("Desire," by Eamon Everall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Book of Common Prayer, page 225
When I read this collect for the first time on Sunday, my first thought was, "HA! That one is an absolute snap for God, as far as I'm concerned, because I never desire much!"
It's odd. I honestly don't desire much, in terms of physical things.
This really shows through when I go eat out with friends, in the "Where do you want to eat?" question. I almost always answer, "Wherever you want is fine with me," unless I have eaten someplace the day before. Even then, I won't object to eating the same place twice if the other person really, really wants to eat there.
I am lucky in some ways, I suppose. I never have been all that jealous of other people--especially when it comes to "stuff." I've never begrudged anyone for having what I can't afford in any big way, I've never been terribly jealous of cars, clothes, trips, vacations, etc. when others are having them.
Oh, it's not that I can't be jealous. I certainly can. I occasionally have found myself jealous over the serenity of other people. I have been jealous about relationships. I have been jealous over the generosity of other people when I thought I was being generous and it turns out I was a big piker. I had a situation a while back where that happened--I thought I was being kind and generous, and someone came in out of the blue, swooped in, and trumped my generosity in a huge way--and I found myself kind of put out about that. I found myself thinking mean thoughts about that other person--that this was done to personally put my nose out of joint, or "get back at me." My ego got bruised, frankly. But over time I realized that this was probably not the case, and this was more about I had not been very thoughtful about the overall situation. Over time, I became satisfied with my piece in it. Yeah, I can become jealous, but it's pretty short-lived. I don't dwell on it very long. It's just kind of intense when it does happen.
But my little story above more or less illustrates my "desires" tend to be emotional outcomes, rather than things.
I'm afraid one of my biggest desires is to be right.
I really despise being wrong. My tendency is to equate it with being "insufficient" somehow.
My tendency is to equate respect with being right. My ego likes it when people say, "I knew you would know the answer to this." But where my ego gets me in trouble is when I am right, and I'm pretty sure someone else is wrong, and I become obsessed in proving to them I am right. I can be like a crazed terrier with a rat about that. Then I come off looking like either an idiot, or a nut. Neither is a particularly good outcome.
So really, even what I desire in emotional outcomes isn't all that good for me. For God to surpass that is a very, very welcome event, indeed!
Something that has become quite apparent to me, especially in the last couple of months, is when I accept the possibility that being content does not necessarily have to be coupled to being right, I open myself up to a different scale of economy--the economy of the Beatitudes.
There's a wonderful Greek word for this--"hupomone." It means "The art of staying with what is happening." Now, it doesn't mean "roll over and be all codependent." I think sometimes when we read the Beatitudes, we can mistakenly see them as a license to suffer and that "God loves a good codependent." It simply means to stay in the "now" of something. It means we can't foresee the future. What might feel like a "lose" at the moment it is happening, might not eventually result in a "lose" at all. I think about how, so many times, what I am initially feeling is happening without the insight of time and the "retrospectoscope." It means that if I insist on owning the "win," there's no room for other "winners." Who knows? Over time, I might discover something that made me miserable, if I simply stay with it, can be transformed into something that brings joy to the largest number of people possible.
The Buddhists would call this "mindfulness." The folks in 12 step programs would call this "aligning our will with the will of our Higher Power." So this is nothing exclusive to Christianity.
But the more I detach from the potential outcomes, I have come to realize that, yes indeed, we should let transformation begin with ourselves.
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Thanksgiving for Heroic Service, Book of Common Prayer, page 839
Flanders has its field of poppies, rural northeast Missouri has its peonies.
When I was growing up, peonies were the standard issue flower to take to the cemetery on Memorial Day.
You have to realize my grandmother was of that generation that attacked the cemeteries on Memorial Day weekend like Patton taking Sicily. The whole week before, we took all these fruit jars and mayonnaise jars gathering dust in the basement and covered them with aluminum foil, and made hooks out of coathangers (there were always some hooks left over from last year, but we always seemed to be making more) in preparation for The Great Cemetery Raid. My grandmother sat around and outlined her plan for how we would make a loop and cover all these cemeteries in Macon County--almost to the headstone. We weren't just putting flowers on fallen soldier graves, or even veteran's graves, it seemed we were putting flowers on every dead person she knew--people like her friend Becca's parents, Cap and Stella, and the former driver of her dad's harness racing horses, Fred Lowe.
Needless to say, the older she got, the bigger the list got, until it was just this crazy huge list.
Even though she was capable of driving herself, my grandmother insisted on having a "driver." I realized it was a social thing. Northeast Missouri is an odd place--we're distinctly "not southern" in some ways, but we distinctly ARE "southern" in others. I realized there was a social component of the women visiting with each other at the cemeteries, and when I look back on it, I realize this was this sort of "Miss Daisy" moment for her, and every Miss Daisy needs a Hoke. Originally, my grandfather had that job, but he saw his opportunity to get out of it when I turned 16. He dumped the Memorial Day driving job on me, and he stayed home and had the Indy 500 and other auto races on TV.
But every year, "when the peonies were coming in," was a stressor. I can't ever remember actually ENJOYING the peonies growing up. It was all about if they were coming in too early or too late for Memorial Day--not to mention that once Memorial Day weekend arrived, we'd never see another peony in the yard the rest of the season, if the season was "successful." They would all be harvested to make the jars of flowers that would go to the cemetery. Granny was always getting my grandfather to plant more peony bushes. We used to scavenge my great-grandmother's yard, but after her death, my great-grandfather had a habit of mowing over the peony bushes prematurely, and Granny had to rely on her own source.
When I was younger, I never liked being the driver for this venture. It was all about "the attack on the cemeteries," getting it done efficiently, and it was all about my grandmother socializing with the women who were there, and mostly I was supposed to emulate the other "Hokes" there--keep my mouth shut, silently prepare the next jar of peonies that would be used, and stand around and look at the graves a lot--mostly thinking, "Who ARE these people? I don't know them but every year I'm out here looking at their graves."
If my mother went along for this venture, (she didn't always go) it often became one of those times where the tensions between the three generations of women in my family showed through. I felt lucky in that "I had a distinct role." As a small child, I helped my grandfather do the "Hoke" role. I grew into that role myself. My mom, I don't think, ever found her role, and as I look back, it was probably illustrative of an ongoing tension between her and my grandmother. I don't think my grandmother ever enjoyed being a parent. Honestly, I don't think she enjoyed being a grandparent all that much, either, but because I was bright and did sports, and was in many school events, she had plenty to do with me. My mom played basketball in high school (and was very good) and my grandmother probably enjoyed that part of my mother's life, but I don't think she really enjoyed much else about my mom. She always viewed my mother as "the weakest of the three of us"--my mother was afraid of storms, was in love with romantic love, and was always trying to be like June Cleaver despite the fact she successively married two James Deans. My grandmother, for the most part, found this annoying. She did not have a "practical" daughter, and it was very common for her to upbraid my mom in front of me or TO me.
So on these cemetery runs, the lack of a firm "role" for my mom made her sort of act out in odd ways. She would put together flowers and put them on the graves of strangers "because they have a pretty headstone." She would comment and critique other people's flower arrangements. God help her, she would question the use of the standard issue peonies we used! She would start talking about all the wonderful artificial flowers there are out there, that we could be using, and "Why don't we do THAT next year? Our flowers look like we're some kind of poor white trash that can't afford nicer, artificial flowers."
THAT statement would just LAUNCH my grandmother. She was told in no uncertain terms that "This is what MY mom did, and this is what WE do. These are REAL flowers--LIVE flowers." I recognized early on I did not have a dog in this hunt. I stayed out of it. I realized the thing to do was let my mom play in her world, and my grandmother work in hers.
As my grandmother got more elderly, and my mom sort of bowed out of this production for several years (My mom went through a phase where she kind of decided everyone needed to be cremated, and cemeteries were "just morbid," and she spent about a decade and a half pretending death was not in the room--this coincided with the period of time she got breast cancer and was being treated for it, and dealing with her own mortality,) Granny got less into the "attack mode" and actually started telling the stories associated with the graves. I finally got to hear who all these people were, and I wish I had written more of it down. On the other hand, really, I'm the keeper of nothing. My mom was never all that interested in learning it--I think she'd rather just put that responsibility on me--and really, after I am dead, who will really care? For me, it's just another reminder that after I'm gone, it will just go to the ether and become part of the company of saints. Sometimes that bugs me, but mostly, these days, I've just decided, "It's not all that important, except maybe to geneaologists, and I'm carrying too big an ego if I think anyone really, REALLY will care 200 years from now."
But when Granny died in 2002, suddenly my mom started doing cemetery duty on Memorial Day. She just kind of started doing it with no explanation or discussion.
I think she has an expectation I'm supposed to, also. Yesterday, she called me and started telling me who all's graves she took flowers to over the weekend, and she slipped in a "Have you been out there yet?" "Yet..." as in "You're supposed to go."
I simply replied, "I'm not going. It's fine if you want to go." She let it drop, mercifully.
But Memorial Day, for me, becomes another of those reminders that there has been this chasm between my mother and me almost all of my life. These things are no one's fault. They just are. She was pretty young when I was born, and frankly, she had to spend more of her efforts dealing with my alcoholic father and working full time at the one solid job in the family. In some ways, my grandparents became my parents, psychologically, and my parents were just "these immature people." I was a kid who never hardly ever got to be a kid in this whole mess. I blame no one in this. But just like how the peonies are perennials, and bloom every year at their appointed time, there are things where the chasm between my mom and I are visible on a regular, perennial basis. Memorial Day, Mother's Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, I have become to be "on guard" for an emotional flareup from her at worst, and at best, an attempt to manipulate me into being "the daughter she expected from me" that is quietly rebuffed.
I sometimes watch mothers and daughters who seem to be each other's confidantes, who do stuff together, and it is discomforting and bewildering to me. I would not say I'm jealous. It just seems weird, foreign. Some of it, I am sure, is residue from the hands of my grandparents in this. I was taught by them, at a young age, that my mom "can't handle things," and to just not expect her to handle them. My guess is, this is only partially true. I think she can handle things. I just don't think she always chooses to, and holds out for someone to "take care of her." What times I did fall into that trap, I was repeatedly reminded I was not doing it right. So there was a day I just quit.
I have no doubt we love each other. But we simply do not know "what to do with each other." There are wounds neither of us could really control in there. At best, we've made peace with loving each other from a distance and letting each of our lives be what they are. I don't always feel good about that, but I don't particularly wish it to be different.
But as I sat and looked at my eight or nine peony bushes this spring, I realized that the one thing I could do, is for the first time in my life, notice and appreciate the peonies. I thought about how they are this wonderfully showy, audacious flowers with vivid colors that have an unrivaled beauty for a few short days a year, and the rest of the year they are rather ragged and scraggly and a bit of a nuisance, and best cut back when their time of blooming is over. They die back by summer and go dormant for another year. You can count on their short season of beauty like clockwork, but the rest of the year they are not that great.
In that, perhaps they are the perfect metaphor for that chasm that generations sometimes have between them.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
It's not lovely.
It's a mess.
This is really pushing my limits to see the divine in everything.
But I am reminded of a quote by the founder of osteopathic medicine, Andrew Taylor Still:
"A man dreads to give up his old boots for fear the new ones will pinch his feet."
That's how I feel about this, um...project.
It started two years ago, right about the time of the Kirksville tornado in 2009.
I've said this before--I tend to hoard things. I really have no "nesting" skills. Since moving here, it was sort of like my whole goal was to keep my house such a shambles that I could use it as an excuse to keep people out of it. I honestly don't care a hill of beans about sweeping, dusting, or cleaning. It's like I have an autism about it. I am happy just to live in the dirt and mess, and say, "Don't like it? Then don't come over."
But it was about that time I started meeting new friends on Facebook--interesting friends that I shared a certain spiritual depth with--and started visiting them. They were kind enough to let me stay in their homes as their guest. I would always go home, sad and morose, that, should they come to town, I could not return the favor. I didn't even HAVE a guest bed.
So, the evisceration started. Slowly at first.
I rented a dumpster. I started pitching stuff. It took me almost a year to even fill a dumpster. I kept going, "I can't throw this out! I can't throw that out!"
Over the winter, I talked to some friends outside of Kirksville about this. I didn't want to talk to hardly anyone in Kirksville about what I had in mind.
You see, I had decided to pretty much give most everything I own away--sell what was sellable at the auction house, and give away what probably would not bring much. I was afraid if too many people in Kirksville got wind of it, what I was doing might alarm people that possibly some of the issues I'd been dealing with had gotten to me to the point I was giving my stuff away in preparation to off myself or something.
So I did. I sold most of my various collections, I threw out three industrial-sized dumpster loads of stuff, and I gave away all my furniture (except for what is in the two rooms I am living in presently--and that will go later) to a victim support group. I tossed loads and loads of personal stuff--mementos and photos and little kitchy things--in the dumpster--in fact I wrote about this one, here.
Now the contractors are here, and 2/3 of my house is gutted, and it's not like I didn't know this is what would happen. But I find many places to still be stressed. My contractor asked me to pick a flooring pattern and paint. My friends who are into "nesting" have far, far too much to say about this. I am very afraid of women who have memorized the Benjamin Moore paint palette. I feel "selfish" somehow. I could have taken all this money and given it to the poor, or given it to the church, but I am caring for myself, here. This truly IS all about me.
I'm going to be really blunt here. My house is gutted, and I'm miserable, and even the dogs don't like the way the house is right now. Where is the divinization in THIS?
I'm also uncomfortable about my very small history of "what happens in my life when I remodel a house." The last time I did this, I only lived in the "new, improved" version for two years--and then I moved away from it--took the job in Kirksville I presently have. I think about all these uncertain things in my future--both things that I believe God is calling me to explore, and things that are not of my making--that all make for a very uncertain future for me. But I'm spending a wad of money fixing up my house. But I was a bit stuck there. The weird weather, the winds, and the rain did force the issue in some places. But don't think for a minute, that even though my experience is "N = 1," I do remember vividly what happened in the "1". I can think of that and feel absolutely covered in dread.
Well two things happened. One was I saw this article. I was reminded that our discomfort is natural. It's okay to be uncomfortable, because that is how God works in me. I am learning I don't have to dread every discomforting thing. I have had recent good successes in simply sticking with things--that Benedictine concept of "stability." I might be hunkered down in the whirlwind, but I am quiet and stable, and that counts for a lot.
I was reminded by my blog friend Lisa that I started this in the hopes of being more hospitable--so people had a place to stay--and to not lose sight of that. It's easy for me to lose sight. That's another place where that inner Benedictine in me has voice. I have changed in my attitude of hospitality. Some of this does come from a desire that my home be more hospitable to the visitor and the traveler.
Oh, in the grand scheme of things, I don't know what this means. But Ill keep plugging away at it, you know?
(for a more recent video of the Decorah, IA eaglets testing their wings, click here.)
Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!
Ok, I admit it. I'm addicted to the live webcam of the eagle nest in Decorah, IA. Now, not as much as my blog friend Lisa, but yes, I am addicted just the same.
I have watched them since they were eggs. I fretted over the "runt" of the three eaglets. I became fascinated with how their parents progressively fed them--first putting regurgitated food in their mouths, then non-regurgitated food, then dangling the food so the young will start to rip it out of their parents' beaks, to teach them to tear their food. Last week, Mom brought them a not-quite-dead gosling so they would start to learn to kill prey. It upset their more genteel viewers, but let's be real--that's nature's way.
The two links I posted above show an activity they've just recently been doing more in earnest--flapping their wings in the wind. It's obvious they are starting to cogitate this whole "flying" business. Today, one was looking over the edge of the nest and flapping his wings, and I was yelling at my computer screen, "You are NOT ready. Don't you even be thinking it!" After all, those eagles live 80 feet off the ground. "Not ready" potentially means, "Splat."
But as they flap their wings, I realize they basically have everything they need to fly, They are feeling the currents in the air, from high atop the nest, and they have to be at least getting a clue.
What is it, that makes them take that first leap, that leap of faith, into thin air? Mostly instinct, I suppose. Even then, they will not be accomplished fliers nor ones with stamina, yet. They will do what's called "branching"--fly short distances from tree branch to tree branch. Even when they fly, they will not be ready to soar for some time yet. Sometimes the parents have to push them out of the nest, or off the tree limb. It's a time when the young eaglets are at a fair degree of risk, since they are venturing forth out of the nest, but are not accomplished at avoiding predators yet.
There's a lot to be learned from these eaglets.
How many times do we walk around with plenty of "wing" to start flying, but don't fly, and walk instead?
When do we have to be "pushed from the nest," to go fly?
When are the times in our life when we try to fly too early? Or get stuck on the ground?
When are the times we, to quote the Psalm, "ride with the wings of the wind?"
It's where faith comes in. Faith that we have what it takes to fly. Faith that we can willingly leap from the nest and at least make it to the next branch. Faith to venture forth from our nests. Faith that, should we end up on the ground, God will be there with us, despite the fact we are "not flying."
Sometimes we are faced with things in life where we've "outgrown the nest" and have to give it a shot. Sometimes we are faced dead on with our vulnerability.
All these things have to be reckoned with before we jump from the edge of the nest.
But we can't soar unless we first leave the nest.
(See Wikipedia for more information on Kol Nidrei)
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
You might wonder how I'm going to talk about the combination of the stoning of Stephen, a traditional Yom Kippur chant, and Easter all in one post. Read on!
The stoning of Stephen often gets pushed aside in the Lectionary because the Gospel reading for year A is what I call "The classic northeast Missouri funeral text"--the "In my father's house are many mansions" part of John 14. But I was gratified that it was a key part of the homily at Trinity on Sunday, and a lot of the clergy blogging crowd I read, seemed to choose the stoning of Stephen as the key part of their posts.
I always find it rather poignant that Stephen absolves the crowd who kills him, while Saul, later to become Paul, is "holding the coats of the mob." It's a reminder that sin usually does not have one sole culprit, and that even being one of the guilty, whether it's by commission or omission, does not exclude one from transformation.
As this passage was being read by our lector Sunday, for some odd reason Kol Nidrei popped into my head.
I remember the first time I went to temple for Yom Kippur with my pathology mentor and friend Mitch. I was still not really comfy with that "corporate atonement" thing, but I was absolutely captivated by the cantor singing Kol Nidrei. There was a beauty in its mornfulness.
As I got to researching it, to understand its purpose better, I discovered its origins were from the 8th century, and stems from when the Jews were being persecuted by the Christians.
You see, by then Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and they were forcing people of other faiths take oaths to be Christian. It was added to the Yom Kippur liturgy to allow the people to be released from these oaths for another year.
Although it is sung in Aramaic, I have provided an English translation below. First, this is sung three times (first softly, then louder each time)...
"All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."
Then the cantor and congregation say three times...
"May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault."
..."For all the people are at fault."
We never know how our actions affect other people. We don't know who incited who, when Stephen was stoned.
But, by the same token, we don't know who will help heal who in the resurrection of the spirits of others. What was it, that happened in that crowd that day, that eventually worked on Saul to lead to his conversion? We will never know. But all things work to good. Even bad things.
I think back to my own episodes of healing. So many times, the people I would have thought would have been key in it, actually let me down in one way or another, and new and unlikely heroes sprang up to fill the spot. I used to have a lot of resentment about the ones who let me down. But I also have come to appreciate I was not sensitive to how their own wounds played in that process. The wounds of the unlikely heroes were different wounds--wounds that somehow "meshed better" with my own, and created surprising new experiences of healing. I find that, as in the words of Kol Nidrei, I can find it in my heart to release them for another year. I am relying on the predictability of our liturgical calendar to do that. Part of resurrection--my own resurrection--is acknowledging grief, and over time, with more healing, more forgiveness occurs. It's a never ending process in some ways!
The other thing I've learned from the Kol Nidrei, is that there is a beauty in turning mourning into singing. I think that is part of what singing Taizé chants in the backyard does for me. When I call things by name--fear, darkness, death, etc.--in music, it feels like I can "tell it to God" in a deeper way. I have found that turning my tears into singing does something akin to Psalm 30--"turn mourning into dancing." It truly makes me want to strip off my sackcloth and be clothed in joy.
I have also learned
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
I have loved this video by Sir Elton ever since it came out in 1983. I often find myself singing it at times when I feel like "I've been through a lot."
But what I truly wish was I could sit and sing it today along with the young man Elizabeth encountered and conversed with in this post. Elizabeth met a man who actually believed he was going to be raptured on May 21. So much so, in fact, that he came out of the closet to his parents. His rationale? "I only have 12 days before it doesn't matter. I can live with it for 12 days."
Yesterday, I thought about this young man off and on all day. So did Elizabeth, and she expresses additional thoughts about him here. I have to admit, I've prayed about this young man and others in his situation for several days--the people who earnestly believed they would get to shake off this mortal coil and escape all that pains them grievously--because in my heart, I know it doesn't work like that.
My experience of healing is that it is an incredibly messy trip--and it will never be "right" (aka "The outcomes I'd prefer")--but over time, it's "right enough." I don't think it's ever fully "right" until we die, and become one with all of it, but over time, it becomes right enough that I can stand in the yard and sing "I'm still standin'" along with Sir Elton.
I get angry sometimes that Psalm 139 has been co-opted by the evangelical "Right to life" movement, because there is so much more in this Psalm than "describing a fetus." It is about the wonder of our individuality, and about constantly being in the presence and care of God.
I admit, the whole "Rapture" thing bugs me. I've said this before; it seems like a giant escape fantasy--that for some reason the "chosen" or the "elect" or the "saved" get to be spared from the messy business of dealing with sin--our sins and the sins of others--in an imperfect world.
I look back, and I see where I've come from, and where I am; where I've been and where it seems I'm going--and it has been the messy bits of life in which I have most closely felt the presence of God. It's where I have grown the most in my Christian walk. It's where I'v better learn to accept other for who THEY are.
So why would I desire to be taken from this world?
It just makes no sense to put our hope into being removed from the world, to be in the presence of God, when "people meeting people" is how we most effectively transmit the presence of God.
I have said this many times. I would never want to live the awful parts of my life twice. But I am okay I have lived them once. When I have chosen to hear God in them, when I have been open to the possibilities of transformation in them, what I learned from them for "what I needed to know in the next phase of my life" has been invaluable.
I suspect this has not been an isolated experience. I suspect others have experienced similar things. They're still standin'. So am I. I pray the young man in Elizabeth's story realizes that it's not that he didn't get "raptured," but that he's still here...and he's still gay...and his family still knows...and he's still standin'.
God looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
Thanks to my Facebook friend Pamela, this is the song that has been my earworm for the last day or so. I still so totally dig R.E.M.
Well, it appears (surprise, surprise) that Harold Camping's prediction of "The Rapture" occurring today "at 6 p.m. in whatever time zone you are" gets to go in the annals of "mistaken predictions of the end of the world/the Apocalypse/whatever."
But about 12:30 a.m. I had something happen that had a much more legitimate chance of being "the end of the world" for me--my carbon monoxide detectors went off.
My carbon monoxide detectors, evidently, go off at 45 parts per million--ten ppm over the maximum allowed 8 hour exposure in the workplace by OSHA. Now, this is not anything close to a brush with death--it takes about 200 ppm to show symptoms like headache and nausea, and between 400-800 ppm to kill you within a few hours--but it is certainly the first time it's ever gone off. For several years, now, I have had CO detectors in the house, and religiously changed the batteries, and wondered, "Aw, I even wonder if these stupid things work." Well, evidently they do.
I shut off the furnace (it has still been chilly enough it kicks on at night now and then) and opened some windows, and in a few minutes they read zero again. Honestly, I was more worried about the dogs than me--I had no symptoms. In fact, I was messing around on the computer as I often do late at night. After all, Little Eddie, my smaller dog, only weighs 22 lbs. So I put the dogs outside a while. In a few minutes it was back to zero. More than likely, as my firefighter-turned-cop friend Ray said, "it was probably wind blowing it back down the vent." But I will get my furnace checked out all the same. Meanwhile, I doubt I will need it that much--I only had it on at night to take the edge off of the chill during a cool spell, as I have moved to my summer habit of sleeping with shorts and a t-shirt.
But it got me to pondering "wisdom" this morning. Really, most wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others and one's own mistakes. I never saw a need for CO detectors in my house until seven people died in their own home in Kirksville. The way I remember the story is in this house with 7 people, one came home inebriated and left the van running in the garage, and it killed the whole house full. Now, I generally don't make a point of even being inebriated, let alone driving home that way. I have some...er...wisdom...there from some other mistakes in my past. But it did drive home the point that CO poisoning is a silent killer, and I went out the very next week and bought CO detectors. This was the first time in the six years I've owned them they ever went off. I wish I could tell you I was doing some crazy redneck thing like grilling in the house with a charcoal grill or shooting fireworks in the house--but alas, I was just sitting on my butt playing with the computer.
But there is no doubt that "failed wisdom," if we are open to it, creates new wisdom.
What I am pondering is this: What if we simply lived every day of our life if it was "the end of the world as we know it?" One of the Ignatian things I do on a regular basis is lie in bed at the end of the day and examine my conscience and my consciousness--not just "did I do right today/did I mess some things up today?" but "Was I aware today?"
It has certainly changed some things in my world. I am quicker to tell people I love them. I am getting better at not taking things personally, even if someone else means for me to take it personally. (Just because they want to wrap me up in their stuff, doesn't mean I have to accept it.) I am quicker to be kind simply because it's the right thing to do, rather than be kind out of pity or fear, or "it might pay off for me later." I am starting to be sorry for my failings and let them go, and try again.
Continuing my discipline that started in Lent and continues through Easter--trying to live each day simply for "what it is"--is a challenge. But it is a challenge that seems to be paying off, although it is still too early to really tell. Meanwhile, I will live in the hope of more wisdom!
Wisdom of Solomon 5:8-14:
'All those things have vanished like a shadow,
and like a rumour that passes by;
like a ship that sails through the billowy water,
and when it has passed no trace can be found,
no track of its keel in the waves;
or as, when a bird flies through the air,
no evidence of its passage is found;
the light air, lashed by the beat of its pinions
and pierced by the force of its rushing flight,
is traversed by the movement of its wings,
and afterwards no sign of its coming is found there;
or as, when an arrow is shot at a target,
the air, thus divided, comes together at once,
so that no one knows its pathway.
So we also, as soon as we were born, ceased to be,
and we had no sign of virtue to show,
but were consumed in our wickedness.’
Because the hope of the ungodly is like thistledown carried by the wind,
and like a light frost driven away by a storm;
it is dispersed like smoke before the wind,
and it passes like the remembrance of a guest who stays but a day.
I am writing this one day away from Harold Camping's prediction that the Rapture will be occurring at 6 p.m. Saturday "Wherever you are." (Now, that makes no sense. That puts an unfair advantage on people who live near where a time zone crosses. Not to mention I have already figured out how to thwart this. Keep the state legislature in sesson on Saturday, and simply vote to opt into another time zone. An hour ought to be plenty to cover most of us miserable sinners.
I confess, I have had a bit of fun Facebooking on this topic. I have been a practical joker all my life, and this just has too much potential. My Facebook friends and I discussed the possibility of throwing empty dog/cat collars and leashes around to REALLY mess with people's minds. I've said for many years, "If the Rapture ever comes, I am pretty sure my dogs will be gone, and I'm stuck here."
But, all kidding aside, I was in on a very real and useful conversation amidst all the joking around. It was, "If you really, truly did know the end of the world as you knew it, was coming, what would you do before the end comes?"
I must tell you, I gave a VERY boring answer.
I said, "Aw, ya know, I hate to say it, but I'd just live my life pretty much like usual. I wouldn't try to patch anything up, I wouldn't run and apologize to anyone. Those things just are what they are, and if people are going to kiss and make up with me just because the end of the world's coming, or if I am doing it only because the end of the world's coming, it ain't worth it. Maybe the only thing I'd do differently is go hang out at church towards zero hour...I wouldn't be doing it to cover my butt, but I think just to be there for people who are afraid. I imagine some people would just be really, really scared, and I think I would feel better about it, being there for others."
But this reading from the Daily Office on Thursday, and all the hullabaloo about Camping's prediction for Saturday speaks to what is a very real fear for many people...fear of "no evidence that we were ever here." Ultimately, I think we fear "non-existence"--the ultimate form of rejection and isolation. We fear that all we are ends when we end as human beings. The older we get, we become more and more aware of how, as much as we say "never forget," we do forget. Take, for instance, the Holocaust deniers. It was a lot harder for them to make their claims when many of the survivors, the people who imprisoned them, and the people who liberated them were still living; but as those three groups of people started dying off, it gave the "deniers" a toe hold--because there were fewer "first persons" to refute them.
We do forget. Go back to my post yesterday where I mentioned a cold hard fact of physics--the universe moves to "more randomness." The fact is, the energy of distinct, vivid memories becomes more random over time.
But consider this--is it possible that this "randomness" is part of what makes up "the kingdom of God?" I often postulate what the stuff of souls actually is. Could it be that "soul stuff" desires to be as random, as stripped of "us" as possible, because that is what creates total unity with all of us? I think about how dying relatives of mine have expressed a desire to "be with those who have gone before and to 'see them in Heaven'," coupled with my intense curiosity about "how everything works and to know as much as I can about everything I encounter." Could it be that after we die, this "soul stuff of ours" recognizes everybody in this metaphor we call "Heaven?" Could it be just like that Jesuit notion that "all is revealed," because we become so "random" that we simply are part of "all?"
If we go back to our reading above, the thing I noticed is that both birds (something that, in my mind is a good thing) and arrows (something that, in my mind, is a bad thing) both equally cut through the air and leave no trace of their existence. That is comforting to me. It means that all the wounds in my life, that fall under "The big three"--shame, fear, and guilt--will have left no trace. Both the arrows I've shot, and the arrows that have landed in my backside or chest. They will have left no trace in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, that means I have to accept that the personal joys of my world, likewise, will leave no trace. But I'd consider that a fair trade for the ability to, after I die, be part of something that comprehends all and is a piece of "all."
(Video embedding disabled by request; you can view the YouTube of John Lennon's classic song here. Photo of Stewart Hampton's portrait of John Lennon courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
I normally don't get my religion news via Huffington Post, but Brad Hirschfeld's article about Stephen Hawking's recent statement that "There is no Heaven," caught my eye.
Well, here's my heresy.
I don't believe in Heaven either. Well, not Heaven the way Stephen Hawking alludes to, anyway.
I don't think there's a spot on the GPS (or should I say, a theoretical version of a GPS that maps the entire universe?) that you can put an arrow and say, "Heaven is HERE." I don't even think it's a place.
Heaven, I believe, is a metaphor. I'll talk about this more in a bit.
You see, this all started when I started realizing I didn't believe in Hell, either. Mostly, I believe "Hell" resides between our two ears. I've said this before: The thing we use to understand these concepts (our brain) dies when we do. I have come to the conclusion that we can think, and believe, and cogitate all we want about these two concepts, but the sad fact of the matter is this cogitation is for naught, because our brains die when our bodies die.
But there was a place where I realized, "If I'm going to give up a place called Hell, that means I probably have to give up Heaven, too. It doesn't make sense to believe in one mythical place, but not the other. It's incongruous to believe in this good place and not believe in a bad place."
Yet, I am a person of faith. I have reason to believe in God, and to embrace Christianity as the living representation of God that suits me best.
So it called the big question to the table--What DO I believe?
I believe that this life, our present existence, is not the sum total of "all there is," of "all that makes up us." I believe that simply because I believe in the laws of thermodynamics--that energy is neither created nor destroyed, and that the tendency of the universe is to be more random. I believe that energy is constantly transformed.
Yet there is this inner voice within all of us that resists randomness and seeks transformation of our physical selves, and our psychic selves. The more "spiritual" a person is, the more aware he or she is of that desire.
I believe we, because of the limitations of the human brain, give metaphorical names to that which we do not understand. I believe we gave this vague description of whatever lies beyond this life as we now know it, names like "Heaven" and "Hell" to simply give it voice.
After all, we named atoms "atoms" long before we proved their existence.
I often think about how quantum mechanics raises the possibility of multiple, simultaneously occurring realities. Just as light simultaneously behaves as both a particle and a wave, all these things we see as a single reality, could, in fact be multiple realities.
I also think about how the biggest growth for me spiritually, has been the recognition that the biggest gains I have made are in community. Understanding the power of a church community as a unit--a single "packet of energy"--is crucial--and that although my place in it is desired, it really is only a tiny piece and the importance is on the "unit" of a church community as a dynamic system. "Me" as a solo believer is nowhere nearly as powerful as a well-functioning system. By the same token, the human trappings of me--my DNA, my thoughts, my gifts, my quirks, and my failings--become less important, and the divine trappings of each of us as a "unit" become more important. It becomes less about me earning a spot in a separate entity, and more about the entity already being here, just mostly undetectable to us. I have become less interested in this entity "saving me," and more interested in the possibility that this gathered energy has the power to save the world, of which I am simultaneously both an active packet of living energy in that world, as well as an active packet of spiritual energy in this world that lies beyond my comprehension.
Finally, I think of how Jesus himself said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand," and "The kingdom of God is among you." In my mind, this is a description of a simultaneous set of realities.
Giving up a "place" called Heaven and considering the possibility that Heaven is right here, simultaneously running in a different reality, has freed me. We don't have any way of knowing what that reality is. But to work with it, we had to name it. Names become concepts.
So, no, I don't believe in Heaven as a "place." But I do believe that is the name we gave to it to illustrate this reality that disappears the moment we start to observe, study, and "prove" something about it. In that sense, I definitely believe in the entity of this reality that transcends death, this reality that we learned to name "Heaven," to accept the mystery of it, and simply agree to be an active life in it. Heaven as a concept has far more power than Heaven as an actual, physical thing. In that, I believe--wholeheartedly.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Book of Common Prayer, p. 225
This past Sunday, commonly known as "Good Shepherd Sunday" in the church calendar, is always an interesting one. It's the time of the year that clergy are faced with dealing with "animal husbandry issues" to a congregation that, more often than not, are distinctly "non-agrarian" and probably, for the most part, are not all that thrilled to be thinking of themselves as "sheep." I think for the most part, "non-agrarian clergy" don't like preaching about sheep. One can tell which clergy were into having critters as youngsters, and which weren't. On the other hand, I totally dig the sheep stories. Then again, as a kid, I raised just about every kind of farm critter imaginable at least once, and temporarily boarded a variety of wild critters ranging from tadpoles to snakes to baby raccoons to squirrels.
I had to giggle just a little Sunday when our vicar referred to sheep as having "fur," and suppress telling her in good-natured fun, "Sheep don't have fur, they have coats! It's wool, ya know!" But I let it pass. I didn't want to drop into teasing over what was a very good homily and one designed to get a very important underlying pastoral message across about what people should come to expect from a "good shepherd" as a given, not an option.
But what always strikes me in a lot of the Gospel sheep parables and discourses is that there are often references to shepherds calling the sheep by name, and the sheep knowing their names.
Names are a really big deal in the Bible. We are first told the power of names in the Genesis story, when Adam gets to name all the creatures. We have multiple examples in the Hebrew Bible of people encountering God and getting name changes--Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel after his wrestling match, and there are many others. In the New Testament, the two most illustrious examples are Saul becoming Paul and Peter becoming Cephas. (Ever notice when Peter is "rising to the occasion," he's called Cephas, and when he's showing weakness, he's referred to as Peter?)
But the important concept, as best as I can tell, is time and time again, we are shown that God's way is to give us new names--I like to think of them as "pet names"--when we encounter and draw nearer to God.
Yet, what do we do? We give people "new names" at best, when we feel a need to categorize people, and, at worst, when we want to trivialize or diminish them!
The YouTube I posted above is a commercial from where I teach medical students. It got me to thinking about the power of "labels." In medicine, we have a legitimate reason to "label" people with a disease, because it helps us understand how to treat their illnesses. There's nothing wrong with that--to a point. The scientific half of my mind needs to do that, because it can conjure up important data--what drugs to use, what drugs NOT to use, what co-morbidities the person might also have, what lab tests or studies will be helpful to follow them.
The problem is, we take it far past that. We can also use labels to insulate ourselves from people. I am just as guilty of it as anyone else. I might use the phrase, "terminal" to describe a person or situation. Now, in the legit sense, I am referring to a very real and imminent mortality of an unknown duration. But I might use the phrase to describe someone who I have judged as "can't be helped." Saying someone is "Axis II" implies, in a legit sense, they have one of a certain set of psychiatric diagnoses in the DSM-IV manual. But I have referred to people as "Axis II" when what I am really saying, "You're sick and I think there's limited value as to how much you can be helped." Medical people send coded judgmental messages to other medical people with what, on the surface, appears to be "medical language."
This doesn't just happen in medicine. One of my dearest mentors, being Jewish, often used words in Yiddish to say things he would have never said in English. In fact, he used to have a T-shirt that said, "If you can't say anything nice, say it in Yiddish." He would have never called an African-American the "N bomb name," and would have never been disrespectful to them in any way--he was a person who was very kind and considerate of all ethnicities--yet he would refer to them as "schwartzes" at the drop of a hat and never even really consider it was offensive. Yiddish was his escape valve for frustrating people and things. Even someone as kind as my mentor needs an escape valve now and then.
One of my habits is when someone has hurt me or consistently annoys me, I tend to come up with a name for them that allows me to refer to them in "the third person" more or less. I once, for a period of time, consistently referred to one of my resident colleagues as "Rush" because of his absolutely annoying habit of listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the resident office and forcing us to listen to it, too. I was sick to death of him quoting Rush Limbaugh, I was worn out on his politics and his fundamentalist religious ways, and I was tired of his constant judgments on me. It was quite clear that none of the female residents could really be his "colleagues." After all, we thought our careers were important. We were not models of "good Christian womanhood."
Now, there was a part of me that kind of needed to put a label on him, because otherwise I would have blown a gasket at him. But I also came to realize that, over time, it also prevented me from seeing him as a real person--one with hopes, dreams, fears, and uncertainties that probably were not all that different than my own in many ways. I realized, some years later, that over time, I would bump into him or my old resident colleagues, and I finally thought of him and mentioned him in the presence of others by his real name. Enough years had gone by that I could at least think of him as a real person again, not a cartoon character with a label.
I know a couple of people who work with him these days, and I have come to learn that really, his life isn't all that much different than anyone else's. In some ways, he's gotten what he wanted, and like all of us, lives with the consequences of that. He wanted a subservient wife. He now has a wife who calls him at work all the time wanting instructions for all kinds of things and relating issues with the child-rearing. He wanted the responsibility of being the big man in the house--well, he's got it! I don't say that with any sense of glee or gloating. He's got problems I wouldn't want, and I have compassion for that! His diagnostic skills are probably no better or worse than the rest of us, and he's just kind of out there in the big realm of "he doesn't bother me any more." I don't want his life, and he probably would not want mine, and that's all fine.
One of the biggest healing things for me has been learning to "look beyond the labels I slap on people." Oh, I still have a need at times to privately refer to some folks with their "labels" because something still carries pain. But what I am learning is to temper those episodes with some time where I push myself to think of them as a real person. I really think that is what the Biblical instructions to "pray for our enemies" comes from. If we don't make the time for that, everyone from our co-workers to Osama bin Laden to those we intimately share our lives, can become less human--cartoon characters of themselves.
I am often reminded of some advice given to me by someone whose "other Bible" is the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was harboring a powerful resentment, and this resentment was clouding my life in the weirdest places. I would think of this resentment repeatedly. I would obsess on it to the degree I could not think straight, and all I wanted to do was hurt someone, anyone--just to feel "paid off" about this resentment. He told me a piece of advice from page 255 of the 3rd edition of the "Big Book" (unfortunately, it is not in the 4th edition):
"If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or the thing that you resent, you will be free. If you will ask in prayer for everything you want for yourself to be given to them, you will be free. Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness, and you will be free. Even when you don't really want it for them, and your prayers are only words and you don't mean it, go ahead and do it anyway. Do it every day for two weeks and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for them, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love."
It sounded too good to be true.
Now, I am going to be honest. It took more than two weeks. But that's because at first, I couldn't let two weeks pass before I thought of the resentment again, and I had to start over! (and over, and over, and over...and over some more. After all, I am a little obsessive-compulsive.) Sometimes I would give it a rest for a couple of days, or a week, before I would start again in earnest. I knew the resentment was still there, because my ears feel flushed when I feel resentment. Not only that, but it has only been recently I really have begun to understand when I felt resentment. I learned sometimes, what I had been calling "anger" was actually resentment. (Actually, I've come to discover that I was lumping many feelings under "anger"--fear, shame, hurt, resentment, and grief, just to name a few.)
I am embarrassed to tell this, but it took me nine months.
It was not lost on me, when I looked back at it, that it took me the length of time it takes to have a baby.
But something happened. It really did.
I realized that my ears no longer felt hot when I thought of this situation.
I realized I no longer wanted to lash back and hurt people who were involved.
I realized I actually wanted the people involved to have the same healing I was starting to feel, a happy life, and all the good things I'd wish for myself. I no longer cared about the details of it. It was over, and there were better places for me to go, and better things ahead for me to do. I began to feel compassion for what could torment other people, rather than simply pity for people and things I labeled and objectified, and I began to see love in the centers of people who, I discovered, were made of three dimensions, not two.
I never want to repeat any sad, hurtful, or messy situation I've ever been in, but I no longer want to excise those episodes from my life. Oh, sure, I can get irritated at times with things in my past, but I know the resentment is gone because my ears no longer get hot, and I no longer feel the dark curtain of the scowl that used to cross my face. Instead, I feel "softer" about it, more receptive of the pain of others, and more willing to be in the tensions that still exist with it. I no longer feel "rigid," but "malleable."
But it all starts when we begin to let go of "labels," and instead listen to God calling us by the name we can hear in love, the name we are called by the Good Shepherd.
(Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, 1529, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
"Martin Luther and I have had a long but somewhat contentious relationship. Growing up in a Lutheran church, I memorized much of his Lutheran catechism, attended Luther League as a teenager, knew all the verses to "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and graduated from Luther College. But despite this immersion in Lutheranism I never quite warmed to the stern German, and when I became an Episcopalian I was relieved to leave old Martin behind. So it surprised me when tears come to my eyes as I entered Luther's Room in Wartburg Castle on a recent trip to Germany. I knew the history of what had happened in that simply furnished, plain room in 1521-22....The tears came, I think, because in that room I realized as never before the power of a single person of faith to change the world. Luther's influence came not from political might or inherited privilege, but instead from his refusal to recant what he knew was right. When brought before a tribunal who demanded that he repudiate his writings, he refused, knowing that his audacity could result in his death. That refusal to recant led him to exile in Wartburg Castle, where he transformed himself from Roman Catholic monk to Protestant reformer."
--Lori Erickson, "In Luther's Room," Episcopal News Service, April 15, 2011
I can't deny Lori's article certainly caught my attention. Her story, in some ways, is my story, and on top of that, there are a lot of "German genes" in my own DNA.
Martin Luther is an interesting character in my life. In some ways, I know exactly where he's coming from--particularly in the sense of there's a certain scatology to being of German extract. German euphemisms are ripe with references to defecation, graphic sexuality, and flatulence. So I totally get it when Luther claimed he could chase the Devil away with a loud fart. I'm on board with the fact he often wrote his most inspired stuff while on the pot. I even get his rantings to a fair degree. (I remember one of the few times a bill collector ever came to my grandmother's house. He (mistakenly) served her with a past due bill and she shook it at him and yelled, "I PAID those people. You know what good this bill is for? It's good for wiping my ass, that's what it's good for!") Luther also thought the book of Revelation's place in the New Testament was tenuous at best. (He wrote, "I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it," which is, in my opinion, a rather tame way of saying what he probably really wanted to say, "I could wipe my ass with it." Tee hee.)
But there are other parts to Martin Luther, I just want to reach out across time and smack him upside the head. He was anti-Semitic, for one thing. He was also antagonistic--particularly when it came to the Pope. Some of his rants at the medieval Roman Catholic church are worth a chuckle in the beginning, for their sheer colorful-ness, but there's a place where I just want to go, "Shut up, Martin, that's overkill. Give it a rest. You can get more flies with honey than vinegar."
I'd like to smack him upside the head for having a certain belligerence to his theology. I suffered at one time because of that belligerence--enough to leave organized Christianity for over 20 years. Actually, I get the belligerence, in some ways--when I am being belligerent myself, I am usually hiding a deep hurt. I suspect Luther had been hurt deeply by how he had been treated as a monk in the Roman Catholic church. But I have learned the hard way, belligerence doesn't win any converts, and puts me in an adversarial place, and feeds the part of me that prefers to stay angry--the place that doesn't do me any good.
But mostly, I think what unnerves me about ol' Martin is--and I hate to say it--I have probably shown that sort of belligerence in my own life in other forms, because inside of me lives that little inner Teuton, too. But there's a place where I'm (slowly) learning it's just not worth all my mental energy to fight everybody. I historically have never been good about picking my battles.
But in reading Lori's article, I suspect she and I have had some of the same inner struggles. I, too, can sing "A Mighty Fortress" from heart, as well as "This is the Feast"--which we sang week after week after week in the LCMS. I can still tell you which parts the men are to sing as opposed to the women, and together...and really, I still believe in grace in a more or less Lutheran fashion, although it's not as heavy as the LCMS version. As I was telling my best devotional reading study partner (who is also an expatriate Lutheran--WELS, in fact--turned Episcopalian), "Grace, to me, means none of us are "good enough"--we're all sinners--just plain sinners, not "sinner third class" or "sinner second class" or "sinner first class"--so none of us are good enough. Period. That means we're all in it together, no matter how awful you, me or someone else has been, because Jesus was "good enough for all of us."
I think about how when we ponder the Reformation, our tendency is to think of it as a linear process--this begat that, and that begat something else, etc. etc. But that isn't really what was going on. Things were going on simultaneously, more or less, in different places, and thanks to movable type and the printing press, for the first time, they could be shared. A reform was going on in Germany and other places on the European continent, and another reform was going on in England, and for the first time we could all kind of share this in a selected way ("Here, borrow my book") and a public way ("Wow--I think I'll buy this book.")
I wonder sometimes if we are in a new Reformation, thanks to social networking and e-mail.
I can share an article with my friends instantaneously, or I can stumble onto one myself on the Internet.
The possibility we are living in a "new Reformation" intrigues me. But it also means with the tendency to communicate without thinking (as electronic media is prone to allow) it means I must stop and think before I speak all the more--as do we all.
("Daniel's Answer to the King," Briton Rivière, 1890, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Then the king gave the command, and Daniel was brought and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” A stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, so that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him, and sleep fled from him. Then, at break of day, the king got up and hurried to the den of lions. When he came near the den where Daniel was, he cried out anxiously to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?” Daniel then said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.” Then the king was exceedingly glad and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. The king gave a command, and those who had accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces. Then King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world: “May you have abundant prosperity! I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.” So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.
A few days ago, this was the reading in the Daily Office. "Daniel and the Lions' Den" is a tried and true story many of us heard in Sunday School--a story that, as Sunday School teachers are wont to do, used to teach faith. But when one reads the whole story, there's an incredibly troubling part of the story that we don't mention to children, for obvious reasons--as a result of Daniel not being eaten by the lions, and Darius realizing his other presidents and satraps had framed Daniel, what does Darius do? He not only tosses them in the lions' den, he tosses in their wives and children!
For as long as I've known "the rest of the story," I have been incredibly upset about that. Maybe it's because if I had to be disciplined for what some of my relatives did, I could well be blogging to you from the state pen. I certainly would have lost my medical license. It plays on my gut feelings about the unfairness of "inheriting the sins of the fathers."
We also know that Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius. Didn't it bug Daniel now and then that he was prosperous, while the wives of his enemies and their children were dead? Surely he had at least a twinge of survival guilt about that. I mean, once in a while it bugs me that I make a good living off the backs of other people's tragedy. I get paid rather decently for big cancer resections. I make a decent living because people get sick and die. But ultimately, I realize I did not cause their disease, and I suppose Daniel realized it was Darius who did that, not him. I cannot be responsible for a process of disease outside my control, nor could Daniel be responsible for Darius' wrath.
But I want to chat a minute about the "real" casualties in this story--the wives and children of the mean presidents and the satraps. I think about how, in divorces, the divorced individuals have a tendency to "divvy up the friends," and some of the friends get demonized, along with the ex. Sometimes the opposite happens--one of the couple tries to "get in good" with the ex's friends to keep the spy network going, or to hurt the ex further. Or how during the divorce, how the ex's relatives get demonized right alongside the ex. I think about how in a tragic setting where someone is discovered to be a big wrongdoer, people choose scapegoats for the blame they wanted to place on the transgressor. I particularly recall years ago, at one of the local banks, how the bank president went to the pen for his personal wrongdoings, and had used his bank to "kite" checks, but even when he was convicted and was out of the picture, the bank suffered. I even knew people who told bank employees, "I don't know how you can work there and hold your head up, being part of such of a corrupt thing," and they had nothing to do with what happened. The "corrupt thing" was long over, but lots of people in Kirksville still wanted to scapegoat the bank for years afterward.
The story of the bank president is also interesting. When he got out of prison, he returned to Kirksville. He stayed in town and toughed it out, and made new friends, and changed his life in some ways. I know a lot of folks who went to his church. If you had known him as an old man, you would have thought he was simply one of those "cool little old men that all churches have one or two of," if you had not known his story. He never was able to patch everything up--no one ever is--but he found out a lot about his true self as a beloved child of God in the process. It was not "happily ever after," but I came to realize that he thought it was "happy enough."
So, yes, although I can fire up my righteous indignation at Darius in this story, I also realize I sometimes have engaged in "scapegoating by association."
I also had a situation at work recently, that involved negotiations with third parties, where I was being scapegoated by clients. Because this weird reimbursement problem was going on--that had absolutely nothing to do with their medical care at a professional level, I had people in my office telling me "I must be a bad doctor, and you Kirksville doctors are all cheats and crooks, and that's why I go to Columbia for my doctoring, blah blah, etc., etc," because of a situation where the problem was something totally unrelated to professional competence, and about the insurance company. I was accused of greed, bad citizenship, and medical incompetence, as well as being told about "my mansion and my Ferarri," while they could not afford to buy gas. (I think they would have been rather disappointed to see my house and pickup truck, actually!)
But the fact remains, we too easily scapegoat when we don't have all the facts.
There is also a place, when one has either "survival guilt," or has been the target of a scapegoating, where we have to let go of any delusions of control of "what got us here." I know when I've been the scapegoat, I have had times I have, for a spell, assumed guilt that was not mine. When this situation at work came up, I eventually realized what was going on was out of my control, and it was eventually resolved, but it took a lot of prayer and temper management for me to look at those angry people and say, "I'm sorry you feel that way, and we are willing to work with you to lower your balance owed in this way, but I can't do exactly what you want on this. I suggest you discuss this with (big insurance company) because ultimately, they made these decisions, not me."
It's so important for us to define what we can and can't control, and at the same time have compassion for those who were unfairly wronged by it. We can't control who goes in the lions' den when we are not the keeper of the lions' den. Sometimes, we even find ourselves in the lions' den because of the sins of others, and we can't even control being torn limb from limb in it, sad as that is. We can only have a God who promises to be in the den with us, and a God who can show us our own stuff that needs repair, and do the best we can.
My radical thought is to re-read this story in Daniel in a new light--the light of "what happens when we scapegoat." It's incredibly freeing when we realize we don't need a scapegoat for our own prosperity, and in the times we have been scapegoated, "it gets better," if we can be brave enough to trust things to be worked out in God's time.
(Skip to about 1:14 in the video to listen to Eucharistic Prayer C. Video from St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City)
Lord God of our Fathers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
--From Eucharistic Prayer C, p. 372, Book of Common Prayer
Easter is a time Eucharistic Prayer C is often used in the Episcopal Church, and this year at Trinity (as in many years) we are using EP-C this Easter. It's often called "The Star Wars Prayer" because of all the references to outer space, and folks seem to have a love-hate relationship with it. As a space geek, liturgy geek, and lover of the night sky in wide open spaces, I don't have to tell you I'm in the "love" crowd. But I also love it for two other reasons: First, that it plays out the most often repeated theme in the Bible--the theme of Creation-->Sin-->Repentance-->Restoration, and reminds me this theme is played out in each of our individual lives, multiple times. Second, because it has several responses from the pews--the gathered faithful become a bigger physical part of the Eucharistic process itself, and it emphasizes that the mysteries of the Eucharist happen because of all of the gathered participants are present, not that the priest does special magic stuff. Yes, you do need the priest to preside and consecrate the elements, but as my spiritual director is fond of saying, "You can't have Mass with one person, even if that one person is a priest. That's why it's called Mass."
So how does this turn into a post about a medical school graduation?
I once again was asked by a graduating KCOM class to be one of the marshals--aka the "hooders"--during Commencement. They are the ones who actually put the doctoral hood on the graduate. It remains one of the most joyful and simultaneously humbling honors in my life. I always say each time it happens, "If this is the last time I ever get to do this, it will be enough." You see, for me, it is always like glimpsing a little slice of Heaven.
I dearly love the mystical moment where they become a doctor, and I love being the first to call them "Doctor"--to call them a title they have longed for, for some time--a title, that in their intern year, they will come to feel quite inadequate about, but a title they will spend the next few years growing into, all the same.
For me, the joy the graduates radiate from that moment, is my peek at what EP-C talks about--it "opens my eyes to see God's hand in the world around me." It's a moment where the sacred meets the secular--or rather, shows me the sacred that was there all along in the secular, that most of the time, I'm too nearsighted to see.
You see, it was medical school graduation that taught me the value of liturgy.
I have to confess, the first two graduations in my life, I was quite blind and deaf to their power. My high school graduation, all I wanted was out. Out of Macon, MO, out of the house, out of the dysfunction in that house that kept me totally ignorant to what "normal" was in dealing with others, or caring for myself. I only wanted to walk across the stage and be done with it. I was quite the grouch with my family, I was not appreciative of the overtures of reconciliation going on in my family towards me, I was not letting any of them in my head to share my moment. In fact, I was quite unhappy about what should have been a happy moment.
My college graduation was a disaster, thanks to Mother Nature. My college graduation went down in the history of Truman State University as "The year it rained cats and dogs at Commencement." The decision to have it outdoors was made at the last moment. As we started marching from Baldwin Hall to the football stadium, suddenly we began getting drenched. I mean DRENCHED. They diverted us to the basketball arena, where there were no chairs for the graduates, the family members crowded onto the benches, steam rolling off our wet gowns, black inky bands forming on our skin as the wet caps dripped on our foreheads. So we just never got around to the "enjoying Commencement" part.
They say, though, third time's a charm.
Now, there was no reason to expect any joy at all in my graduation from medical school. My folks were three years out of a very contentious divorce, and it felt like we were still in the middle of that divorce. I had heard for weeks, each of my parents complaining what they expected the other to do. Add to that the fact my beloved grandfather had died unexpectedly six months prior.
I was heading towards graduation, not looking at the wonderful future ahead of me, but filled with anxiety that everyone I loved would be working overtime to make it clear that I had not put their needs ahead of my desires.
But then an absolute miracle happened.
For some mysterious reason, which I can attribute to no single thing I did or said, the entire family (and several people who make up my "extended family") morphed into this happy, cordial, civil group of people who not only exchanged pleasantries with each other on the "quad" at the University of Missouri, but they continued this back at the Elks' Lodge in Macon, at a party that lasted till 2 a.m. People drank and danced and socialized mightily, and although I worried that they were all drinking enough for a horrible fight to break out, they were instead dancing with each other in some very unlikely pairings.
Of course, a couple of days later, everyone was back to their old contentious selves, but it was my own personal version of "The Christmas Truce."
People had told me before that weddings, graduations, and baptisms have that kind of power. I had never believed it--until my medical school graduation.
It has only been recently that I recognized what was behind all that--the power of liturgy.
What I have come to believe is that the power of liturgy overcomes "the power of 'me'."
Gathering people together for a higher purpose--whether it is to sacramentalize a committed relationship, join a person to the company of saints through the waters of baptism, or ceremonialize a course of study--changes people. They desire to be part of a group bigger than themselves, so they find it easier to give up control and let the ceremony be the controlling force. We find ourselves willingly coming to these "tables" for renewal and strength, with very little thought about ourselves.
Gathering people together for a higher purpose also brings people out of the woodwork, simply to have cause to celebrate as a group. To snitch straight out of Isaiah 60:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house. Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?
It is so incredibly easy for me to be joyful when I am standing in the radiance of a newly minted doctor. May we all find the same kind of joy when we are basking in the radiance of a group of people fortified with the sacraments of Christ's Body and Blood.