(Stained glass window at Christ Church, Tarrytown, NY--courtesy of Josh Thomas of The Daily Office)
Josh posted this picture on his Daily Office blog for the feast day of Mary and Martha, and I was immediately captivated. Not because of the Mary and Martha story--some days I have problems with the Mary and Martha story (I tend to think Martha gets a raw deal in the traditional telling of the story.) My fascination centered on the little brown dog snoozing behind Jesus' chair. Josh posted on Facebook that the window was donated by a woman who had a reputation for being rather Martha-like, herself.
For starters, I was intrigued that someone put the dog in the portrayal. Was the donor of the window a dog lover? The dog looks a little Dachshund-like--did she have a beloved Dachshund whom she immortalized through this window, a dog that had passed away?
But as I sat and meditated on this picture, letting my spiritual imagination freely roam into it, several thoughts came to mind, and very few of them were about Mary or Martha, but mostly about the interplay between the little brown dog and Jesus.
I thought about how when I know my dogs are behind my chair, how I am so careful not to move the chair. I figured Jesus would also be careful about such things--not to scoot backwards and catch his tail or a paw under the chair leg.
I thought about how my dogs tend to glom onto house guests and ignore me like I must horribly mistreat them. Martha might have fussed at the dog--"Oh, get down--Jesus doesn't want your dirty paws all over him. Now go on. Go lie down. GO LIE DOWN." I've certainly been there, done that--and dogs, being dogs, often pull their little defiant shtick and lie down--right beside the guest whom you just told the dog to leave alone!"
As I looked at the dog, I could almost imagine him snoring in that cute "dog snore." I thought of how my two dogs would have looked in this scene. Little Eddie would have leaped right up on Jesus' lap and been in his face. Boomer would have put his head on Jesus' thigh and looked up longingly at him with that big doe-eyed "Love me...please love me...I am a good dog...really I am," look. They would be their own dog version of Mary and Martha--Boomer as Mary, quietly soaking up every word, and Little Eddie as Martha, paws on Jesus' chest and licking his face, going, "I so glad you are here, Jesus! I go get my tennis ball and you can THROW it, ok?"
Then I had an interesting realization.
When I look at that window, when I cogitate who I want to be in this story portrayed in the window...I want to be the little brown dog.
I want to be the one who is content to sit behind Jesus' chair, to let Jesus do his thing, to be comfortable enough to sit and listen to what he has to say to the point I am not afraid to fall asleep in the middle of it. To be able to fall asleep behind him and feel safe and assured he is not going to back up and crunch my tail under the chair leg. To not be concerned about anyone else in the room or what they think of my being there. To not worry if I'm going to be fed or not. To not be sleeping in front of him, to not be sleeping ON his feet where he could not move them, but to sleep BEHIND him. But so close that he knows I'm there, and is mindful of me.
Oh, Lord...please make me more like that little brown dog in the stained glass window.
(Photo from London Daily Mail)
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
If you go read the story I linked to in the photo credit, you will see an amazing story of a young seal escaping the clutches of a killer whale. What I find captivating about this photo is that the seal, physically, is safe. The whale makes one more lunge at him to no avail. But the seal's posture is still one of fear, and if you follow the photos in the story, the next picture in the series of frames posted shows the seal rolling over passively to accept his perceived fate--to be devoured.
I think it goes without saying, that for everything we have truly been delivered from, we never quite lose that fear that we were only saved by "a lucky escape" and that killer whale is still prowling below the surface of the ocean, concealed in the depths, ready to strike.
Fear is such an odd critter.
Humans need fear in order to survive. Without it, civilization would have perished.
As children, we are taught to fear hot stoves, busy streets, and strangers with candy. In fact, there is a disorder--Williams Syndrome--where children have a pathological "lack of fear" and this can lead to many challenges in parenting because these children are next to impossible to be able to be taught to fear anything.
The problem, of course, is that in times of acute stress, fear protects us--but in times of chronic stress, fear paralyzes us. "Fight/fright/flight" is the enemy of creativity, the enemy of growth, the enemy of love.
People who have lived through fear and abuse often talk about a "tunnel vision" that develops. That over time, the entire world can only be viewed through the lens of their fear. That the world feels like it is closing in. That the only way they can function is to ratchet down their attention span to the little tiny details. Fear makes OCD people more obsessive and compulsive; it makes ADHD people more scattered; it makes forgetful people more forgetful. The lens of fear becomes an uber-magnifying glass over details that normally would not matter.
There is a piece of us who knows this. There is a piece of us who also knows we are under the protective watch of a loving God. The Bible speaks many times over of the protective nature of God. But we also have stories in the Bible where an angry God, or a jealous God, goes about destroying and smiting the wicked.
We don't always find the two concepts compatible--because of that old bugaboo, the classic saint/sinner paradox. We know we are not "all evil"--yet we know in our hearts we are not "all good," either. We, unlike how we might see Christ, don't see ourselves as being fully human AND fully divine. We tend to view ourselves as a lot more human, and a lot less divine, and tend to be rather intimate with the "un-divine" parts.
Yet, except in the case of pathologic fears, we generally have the ability to put our fears aside many times until we experience a trigger--however, those triggers can take us right back to where that young seal is in the story--ready to roll over and be devoured. We take on an attitude that our previous "escape" was not deserved, we deserve to die, and we run the risk of rolling over and accepting our fate. We might even not do the things we still would be capable of to "save ourselves" as a result of it. I think about how people get dropped off the unemployment statistics over time. There is an assumption that after being unemployed for a certain period of time, you are simply "no longer looking for work." That's not always true, obviously, but we all know of people who DID become so discouraged they stopped looking for a job.
I don't have any great handy household tips for dealing with fear. In fact, I find myself pretty lousy at it, honestly. But I do know one thing--fear is a critter not best dealt with alone. This, to me, is where our church community fits in. This is where that shared meal at the altar fits in. This is where the act of praying together fits in. Even if the other people in that community don't know the details of our fears, they are praying for the needs of that community, and that includes us.
Praying together, even if we don't have a clue what we are praying for each other in individual terms, has value. Sharing the Eucharist has this value. I know when I am feeling pressured in by my own fears, the knowledge that somehow my being in community with others is allaying THEIR fears--that I am somehow helping them in this way--calms my own, even when I can't trust individuals. Perhaps that is the secret to it all.
"Then, if there should be for one of them an angel, a mediator, one of a thousand, one who declares a person upright, and he is gracious to that person, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit; I have found a ransom; let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’ Then he prays to God, and is accepted by him, he comes into his presence with joy, and God repays him for his righteousness. That person sings to others and says, ‘I sinned, and perverted what was right, and it was not paid back to me. He has redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit, and my life shall see the light.’ “God indeed does all these things, twice, three times, with mortals, to bring back their souls from the Pit, so that they may see the light of life."
The Shirley Sherrod story has been dragging on for some time now, and I was almost worn out on it, until this piece showed up in a journal not known as a bastion of liberalism, written by someone who would never be confused with a liberal...and it was the words of someone whom I am normally diametrically politically opposed to that made me quit shutting out the story, and really hear it.
Here's my dirty little secret: When I first heard about her sudden firing, there is no doubt my first thought was, "What an idiot. She shot her mouth off there. It must be real, or the NAACP would not be jumping down her throat." I was angry that once again, "the other side" had exposed one of our own sinners. I thought she was an embarrassment to all of us on the left side of the fence.
Turns out that I, like many other people in this story, were too quick to judge.
Now, really, my opinion doesn't matter. I don't even know this woman. She's simply a celebrity in politics for me. But there is no doubt, I have sort of a "dehumanizing" attitude towards celebrities. I really don't think of them so much as "real" people. What happens to them really doesn't affect me, and it probably makes me a little freer than it ought to be about holding opinions about them. But they are news, and I tend to react to news. I tend to forget "news celebrities" real people behind my TV screen or my computer screen.
But because the people who DO know her reacted so quickly, and rushed to judgment, it made my own opinion feel perfectly justifiable.
As it turns out, I was wrong. Quite wrong, in fact. Not to mention the people I trusted to form my opinion were also wrong.
I think what I find most captivating about this story is that the family who Sherrod originally harmed in some ways, became the most powerful saving voice in this story. The Spooner family, the real family behind her story in her speech in March, could have simply sat back and folded their arms in righteous indignation and said, "Serves her right. Yeah, she helped us eventually but it was a long time coming--and not after she screwed us over first." They would have been justified to feel that way, really. Yet Eloise Spooner, now 82, said that Sherrod was a "friend for life."
The next round of this saga shows the apologies. I have been watching to see "who really apologizes," and "who's making non-apologies." It's no surprise that the person who "broke" the original story, Andrew Breitbart, continues to defend his position.
But I think the most important part about this story is not really "who did what to whose dog for how many Green Stamps," as my granny used to say. It is about what many of the news articles are calling "A teachable moment."
This story is a reminder that in our "instant" culture, we seem to be perfectly okay with "instant judgment"--and maybe we shouldn't. We tend to form our opinions based on the immediate reactions of people we trust or sources we trust. Yet, when you come right down to it, what right do any of us have to judge a person's whole life on a 38 second sound bite?
Because this story is "from a distance," it allowed me to be reminded of times I have grossly misjudged people. I think of a particular time that someone I thought "would have been in the know about such things" taught me that certain people in my environment were untrustworthy. I thought a LOT of things I shouldn't have thought. As it turned out, most of what I "knew" turned out to be lies and projections. In fact, I had that "who I should trust and who I should not trust" absolutely backwards. I felt such remorse, such guilt over that, I immediately went to those people and begged their forgiveness for my having been so wrong. Some of them had no clue I had been taught such things, and had simply misjudged ME as being "distant" or "just someone hard to get to know."
I can tell you that mending those fences was an amazing, redemptive, literally FREEING thing. I no longer felt pressured to mistrust or dislike them. I was free to explore who they were, and I found I actually liked them!
I think about the times the shoe is on the other foot--when someone probably has an inaccurate and negative perception of me. I can't actively change those things--they almost always require outside information, or simply require time.
I tend to present a notoriously poor first impression if whatever situation I am in has any intensity involved. Many times, "intense" is misread as "angry." Or if people think they deserve a certain kind of treatment and don't get it from me, I come off as mean and callous. I laugh at the metamorphosis that occurs in my medical school class during the year that the course runs. I can pretty much expect bad reviews in the first quarter. I make it very clear I expect to be dealing with adults who will be clinicians before they know it. I set very high expectations. I make it really evident I don't care if they like me personally or not. I remind them that in a year or less, they will be on the floors in stressful situations and people will not always be kind and gentle, or care about your feelings--the important thing is taking care of the patients, and your feelings--well...sometimes there just isn't any time for that until afterward.
But perhaps the most important thing they have to learn in that transition from pre-clinical medical student to clinical medical student is to learn to drop the idea that medical school is "college plus." It's about gaining responsibility and trusting one's training in ambiguous situations. I made a conscious decision to "take the hit" in the first quarter and hope they "get it" by the end of the year. Most of them do. I laugh that with some of them I literally go from "despised" to "beloved."
But in all of this, I think the most "teachable moment" is this: It is in our nature to judge. But it is within God's nature to provide vehicles for repentance and redemption. The most powerful voices of redemption are the ones who had to live through a change of heart and mind themselves. After all, look at the key line in one of the most powerful hymns I know, Amazing Grace...
"I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see."
Back in the day, before there was garbage pickup, we used to burn the "burnables" in a metal barrel. My grandpa used to say about me, "That child's the only kid I know that you can entertain for hours by burning the trash." I used to love to get the task of burning the trash. I almost burned it literally one piece at a time, which certainly amused my relatives.
In preparation for a baptism last Sunday, it was discovered that a couple of old bottles of chrism had "turned" and were smelling a little funky. Since it had been blessed by our Bishop, it needed to be disposed of in a way fitting for consecrated objects. Luckily for me, both of our clergy recognize me as the undisputed "parish pyro." If there's something to be burned, they know I'll do it gleefully--burning the palms every year at Ash Wednesday, for instance.
I was instructed to soak the oil onto cotton balls and burn the cotton balls. "We already had this image that you would sit by your chiminea and do it," I was told.
Well, rather than use little cotton balls, I swung by the office and got a pile of gauze 4x4's, figuring I could soak it all up a little quicker. So late last Sunday night, as I started to build a little fire in my chiminea, I sat with the little vials of chrism and pondered them before I started to soak the 4x4's.
Pondering consecrated objects is actually a very ancient practice in Christianity, and almost every major religion finds room to ponder physical things that are deemed holy. I've always been fascinated with some of the ancient monstrances--how these ornate, elaborate holders were designed to hold something so simple as a blessed communion wafer. But I also realize at times, the elegance of the monstrance obscures the fact that the object of spiritual importance is that little plain circle of bread in the center.
As I sat there and let whatever bubble up, bubble up, what came to mind was how when this chrism was put in the bottle, it was full of potential for healing and blessing, but those moments of healing were passed by; those moments of potential blessing went unblessed. It just sat. As it sat, it simply spoiled. Not from an overt or conscious or malicious spoiling, but just simply from neglect.
I really don't think evil is the enemy of the holy--hoarding is. To hoard holy things up and not give them away in abundance, to me, is a message that one is coming from the theology of poverty, not the theology of abundance. God, I believe, gives an endless supply of "holy." But I don't think he refills the stock until the present batch has been distributed down to the last bit.
There they were. Hoarded blessings in a bottle, now turned into a smelly, unattractive object.
In burning them, I don't see that as destroying them. I see that as transforming them. To burn the chrism is to rend it down to a pure state again. Just as we use incense in "high church" rites and services--the smoke and the pleasant aroma rising into the sky to symbolize our prayers rising upward--so the smoke from the burning chrism is once again turned into prayers for distribution.
As I burned the oil-soaked 4x4 gauze squares, I thought about how now the holy in the old chrism was being released to travel on the wind, to do what it will do and go where it may. I will not know where those molecules will end up--my blessing is in releasing them, to say they were never mine to control to begin with. In other words, to admit what was in there was God's all along, and not something belonging to "my parish" and temporarily to me.
I offered them to the fire prayerfully, and with some incense burning beside the chiminea.
It reminded me that everything spoiled, everything broken, everything imperfect about me and my life, had the potential to be made holy again. It had the power to move beyond "me." It had a purity within its own molecular structure.
But that only happens if we let it go. It only happens if we place it on the altar. It only happens if we are willing to let it be transformed into something we may not recognize and be spread beyond where our hands can reach it.
Ok, I have to confess. My secret love is reading various forms of "news of the weird." Simply because truth is stranger than fiction. There's also a reason I generally stay away from certain websites--because something trips my trigger like I saw in this article, and get utterly frustrated that there is a glaring "You blew it, buddy," in the middle of what otherwise might have been a good article.
All in all, this article has some wonderful points to make about "being alone in the presence of God." But he uses a story as an example that, was, IMO, the absolute wrong place to use it, and basically shows this person really did not get what she was needing pastorally at the time. Take this interchange:
Someone once asked me to visit a woman he knew, who lived alone in her house. So I went to talk to her. “I wish I were dead,” she told me. “I’m just miserable.” “I’ve nothing to do, no place to go. What’s the point?” “Do you pray?” I asked her. “I’ve prayed to get out of this place for ages; and God simply doesn’t listen.” “Do you pray, not for things, but just to be with God?” “What in the world do you mean be with God?” she asked. “You know,” I said, “be with God out of love?” She stared at me blankly. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.” A chilling moment. Still, what I asked this woman, I ask myself sometimes: Could I ever be “alone” yet not be “lonely”? Could I make my home with God, even here? In a nursing home, in a hospital, in jail even? When I am old and left behind? Or would I be abandoned?
I read this, and it was obvious to me that this woman was simply feeling ALONE. What the author totally misses is that she was simply looking for what I call, "one of us being a cardboard cut-out for the presence of God." Yet he tells a woman who says "I wish I were dead," to essentially to go sit and be alone with God. Then he goes into his own head about whether he could be alone with God, really.
As a person more prone to be a "doer," perhaps one of the hardest things for me to be comfortable with is that notion of "sometimes people don't need you to do--they just need you to be."
I think back to a time when a friend of mine (now deceased) was undergoing chemo. People have a tendency to feel helpless when a friend is having chemo. Other than bring some food to the house, or be able to provide a ride when the person is feeling sick, there doesn't seem to be much to "do." It's just a lot of "wait." Wait till the person gets over the last cycle. Wait for the blood counts to come back up. Wait to see if it is working. I realized I was feeling powerless over my friend's wait.
Then something happened on one of my visits. She wasn't feeling great, but she was a little lonely and bored. So we just sat outside on the deck drinking Diet Pepsi and watching the birds and the squirrels. We didn't talk much other than commenting about the birds, the squirrels, the neighbor's dogs--things like that. We didn't really talk about her cancer--she was pretty sick of talking about her cancer at that point. We didn't really talk about anything of any great spiritual importance. We didn't talk much at all.
Then she turned to me and said, with the surprisingly huge grin on her face, "You know...this feels nice. I need to do this more. I wish I was better about doing this by myself. I'm glad you are here to do this with me, because I'm just not ready to do this by myself."
At the time, I thought, "What? We're not DOING anything!" It was long after she was dead that I finally got that she just wanted me to BE. Simply to occupy space in a stable way. To be a quantity of known love for her in an unfamiliar place.
Really, when you get right town to it, when we are in a place of despair, ultimately, that is all we want of God. We are still too weighed down to ask about the details of being delivered. Some of the things we know are inevitable, anyway, and unavoidable, and there won't be much physical deliverance from them. If your house is blown away by a tornado, you can pray all you want that it is magically returned to its foundations, and it's still not going to happen. We just want to know God is with us as we are staring at our bare foundation and a mound of debris. We just want God there as we start to pick through the rubble.
When we can't see that, we desire a physical presence, a physical something, a physical ANYTHING. That, I believe, is where people come in. It's hard to swallow sometimes this is not about "us," or how smart we are, or how good we are at fixing problems, or how clever we are at negotiating innovative solutions. It is about us being flesh representatives of God's love. It's about us being a cardboard cut-out of how that other person sees God. They look at us and know we are obviously not God--but they can see his reality in us. The trick, of course, is us accepting that reality as something bigger than us.
(Photo by John Hunter, Nature's Best Photography Awards)
"As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him."
I was reading this piece over on Elizabeth's blog the other day. In the comments, I had mentioned an experience I had back in October 2009 during my trip to Alaska and shortly after my return home.
Honestly, my trip to Alaska to visit my blog friend Robert was such great fun anyway, because it was the combination of meeting a blog friend and scenery that was a wonder, everywhere I looked. But the thing that really kept stopping me dead in my tracks was the sheer number of bald eagles I would see--even within the city limits of Seward. Eagles were everywhere when I took walks. They were by the side of the road. They were alongside lakes, ponds, and inlets. I imagine I saw somewhere close to two dozen eagles in three days there. Oh, I imagine after a while the locals don't even notice them, but I certainly was noticing them, and at a time I needed to see eagles. I was dealing with several simultaneous pressing problems, both at work and at home.
On the way home, I thought about all those eagles--fishing, flying, soaring, and just sitting. I had decided that part of what the "meaning" of this trip was, to bring home images of eagles. We have a few bald eagles in NE Missouri, but you don't see them very often. They're relatively uncommon. But my mind had told myself, "Ok, now you are going back home to face all the things you have to deal with, and these eagles were to remind you of what's out there in another place, so you can remember THAT place."
I did not expect three days after my return (yeah...three days...seriously) what unfolded.
On the Wednesday of my return, I went on one of my "country hospital runs." In addition to being laboratory director of the hospital lab here in Kirksville, our practice covers the management of the laboratories at three smaller critical access hospitals in the area.
I was making my "Kirksville to Unionville to Milan" loop. (For the record, in these parts, that last town is pronounced "MY-lun." No comments, please.) I crossed the Chariton River near Worthington, on the way to Unionville, and what should I see over by the bridge but a bald eagle! It appeared he was just hanging out, fishing.
Then when I went from Unionville to Milan, on Missouri Hwy. 5, I encountered a SECOND bald eagle. This one looked right at me and stretched his wings and ruffled his feathers in a sort of "See? Here I am!" look.
As I drove back to Kirksville, I thought about these two unexpected sightings.
It's strange how we get a notion of the meaning of an event, and time shifts that meaning to some degree. My original thought was the memories of another place, a place more naturally full of wonder, was what was going to carry me through these difficulties I was facing. But it turns out the eagles in Alaska were merely a prelude to the real meaning.
I came to realize, on that drive of the final leg home, that ultimately I was primed to be accepting of seeing eagles right at home, in my own backyard, so to speak--that the eagles were not "elsewhere" but right under my nose. That the transcendence was not from temporarily being in "another place" but in the place right where I was.
The eagles became a reminder that I don't have to look elsewhere to find God--that God was and had been right there with me all along, and that I only had to be accepting of that possibility to see it...and isn't that what understanding a God whose desire is simply to abide with us, all about?
(Photo of the various knots that make up the tzitzit in Ashkenazi (top) and Sephardic (bottom) style)
I think I'm having one of those weeks where I'm listening to my inner crypto-Jew.
As many of you know, I spent a lot of years learning about Jewish tradition in order to help out my retired pathologist friend M. with being a more active part in his Jewish community. At first I learned things just so I wouldn't look like a dolt at M.'s synagogue or make a faux pas at his Passover seders. But over time, I began to realize that learning a lot of Jewish symbolism and mystery helped me be more in touch with my own Christianity. I enjoy how thousands of years of the little details of Judaism shaped much of our own Christian symbolism, and it gives me a very connected feeling to God, that "God is in the details."
Take something as simple as the fringes on the tallis (the Jewish prayer shawl.) These fringes, or tzitzit, are made in a very specific fashion. Deuteronomic law says they should be made of 39 windings. Thirty-nine, when counted out as in the gematria (where Hebrew letters have a numerical equivalent) is the equivalent to part of the Shema--the equivalent of the phrase "The Lord is One.") Tzitzit are woven on the four corners of the shawl--the four corners of the earth.
Now, Ashkenazis wind those 39 winds in a different pattern (7-8-11-13, the same number of winds if one were to tie according to the Talmud's instruction of 13 hulyot of 3 winds each.) Sephardics wind it 10-5-6-5, (the numerical equivalent of YHWH,) but that's not a big deal in my mind. Each have their own reasons.
But Rabbi Arthur Waskow tends to like to discuss a more modern interpretation of the tzitzit. He likes to explain that the strings of the tassels are an extension of the person who wears them, and they reach out like fingers into the universe. In the space between the strings lies the universe, reaching fingers of air towards the person. The fringe is not only "the strings." The fringe is the combination of the strings and the spaces. It is in that space that we interact with the world, like enmeshed fingers of two hands.
That is an incredibly powerful thought.
Think about the Gospel stories where people touch Jesus' robe for healing. Jesus, being a good Jewish boy, probably was wearing his tallis. I like to think as those people clamored for healing, they reached for his tallis, and their hands brushed the tzitzit of his tallis.
Jesus--living tzitzit personified. Wow.
But it doesn't stop there. There's nothing to stop US from being living tzitzit. We can be the place where our most holy selves encounter the world--or we can be the place where the basest parts of ourselves meet the world. I think about how some of us might be plain white tzitzit, and some of us tend to have a few more colorful threads woven into us. We might not be able to travel to the four corners of the world, but we certainly are in sight of the four corners of ourselves.
I also think about the business of "fringe"...like out on the edges. How far to the edge do we go to put the hand of God's love in the world? I know I probably don't reach far enough. But I do like the idea that if we are living tzitzit, we are wearing a natural extension of God's love, that sort of flaps and swings in the breeze of the Holy Spirit...and perhaps we should simply follow where our tzitzit fly in that breeze.
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?
When you get a chance, go read this post.
The line that struck me in this article was this one:
"What if we begin to conceive of God as abiding, dynamic presence rather than distant, rational ruler? A God who is just as present to the post-dementia person as to the pre-dementia person? A God whose relationship with the person changes as the person changes?"
It got me to thinking about my buddy M. with dementia.
These days, I like to say, his dementia has made him very "non-linear" when it comes to the concept of time. He might say he talked to someone yesterday but it was six weeks ago. He might have just eaten but if you show him a Snickers bar, he is suddenly starving. Time as you and I know it, escapes him. But what I sort of find fascinating is he sees "all the time, all at once." "Forever" is "now." As he was slipping, this was quite frustrating. But once he went to long term care, I realized it didn't matter anymore, and I could, on my visits, live in "his space" as it relates to time.
I am grateful M. still recognizes me. What's interesting is when I am not around, and the staff says he talks about me, the "me" he tells them about is a better "me" than I think I am some days. When I hear that, I realize he sees me in a way I sort of hope how God does.
We so often think of dementia as "loss." We can't help but think of it this way. We are losing a person we once knew. But this article got me to considering another possibility--as dementia peels away our cognitive "thinking" parts of our brains, is it possible--if the right parts of the cortex are peeled away and the underlying "deeper, more 'primitive'" parts of our brain are exposed--are we looking at the parts of people's brains who understand and accept the mystery of God? Does the active, cognitive part of our cortex actually OBSCURE the part of our brain that understands our relationship with God the best?
Another of my friends put it another way. He said, "Even as a child, it seemed quite fathomable, to me, that God had existed forever. It's only, as an adult, when trying to anthropomorphize God, to use a human model for reference, that I encounter difficulty comprehending "no beginning"."
I know where he's coming from. His statement resonated with my own childhood thoughts about God. God just always "was." It was simple enough to believe--truly believe. I probably was about 13 when, for the first time, I had those thoughts of "What if this is all just pious crap? What if we just die and that's it?" We grow up, and simply accepting an "abiding God" seems too difficult.
I think back to the late summer of 2007. M. went with his temple on a tourist trip to Israel, and by then, the early phase of his dementia was well under way. Upon his return, we were sitting with two of my friends, out on the deck of one of them. M. expressed for the first time his real regret about having never been Bar Mitzvah. In his day, Reform Jews did not want to appear too "orthodox." So in the 40's, they would "confirm" their youngsters instead of doing Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
I remember prior to that night, he would mention other "non-traditional" aged folks at his temple that took the plunge with such admiration. I would say, "So why don't you do it?" His answer was, "Oh, I can't learn the Hebrew at my age."
But suddenly, with far less brainpower than he would have had only a few years prior, he expressed a longing to become Bar Mitzvah. M. always considered himself a secular Jew--an "essing and fressing" Jew, as he called it, referring to the Yiddish words for "to eat," and "to eat like a ravenous animal." He liked attending congregational events with food, he went to temple on the "big" holidays--Passover/High Holidays--other Bar/Bat Mitzvahs--stuff like that.
But as his brain started to dissolve, he started going to temple more. He wasn't cutting a bargain with God to save his brain--that was pretty evident--but he just wanted to go to services. When he would tell me about it, it was like he was "hearing the message" better. He had an interest in the message he didn't have before.
I've posted and linked to the story of his Bar Mitzvah before. You can see it again here. It remains the single most transformative moment I've ever seen where I knew God was in the room. It might have been one of the first glimpses I ever got into my own emerging ministry. I learned all those prayers and his Torah portion in Hebrew alongside of him, to help him learn it. Prayers that I would never utter in front of anyone. I learned them so he could do it, and help him practice it. I knew I would do what it took to help him do what he needed to do, when he was up here hanging around in Kirksville. His coach, MH, helped him when he was home in Columbia, but I knew I had to carry the ball on his visiting time here.
But there are times I sit back and realize--he would probably have never done this, had he not gotten dementia. He would have never had that "God-awareness" part of his brain step forward, had his cognition remained intact. He probably never would have had the keystone event of his essence as a Jewish person if he'd "had all his marbles."
It makes me realize something very valuable. To really, truly understand God, to truly abide in God's presence as opposed to creating an anthropomorphized God of our own making, we have to have either lost our marbles or given some away.
So I guess the question is, "Can we give up enough of the veneer of our ego, the crust of our cognition, to truly see the God who abides with us, no matter who we are, or where we are in our life cycle?"
"Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins."--Reconciliation of a Penitent, p. 451, Book of Common Prayer
Before there was the cross, there was the Mpatapo. It is a West African symbol that represents the bond or knot that binds disputing parties to a peaceful, harmonious reconciliation--a symbol of peacemaking after strife. It's a sign of peacemaking not only with others, but with the universe and with one's self. I thought it would be a great symbol to combine with the topic of one of the least-used rites of the Book of Common Prayer--The Reconciliation of a Penitent.
Reconciliation as a rite is something in our Anglo-catholic tradition as Episcopalians that tends to get pushed to the closet, especially if one is of the more Anglo-Episcopalian variety. It's something that, in a way, the Roman Catholics seem to have co-opted, so many stereotypes have sort of built up from that co-opting. I have had friends in the church who ached from the lack of a good way to "feel reconciled," that when I mentioned the Rite of Reconciliation, they literally recoiled, wrinkled up their noses, and said, "I don't need to confess my sins to a priest to be forgiven. This is between God and me."
Well, they're absolutely right in one sense of it. We confess sins to God all the time, whether it is privately in our prayer time, or corporately on Sunday morning. It's true. You don't "need" a priest. Yet when we confess corporately, and the priest makes the sign of the cross, we don't run screaming from the aisles, yelling, "I don't NEED that! Stop it!" In fact, there is often (at least for me) a feeling of relief that the priest and I are making the sign of the cross together. It's not that there is any mystic juju in it, but that it is a physical and outward sign of an internal process, and there is just something nice about the physical nature of it. It makes us feel connected to the belief we are forgiven.
I have made use of the Rite of Reconciliation every now and then, and at least for me, it goes far beyond "telling it to a priest and having the priest do magic juju." I historically like to do reconciliation early on in Lent, simply for "housecleaning purposes." It makes me feel like I am starting off my season of self-examination on the right foot. It's the Christian equivalent of removing all the chametz in the house for Passover. But I have also used this rite when I felt there wasn't exactly "a person" with which to be reconciled.
Let's just look at reconciliation if you and I had a disagreement and I was in the wrong. At some point, if all went according to plan, I would approach you, and say, "I was wrong. I'm sorry. Please forgive me." Hopefully, you would do that. Hopefully, I would change my ways and do better by you as a result of this interaction. Hopefully, you would find a new place in your heart to forgive.
What I've found to be the hardest, though, are the situations in which I realize long after the fact I hurt someone, and that person is long gone--whether it is by address change or death. Or maybe that actual person simply isn't equipped to forgive me, and never will be--won't speak to me, has hung up the phone on me, has washed me from his/her life. Or maybe it's the recognition I hurt many people and might not even have known who they all ARE. Or maybe my sin is simply an attitude that needs to be changed--an attitude that pours out of me and puts a mild toxin everywhere I go, almost imperceptibly. There is no human being to ask forgiveness for an attitude, or else I'd just have to apologize to the entire world.
It's precisely those situations, in my opinion, that this rite was designed. The simple fact of human nature is we desire a human face to look at us with forgiveness, a person to touch us. Nothing is like being forgiven by "someone with skin on."
Our rubrics don't even require a priest. There is a concluding paragraph on page 452 of the BCP that a deacon or lay person can recite as a reminder that God has forgiven us. I wonder sometimes, when we have divisions within the church, how our lives would change if we sat down and actually did this rite with each other instead of a half-hearted, edgy, "sorry," and a weak handshake. How would it change our concepts of reconciliation if we made this process about Jesus, instead of about us?
The last time I did the rite is the one that sticks out in my mind for two reasons. One is because at the point where the priest is to either lay a hand on the penitent's head or extend a hand to the penitent, it wasn't just a weak trivial gesture. She laid her hand on my head as stretched out as she could get it and truly pressed against my head. I probably value my mind more than any other body part I own. It felt like a real forgiveness of my mind. The other was I was offered the Eucharist following the rite, and we had a little sit-down Eucharist with a slightly too big piece of bread, and we actually sat and talked and shared the cup and chewed on the bread, almost like a little "Sacramental happy hour." It felt like what I had before me in terms of repentance was all "do-able." When Lent rolls around, I'd like to do it that way again.
I invite you to sit down and read the rubric sometime. It starts on p. 447 in the BCP. Hear the words, read the rubric, and think it over. Try it, if you think it fits. But at the very least, it's worth a read.
(See this photo and many other spectacular and breathtaking photos of the week here.)
"As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Today marks a very strange day in my life. It marks a day in my past when suddenly, what I assumed "was," "wasn't." A day where I went to bed thinking some things were a "given," and I awoke to the sudden realization they were not a "given," and found myself feeling like I was standing on the edge of the outer darkness, my hands bound and my mouth duct taped shut.
We have all had days like that in our lives, and moments where it felt like the entire world did a 180. Maybe it was the day the doctor looked you in the face and said, "You have cancer." Maybe it was the day the phone rang and the voice on the other end said that your parent, your child, your sibling, your spouse had been killed in an accident. Maybe it was the day your significant other looked at the floor and said, "I don't love you--and I love someone else." Maybe it was the day your child said, "I'm leaving and I'm never coming back." Maybe it was the day you actually did walk away from the abuse you were experiencing in your home. Maybe it was the day people got together and did an intervention on you. Maybe it was the day you were robbed, or beaten, or raped. Maybe it was the day your house burned down or a tornado swept it away. But those days are there. Days that started out like any other, but by the end of the day, the world was drastically different, and drastically more empty or frightening.
In those days, we start out "in our normal world" but suddenly find ourselves cast into the outer darkness. We find ourselves on the outside looking in, at a world we thought we know but now no longer recognize even shadows in it. This outer darkness is so pitch black that, when it happens, it seems that not even God is in it, because these moments suddenly resonate only with one thing--our own heart of darkness. Those things we know we have done in the past that are incredibly, indelibly wrong. The things we did wrong and never got caught. This moment of being "cast out" often feels made of equal parts of "I did not deserve this, I did nothing bad enough to cause this to happen," and "I deserve all of this for all the things I did but no one ever found out."
Why is it that we so often can remember these dates with the same razor sharp memory that we remember the beautiful milestones in our lives, like weddings, births, and graduations? Sometimes we can remember them even BETTER than the dates of the beautiful moments of our lives. Why is it we sometimes remember "The day I was handed my pink slip at work," better than "The day I met the love of my life?"
Perhaps it all goes back to that old "saint/sinner" paradox. There seems to be a need to define our lives in terms of "saint/sinner" where we can have meaning to it, in situations where there is no blame to assign. A tsunami hits shore and hundreds of people die. The tsunami is neither "good," nor "evil," it's just a tsunami. Yet it causes the families of the dead to curse God, and it causes televangelists to spout crap that it is God's punishment--and I always have this vision of God shrugging and going, "Whaaaaa?"
But the truth is, when those moments arrive that we find ourselves suddenly cut from the herd, we had absolutely positively nothing to do with what happened in THAT MOMENT. But we so often play "what if" a thousand times afterward.
I was trying to remember in my own story, when that moment came that the outer darkness was no longer utterly pitch black dark. When did the light of God actually appear? When could I even begin to even notice God had been in that blackness all along?
It did not come to me for a while. I just remember there was a weight to that darkness. A weight so heavy that for some time I could only lie under it and remember to keep breathing. I remember that feeling of immobility and a feeling that every possible avenue out appeared inhospitable.
What I recall, though, is that the moment that the light of God appeared, it was in a place that prior to this event, I would have considered a fearful place, and it appeared in a person I did not expect. It did not appear until I could be brave enough to tell the story of the darkness I'd seen.
Time has a funny way of changing events in our minds. God has a funny way of making us see that the things we experienced, that were so "real" in their dark power, are not so real now as we get further from them. But it takes three things: Time; a willingness for God to reveal the truth to us and for us to remain still and hear it; and for us to open our mouths and tell our stories. Without those three things, we remain cut from the herd, but excluded by fences of our own making.
Take some time today to reflect that, at this moment, someone is out there in the outer darkness and can't move. We don't know who they are. They might be right under our noses. Remember them in prayer, and open yourself up to the possibility that you might be the person they need to hear their story.
"The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are."
I got off the phone a few nights ago with someone who was exasperated with the health of a person in his extended family. We all have them in our circle of extended family and friends. The person who can't seem to give up smoking despite being on oxygen for emphysema, the person who got the six-vessel bypass graft and seems dead set on clogging it up again, the person who won't cut down or quit drinking so much, the person who the word "diet" is meaningless.
Many of us are at an age where we are caregivers for the elderly or infirm, and there is the constant battle there--"forgetting" to take medicine, driving when they shouldn't be, checking him/herself AWOL from the hospital, or assisted living place, telling the caregiver one thing and the doctor another--well, the list is endless.
Others are dealing with stiff-necked-ness in the next generation--everything from toddlers sticking their hand on hot coals despite saying "No, no--that's hot," to teenagers who promised to be home at 11 p.m. who are still out and about at 1:30 a.m.
We are, indeed, a stiff-necked people.
It's an old, old refrain..."You're not the boss of me."
When you get right down to it, we're not any better at obeying God than we are at obeying anyone else.
Sometimes, I think it's that word "obey" that sticks in our collective craws. It sounds like dog training.
Let's look at that word a moment. The Latin root for the word "obey" is oboedio, which is more literally translated into "To listen and comply." If we go back further into the Hebrew, a word that is frequently translated into "obey" in English is the Hebrew word shamar, which means to listen and act upon what is heard.
In short, obeying is not simply "submitting." It means to hear something in a way we didn't hear it before, and to DESIRE to change as a result of having heard it differently, and thereby changing...and really, all we ever willingly obey, is love. Sure, people "submit" to fear by their actions but their hearts and minds are not on board. Let's look at that word..."submit"...as well. It is actually a combination of two Latin roots, "sub" (as in "under") and "mittere" (to send.) It is simply the action of "sending ourselves under" the will of something else.
It's an interesting concept to think that we are changed and others are changed by LISTENING rather than saying or doing or arranging or orchestrating.
When we see things in others that we think need to be changed...
1. How much did we listen to God about that, before we set out to working on it? Does that other person need to be changed, or do WE need to be changed?
2. If we felt we were supposed to be part of that agent of change, are we really listening to what that person is telling us about "where he/she is at the moment?"
3. When we set out to be part of the change, have we considered how to say it or do it in a way that opens the other person up to truly LISTENING, or do we keep doing or saying in the way we are accustomed to doing/saying it?
When we see things in ourselves that we think need to be changed...
1. Again, how much have we discussed this with God FIRST?
2. What has God placed in front of us for our consideration already? What might he have told us that we promptly ignored?
3. Are we truly listening to what those we love and trust are telling us?
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we all listened instead of trying to steer all the time.
(Gideon) responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
I've been officiating the Wednesday Morning Prayer service at Trinity the first Wed. of the month, ever since our Priest Associate added a Wed. evening Eucharistic service on the same date. Honestly, it's not "difficult," technically speaking, but it has been a continued refinement of my ease and comfort level with the liturgy. That, coupled with getting my lay preaching license, and actually getting a few "outside gigs" with the Presbyterians, as well as a once-a-quarter preaching stint at Trinity, has really been moving my comfort level with leading worship to new places.
It's made me keenly aware of "what all I lack, liturgically speaking," to the place where it looks like Abe Lincoln studying for the bar exam without a law degree. I've become a BCP rubrics geek. I pour through commentaries. I realize I want the framework of leading worship, and preaching, to be an "automatic thing" in my mind, simply so I can "melt into" the liturgy rather than have to think about it.
You have to realize that I only sporadically had any experience with leading Morning Prayer until a few months ago--prior to this recent regular stint, my "Morning Prayer 101" lesson consisted of a phone conversation with my vicar at the time, who was coming down with some virus, in which I was told, "Just do like I do except say "we" instead of "you" in all the parts where I bless people. You come to Morning Prayer every week--you know it all by heart anyway."
Of course, in my usual blustery way, I was like, "Oh, yeah, sure, boss, I can do it!" but I remember when I got off the phone I thought to myself, "Yeah...but I know all the responses, not the "Priest parts"--and I sort of think I know where he stands and when he faces forward and when he turns sideways...sorta....but I have never really followed the book in quite THAT way...and there are like choices and stuff for the opening sentences, and choices for the prayers...aaaghhh....Oh, well, there will only be a few people there, and they won't throw a rock at me, and I'm sure it will be okay enough...but I would have liked to have practiced this..."
As it turned out, the church didn't burn down, and there were only like five people there, and everyone was incredibly kind to me even if I did make a gaffe or two, and it was all okay, but I knew I was just playing "monkey see, monkey do" to the best of my memory. I knew I physically did the job "well enough," but I sort of felt like an inadequate copy--the "faux vicar," as it were.
It took my mind back to when I was a pathology resident and all I knew how to do was mimic my idol, whom we all called "The Goddess of Pathology." She was everything I knew I could not possibly be. Not only was she a good diagnostician behind the microscope, she was well-dressed, attractive, was married to one of the more successful orthopedic surgeons in town, had a gorgeous house, and three smart, attractive, overachieving children. I only knew when I was behind the microscope, before my own diagnostic skills were fully formed, to just try to "be like her" as much as possible, and maybe I'd feel a little more like her. I even tried to dress a little better in hopes it would rub off.
But after a spell, I realized it didn't work. So I went back to dressing as badly as I always did, and being grateful that, in a hospital, wearing scrubs hide a whole host of intelligence sins (at least wearing scrubs makes it clear you might actually work there), and over time, I did gain knowledge and confidence, and that nebulous collection of things that make you feel "competent" on the job, including my specialty board certification, and that first "post-boards" year of experience that seems to teach all new doctors more than their residencies did.
Fast forward to my "re-start" in getting to do Morning Prayer. I made it really clear to my Priest Associate, that I really wanted to not just "do it," but "be comfortable in it." In my mind, the best way to lead the liturgy is to have it become a part of you--like your own hand or foot--so you don't notice "fitting" or "not fitting" in it, and you neither detract from others' worship experience, nor feel yours is being shorted. She spent a lot of time with me discussing the rubrics, and being comfortable to leave the "choices" in the liturgy to me. I could pick my own opening sentences out of the prayer book, pick the prayers, pick the dismissal, etc., within the choices of the rubrics of the prayer book.
It was feeling better--but it still wasn't "comfortable" yet. I was feeling more comfortable about the liturgy but had not known quite how to "fit in." I think for the most part I was still, to some degree, mimicking "how others do it."
Then I remembered a dream I had from long ago.
When I was very near my graduation from medical school, I had a dream with one of my late mentors in it. In the dream, he had returned to have a beer with me and talk about the next phase of my life--residency. I was kind of angry he complained about my beer choices in the dream, but I'll never forget the main image in it.
He had me put on his long white coat. It was woefully too big.
"That's right," he told me. "You'll never fit my coat. Not that I am bigger or better than you, but you could even take this coat to a seamstress and it still won't fit right--because it's MY coat, not yours."
Then he told me to go get my little short medical student length coat and put it on. It was strangely too short in the sleeves and felt a little tight, even though I knew it was "my" coat.
"See?" he said. "Even your old coat doesn't fit you anymore. You're not even graduated yet, but really, this coat doesn't fit you."
Then he pulled a little on the sleeves and the hem here and there and after a dozen pulls or so it magically seemed to transform into a long white coat--the coat of a "degreed" physician--and everything fit just right. The length was perfect. The sleeves were just right. The fit was not too tight, not too loose.
When I remembered that dream, I went straight to Google. I knew what I needed.
I ordered myself a new alb. One that fits me. One that is "mine" although I'm glad to leave it in the sacristy at church and share it with people. The albs we have in the closet are God only knows how old, and they are a little short in the sleeves and a little not quite right here and there. This one fits perfectly.
Well, it should not surprise you...this Wednesday, I felt the most comfortable as I ever had, leading Morning Prayer.
"It is in their 'good' characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self- revelations."
--C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost
I had a very interesting exchange with my spiritual advisor today. It was an exchange that started with a story of his own. He told about a time he felt really really hurt by a person he worked with that he knew he loved, and that he knew loved him, in the full sense of platonic Christian love. You have to realize, my SA is a wonderful, kind, truly loving soul, but has a reputation for getting wound up and shooting off his mouth at authority or at people who just "don't get it."
He was in a public situation where questions were being taken from the floor, and he raised his hand, and actually asked a calm, rational, well thought out question. His colleague said later, "Oh, my God, I saw you put up your hand, and I thought, 'Oh, Lord, here it comes,' but I was so relieved you didn't shoot your mouth off."
"And all of a sudden," he said, "I felt really really hurt--crushed, actually--that this person who I THOUGHT knew me, didn't know me at all. That she thought that I was going to blast this person when there was no reason in that venue to blast him. Ok, I admit, if I had been wound up, I would have blasted him. But not in public. In private."
He told me the story because I had a recent similar sort of situation. I've had a run lately of "feeling a little misunderstood." It's odd to discuss it, because mostly these days I feel like I am on a really REALLY good spiritual track. But it has made some bits of friction pop up in my life. I have felt little odd moments of intense volatility among what is mostly a pretty calm place. Maybe it is because for the most part, things are much calmer, so when it does bubble up, I ramp up in a hurry. It has happened with 3 or 4 people that I, too, truly love and respect, and I hope it is likewise. When I have a run of feeling misunderstood, I tend to really close down and don't want to say anything but the most casual things for fear I'm going to be misunderstood again.
I replayed the story in my head on the drive home, using one of his key phrases he uses on me that I both dread and welcome--"What's behind that?" When he asks me "What's behind that?" I dread it, as it is seriously one of the most probing things he asks me. He's asking me to drop the curtain and reveal that I am not the great and powerful Oz. Yet, I welcome it, as I would much rather examine the deeper parts of myself in the third person, and that question allows me to examine myself in a less "personally confrontational" way, so I actually can stand to examine it for a longer period of time.
I am now a little embarrassed that even when he is not there to ask me the dreaded "What's behind that?" question, I am asking it of myself. But I guess that's proof I've grown...that I even will ask the question of myself.
I realized that, in those moments that happen to me just like that, I am hurt because at that moment, I really, truly was trying to be good.
Not that I was good, wasn't good, whatever. It was that I was consciously trying to be on my best behavior, my most polite self, and the truth of the matter is, when I am trying to be good I feel a little like a cheap imitation of Eddie Haskell. Like "That's a lovely dress you're wearing, Mrs. Cleaver," is going to fly out of my mouth.
It's a phrase we've heard all our lives. But for people who are prone to a little envelope-pushing, it becomes almost an invitation to sin. For me, who falls into occasion of sin now and then for shooting from the hip, telling me "be good," is like an invitation to jump the boundary fence and stand at the very edge of The Outer Darkness, staring back towards the light, and suddenly realizing I'm no longer in the light.
There's a family legend about that with me. For years, everyone told the story of a time my grandpa was admonishing me to "be good," as we were about to enter a place where they did not want me to attract negative attention. I was about four or five years old. I blurted out, "But I CAN'T be good. I can only be me."
Sometimes I really hate it when my five year old self was smarter than my 50 year old self is now.
But here's what I figure my five year old self innately knew where my 50 year old self got off track. We simply cannot BE "good." When we truly ARE good, it is because God's goodness is shining through us. When we truly ARE good, it is because we have surrendered our will to the point we are merely a conduit for God's love and God's goodness.
When we are trying to "be" good, we are reacting to the expectations of self or others, and often, it is their (or our) well-meaning, but nonetheless negative, expectations that are hooking us. When others assume without a second thought we will be good, more often than not we will live up to their positive expectations without even thinking. I don't think people, for the most part, throw negative expectations upon us to hurt or manipulate us. I'm not even sure they do it on purpose half the time. But it happens just the same, and when we've actually BEEN good in a setting when we've worked at "being good," their surprise in us not being "bad" wounds us.
The secret, I believe, is to simply learn to "be" rather than "be good." In the act of "being," the burden is no longer placed upon us. Since part of who God IS, is the sum total of goodness, the burden is placed upon him, and he already knows how to handle the "good" part on his own.
"Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen."
--"A Prayer of Self-Dedication," The Book of Common Prayer, p. 832, in contemporary language
I have a strange little spiritual exercise for you.
If you have a few minutes to goof off, just for fun, run over to this site and create yourself as a South Park cartoon character. Then just spend a few minutes thinking about what you've just created. Chances are, you've created a version of how you secretly desire others sort of see you, in a relatively positive way. Or perhaps you've created your alter ego. Or perhaps you've created the person you sort of wish others saw. Or perhaps you're in a really foul mood and created the person you don't like that lives within yourself. Many options exist in this exercise.
My character is above. When I look at it, I see casual, relatively relaxed, and maybe just a little impish, and color and boldness in the color choices. But what is very clear is that it is not me, but a projection of me--the me I hope I come off as that makes others feel relaxed and comfortable.
But truthfully, it's probably not even close to the cartoon characters others have created of me--and frankly, we really can't control how others feel about the cartoon characters of us that others have created, nor can anything we do dispel their beliefs.
I remember listening to Bill Clinton be interviewed on C-Span about "how people play politics," a few years back. He talked about a very successful political strategy that the Republicans used on Democrats during the Bush era. (Now, truthfully I imagine this cuts both ways to some degree, but it was HIS interview, not mine.) I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said, "The Republicans take the things they think the voters would not like about us as an opponent, and create this evil cartoon character out of them, and they keep putting us as cartoon characters out for the public to see, and let the people attack IT. Well, of course! No one would want to vote for that evil cartoon character! Anyone can see that's a bad person! So we find ourselves stuck because we can only present ourselves, and there is nothing we, ourselves, can do to attack that evil cartoon character of ourselves that is authentic--because the people have already believed in that evil cartoon."
When you think about it, even on our best days we do that to other people. We look at people, we claim to "know" them, and in our minds we have created either a basically "good" cartoon character, or an "bad" one--or maybe we just don't even HAVE a cartoon formulated of them. They are just background people in a South Park episode.
Nor can we force other people to see "our" cartoon. We might be lucky enough for them to see us on a good day and their overall impression is that of a good cartoon. They might catch us on a bad day and their initial impression is of that "not very nice" cartoon character. They might hook up with those who feel we've hurt them or slighted them, and their "non-character" starts to morph into an evil cartoon character of ourselves. Or perhaps they see us in another venue and their cartoon of us morphs into a more positive frame, or the backdrop in which they recognize us changes. But it still boils down to the fact that this rendition is out of our control. There is always a kernel of truth in both the angelic cartoon character others create of us, and in the evil one.
The only thing we have the ability to do--the ONLY thing--is to try to simply present ourselves as we really are--warts and all. At first glance, that doesn't sound like a great idea. We want to present ourselves in a positive light. We want people to have a good impression of us. But the fact of the matter is, doing that creates expectations. Expectations that our interactions are supposed to be a certain way, and when each of us do not appear "in character," it creates friction. Obviously, we can't totally do that--we all have expectations of ourselves and others--but perhaps it simply starts by presenting ourselves to God as we really are and getting used to being more okay with that. If we can do that in the presence of God, perhaps we can at least reveal enough of that person to others that they see a more realistic cartoon, and have room to adjust to our good days and our bad days, or have room for tolerance and reconciliation.
Let me present myself to you for who I am.
Grant me courage to reveal that person to myself and to others.
I need to feel how you love that person, so I can love others better.
I need to see how you love me when I'm moody and contrary.
I need to see how you love me when I fail to live up to your standards.
I need to see how you love me when I've let you down miserably.
I need to see how you cut me slack when I don't deserve it.
When I can see those things, Lord,
Would you please put upon my heart the ability to reconcile myself
to the faults of others?
To have the courage to forgive when they have stabbed my heart
with a red-hot poker and I can still smell it burning?
To have the indifference to put it aside and leave them
to your dealings with them in your all's own way?
And finally, Lord...
I hope this isn't too much to ask in one sitting...
Would you teach me the ability to let go of illusions?
The illusion that I can steer how others see me,
or choose to deal with me
only slows me down in accepting what you want me to do,
and to love myself and others in the way you love me.
Use me, Lord, as you see fit.
Use me as I am, Almighty God,
in the shadow of your perfect love;
no more or no less.
"Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?"
When my septic contractor got to unclogging me further up the sewer line, to at least "get me running" until he could come back and make more permanent repairs, he also discovered I had quite a clog higher up the line. It took some pressure with the hose and a lot of ramming with the sewer tape to bust it up. When he finally did break through, the photo above is an example of what flowed out of my line.
After he had left, I got curious. This orange-white stuff was not exactly what I expected. I poked it with a stick and kind of looked it over. Sure, a lot of what is in here is...well...crap. MY crap. Since I live alone, other than the occasional visitor or house guest, well, it's pretty much MY crap. But it obviously had other things in it. As I got to thinking, I realized that much of the stuff that made up this clog was material other than simply human waste. Things like kitchen grease, hair, laundry dirt, and soapsuds grunge. It wasn't just waste but was also the residue of things I had done to feed myself and clean my clothes and clean myself in the shower. It was a clog made up of not just indigestible refuse, but of attempts to be "clean."
When I broke it up with the stick some more, I noticed it was layered...almost like the layers surrounding a geode. Layers upon layers upon layers. Who knows how many years this had been building up.
The surprising realization, I guess, is that there were entities other than things I would recognize as my own "waste" in this clog, and that some of them would have been from my attempts to "be clean," or "clean the world around me," like the dirty dishes.
I've always maintained there are two kind of people in the world--the people who think they are never responsible for anything that goes wrong, and the people who think they are always responsible, somehow, for everything that goes wrong. I tend to be one of the latter. I have not quite claimed to be the cause of earthquakes and tsunamis, and I haven't quite taken on the characteristics of Lisa's "International Blame Lauren Day", but I have self-assigned fault to plenty of things that were not of my making, and felt guilt for plenty that was not really my doing.
But as I looked at the stuff that made up this clog, I realized the things in it like the soapsud leftovers, and the lint, and the hair, and the kitchen grease were all things that went down that sewer from good intentions. To be clean and presentable, I had to put the grime down the drain. To eat a nutritious meal in a clean dish, I had to wash the grease and grunge from the dishes and pots and pans from the previous meal. It wasn't just the willful depositing of my own human waste. I was blaming "my crap" as the "fault" of the clog. Yeah, there was some there, but it really wasn't ALL of what clogged my sewer line. Really, a lot of what clogged my sewer line was simply the residue of the world, and "the residue of good intentions."
It's just another view of that most maddening mystery that is perhaps the one I most often go back to--the saint/sinner paradox. Even "good" things can leave "bad" residue. "Bad" things are not always to blame for "bad" happenings.
Maybe the point of recognitions like these is not to study and debate "what's in the clog" but to simply unclog it. Remove the clog and start over, realizing that, yes, it WILL get clogged again--and probably by the same exact stuff--but that next time, we won't wait until the whole system collapses to unclog it.
Part one of a two-part series...
"For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light."
One of the problems with country living, much as I love it, is the lack of a true sewer system. Most of us who live out here either have septic tanks or lagoons, and in my case, I own a septic tank. Septic tanks are one of those things that when they work, you don't notice them at all. When they don't, they suddenly become the most important item on the property. A mysterious malady called "flushing phobia" appears. You hate to have to plunge and struggle with every use.
Well, in the past few weeks, my septic tank started acting up--at first, just a little, but later to the point you had to plunge to get anything to move down into the tank at all and to the point things started backing up through the bathtub drain. Despite my best efforts at plunging, Insta-flow, and other drain cleaning products, nothing was going down.
So I finally broke down and called a septic contractor. What we discovered was, from the house to the septic tank, instead of the nice PVC pipe that led out of my tank, the pipes were made of "Orangeburg." I am pretty sure Orangeburg means "write the check" in some other language.
But seriously, Orangeburg is a type of sewer pipe that was popular from the 1860's until the 1970's. It was made of pressed wood fiber impregnated with coal tar pitch. In the days before plastic, it was considered an excellent product as it was light weight, did not break down from the components in the sewage, and could be joined without adhesive. The only problem was that the lifespan of Orangeburg is about 50 years. Considering the last pipe of this kind was used in the 1970's, what it means is that, buried under the ground, are miles and miles of Orangeburg that are reaching the end of its natural lifespan, and beginning to show their age. Orangeburg becomes very brittle over time--after all, it IS essentially made of paper--and collapses. The natural consequence of that is for the sewage to back up, of course.
So you can imagine my dismay when the contractor dug down and I saw the infamous Orangeburg staring back at me. My septic tank has nice PVC pipe on the effluent side and on the vents. I had no reason to assume anything other than that PVC ran from the house to the septic tank. But there it was, a piece of Orangeburg, clamped to the PVC, in an unholy union. For the ten years I'd lived in my house, I had no clue that buried in the yard was decaying sewer pipe, day by day becoming more on the verge of collapse. All the fresh waste that left my house was living in a fragile balance of coexistence with the aging Orangeburg.
Now, let me make it clear no one had rooked me in any way. Orangeburg was considered the best product we had for this in the pre-plastic days. It was built to last a half century. It was inert to essentially anything that would run through its lumen. It was light and easy to replace. But it was not inert to age. Orangeburg was distinctly finite. But its aging was not noticed becuse it was buried. When the forces of nature took control of it, its decay was finally brought to light, heralded by sewage bubbling up to the surface.
So it is with some other things we tend to bury. Things like sin. Things like guilt. Things like fear, anger, hurt, and uncertainty. These things are all the sewage of our life. From the day we first stole a cookie off the counter top, or learned to tell a little white lie to our parents or the day we first remember feeling hurt but never telling anyone, we began piping our sewage underground. We learned to run it through the best conduit we had at the time...but time has a way of decaying the conduit. We didn't know it needed repair because it was buried. It was not out in the open where we could see it. Only until it collapses, and the sewage bubbles up from the ground, do we see it.
Then we are forced to deal with it right then and there. Sometimes those who step in to help us act a little incredulous that "we didn't know." ("You didn't know there was Orangeburg there when you bought the house?") Well, no. We don't tend to randomly check on the quality of our sewer pipe if it seems to be working.
But thank God that what is buried usually eventually comes to light. How else would we deal with it if it didn't?
I will put together a second part to this in a few days.