(Tefillin illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, "Come out," to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves." They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. " Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
Sunday, I ended up being impromptu lector, as our scheduled lector was absent. The reading from Isaiah was the one that stuck in my mind after church, partially because my ears always perk up when hands are involved, and partially because of what I know about the Jewish practice of laying tefillin.
Tefillin, or phylacteries, consist of Torah inscribed on parchment and bound to a long leather strip, typically just under three feet long, and its accompanying leather box. It is common for observant Jews to lay tefillin on their head and arm because of the instructions in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
This commandment is also the primary prayer of Judaism, the Shema.
Our tendency, when we hear the Isaiah reading with the mind of a 21st century Christian, is to think about tattoos. However, at the time Isaiah was written, tattoos were a definite no-no, forbidden in Leviticus. More than likely, the passage was alluding to tefillin.
It's important to remember that the shape of the wrappings on the hand makes the Hebrew letter shin, which often represents Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names for God. The inscribed part of the tefillin touches the skin, so some of it would be touching the palm.
So, on humans who have laid tefillin, it is essentially a representation of God, with God's words touching our hand.
But our visual flips it over--we are treated to a glimpse of God's hand, with us lying against his palm, wrapped in a shape that represents humankind. In other words, God's "prayers," as it were, require us. It requires our presence.
Our passage at the top of the page opens up another realm of possibility; namely, that when we are in prayer, we are being laid upon God's hand and arm as a "holy thing.'
The other thing that stands out for me is when we are given human imagery for God in the Bible, we are treated to many images of God's head--ears, eyes, mouth--and hands--but when the word "heart" is mentioned, it is generally a statement about OUR heart. When devout Jews lay tefillin, it does not cover the heart--just the head and the shoulders and the arm. We are given glimpses of God's emotions--pleasure, joy, wrath, anger--but when it comes to statements about the heart in the Bible, it is about the hearts of humankind.
It gives me the impression that God's intention in this divine/human relational dynamic is for us to have free, unbound hearts in following God.
Our imagery in romance is to "steal someone's heart." Of course, we know, ultimately, hearts can't be stolen, they can only be given. It seems this is an innate aspect of our relational state with God. God's desire is for us to freely give our hearts--even to the point of leaving them unbound. It's interesting we call this "free will"--which implies the mind--but what we are really talking about is "free heart."
I like this image, as we speed towards Lent, that part of my preparation is to understand this relationship of each of us, inscribed on God's hand, as holy a thing as a strip of tefillin. All of us together, inscribed on it, yet with our own hearts free to turn.
Where will our hearts turn in this holy season, as we ponder how we are to be God's hands in this broken world? I certainly don't know, but the prospect is exciting!
(photo of Zyklon-B from Wikimedia Commons)
1 Corinthians 11.17-22:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
One of the things that I used to do like clockwork was watch the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. local news. But in recent years I tend to simply look it up on the Internet. The good news is I can choose the stories I want to see rather than impatiently wait through stories of lesser interest, or deal with the frustration of missing the stories I wanted to see because I got a phone call, or something in preparing supper demanded my attention, or some other distraction.
The bad news is I occasionally get drawn in to read the comments. I don't know why I let the commenters bother me. But at times, they do, especially when the story involves an arrest, or it involves a story of someone down on their luck. There's this little cadre of vultures who follow those stories and pile on with their vitriolic, mean, and sometimes downright bigoted comments. They tend to paint themselves as "oppressed" in some way, and often do things like attack local law enforcement, diss local businesses, and regularly engage in character assassination. ("I got my utilities turned off five days after my bill was due, and that person got to be in arrears for three months." "You can tell by looking at him he's a child molester, castrate him right now and save the state the expense of jailing him." "I know this woman and she sits around and smokes cigarettes and is on Facebook, playing games. Maybe she should get offher butt and get a job.. They showed five pets in the footage, too, maybe she should get rid of her pets and she'll have money for her health expenses.")
It's also of note the character assassination types of comments are frequently aimed at women, and the attacks involve people's personal habits, assumed sexual behavior, and laziness. My overall impression of these people is that they are angry, bitter people who seem to take a great deal of delight in discounting the woes of others. One wonders why they spend so much time trolling the station's website. They seem to fancy themselves as the Bill O'Reillys or Glenn Becks of Kirksville. At best, they annoy me. On my worst days, I really itch to tell them off.
But in short, they are quick to condemn and seem unable to commend.
I do not, however, feel compelled to respond to them, despite the fact once in a while these semi-anonymous posters have said truly ugly things about people I know in the stories.
That's something that has changed in 20 years. (Wow! It's hard to believe I have been on the internet for a little over 20 years!) Twenty years ago, when I was at an age where I thought the whole world deserved to hear my opinion on a matter, I would have behaved like the self-proclaimed internet pundit I envisioned myself to be, and would have let them have it with both barrels. I would have crawled into the gutter to fight them, and I often would have won, but also delivered MY nastiest, and most vitriolic side to be memorialized in the cobwebs of the internet for perpetuity.
I don't know why I let the commenters bother me. But at times, they do, especially when the story involves an arrest, or it involves a story of someone down on their luck. They seem particularly interested in pointing out that "God helps those who help themselves," and even throw the "WWJD" card on the table. There's no doubt; I'm bigoted against bigots. (As my retired pathologist friend MJ used to say about himself, "I'm an anti-bigot bigot.")
In the language of our text, I'm prone to condemning the condemners.
So rather than condemn, and be no better than the condemners, I have struggled with learning to commend instead. This isn't easy.
One of the ways I try to do it is simply ponder some of the things they put out there, in their judgment. Take when they throw the WWJD card. I most recently saw that when they were attacking a story about a woman drawing disability, on home oxygen who had her electricity cut off. Mostly, they attacked her for being fat, for being lazy, for having a wood stove and saying she could cook a meal perfectly fine on that, for saying she had "no place to go" but having grown children, and for being a smoker. Her being on disability was attacked. They dragged her grown children into it, claiming they learned how to suck on the teat of the government like their mother. They called her a scam artist, and attacked the local news station for giving her air time. It was just really nasty.
As I thought about the story, I realized I didn't really care about those things. You know, I didn't even know this woman. Maybe she's not a scammer, maybe she is. Yeah, she does things I don't approve of. But even if she were all the things her attackers claimed she was, I actually had compassion for her. What an awful life it must be to have to live like that, even if it is of one's own making to some degree. There's nothing I covet about her situation. But I remembered how, in my own days of living in the "working poor" income group, how easy it WAS to covet another's situation that somehow seemed "better" than mine, even when the reality of it was that it was not better.
If she was not the things her accusers piled onto, then she has been treated even more shabbily by the attackers. It was easy to have compassion for that.
Either way, I had compassion for someone who for whatever reason, was probably lost her dignity at this point.
Several people seemed to want to preach from the Gospel of "Supply Side Jesus" too here. Well, let's think about that one a minute. What WOULD Jesus do?
The more I thought about that one, the more I laughed...because I think Jesus would have healed her. I think he would have healed her from her chronic illnesses and told her "Go, and sin no more."
I got to laughing, because I was pretty sure the first people who would have been upset about that would have been those very same people throwing the WWJD card on the table.
Jesus had a habit of that, you know--that whole "healing people that the world thought was "undeserving" of such grace," thing. Those complainers would have railed to high heaven about it, in fact!
There's a lesson in that.
In that lesson, I need to learn to commend mean-spirited vitriolic people to God.
Now, that doesn't mean I shouldn't defend myself with the truth if I were ever the target of their spewings. But it does mean I don't need to whip out my verbal coach gun and shoot from the hip at them. I need to trust that God cares for all of us on God's time frame. Even people like that.
Yep. Even mean people are commended to God. Because they are, it also means I am, even when I am at my worst.
2 Corinthians 3:1-18
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God,who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
I did something I never thought I'd ever do--I tossed "my trophy." Non-coincidentally, the text above from 2 Corinthians was the Daily Office text the day after I tossed it. I had to burst out laughing when I read it.
I've felt uncomfortable--VERY uncomfortable--for several months now--that I felt unable to have the ability to reciprocate what has been done for me this last year and a half.
One of the most wonderful things that has come into my life in the past few years has been this wonderful reality that springs from my connections via blogging and Facebook. I have used a significant portion of my vacation time meeting up and visiting with "Facebook friends I know, but never met." Some of the folks I have met through this route have worshiped with me at Trinity-Kirksville, and met up with various folks in my parish community. It has been a wonderful opening and sharing part of my life. I have often stayed in these people's homes.
But then I come home to MY home, and this depressing reality sets in.
I would be mortified to let them into MY house.
Now, I do want to assure you it's not anything like "Hoarders," but the clutter is enough that it stops me from wanting to open my heart and my home in the way other people's hearts and homes have been opened to me. I've had a desire to change that for several months now. But it felt so blasted uncomfortable to talk about, that I felt I had no one to talk about it to, except God. Over time, it morphed into being able to talk about it to my spiritual director, and a small trusted handful of others in my circle.
But the first thing I had to come to grips with was, "Why am I so blasted uncomfortable about this?"
It took some old, old, forgotten memories to be unearthed. Most of them had to do with growing up in an alcoholic family. One of the things we learn in that situation is to work very very hard at creating this veneer that we are just like all the other families. Part of that involves closing off the home. I was taught at a very early age that I was not to just "show up with friends," because we had to make concerted efforts to hide all the "evidence." Sometimes the "evidence" was all the empty beer bottles in the house and the trash. Sometimes the "evidence" was the alcoholic. As a result, I was taught to lie and cover to keep people out of the house--even to those I loved the most.
All my adult life, I've been sorta "funny" about my house, even though there has been nothing of any great consequence to hide. Now, part of that is because I am, despite my gregarious, friendly external nature, a very VERY private person. I tend to use my gregarious side as a smokescreen to hide the very private side. I do need some degree of my home being a sanctuary and a cloister. It's how I recharge. But the warm, loving, and giving side of me has always felt "constricted" in my ability to share my home even in the most minor of ways.
Another thing that has kept me feeling very private about these things is that I really do have some sort of "home decor autism." It felt too intrusive to hand power over to many of my female friends to help me decorate it, if I made changes. Too many women, I'm afraid, would seize the opportunity to create an interior THEY want, with MY money. It took a long time for me to figure out, literally, who I could trust to help with this, to understand MY needs. What I envision for myself is a rather lean, mean, almost Spartan decor--but with warmth and light that allows people to use their own spiritual imaginations in my home. Simple, but with light and life.
So where does this "trophy" come in?
The trophy in the photo above was given to me when I graduated from medical school. Several of my friends put it together, and there are several things on it that illustrate some funny stories from my life. My favorite is the little truck on it, running over a cow (Yes, I did once hit a cow with my truck.) I've always found room for that trophy despite the fact it is about five feet tall!
But where I think I'm going with my house, there's just no room for the trophy any more.
I thought about all the little details on that trophy. That's another place where I tend to hoard rather than share. One of my favorite things to do for other people is remember the fun and obscure details of their lives, and show my love by showing love for the details. I have the ability to remember an obscure story they've told me, and do silly things like buy a card or present later on that calls that story to memory. I've come to learn it's part of how others grow to love me! Yet I hardly ever share similar stories of MY life. I make excuses that it's not "interesting" or "important." My stories sometimes feel "inferior" because my life is a rather solitary one. My stories seem too "me focused" around people who have children and grandchildren. I say to myself, "Oh, they don't want to hear them."
But it's another place where I've been great at SHOWING love but not RECEIVING love. Again, this growing part of me senses the "constriction" from the imbalance of it. There are just so many stories from my life I've never bothered to tell.
But I've come to realize my "trophy" has become an albatross, as have many things in my house. Surrounding myself with things of little value but high sentiment have insulated me from LETTING me be loved despite my ability to love being in pretty good shape.
So, as I start to re-configure what I want my house to be--a reflection of the best parts of me, rather than a fortress that people are forced to peer over the walls and then having me feel all intrusive that they are peering over a wall of MY making, a lot of stuff is going in the dumpster.
Most of it has been rather easy except for the time factor. Some of it is hard. The trophy was so hard, I realized its disposal had to be "ceremonial."
So I took it out in the yard, and I took pictures of all the things on it. Then I stood out in my yard and said, "Almighty God, thank you for the first 31 years of my life that this trophy represents and for friends who recall the silly wonderful things in it. I don't think I'll need a trophy for the next 31 years because I am learning, through my relationship with you, that I am YOUR trophy, and that's trophy enough for me. I commend this, and all the parts of my life that go with it, to your keeping. I ask this in the name of your son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen."
Then I made the sign of the cross on the trophy, and on me, and then I hurled it in the dumpster.
I cried pretty hard after that.
But the next day, I saw the Daily Office reading at the top of this post, and laughed. There's nothing new under the sun!
Paul is telling the church in Corinth that they don't need external forms of commendation, that they are competent, smart, loving people in the body of Christ. They don't need trophies. God is calling us to be in RELATION with each other just as we are called to be in relation with God. It's not about being "good" to get brownie points from God as much as it is cultivating the habits that make us in good relations with one another.
How many times are we engaged in the ministry of the condemnation of our own lives rather than the ministry of commendation of God? How many times do we achieve and over-achieve to create trophies to hide our feelings of self-condemnation? How many times do we disallow others to commend us for being a part of the Body of Christ? How many times do we self-condemn what God commends in us?
When we focus on the law, the only outcome is we will realize we fall short. When we focus on our hearts, we discover the possibilities are endless, and that we are all God's trophies. Oddly enough, it starts by letting others treat us as if we are God's trophies. Doing that requires tossing the trophies of our egos.
In short, we are called to commend, not condemn--not just others, but ourselves. Only in that do we create holy spaces in which we are free to live and move and have our being (to borrow from the petition often used in Morning Prayer.) It has the possibility of transforming our homes as well as our lives!
(Photo from Martin Young's photostream)
1 Samuel 17:37-40
David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
My online EfM class used this story for our Theological Reflection this week. Although the full text we used included the slaying of the Philistine, what our group seemed to focus on was the "prelude" story to all this, the text quoted above.
Perhaps it is because all of us in our EfM class are, in one way or another, at times, burdened by a growing spirituality that occasionally seems to have to "do battle" with an "inner Philistine"--the "us" we became resigned to that makes up our past or present difficulties and grief. Sometimes I think "all we came to accept" in our lives is a giant oppressor, and our own growing spiritualites are like the youthful David, full of promise, but fighting against the odds.
But much of the class really glommed onto the business of Saul's generous offer of all his armor--yet David came to realize it didn't "fit," and would actually harm his chances of defeating the Philistine. He trusted in what God and he had worked out to that point. He went with what he knew deep down inside was the best way to approach it. As we say around here, "he danced with the girl who brung him."
So when it came time to actually face the Philistine, that part of the story was almost anticlimactic. David had confidence and a serenity that was beyond focusing on "outcome."
I think everyone in my EfM class--myself included--is searching for that assurance that our relationship with God is beyond worrying about "outcomes."
How many times, as we think back to the things we have faced in life that were against the odds, was there a Saul in our lives? How many times was there someone out there who was absolutely sure about what we needed for this showdown, but the more we tried it on, the more we saw how ill-fitting it was, and how it was not bad advice, but merely advice that would not work for us?
Those situations are hard ones. I am absolutely convinced in our story above that Saul was well-meaning. I am positive he was trying to be a good friend to David. But I also always wonder, when David said "Thanks--but no thanks" to Saul's offer, as David walked off with his sling and five stones, if Saul wasn't thinking, "He's crazy. He's gonna get killed. Man, I wish he had listened to me."
If we continue on in the subsequent chapters of 1 Samuel, we discover that the relationship between Saul and David deteriorates over time. It gets really messy.
I know the Sauls in my life didn't always take it well. I also know I didn't say, "Thanks but no thanks," in the most gracious of ways sometimes. It has been the minority of times that the Sauls told me at a later date, "You know, you were more right about that than I was, and I'm okay with that."
More often, it estranged the relationship. If I succeeded, it more frequently somehow made that person resentful. If I continued to wallow in my battle, or if I failed, it created various forms of "I told you so" messages, or continued, more pointed forms of advice--some of it unsolicited.
Likewise, when have I been Saul in this story? One of the problems I constantly battle is that my quick mind sees things very readily at times--often before the other person even realizes it--and my ego suddenly feels compelled to point out "what the problem is." After all, I get paid good money to put names on diseases in my job. But I have never quite learned when to shut up outside the job there. Learning to keep quiet until other people "get it" on their own, and simply be a presence for them, is one of my most ragged growing edges.
The story of Saul and David is both a story about "hearing and following God's call to us despite the odds," and a story about "giving others room to do the same." It's about not being jealous when someone succeeds and we had the "wrong advice," and it's about recognizing when we go against the advice of those close to us, we still have to do what's right, even when the potential for estrangement is there. We can only control how WE feel about the situation. We can't control how others feel.
This broken world creates the potential for many battles, and even as peaceful people we have to face them now and then. But we need to face them in the way God calls us to face them--not in borrowed armor that makes us uncomfortable.
"See, I am near, says the Lord; see, I make all things new..." --Taizé song
You know, cleaning out desks should come with a warning label: "Emptying contents may simultaneously cause laughter and tears."
Now that I have been a laptop user for about three years, I came to the realization that "the computer desk" is pretty much obsolete. There's probably a better use of space for this corner of my house. Oh, I still need a stand for the router and the printer, and maybe a little desk of some sort for dumping the bills, but really, two big desks are simply too much.
So, I decided to spend the bulk of my Saturday cleaning out both desks in preparation of getting rid of them.
That desk on the left has a story. My grandfather bought that at a "guv'mint auction" when I was 16 years old and I had just gotten my novice ham radio license. It was painted um...er...a..."lovely" shade of Army Mint Green--you know, the color most National Guard armory and VA hospital walls are...
He and I stripped it and refinished it. There's still some of the original green paint on the sides of the drawers. (Ok, we got a little lazy.) It has some seriously wonderful memories with it, but it's ergonomically awkward, and heavy as lead. The shelves are home made--I made them in my friend Bill B.'s garage, when I was a resident doc. Bill liked to do amateur woodwork, and I was his "shop class pupil" for the project.
The corner desk is one I bought in 2000, when I first moved back to Kirksville, and was the first true "computer friendly" desk I ever had. Nothing sentimental there--it was a Wal-Mart special.
I think the big shocker, as I started cleaning out the two desks, was that there was six boxes of crap I dumped out of those desks, and five boxes of stuff I kept! The old Army desk had things in it that literally, were put there 35 years ago. Things I can't believe I kept--old Valentine's Day cards from romances long kaput, funeral bulletins, owner's manuals from things I pitched 25 years ago. It took me several hours to go through all the drawers. I found myself literally bursting into tears one minute, and laughing the next. Within the drawers were love and grief, humor and sorrow, all mixed together and stacked upon each other like fossils within sedimentary rock. In an old cigar box were faces frozen in time--7th graders I taught in 1981 who are now 43 years old, now 30something year old cousins as babies, older folks close to me who have been residing at the cemetery for many years now.
Of course, there were also the long forgotten odd things that, as I found them, I wasted no time tossing in the dumpster, thinking, "Oh, God, I don't even want to think about what someone would think, finding this, if I dropped dead and they were cleaning out my estate." Some things in there were not exactly supportive of the legacy I'd like to leave!
Do I know what I plan to do with that corner? No, not really.
But I know I need to clear out what's there, before I can even begin to dream of the possibilities.
I wonder if my obsession with the "computer corner" is simply a physical sign of a spiritual state for me--or maybe it is another manifestation of how my life rhythms tend to mimic the liturgical calendar--we are speeding headfirst towards Lent, a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation for renewal--or maybe it is a little of both.
But I do know this much--before we can make all things new, we must first examine the old, and, much like how observant Jews clear the house of chomitz (leavened bread) just prior to Passover, we have to fearlessly examine every nook and cranny for the things that need to be tossed.
That's what I've always liked about the tradition of getting rid of the chomitz. The families I've known over the years that do that, get downright OCD about it. No doubt, they want to smack the family matriarch upside the head for her being so obsessive about it. But when it's done, it's satisfying.
Furthermore, getting rid of chomitz has a holiness to it. It's a good lesson for getting rid of our physical, spiritual and emotional chomitz. When we de-clutter our lives, we don't have to just "go on a tear" and start dumping stuff in haste. We can treat is like a holy moment. We can lovingly toss it in the dumpster with thanksgiving in our hearts and on our lips for those portions of our life story. We can be grateful that we are fortunate enough to own enough stuff to hoard.
But in short, we can simultaneously place these things on the altar while we're putting them in the dumpster. It's not an either/or proposition. These things we hoarded aren't necessarily "bad," they have simply served their time in faithful service.
I'm reminded of a story of a man who lived in the period of American westward expansion. He moved to the mountains, and had very few possessions in the beginning. He spent much of his time following trails and exploring, unencumbered by possessions other than what he needed to survive. But over the years, he accumulated a lot of "stuff."
When the time came for him to strike out and move, in search of more adventure, he had so many possessions he had to put them in a Conestoga wagon. The wagon could not traverse the mountains because of its size (particularly its width) and its weight. So he had to take a desert road. His beloved mountains merely became something in the distance that he could only look at, but not touch or feel or experience. The desert became his reality.
Yes, God can make all things new. But we might have to clear out the chomitz first.
2 Corinthians 7:2-11:
Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I often boast about you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation; I am overjoyed in all our affliction. For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way—disputes without and fears within. But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter.
The dreaded "consolation prize."
Now, those of us who grew up watching game shows on TV knew what winning a "consolation prize" meant. It meant, "No money, just stuff--and probably stuff you really don't want or need." The poor dweeb who got "last place" in any game show and did not make the "final round" or the "bonus round" got shoved out the door and promised many "lovely parting gifts," for which that pour soul would manage a weak, insincere smile and perhaps even a handshake for the winners, and subsequently be hastily shooed offstage.
So, most of us have been trained to learn that "console" really doesn't mean "console." It means buck up and suck up, and to simply "get over it."
But Paul is talking about a whole 'nother kind of consolation entirely in his second letter to the Corinthians. To borrow from the old hymn, "Just as I am", it's safe to say the church in Corinth was full of "fightings without and fears within." I am imagining there was a fair bit of Jews vs. Gentiles, rich vs. poor, powerful vs. powerless, men vs. women, and a few other things besides.
Although Paul's Epistles were generally written to various churches in the early history of Christianity, there's a lot of overlap of "the early Church mirroring life." This stuff is basically the ordinary hoo-haa of "life's conflicts." We are always living in a state of some form of conflict in or personal lives or work lives, and some of them are big, some of them are small. Some involve people who want to make small conflicts big, and some who want to pretend big conflicts don't exist. Nothing new to see here!
But how we deal with these conflicts can be something new, and some of this can be understood better through Ignatian spirituality and what St. Ignatius of Loyola called "feelings of consolation." About the best description I have read about feelings of consolation is that they are feelings that, despite their pain and associated sadness and grief, create a stirring of movement within ourselves to move closer to God as a result of these feelings.
About the best way I can connect this is by telling one of the "family stories I was told about me, that I was too little to remember."
I was told that, about the time I was learning to walk, I was always trying to do more than I was capable of doing. This, of course, led to several falls and spills. When I would fall down, I would wail like I was being tortured--but any attempt to pick me up and comfort me was met with me pushing both hands away at the attempted "comforter," and I would just wail louder and yell, "NOOOOOOOO!" at the top of my lungs.
This, evidently, upset my mother greatly. Then she would wail that she was, somehow, a bad mother. My grandmother would just roll her eyes and grunt, "Oh, bull. Just leave her alone. She'll get up when she's sick of crying, and she'll come and be loved when she's ready to be loved. Some babies, if you interrupt their being miserable, it just makes them miserable all the longer. I wouldn't even go in there when she's being like that unless you hear gagging noises or see bleeding."
Sure enough, that is what would happen. Over time (a longer time and with more volume than my mom would have liked) I would suddenly quit crying, get up of my own accord, and seek out a grownup for consolation.
But back to the point of this story. Feelings of consolation begin with "holy grief"--grief that, we know deep down inside, has the purpose of eventual joy and growth. The toddler "me" innately knew that I wanted to walk where I wanted to walk as I pleased, at the speed I wanted to do it--I was just frustrated that I could not do it this one particular time, at the moment I wanted to do it.
So many times, in our grief, we have that image of "what we want," or "where we want to be," or "how we want it to be." That image stands before us almost like a goalpost. But there we are, our butts knocked to the ground, our knees skinned, our pride wounded--and we find ourselves practically crying because we are crying. We want that "happily ever after." We want that inner peace. We want serenity. But it's pretty clear at this moment we are not getting it.
In the beginnings of those places, we can't even begin to feel anything remotely related to "consoled." We are not ready to accept anything other than the goalpost we've imagined. I like to imagine that toddler "me" in my story saw a cookie. No other cookie will do. It's not a cookie that baby wants, it's that cookie, over on the table, that led to having a spill in an attempt to get it. If you don't believe me, stick another cookie in front of that child. You will be liable to get your hand slapped down and yelled, "NOOOOOOO" at so fast, it'll make your head spin...and be prepared for another round of wailing, probably even bigger than the first! After all, not only is that mystical, magical cookie out of reach, here's some fool grownup who doesn't "get" it, invading that baby's personal space, and standing in the way of that cookie, holding up some other blasted cookie like the child's too dumb to know the difference.
But after some period of time, something starts to shift a little bit. When we stay attuned to God's voice, plain old grief begins to morph into "holy grief." Deep down inside, we feel this little "blip" within us. The best way I can describe it within myself is it is a tiny whiff of the powerful and awesome presence of God. We still hurt. We still feel awful in many ways. But there's also a deep sense of God not removing that pain, but feeling the pain more or less begin to collapse into this warm "center place." The pain begins to become a veneer, and this soft squishy center to it begins to expand.
There begins to be this feeling that it's not so important to have "that cookie" anymore. It might even move into a place where it's not even important to have "a cookie" anymore. It doesn't mean that we will never have the magic cookie--maybe we will, maybe we won't--but it merely becomes one of many possibilities, any of which seem acceptable. When we get to that place where we are spiritually indifferent to one particular outcome, when we are no longer invested in one particular outcome, this overwhelming sense of "it is what it is, and it's all okay," begins to take over. Then, when we realize we are actually feeling closer to God, even under this veneer of pain and woundedness, that our will and God's will has somehow become aligned, is when we begin to feel consoled.
Here's the beauty of it--when we begin to feel consoled, if we can manage to continue to remain aligned with God, feelings of being reconciled to it all are not far behind.
To me, that's the definition of "serenity." Serenity, to me, is the sense of deep joy within myself no matter what makes up the outer veneer of our experiences. Serenity does not require outer peace, nor a happy ending, nor my wants and needs delivered on demand. Serenity's only requirement is feeling a sense of a present joy, no matter what the outward situation.
Another way I would describe the feeling of "consolation" within myself is like this: I still feel wounded in some way--there is still some form of discomfort within me--but I feel I am being held gently in my discomfort. It's a place where I feel I am resting my head on God's chest and hearing God's holy heart beat in my ears and feel its pulsations upon the side of my face. It's truly a most wonderful place, even though I still feel my scrapes and bruises.
One of the experts in systems theory of congregations, Ross Scherer, talks about change having two parents--pain and possibility. I think that can be a personal experience too. When I feel consoled by God, I feel equal parts pain and possibility in this state of being held. Part of me knows I need to get up and leave this place, skinned knees and all, and that I will. But an equal part of me knows it's okay to stay in this place as long as I desire and need to feel this loving consolation. I think this is a very okay place to be! Without pain of my own, how can I fully understand compassion? Many times, that residual veneer of our own pain is important to be fully "in the moment" when we show compassion, or are stirred to action in mission and outreach. In fact, what usually causes me to leave the place of consolation is to respond outward, to help others. I usually don't leave on my own account. I know innately there will be movement--but it will probably be triggered by something out of my control.
In that, we are given a TRUE "consolation prize"--something cherished, desired, and valuable--rather than a bunch of cheap and tawdry "lovely parting gifts." We are given something that inspires us not just to be God's hands and feet in the world, but God's own heart.
(Check out the wild collection of classic movie posters on finsbry's Flickr photostream)
"Our darkness is never darkness in your sight; the deepest night is clear as the daylight..."
---English translation to Taizé song "La Ténèbre"
(La Ténèbre is based on Psalm 139:12: "Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.")
It's been a while since I sat down and played with my spiritual imagination in the context of a classic movie. The early Saturday morning fare on Turner Classic Movies is always kind of interesting, and lo and behold, the 1939 film Dark Victory popped up on my TV screen. It had been some time since I watched this one; since I was recovering from a cold, perhaps a story about an incurable brain tumor would help me stop feeling so sorry for myself.
Now, granted, I have a certain amount of "let it go" that I have to always walk through with old movies that revolve around medical diagnoses. I have to remember what we know about certain diseases at the time the movie was made, I have to remember it was an era when Hollywood took certain liberties with the pathophysiology of those diseases to "make a more dramatic story," and I also have to suspend my sensibilities about how we now feel about telling patients the whole truth about their diagnosis vs. the common practice of the 1930's of NOT telling patients they were incurable. (Doctors were much more paternalistic, and it was felt that telling terminally ill people they were going to die would just "depress them further.") Not to mention that, in this movie, Bette Davis learns her diagnosis via a telegram consultation on her doctor's desk from another doctor, which breaks every present HIPAA guideline known on the planet. So, suffice it to say, I have to back up and not let my hyper-critical "medical mind" drive the bus in meditating on this movie, and not get caught up in some of the medical sappiness.
But the overall premise of the movie is much deeper. Judith (Bette Davis) is a wealthy young socialite who embodies everything tail end-Depression, pre-WWII moviegoers would have lacked--the life of a trust fund baby, endless partying, hanging out with the "horsey" set. She begins to have blurry vision, blackout spells, and a spill from a horse.
Enter Dr. Fredrick Steele (George Brent.) Of course, ya gotta love surgeons named "Steele." Even in the 1930's, brain surgery was beginning to be seen as edgy and flashy, and Brent plays the part well. He discovers a malignant glioma (what we'd now call an astrocytoma or oligodendroglioma) that, evidently is resectable but not operable. Granted, Hollywood allows Judith to have a much more genteel end than real life does in this, but the story revolves around her reactions to her diagnosis. Without throwing too many spoilers in this, let's just say you can see the Kübler-Ross in it all. We have the obligatory period of drinking, partying, carousing, and promiscuity before acceptance and a "good death" occur. We have the tension of two men with real love for her in vastly different ways, in vastly different social circles.
But the key line in the movie, near the end--the line where the title comes from--is when Judith tells her housekeeper Martha, (after she tells her dogs goodbye, of course--Boomer and Little Eddie certainly appreciated this touch in the movie) "Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can't be destroyed. That's our victory - our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we're not afraid."
Which, of course, brings us back to Psalm 139.
How often is "darkness" OUR construct--and how often do we fear an illusion?
I think sometimes that is where we need to step backwards from the things we perceive as the "dark" things in our lives and the "dark" things of the world, and ask, "Now, is it really darkness...or do I tend to view it as darkness, because of my own hooks in it?"
Take the recent goings-on in Egypt. Do we see it the chance for real democracy in that country? Or do we see darkness, in for further control and oppression via the military? When we look at U.S. relations in the various countries of the Middle East, do we make our alliances for reasons of "light," or do we form our international relationships because we fear a perceived "darkness?" In world events, is our human nature, via the media, to couch world affairs in terms of "light," or "darkness?" Is our tendency as individuals, absorbing media messages, to see "light?" Or do we prefer to see "dark?"
When we look at the decisions we make in our personal lives, do we choose "light," or do we choose "less dark?" Do we hide from the perceived dark recesses of our mind, or do we light a candle and peer inside? Is our nature to be a person who, when we encounter a perceived "darkness," to stop and carefully look for the light, or one who allows the self to be swallowed up in the enfolding darkness?
But what we often discover in stepping back from all these forms of perceived "darkness" is that they were never all that dark in the eyes of God, but we had chosen to feed ourselves on the Bread of Anxiety rather than the Bread of Heaven. A steady diet of the Bread of Anxiety tends to make our eyesight rather dim. So why do we crave it?
Our relationship with our Creator can't be destroyed. Christ's victory over the tomb and the grave--is our victory, also--a victory over the dark. Regular consumption of the Bread of Heaven, on the other hand--with ingredients like regular prayer, study, contemplation, worship, and the Sacraments--has the ability to see things closer to how God sees them, from the place "where darkness is never darkness in his sight."--the light that darkness cannot overcome.
Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--A prayer for those we love, Book of Common Prayer p. 831
For Valentine's Day, I had to steal a line from a "friend of a Facebook friend." She said that some people were celebrating Valentine's day today; others of us would be observing Celibacy Appreciation Day! Then I saw this post last Friday by my friend Muthah+, and that got me to thinking...
The picture of the Christmas cactus above is the first thing that got me to changing how I felt about Valentine's Day, and was the sentinel event about "how I got to thinking about love."
About eight years ago, I was just being a real grump about Valentine's Day. I was grousing about all the flowers that were being delivered around various offices at work, and I was exerting a lot of energy snarking about things like "Oh, yeah, flowers from people who beat the crap out of their spouses at home and then send flowers. Why don't people just be nice all year long and bag the hearts and flowers crap?"
Then a couple of friends decided to turn the tables on me. They had delivered to me a tiny, half-dead Christmas cactus with a big red ribbon and a sappy card! I laughed pretty hard over that.
Now, over time, the joke has been on them. The result is the luxurious plant in the picture above!
But my Christmas cactus is a valuable lesson. I have the ability, through love and care, to take things that the world might see as "half-dead" and, once in a while, be a part of something loved and growing! We all do, really. Obviously, that doesn't always happen. But when we choose to love something or someone in a certain way, at the beginning of our journey, the possibility is there.
What Muthah+'s post got me to thinking about is that, for a long time, I never understood what my capacity for love is all about. I always thought my ability to love and be loved was "broken." I felt undeserving of love and incapable of truly loving, because for some reason, it just always seemed that any relationship I entered into that had a certain level of psychological and/or sexual intimacy just blew up. Oh, it wasn't that I didn't desire it--I dearly did. But I always found that after the pheremones wore off, that was when the trouble started. Eventually, the "parting shot," after it blew up and we parted ways, was that the guy involved ALWAYS said a version of the following:
"I want you to love ME above everyone else. But loving you is like having to love a whole damn crowd of people. There are all these people in your life that are always calling, or hanging around, and then when you and I are together, you want to be ALONE. I can't do this!"
What I've come to realize, is that there are some of us, that, barring a one-in-a-million encounter with another person just like me, are more or less called to be solo for at least a part of our lives, maybe longer. Honestly, "celibacy" is just a crappy word for it. "Celibacy" implies taking a formal vow to not have sexual relations. It involves a moment of formal commitment and a vow. I often joke that one day, I woke up and realized I was "the accidental celibate." I don't remember a day I ever said, "I'm done with this, for now." I just somehow knew I led a happier life in a life where I was able to show love to many people, in many ways, and when I tied my love to just one person, I was too prone to giving up parts of my psychologically healthy self to maintain those relationships, and it ultimately was neither healthy for me, but it was not healthy for the other person, and it was cutting away a lot of opportunities for me to love others in ways many people don't have the time or energy to express love.
But here's the kicker. What I've come to realize is that it does NOT excuse us from giving OR receiving love. As God's beloved children, we are born with a built in capacity for love. If we don't use it, we become like that little Christmas cactus once was--small, dried up, and potbound.
I think I got the "giving" part first. Even before I understood what was going on, there were always these people in my life that I discovered I could occupy a unique niche for them, whether they were male, female, old, young, single, or married. I got satisfaction from these relationships, and innately, I knew I was loved back, although actually feeling that love hadn't come yet. I knew it was there, and I sensed its presence, but more like an object in the room rather than a part of me.
As time soldiered on, I realized I was getting a little potbound. I had to put this soul plant of mine in a bigger pot. I started to learn about that by discovering aspects of "The New Monasticism." I started to consider the possibility that what I once saw as a part of my "broken-ness" was not a broken thing at all, but maybe the greenest, most alive part of me, and I was simply not tending it properly. So I set out on a journey to learn how to tend it. I have learned some good lessons there even though some of the lessons have been hard or painful.
Then came another possibility for a bigger "pot" for all this. I had to start considering the possibility that part of this call, this call to be challenged to love in a different way than the mainstream, was that the larger Church could be a part of it. Now, people who are called to anything, lay or ordained, in the Episcopal Church, are not required to explore love in this way. No one is going to make me take a vow of celibacy unless I felt called to certain forms of monastic orders. But our church makes it clear that there is room for people like me, and many forms that takes within the larger framework of the Church. I am still working through that one. Once again, Muthah+'s mind was paralleling mine. She mentions it in a subsequent post:
"Religious life was a place where people who were not desirous of having and raising children found a place to live lives worthy of the call of Christ without the constant pressure to reproduce or protect the family lands. Religious life was a place where one was safe from being called into combat or from being a commodity to be auctioned off to the highest bidder."
In recent months, I have come to a place, in exploring this possibility, that it means I have to mature, regarding some things about love. It means I actually have to feel that love that others give back when I show them love in my various and sundry ways. I can no longer observe it like an object in the room. That presented a new challenge. It meant I had to start to do the work to take long-ignored, long-buried feelings and, one at a time, "name it and claim it." I had to accept the notion that I am a beloved child of God, not simply a hopeless, broken, dirty sinner. I had to accept that in feeling this love, there would be times I will be burned. It meant that I had to take things I did not understand, and instead of trying to control outcomes, or guarding my words to force people to respond in certain ways or choosing words that would wound people when they got too close to my broken parts, to take these feelings to the altar instead and give them to God. I had to learn to trust in what I could not see or understand. I have had to learn to "give Time time to be Time."
All of us are called to love and be loved in our Baptismal Covenant. Exploring how we are to do that might not be as easy as it seems. It's why the above prayer from our Book of Common Prayer is one of my favorites. I have grown to love the prayers in our BCP that remind me, "I don't know everything, but God does," and that remind me to trust in God's knowledge, not mine. This is a hard call for me, because my friends would tell you that in some things I am "scary smart." My ego, frankly, likes to be the "smartest person in the room." Much of where I have fallen into sin was in covering up when I am not, or when someone challenged that facet of my ego and I became resentful of it. Humility, for me, has been mostly about accepting that I am not the smartest person in "God's room." I suppose I will wrestle with that one in some form till the day I die.
But of this I am sure--there is transformation, transfiguration, resurrection and ascension in this path--this path of truly understanding how we are called to love in God's kingdom. I would not trade it for all the hearts and flowers and Valentine's Day cards on the planet, thanks be to God.
(Photo of grangrenous foot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
2 Timothy 2:14-26:
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.”
In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work. Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.
It should not surprise you my ears pricked up at the word "gangrene." Lord knows I've had enough gangrenous limbs and parts of limbs as surgical path specimens in my two decade career. Gangrenous legs are my least favorite surgical path specimen--hands down.
First of all, they don't come in fixative. They don't make jars of formalin big enough to hold a leg. Second of all, they're big and bulky. They're messy to cut in, they take a painstakingly long amount of time to examine because it's important to examine the major vessels in the limb for things like atherosclerotic plaques and blood clots, and the physical nature of gangrene makes them slippery, slimy, and smelly. Finally, there's the phenomenon in NE Missouri about some people wanting their nasty old gangrenous legs back to either take home to bury, or store in a freezer to be buried with them when they die. (My typical thought is, "I don't get it. You didn't take care of it when it was connected to you, and NOW you want it back like a keepsake.")
So I spent some time today contemplating this business of anger, gossip, and backbiting being like gangrene.
You know, there are actually two kinds of gangrene--dry gangrene, and wet gangrene. The photo above is more or less "wet" gangrene--red, swollen, abscessed and full of pus that is just waiting to ulcerate and make an infected mess. "Dry" gangrene is a type of gangrene that usually is the result of ischemia--poor blood flow or no blood flow because of an embolus (blood clot)--and the result is a dry, dessicated, blackened look to the distal limb, almost like it was in a fire or left out in the sun to dry.
Well, when you get to thinking about how "profane chatter" spreads throughout an organization, or a family, or God help us, a parish...it really does have aspects of wet and dry gangrene.
The agents of wet gangrene are things like engaging in active gossip, displaying temper as a tool to get one's way, psychological bomb throwing, dropping little tidbits of "infection" about individuals, and infecting attitudes by constantly displaying a negative attitude about change. People who cause wet gangrene in an organization are, like their biological counterpart, easily noticed by their smell.
Dry gangrenous agents, in my mind, are things like passive-aggressive behavior, manipulation, silence as a manipulative tool, and the people who start shirking one responsibility after another because they're not happy with how it's being led, but never saying a word about WHY their unhappy. People causing dry gangrene have a habit of forcing others to address THEIR discontent rather than showing it themselves.
Wet gangrene is usually noticed because it stinks. Dry gangrene is more often uncovered when something is moved that normally is not moved (like a sock) and it's uncovered by accident, and it's obvious there has been an attempt to hide it.
Now in reality, all gangrenous limbs are a mixture of both wet and dry gangrene in varying proportions. That's true for spiritual gangrene in a family or in an organization, also. One might smell the wet portions of it early on, but the areas of dry gangrene might not be noticed right away.
But, the fact remains that by the time gangrene has firmly set in, generally the only way it can be effectively treated is to amputate the limb--and amputation will result in loss of significant function of that limb. This decision to amputate will almost always be from the outside. Very few people who own a stinking, rotting lower leg say, "You know, I really think we need to cut it off." Quite the contrary--we will do anything, say anything, try anything, and deny anything to avoid having something of ours amputated.
It's also no secret that most amputations could have been avoided with early and appropriate wound care. However, wound care is work. It's frustrating. It's slow. Results are not always evident right away. Sometimes it involves lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking or managing one's diabetes better.
When we look at this passage in our Epistle, what Paul is telling Timothy is essentially, what lifestyle change is recommended to prevent gangrenous wounds in the early church from setting in. After all, what good is a church without feet to carry the Good News in Christ, and hands to reach out to others in Christ's service? He boils it down to three little words--"avoid profane chatter."
Now, I think it's way too simplistic to boil that down to "don't cuss," or "don't gossip." The word "profane" comes from the Latin word "profanus," which essentially means "unconsecrated." The corresponding Greek word in this text is "bebelos" (βεβήλους) which can mean "unconsecrated," "secular," or "common." We more or less infer "unholy," "un-spiritual," and "really bad." We tend to think of "profane" as a particular act rather than a state of being. We focus on individual cuss words or individual acts of snarkiness and gossip, and blow the whistle and wave the red card of sin at it, when in reality, I think we need to think of it a little more globally.
I think what it means, at least to me, is, "Don't be common." "Don't sit around and talk about the empty stuff, and the stuff that tears down."
This of course, demands behavior from the flip side. It means, "Be an uncommon person in God's service." "Talk about the stuff that builds up." I have discovered relatively recently that the way to learn to stop myself from being in a harmful state of being, is to actively do things that put me in a more helpful state of being.
When we sit down and ponder our faults, character defects, issues--whatever we choose to call them, and actually get specific about it--we discover those things where we can be agents of wet spiritual gangrene as well as dry spiritual gangrene. Focusing on the shame and guilt of how we misuse creation via "profane chatter" only pushes us into more shameful, guilty manipulations to hide the gangrenous parts of our selves, our families, and the organizations in which we participate. It's more efficacious to align our souls to the building and care of creation, and, as healthy tissue develops from it, the gangrenous tissue can be debrided instead of amputated. Granted, there may always be scars, but a scar is better than a rotting limb or a missing limb.
It's also important to remember that our own internal "gangrenous agents" require at least one other person to spread. "Profane chatter" with oneself only gets you labeled as schizophrenic. No one person in a family or organization is solely responsible for spiritual gangrene. Obviously, we can't control other people (no matter how hard we wish or try.) But we can control ourselves and our own behaviors. What I'm discovering is that the more I align myself to build up the Body of Christ, over time, it matters. Others notice and others change themselves in a far more effective way than if I had tried to control them. Likewise, when I am around people who want to build instead of wound, I want to change myself. It works far better than when others try to control me with their words and behaviors as if I am the gangrenous agent and they are not. The more I realize that my natural inclination when treated that way is to resist and push back, the more I realize that when I have tried to control others, that has been THEIR inclination, too--and that no longer seems surprising.
To turn all these "don'ts" into "do's" seems daunting but I can boil it down to four sets of four words as the antidote--four little phrases to put on my to-do list:
Have a personal serenity.
Align myself towards God.
Acting is better than reacting.
Build instead of wound.
If we could all practice these four things with intention, what would happen to the hands and feet of our families, our parishes, our workplaces? It's certainly worth a look.
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody. Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.
"What is most moving about "Awake, My Soul", however, is the singers themselves who wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to the songs they sing. These singers are surprisingly articulate, deeply thoughtful and often very funny individuals who are passionate about Sacred Harp singing."--From "Awake my Soul," a documentary about Sacred Harp (shape note) singing.
When it comes to interesting historical bits and pieces, I am normally first in line to learn about it. But I must have been hiding behind the barn, smokin' a corn silk cigarette, when someone was telling about shape note singing, one of America's oldest forms of Christian music.
I first heard of it on our Diocesan web page, on our Bishop's biography. Then I discovered a pathology colleague of mine is also a practitioner of that musical art. For some odd reason, I kinda went, "Oh, ok," and never followed up on it. That is kind of unusual for me--generally, when I discover something I don't know, I want to know more immediately. But as I tell the story, I think I know why it didn't register.
What I have discovered from watching the trailer above and viewing a few YouTube tracks, is this is one of those things where, "Ya gotta do it to 'get' it." I am absolutely convinced I need to attend one of these. But what seems interesting on first glance, is I can sense potential overlaps with same kind of experiences I have with Taizé.
I've blogged many times about how when the weather starts to get good enough to sit outside in the evenings, I often sit by my chiminea and listen to Taizé podcasts from the Taizé community in France and sing along and simply "be in the middle of it," in a virtual sense. I've also blogged about how much I enjoy the Taizé services we do once a month at Trinity-Kirksville. The "live" version always has a wonderful spiritual intensity for me that the "virtual" version approaches, but never quite reaches.
What I've learned from my Taizé experiences is there is this wonderful detachment from "self" in the singing of certain forms of music that speak to our souls. That quote above about the Sacred Harp singers "wearing their hearts on their sleeves as they sing" tells me that the people who participate in this kind of singing also experience some form of detaching from self and attaching to God in the practice.
What is particularly interesting to me is that, like Taizé, the experience is designed so that no one person becomes the permanently designated "leader." In Taizé, the service is set up so that the voices, the people contribute but are not the "centerpiece" of the service; the light and candles become the centerpiece. In Sacred Harp singing, people take turns being the "leader," because really, the "centerpiece" of the experience is the center of the "hollow square" or "singing square." It's common to let a newcomer or visitor occupy the center, alongside the "leader," rather than out to the side, like an "audience." As my pathologist friend remarked, "Even the most skeptical among us believe the space (in the center) has healing powers."
But what is most fascinating to me in Sacred Harp is how, unlike "performance" music, the main purpose of the group appears to be to "sing to each other," and simply be in the middle of "what it becomes." When singing a piece, the four sets of voices--soprano, alto, tenor, bass--are absorbed in their part, which, in itself could function as a "stand-alone" piece. (Incidentally, the four parts in Handel's "Messiah" are set up in much the same way for several pieces.) The shape notes aid in sight reading, even if the person doesn't do conventional music reading well. The pieces don't appear to be "learned" in the conventional sense; it appears to me the major way to teach a newcomer is to plop them in with the others and basically start following them.
Also, unlike "performance" music, it all seems upside down about what voices "carry" the piece. What pieces I've listened to on YouTube, it seems the tenor voices tend to carry the piece, and the sopranos float in and out like an angelic presence. When one is used to hearing sopranos carrying a "church music" piece, this is a huge flip-flop (and honestly, for me, as a person who mostly is in the tenor range, kind of exciting!)
As I listen to the various YouTubes of this kind of singing, what I really come away with is that each get-together of shape note singers, is, in its own way, Eucharistic. Every singing of any particular song in the hymnbook is similar, yet unique. Styles and improvisations vary by region and community, although the book (like our Book of Common Prayer) is standardized.
But like the Eucharist, the real meat, the real truth of the experience is not in any of these things; it is in the "now" of it. "Now" and "as it has been in the past," touch noses. "Now" and "not yet" coexist in the same space. It is not the same without each individual singer, but no one person is indispensable in the process; it will happen with or without that one person, but without that one person, it won't be the same. The "sacrament," as it were, is the representation of Christ in the form of the unique song created at that moment. Just as we reach with our individual hands for the bread and wine that is both "us" and "bigger than us," to place in our bodies through our mouth, in all forms of "holy singing," we reach out with our individual voices to take in a song through our ears that is both "us" and "bigger than us."
Which makes me wonder...as we track back to the Psalms, is this what the Psalmist meant about awakening our souls through song? That, although we might memorize our holy songs alone, and practice our holy songs alone, ultimately, their power lies in singing them with others. We become bigger than ourselves through the act of singing.
What is it about the sung voice that unlocks a different dimension in our interactions with God and with the world?
I think about how singing has a neurology all its own. It removes stammers from stutterers, opens new pathways to stroke victims, unlocks bits of memory in people with dementia. It is as if singing comes from a deeper place within us--a place where we hear the harmony in the universe. What would happen in our prayer lives if we could connect our neurons to our souls in that way on a regular basis? More importantly, what would it unlock in our desires to seek and serve Christ? I suppose the answer is, "start singing, and find out."
(A dung-fired bread oven similar to those used in Biblical times, from Jenn Amur's blog "Turk'd")
Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
This past Sunday's Gospel reading brings up something that is mostly lost on those of us in the Western world...namely what that salt is all about.
The area of the world we now know as the Middle East has never exactly been known for possessing a huge supply of trees or unlimited amounts of firewood. The clay ovens that were used for baking needed a higher BTU fuel than what could be produced based on the scrawny amounts of firewood available. As it turns out, the dung of grazing animals has a high content of compressed plant matter that can provide those BTU's. So one of the jobs of the family children was to collect the camel patties and donkey briquettes and flatten them out to dry.
Even then, this compressed fuel needed some help. Hence, a dish or patty or block of salt was placed at the base of the oven and the dung patties placed on top of the salt. The salt becomes a catalyst of sorts for the fire, allowing the dung to fire hotter and burn more completely. Over time, though, it loses its ability to catalyze the reaction and has to be replaced. The baked, worn out salt cakes were often handy for "home paving jobs" and would be strewn along commonly trod paths--"trampled under foot."
The word used for "earth" in this passage is γῆς--"ges"--from the Greek γῆ--"ge," as in "geology" or "geography." In Koine Greek, it can mean "earth," "land," "soil," or "world," depending on the context. Add to that an understanding that in Hebrew and Aramaic, it can imply the actual earthen ovens themselves--so there was probably some cross-cultural colloquialisms with the word in that region.
So this knowledge introduces a bit more ambiguity to this passage. Jesus saying, "You are the salt of the earth," could imply anything from "You are the salt of the world," to literally, "You are the salt of the hearth."
I sat and reflected a bit on the possibility that Jesus was saying it was our task to make the dung burn hotter. (No doubt, my Teutonic roots and my Lutheran upbringing, complete with that little Martin Luther that still sits on my shoulder, tends to lead me to ponder the scatological, given the fact the German language and Luther's writings are full of it.)
But really, that's not a bad thing in this case. The salt helps the dung fuel burn more completely and efficiently. It's not a crazy idea that, as followers of Christ, we are called to, in the most complete way possible, rid ourselves and the world of the "non-essentials." Perhaps we really are meant to turn chaff and fiber into fuel for bread!
Could it be that we, in a loving relationship with God and our neighbor, have the ability to feed others, despite the fact we seem surrounded by dung? Not just "feed" but feed in a real and sustaining way with one of our most beloved staples--good, rich, thick, hearty bread?
It also brings up the value of "salt."
We say that some people have "salty personalities" and that some of us are prone to "salty language." Some of us seem to fall a little more squarely in that category than others. I heard a different take on that when I attended a workshop last fall on "Contemplating the Eucharist." The presenter said something that was music to my ears, and would have never thought about in terms of "contemplation."
He said, "The more onery a person is, the more he or she manifests the true light of God."
Granted, we don't need to be pathological about it, but mostly, we need not fear our own saltiness. Instead, we need to trust that God knows how to bake bread just fine, and can use us as the catalyst for feeding our hungry, broken world. We need to consider the possibility that is precisely "our salt" that causes us to burn hotter in displaying the light of the world. What a concept!
(Original clip from King George VI's September 3rd, 1939 speech from the London Telegraph)
But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”
Movies don't usually move me to tears, but after watching "The King's Speech," I cried all the way home. (As I joked on Facebook, generally a dog has to die for me to cry at a movie.)
I suspected this movie was more than "a movie about a king who stutters," but I wasn't sure what it would be about. What I can tell you now is, as best as I can tell, it's a movie about finding our "royal voice," and about being a person who helps others to find their "royal voices."
Bertie, the man who would become Britain's King George VI, had what appeared to be an impossible stammer. Only until his paths crossed with speech therapist Lionel Logue did he grow into his "royal voice." It's the story of the feelings we all have as "impostors" at times--Bertie seems to feel like an impostor despite his very real royal bloodline, and Lionel, although never posing as a "real doctor," and insisting on being called Lionel, has the real threat of being "exposed" as the amateur actor and elocutionist that he is, who sort of "fell into" speech therapy because of the Great War. I found myself equally identifying with both characters in that sense.
But mostly, this is a story about overcoming the deep and hidden fear that we can't always identify and don't always understand. Lionel tells Bertie that "he no longer has to be afraid of what he feared at age five." Modern psychology teaches us that many of our fears and anxieties have their roots in a period from about age four to seven, even if the "trigger" for them comes much later. They come from a period where, educational development-wise, we are moving from "magical" thinking to a more concrete operational kind of thinking. They can be equally rooted in major trauma or seemingly minor traumas--in fact, to develop that "fright, flight, or fight" mechanism, we probably need those tramas to affect us to some degree. It's just that they sometimes end up having pathological manifestations.
But there are places in all of our lives that, like Moses, we must live up to the challenges of who we are called to be.
In fact, fear seems to be something the Bible addresses quite frequently. I did a quick search on the Oremus Bible Browser with three phrases. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the phrase, "Do not be afraid" appears 59 times. "Do not fear" appears 43 times, and we see "Do not lose heart" three times, for a grand total of 105 times. Jesus himself accounts for thirteen of those times, and Paul accounts for three. It's safe to say that many Biblical authors found it a topic worth discussing.
It's been said by many people that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. I would contend it is perhaps one of the major ways (if not the most major way) we find ourselves feeling apart from God's love. Like Bertie, this is where "community" comes in. We discover in the course of the movie that Bertie feels isolated in more ways than his speech. He was abused by a nanny. He was switched from using his "bad" left hand to his "good" right hand. He was placed in painful metal braces to correct being knock-kneed. Then on top of that, was all the formality heaped on him that British social protocol demanded of and for the monarchy. Part of how Lionel helps him is by broaching some boundaries in that last category. That's a tricky one. Generally, boundaries are healthy things. But overly rigid boundaries become prisons of our own making. It reminds me of all the times in the Gospels that there is "the law" and there is what is "beyond the law." We often have a hard time grasping that one.
Another thing that stood out for me is that Bertie's stammer disappears when he sings, when he speaks with loud music running through his head, and when he gets angry and explodes into fits of cursings.
I think back in my own life at a "same but different" phenomenon. Although I am not troubled with a "speech impediment" in the typical sense, at times, traumas that blunted my feelings can cause me to be "unable to speak directly," and cause nervous tics to emerge. My family used to refer to this as my "starting to go around the barn." When I became tense or anxious, I began to start to speak more vaguely and indirectly, and would become trapped in what would be interpreted as "lies," when in reality I was just not able to explain my feelings, or I felt trapped to spit out a partial answer that would get people off my back. I learned that saying nothing, looking guilty, and staring at my shoes--even if it led people to believe I did something I did not do--allowed things to blow over faster than if I stood up for myself.
Then would also come the nervous tics--grunting, grimacing, and repeated throat clearing--that once again would be interpreted as "lying." Even when the situation was over, the tics would remain for a spell--usually for a few days, but rarely for weeks or even months. The longer periods led to doctor visits. But for some reason, the doctor always felt "reassuring" to me. Sometimes I wonder if it was part of what drew me to medicine.
I still have flare-ups of the tics now and then, but they seem to subside much sooner. In fact, I learned that my practices of contemplative prayer seem to soothe them.
But somewhere down the line, like Bertie, I learned that another way to get them to abate--and to truly say what I felt--was to become angry and explode into a torrent of cursing. It's probably part of how I learned to be an effective and imaginative curser.
Then...there are other times that I am the Lionel in this story. Because of my experiences of "being the Bertie," I learned that someone who can withstand those behaviors in others and respond with love and compassion can be invaluable. It only becomes pathological when one starts needing to be approved by that person. But one of the roles I have often played in the lives of others is to be the sounding board when others feel bound in their own "speech impediments." Granted, I need to improve there on the topics that still hook me, but in the ones that don't, I have been thanked many times by people for "being allowed to vent," and still being able to respond to them in love.
When, in our lives, are we called to be Bertie? When are those moments when we must rise above our various "speech impediments" and speak with the honor and grace of the royal person that God has placed inside our stammering, stuttering selves?
Likewise, when are we called to be Lionel? When are we called to go the extra mile so someone else can find the royal person inside themselves? When are we called to befriend someone in an unconventional way? How do we know when we are doing such things for the right reasons as opposed to dysfunctional ones?
Again, I think the answer lies in the movie.
Bertie admits to Lionel early on that his thoughts do not stutter. In fact, he tells this to Lionel in a quite irritated tone of voice--the "Duh, you fool, everyone knows that," tone of voice.
My guess is that "non-stuttering" voice can also be interpreted as "the small still voice of God."
If we truly listen for the "small still voice," we will discover it doesn't falter. Lionel tells Bertie he can cure anyone who wants to be cured. Likewise, I believe God will speak to anyone who cares to listen.
I find myself being reminded again and again of the Frederick Buechner quote that adorns my friend Elizabeth's blog masthead: "Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell."
When we lay our secrets on the altar, we will often discover it results in a great improvement in our hearing and our speech. Not only will we hear the voice of the Almighty, we will speak more effectively, and hear the speech of the voices in our own community more clearly. In that, we can become royal voices heralding the Kingdom of God.