guy who, when I looked at his face, all I could see was how short I fell in comparison. Bishop Gene talked about a God who loved us no matter what. He talked about a Jesus who was on the fringes of life and brought a radical new way of living to the world. A place where being a little of the radical edge of being in my own world was okay.
Meanwhile, I had two people in my office who constantly pestered me to come to Trinity. Ultimately, they were the two direct forces that caused me to give in and darken a church door on a regular basis for the first time in over 20 years. But a big part of that was I really wanted to see if that God that Bishop Gene talked about could even possibly exist in Kirksville, MO.
I discovered he did. In spades.
I have continued to listen and watch Bishop Gene. I have watched how he has met many challenges in his life and somehow is always still smiling, still appearing to be in the presence of a God I continue to get to know. I am sure he has really hard, hard days in his life. I can see where the burden of "him just bein' him" might feel intolerable at times. I can see how it could affect everyone in his circle of influence. I am absolutely sure he has glaring imperfections that those close to him would like to knock him over the head with a 2x4 at times. I am sure he, on occasion, irks those people, hurts their feelings, drives them nuts. Don't we all.
But I think about the sets of "expectations" other people make for him that he has to constantly choose whether to meet them out of fear, guilt, or shame, or whether to hear the voice of God in his heart and let the "expectations" fend for themselves.
I sit half a continent away, and simply watch and hear how I think he does that, and continue to work on these things in my own way, in my own world. I find myself grateful for "him just bein' him, in the presence of God," because it makes me feel that I can continue to find islands of peace in a violent, hurtful world, by "me just bein' me, in the presence of God." I don't think he's Superman--but I do think he's one of the finest Clark Kents I have ever seen.
I've never met the man. I imagine if I ever did, I'd just sit and say nothing b/c I would be too embarrassed to say one-tenth of what I just blogged. But I thank God for his life just the same.
(Quilt by Suzanne Thompson)
Genesis 15: 1-6:
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
I have had some fantastic star-gazing nights in my yard the last few nights as the moon waned, sitting outside in my backyard by my chiminea in "the most holy spot in the yard." One of the true blessings of my life in the country is living far enough away from town the light pollution doesn't mess with me too much. There have been plenty nights lately where I can see the Milky Way. Never mind it's been chilly. The fire is warm and the view is beautiful in its simplicity.
One of the things I tend to episodically struggle with is it is pretty much a done deal at this point that I will have no biological heirs. Honestly, it is one of those things I didn't plan on, but it just sorta happened that way. When I was young, I always figured "there'd be time later." But that thing called "career" took up my time, and that thing called "intimate relationships" sort of moved to the back of the bus, and the next thing I knew, the perimenopausal fairy showed up and there were no prospects in sight.
But honestly, I'm not sure that was all bad. I don't think my DNA is all that special. Really, I'm only a few dozen DNA base pairs different than everyone else in the world. I don't really feel any great ownership over my family's DNA. But on occasion, I do feel sad that I made conscious choices that sends 250 years of one family line of DNA to a screeching halt.
It's the definition of "mixed emotions."
My family did not corner the market on "normal family relations." I suppose there was always a piece of me that, deep down inside, felt like a monster. Over three decades, I've vacillated whether I would be a great parent or a horrible one. Oh, my guess is I probably would have been no better or no worse than anyone else. But truthfully, I have spent a lot of my adult life, controlled by the fear of the monster. The grand disconnect is that my friends tell me that I have a "way" with kids. I have a different demeanor with kids--an easygoing, loving one for the most part. I probably did let the monster win there, and cut myself short. But I also never really had the time--or so I felt--to make room for the relationships that would create a family.
Oh, it's not that someone couldn't come along and change all that--I would probably be a great grandparent at this point--but I more or less became content in my solitude. I still am. I truly love certain aspects of my hermity, solo life. But it doesn't change the fact I am heir-less, and probably will remain so.
Yet there is a part of me that says that God always gives us "heirs." But maybe they are not connected by those few dozen base pairs of DNA.
I recently spent an evening out by my fire, with a friend who brought a young friend. My friend is what you might call a "non-traditional student." Non-traditional as in, she's old enough to be her classmates' mother. What I was picking up on was that this young 20something guy was listening intently at these two elders, simply talking about life and past choices, good and bad, and that the choices he now is working on making all work to some place that is not yet defined, but are probably eventually an "okay place." He was settling into a place of "okay-ness" with the company, the fire, and my dogs.
It was in that moment I got a glimpse of what my "heirs" are all about. It's something not everyone with traditional "heirs" is going to "get," but I believe some will get it, some won't. But here it is:
It has to do with the old hymn, "There's a wideness to God's mercy."
"There is grace enough for thousands Of new worlds as great as this; There is room for fresh creations In that upper home of bliss."
Because I did not go down the traditional path of "building a family," what I lacked in depth of involvement, God made up for in "wideness." It really wasn't anything I "did" or cultivated. It just happened. I find myself humbled and touched at least once a week over my interactions with this interesting variety of people and the kindnesses I've been shown. I enjoy the unpredictability of how they float in and out of my life. I enjoy the surprises they bring. I find the little bursts of love they bring in these interactions very satisfying. I am awed by the "fresh creations" that emerge from this odd little life of mine and the varying people in it.
The flip side is something I continue to gain serenity over. I have come to realize certain kinds of interactions, because of some of the scars I carry, are simply toxic to me. They shut down that awe and wonder and ability for me to love back. There is a certain combination of "psychological intimacy with a certain set of baggage" that I have to learn not to hook me. All of us are broken people in one way or another. This one, frankly, is the brokenness that showed up in my yard, and it is mine to tend. There's a sadness to that, b/c much of it is hooked to how most folks live a life that most people take for granted as "normal," and anything outside of it as "abnormal," and to say "I am probably not equipped to live that kind of life," might, to the average ear, seem like saying, "I'm a loser. I have something wrong with me." I have known for many years I probably can't live that life safely and in health. I am just now getting around to truly accepting it. But in my acceptance is not defeat; it's anticipation and adventure--and I have always loved adventure.
The other thing I'm learning is that whoever we are, "God picks up the slack, if we only listen to him." This continues to be the most exciting discovery in my life. God can take "broken" and make it not only just "not matter so much" but transform our own individual brokenness into extraordinary lives. Extraordinary lives that create a ripple effect far beyond what we can comprehend. Extraordinary lives that give us tiny glimpses into the kingdom of Heaven. Extraordinary lives that prepare us for being part of that "cloud of witnesses" in the life everlasting, and part of a "cloud of witnesses" here on earth that can make each of us we interact with feel loved, cared for, and mattered about.
Behind that cloud is a sea of stars. Stars too numerous to count. Our heirs. Millions of heirs that a few dozen base pairs of DNA don't matter a bit.
“About every ten years, you have a chance to look back on your life and, when you do, you can see the ways the Spirit has touched you, moved you, maybe even shoved you in certain directions. And the Spirit of God is there in the least likely of places, in the least likely of people, in everyone you’ve known and loved. And the Spirit has touched you through all of them. You’ll be able to say, ‘There’s the Spirit,’ and ‘Oh, look, there’s the Spirit again!’ What you know in the present is that you have to make decisions, you have to answer the questions your life and ministry bring you. Later, as you begin to reflect, you’ll begin to understand that if the Spirit was there with you in the past, the Spirit is with you now, and will be with you as you move into the future. If you want to know how the Spirit is working in your life, just look in the rearview mirror every once in a while.”
One of the problems with moving forward is that there are times that require looking back--and not with nostalgia.
I was recently visiting with a friend who is a Vietnam veteran, describing "then" and "now."
He described it like this: "When I came home, I sort of put all that stuff in a package. You know, when I was in country, we always said "When I get back to the world, I'm gonna...etc. etc." It was sort of like Vietnam was "another world." I knew it was a temporary world. What I learned to survive there wasn't much use to the world I live in now. But it was VERY useful to the world I was in at the time--it helped me survive. But sometimes I am surprised at how that package opens itself when I am not expecting it."
I think when any of us think back to what we would consider "traumatic life experiences," the "other worldliness" is very evident. They are places we don't care to look because they are laced with adrenalin and obscured in a cloud of fear. There is a heaviness to them. There are feelings of loss of control that people describe as being "trapped" or "paralyzed" or "feeling reeled in, unable to get any traction to resist."
I know for me, those things feel like I am trolling with a fishing rod in calm water, and suddenly hooked Leviathan. I can no longer control the direction in which the boat is going. I can't turn the crank on my reel and get any purchase on it. My feet strain against the hull of the boat, simply to remain in the boat. I am afraid that any minute, Leviathan will decide to dive, and capsize my boat. I don't dare let go of the rod for fear the line will get snarled around my feet or body and drag me out of the boat and drown me. The only thing I can do is consider getting my pocketknife out and cutting the line, and even that is hard to do because it involves taking one hand off the rod...or pray the line breaks on its own.
But even then, when it's calm again, I am faced with a new reality. My boat is in a place I did not want or expect. I'm still going to have to navigate back to shore. I'm going to have to re-orient, get my bearings, find a landmark. I may have to rely on the next random boat that comes along for directions--and the person in that boat may or may not be trustworthy. I am going to have to weigh that advice before choosing. But ultimately, to get back to shore I have to make a series of choices about the new environment in which I've suddenly been thrust. I have at times found myself angry and resentful of those choices. I find myself feeling powerless when "that package opened itself" and I am left to deal with the residue that leaked out of it. Maybe the residue is toxic; maybe it is benign. But I find myself feeling like it's ALL toxic, even when it isn't, and simply angry that it must be cleaned up.
But recently, I thought about this in a new way after reading the essay where I got the above quote. I suddenly realized that somehow, I'm still always in the boat. Somehow, I remained in the boat.
That boat, I believe, is the Holy Spirit. It was always there, even when the only conscious memory I have of it is straining against it, just as my feet strained against the boat to hold on.
The other thing I realized is no matter how bad the ride has been, in those times I revisited a place I did not want to go at a time I did not want to visit it--the times I suddenly feel the rod and reel jump in my hand as the hook sinks into Leviathan--when the episode is over, there is a joy--a calm--about just being in the boat, in the same way seeing a rainbow after a bad storm is calming. It's just good to be alive, and it's good to be in the boat.
The other thing I realized is none of this ever dented my courage enough to stop fishing. There are other fish out there I want to catch--good fish--fish that are nutritious and healthy. Yes, the chance always exists I might hook Leviathan--but the good fish are so good, and so tasty, I always feel it's worth the risk, and I continue to be more experienced at fishing as a result of it.
...And, you see, I also know I have a good boat. I doubt my boat is the most attractive boat on the water. I am almost positive it isn't the neatest and tidiest boat. (Anyone who's ever ridden in my truck and seen me move three pounds of clutter from the passenger seat knows THAT.) But that boat is sturdy and reliable.
So, I have come to believe, is the Holy Spirit in each of our lives. Always there, even when we don't perceive it. Even when our only perception is we are straining against it. That's ok, too--she can withstand our straining, and sometimes straining against it is the only way we can remain where we are and not be swept overboard and drowned.
But ultimately, we need not fear Leviathan if we only can be brave enough to trust the boat.