(Photo of gait belt from Amazon.com)
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me."
June 29 was the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles. Now, never mind both St. Peter and St. Paul get their own days; for some reason we also do them together. I had mentioned on Facebook that it does seem a little odd to put them together since Peter and Paul really didn't like each other that much...nor had much in common. Uneducated, rough fisherman vs. cosmopolitan member of the Jewish community.
There is also something about the Gospel reading on this day that creates a modern, totally unintended image for me, and it's one that over the last couple of years, anyone who's around patients has a tendency to think it. That business of Jesus telling Peter that someone else will fasten a belt around him and take him where he doesn't wish to go, conjures up images of "a gait belt."
Nurses and caregivers are particularly familiar with them. You put the gait belt around the person you wish to transfer. The really nice ones have handles, or a harness to distribute the weight better on the person doing the transferring. They are useful for lifting people up out of a wheelchair, to transfer from bed to wheelchair, etc. The patient helps with his or her legs in the transfer but doesn't have to support his or her whole weight.
Most of the time, the person being hauled around with the gait belt wants to go where they are being taken, but the more elderly, sick, or dementia ridden a person gets...not so much. I have always felt a bit bad in those situations when I have helped transfer an "unwilling transferee."
I thought many times yesterday about the places I've been, emotionally and mentally and spiritually, I've been these last few years. Many of them are places I would not willingly have gone, but in some ways, I, too, have felt "pulled out of my chair" with a celestial gait belt. Some of them are places I would have gone but my "legs" were not strong enough to support me. I was embarrassed to have needed assistance. I wanted to go there, but not so fast, not so rough, and not to have been unceremoniously dumped there and left.
But what I've come to discover is when assistance comes, it comes when it comes, we don't always choose the person by which it comes, and they have their lives too. They can't always stay.
When I moved to Kirksville in 2000, I had this mental picture who I'd be, how I'd spend my days, who my friends would be.
It's nothing even close to my life in 2011.
In 2000, I would not have wanted or liked this life.
Yet, even in a fair bit of change and turmoil, I feel pretty okay with it. Oh, don't get me wrong, I really dislike some days. I really dislike some situations. I mourn some of the changes. I miss people I didn't ever think I'd miss, and I don't miss some people I could not imagine in my day to day.
I am not where I thought I would be financially, and I'm not living the way I thought I would live. Yet I am content beyond my wildest imagination. I would not, however, have been so content had I not had that celestial gait belt slapped on me and dragged a few places.
On Pentecost Sunday, I had the treat of being not just at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis to worship, but I had the fun of waving one of the big 20 foot long streamers on a pole in the processional and recessional, thanks to one of my friends in the diocese who CCC is her home parish. I also got to listen to the Rev. Dahn Gandell's homily as guest preacher that day.
Now there's a person who probably went a few places she didn't plan on going herself. She grew up Baptist. In a previous life, she did standup comedy. She's a self-proclaimed southerner living in Rochester, NY. Yet somehow, the twists and turns of her life led her to the Episcopal priesthood.
I wrote down some of the more pithy parts of her message:
"Change is inevitable, but growth is optional."
"Transformation not shared is transformation wasted."
"Be now here, or be nowhere."
"It is our scars that tell our stories."
"There are always moments when you can be inviting."
"The question is not, "How does God use sinners," but, "What choice does God have BUT to use sinners?""
But my favorite was, "It is not our deepest fear that we are inadequate, but it is our deepest fear that we have power beyond measure."
That last statement has a lot of carry over to yesterday's reading, as well. Think about this one. Jesus just told Peter, "You are gonna go some places you do NOT want to go...just like I am, too." Then he basically says, "Follow me to those places, anyway."
Those places we don't want to go, when we sit around and fear them, it's not that we can't endure them. It's that we CAN endure them, and there is a reasonable chance we will be transformed by them. We sense that this transformation is beyond us, even despite us or despite our best efforts to resist it.
In that sense, because it's not OUR power, it's a power that is truly beyond measure. What's weird is, if we had sat back and enjoyed the ride, we would not totally "get" its power and our powerlessness.
Could it be that "suffering" is not a personal insult, but an opportunity--and when it's all said and done, if we are led through the pain into new joys, new realities, our painful times simply become threads in a larger story?
So in that sense, yes, Peter and Paul get a feast day together--contrasting threads in a larger tapestry of all the saints and angels and the company of Heaven...and there's a thread in there for us, too.
(Icon and photo by Luiz Coelho; click on the photo to enlarge)
Christ is the icon of the invisible God; all things were created through him and for him.
The Word became flesh:
And dwelt among us.
Let us pray. (Silence)
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior manifested your glory in his flesh, and sanctified the outward and visible to be a means to perceive realities unseen: Accept, we pray, this representation of Mary and Jesus; and grant that as we look upon it, our hearts may be drawn to things which can be seen only by the eye of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord(+).
Here the priest may sprinkle holy water on the holy icon. The priest may then say the collect most appropriate to the icon being blessed.
--Blessing for Pictures and Statues, Book of Occasional Services, p. 207
Ok, I have to show off the newest addition to my "prayer corner."
(Well, when I actually have a prayer corner again. The house project has sort of crowded that corner out, but it's okay, since we are well into my "sitting by the chiminea" season. I probably won't need my prayer corner that much until late fall.)
Many of you know I have a huge fascination for the ancient traditions of Christian faith, and melding the ancient and the modern. The use of icons certainly is one of the older ones. People not from a liturgical tradition don't really "get" icons (or statues) as tools for personal devotion and worship. Notice I said "for," not "of." Well that's the first thing most evangelical Protestant folk don't get.
Now, I'll admit, on a superficial level, I understand where their confusion is. When one sees someone using a relic for personal devotion, at first glance, it may appear that the person using the icon or statue is "worshiping it." I understand why this would evoke unease, because, after all, we're told worshiping graven images is a bad thing. One has to get behind the superficial appearance to understand what is actually happening.
So let's talk a little about icons.
First of all, before we get to icons, we have to talk about "the sacred image."
Our first and foremost problem with understanding God is summed up in John 1:18--No one really knows "what God physically looks like." No living person in all of history has ever really seen God. The closest we get is Moses, who gets a passing glimpse of God's butt.
In some ways, we know God more by what God is not, than by what God is--and we often use sentiment or emotion or metaphor when we do. Yet, I believe, our minds work to needing a human form to understand this relationship. Why else would we talk about things like the hand of God, or wanting to touch the face of God?
In short, our brains carry a reflection of a figure we attribute to God, but there is not a lot with which to hook it. That image is the root of the sacred image of God. Very real things that make up an image that is not a physical body. Since the Genesis story says that humanity is created in God's image, our human bodies carry a reflection of this image.
The purpose of an icon is not to worship the picture of the subject of the icon, but to worship the sacred image of God we see through the icon (like a window) rather than to the subject of the icon as an object of worship. In a way, because the person in the icon has attributes of the sacred image, it gives us a physical "stand-in" for that unseen sacred image.
The history of iconography goes back to St. Luke, who actually did see Jesus and Mary (the two most common subjects of icons) in physical form. The tradition is that icons have certain characteristics and physical appearance, and this has been carried down all this time. So an icon written in, say, 1100, has many characteristics exactly as one written in 2011. Churches who use icons have rubrics for how they are to be written, right down to the materials used.
Obviously, different human artists have different variations in style, but the underlying principle is that an icon is simply not an artistic rendering, but a witness to the truth of Scripture, more like a "scribal copy," rather than a painting. This is why we say icons are "written," not "painted." Probably the Byzantine style of iconography is the one most studied, used, and the one which people are most familar. Different segments of the Eastern and Roman churches have slightly different rules.
For iconographers, the act of writing an icon is an act of prayer itself. There are prayers for beginning and finishing icons. Silence is kept in the process. Iconographers are taught to see the joy in the process, to pray during the process, and to let the subject of the icon reveal truths to them.
Several months ago, I got to reading about the history and theology behind icons. What began to strike me is that many of the icons show a city, rendered more or less at the time the original icon was written, in the backdrop of the subject of the icon. I got to thinking about the time-bending aspect of that. Take, for instance, an icon with the city of Constantinople in it. We see Constantinople frozen in time, in our modern time. I liked the idea of me being hooked to an ancient space in modern time through the image of God, reflected in Jesus, Mary, or a saint of the early Church.
What I came to realize is I wanted an icon with features of Kirksville in it. Many of you realize much of the deepest parts of my spirituality comes from hooking with things that many people would find very mundane, and very local. I desired this "holy window" that connects me to my surroundings and simultaneously, to the Kingdom of God. I wanted to see what that window might look like.
Enter Luiz Coelho.
Luiz has been a blogging and Facebook friend of mine for some time, and is a wonderful iconographer because he can write icons both in rock stock solid ancient tradition and create some wonderful modern renditions, as well. I have long admired how he can take the ancient and the modern, and make it all "fit." I sensed he was the person who could do this best.
So as we talked, I suggested he look around a lot on my Facebook photos. Luiz has never been to Kirksville. He lives in Brazil. He's been to the States, but not in my part of the world. Seeing my world through his eyes has been a fascinating experience in itself. He knew how much I love the night sky, sitting out by my chiminea. He knew how much I love the green fields and pastures and farm critters. He knew how much I love my parish.
As it turned out, he's created a wonderful mixture of ancient and modern in his work. If you click on the larger version of this, you will see power lines, pastures, cattle, and sheep. At Mary's feet is Trinity-Kirksville. Most wonderful of all is the tiny image of The Blessed Red Truck traveling US 63, towards Mary, towards Jesus--me on a journey. I love how the Blessed Red Truck is, in a way, "the sacred image of me." It's how Luiz sees my world, how I see my world, and how I desire to see God's world in symbolic form.
Sure, I paid money for this. But what Luiz has rendered--what he has written as a view of the sacred image of God--has a worth far beyond money. When I had it blessed, my priest blessed both it and me--that I would be able to have a deeper relationship with God through the use of this icon.
Thank you, Luiz. I look forward to seeing what is beyond this window!
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
I had the "fence guy" over to my house recently, because my older donkey, Sylvia, had thwarted my great plans from last summer. We had thought we had been clever enough in putting up new fences that would keep long-eared equines from breaking down the fence to eat on the other side of it. But I came home to find that five strands of barbed wire (six in some places) were not sufficient to keep her from turning her head sideways, poking her head through the fence, and eating on the other side, pushing down the wire. It was a sufficient enough gap she thought getting a little scratched was worth it.
So as you can see, I now have NINE strands of wire on the fence, with a very narrow gap at the height she had discovered the breach.
Now, I realize all Sylvia wants is that juicy grass on the other side of the fence. But Sylvia, not being the one who pays the bills around here, and not being the one who will be arrested for a county "loose animal" violation, is not the one who gets to make the rules. As I've mentioned before, my old fence was woven wire with a strand of barbed wire on top. The squares in the woven wire were almost like a ready made step-stool for equine hooves. Over time, the equines learned that all they had to do was smoosh down the woven wire and stick their heads under the barbed wire and they could eat grass on the other side. I was amazed, by the time I finally fixed the fence, that they had remained IN the confines of my pasture.
So last summer, I had the fence replaced with five strands of Gaucho barbed wire (which is pretty sharp.) I had the fence designed so the wire was clipped on the inside, so pushing out wouldn't "pop" the wire off the posts. I had the gates re-hung so they swung inward in the pasture, so pushing against them wouldn't make the gate swing out and reveal instant freedom. I blogged about it here.
My long-eared equines are a constant reminder about how boundaries and limits are a constantly evolving process.
In organizations, "boundaries" seems to be the new buzz word. I am a monitor for the Missouri Physicians Health Program, one of the two agencies who monitor impaired physicians and physicians who are on the slippery slope of impairment and voluntarily join the program. When I first became involved with MPHP, most of our clients were there for substance abuse issues. Although substance abuse is still the majority of what brings people to MPHP, in recent years we have had a real upswing in physicians who come to us because of "boundary violations," mental health maintenance, and "disruptive physician" behaviors.
I've come to realize something very interesting in my work with MPHP, and the reading I do to keep up on things in the physician impairment world.
"Boundaries" gets a lot of press. "Limits" do not. I've noticed the word "boundaries" gets tossed around when sometimes, I think "limits" was what the article was talking about.
I think that discussion needs to change.
Boundaries are what we put out there for others not to cross lines, or lines put out there by society, or our personal oaths and vows in our professions that say "do not cross." Limits are what we set on ourselves not to cross over our own lines.
When we speak of a physician who has been in trouble for "boundary violations," it's really a two pronged violation. One is the violation of the boundary within our oath to not harm patients, translated as "don't have romantic or sexual relations with patients." But there's a second prong. A physician who does that, also commits an additional violation much of the time--he or she has preyed upon the victim's limits, and used the power differential as a weapon.
Honestly, I think a certain subset of disruptive physician behavior (once substance abuse and/or personality disorder is eliminated as the true culprit) is based in "inability to set limits." People with poor ability to set limits constantly get their limits eroded and the only thing left to do is blow up. The problem is, when they react to this erosion, their behavior shatters boundaries all over the place.
I'm going to be honest. Docs with "disruptive physician" issues are my least favorite. Give me a drug addict or an alcoholic any time. A lot of these folks, frankly, are not fun to be around. Borderline personality disorder runs high in that group. They are angry, defensive, and paranoid. They don't have a lot of insight into their own process. They tend to make everything everyone else's fault, including the monitor, and they like to play "threaten the monitor." There's not much joy in monitoring them, not a lot of that "I really helped this person" feeling.
But within this group, there's an interesting subset of docs. There's this little subset of ones that seem rather, well...ordinary...and what one discovers is, in hearing their stories, they are not the type that terrorizes the office staff chronically; they're not the ones who routinely verbally cut up patients and family members, and they're not holding everyone hostage at home psychologically. Their story is one of being fairly normal, but having these massive temper flare-ups and fits of pique, but over time, there's some stressor, and these episodes get closer and closer together. In fact, others describe them as hard working, dedicated, and in the beginning, the episodes are sort of brushed off as "Well, he/she does so much for everyone, I'm sure the stress of that must be awful sometimes."
What I am learning about this subset is that many of them suffered some form of abuse as children. This abuse made it difficult for them to learn to set limits. They were often around people in power who did not have healthy boundaries themselves, so when these folks DID set limits, they were frequently disrespected, ignored, and ultimately eroded. The abuse that the medical educational process heaped on them in clinicial clerkships, internship, and residency replicated the abuse they had at home. They feel unwilling to set reasonable limits, and in some sense, they never really learned what reasonable limits were. They are often in tremendous debt for a lifestyle they feel their family and community expects them to have, but really don't enjoy this lifestyle or even have time for it. Sometimes I get whiffs of the mild end of autism spectrum disorders in their habits or mannerisms.
I'm not presently monitoring any of them, but for some reason, my name comes up in the community of "people who play in the MPHP sandbox" as a trusted person to just get to know. So there are the phone calls and one-on-ones and social networking chats.
But after a while, they almost always force me to consider my own issues with limits. In their stories, I hear bits and pieces of how my own limits have been tested and eroded over the years by people with crappy boundaries. I realize that in my own case, it has a lot to do with the "don't ask, don't tell, and for God's sake don't feel," culture I was reared in, and how this culture, in me, was also cemented in my clinical training years, and the early years as an attending doc. In the times I knew that someone else's crappy boundaries was tearing apart my limits, I knew it, but the fear of telling was so ingrained, I just didn't tell until the erosion reached what I call a "core limit." Instead, I tried to control the other person, lock in on them, and put my focus on them.
I remember a particular surgery attending, who was prone to throwing fits in the OR and lining out the trainees. I would double and triple-check the instrument tray before cases, for fear there was a missing instrument that would cause him to go off. I would carefully line up the charts in room number order so the next chart he would pick up without looking was the right chart. I would hand in tables of all the lab values of patients over several days time so he could see at a glance what was going up or down. What I did not do was research my own cases--I was too busy lining things up for him--and on rounds I would get torn apart by him. Literally torn apart in this cutting, sarcastic way, in front of everyone.
At the end of the rotation, he told me I was one of the best students he ever had and would I consider going into surgery.
I was dumbstruck.
He continued on that I was so "good" because I "took care of things for him."
"But...but...I thought you thought I was an idiot. You ripped me up on rounds all the time."
"Oh, that," he replied. "I knew you knew enough. I also knew you could take it. It's kind of like "slapping the kid next to the kid you want to behave, so they get the message." You made the team better by taking it for the team. But I could tell you could take it, so I mostly used you to get the message across."
I don't know how I kept it all together. I muttered some kind of "thanks" and left. But I was livid for days at how I had been "used." It was my first real adult glimpse that abusers have a sixth sense about their targets.
So when I meet these other docs who have issues with limits, it forces me to examine my own.
These are hard issues to factor in one's own Baptismal Covenant.
"Seeking and serving Christ," in abusive SOB's with personality disorders...well...it's a tall order.
What I have learned is part of it is to set appropriate limits for what I will and will not tolerate in unacceptable behavior, even if to ask, to tell, and to feel puts me in a difficult position with the top end of the power differential. Through my spiritual disciplines, and through working in community, I have learned that I require a certain amount of "alone time," I require spiritual feeding, and I don't always have to shoulder the burden in a community, even if they dump it on me. I can think, ponder, and act, instead of react.
In exchange, I have to trust that God will allow our boundary lines to "fall in pleasant places" when we respect ourselves and obey our own limits.
(Photo of sacramental bread used for the Eucharist courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
"I do not go to Mass to make myself "better." I go because, in the dimmest reaches of my scattered, angst-ridden mind, there is something that wants me to get down on my knees and, in spite of my own suffering and all the suffering around me, give thanks. I go because I am beginning to believe that heaven is not in some other world, but shot through the broken world in which we live."
I borrowed this one off my blog friend Fran's status recently. I had to agree with everything Heather King said, but I have to add one thing to it..."...and the embodiment of heaven shot through a broken world resides in the Eucharistic sacraments--the bread and wine--the Body and Blood of Christ."
If there are two things I go back to again and again in my spiritual core, it's the duty I have to my own Baptismal Covenant, and the repeated promise of renewal in the Sacraments. I think I can turn just about anything into a discussion about the Sacraments. In fact, just recently I somehow managed, in a conversation with my vicar about the church Google Calendar, meander my way into talking about the Sacraments. (The conversation was about putting the dates for "House Eucharist" this summer on the calendar. We got to talking about how the Eucharist is both "same" and "different" in different settings.)
When I'm sitting in the middle of my own brokenness and heartache, what I need most is the Sacraments--not because they magically "do something to fix it," but because somehow, they transform me from a "receiver" to a "giver." Just as the wine is poured into the chalice, I see the need to pour myself out into the receptacle of God's kingdom. Just as the bread is shattered at the fraction, I see my own fractures. Then these poured out and broken items are placed inside of my digestive tract, literally the center of my body--to be made whole again--and not just whole separate things, but whole mixed things with a synergy all their own--the whole equaling more than the sum of the parts.
Then in the traditional Post-Eucharistic Prayer, we ask God to "send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you, with gladness and singleness of heart."
Singleness of heart.
Not multiple rugged individuals. One heart. The heart of Christ.
That's not to say I don't enjoy hearing the Word, that's not to say I don't appreciate good preaching, that's not to say I don't feel good about putting that check in the collection plate. These are all good things. They all have a certain degree of transformative power in their own right. But nothing puts them all together quite like the Eucharist.
I used to think that being in love with the Eucharist meant I had to be a "picky eater." Some of the most contentious discussions I've ever sat through in church had to do with which Eucharistic prayer we were using, or whether everyone ought to be kneeling after the Sanctus, or standing after the Sanctus, or if it was ok we had some do both. (I remember one voice in that discussion, "Well, if I had my way, everyone would be standing," which was countered by, "Well, if I had my way, everyone would be kneeling.")
I used to think I had to choose a side on these discussions. I'll be honest, I like kneeling better. But I am also a prayer book geek, and I know the instruction in the Book of Common Prayer says that the people are to either "stand or kneel," and when the Prayer book puts something first, the preference is the first one. So my liking to kneel is the "least preferred option" in the mind of the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music at the time the 1979 Prayer Book was crafted.
But that's the point. Anglicanism has rubrics, but we allow for choice in several parts of the liturgy. The fact is, "We don't all get to have our way." That's what irks me about the "breakaway" Anglicans--the people who left because they didn't get to have their way about gay people and women with collars and/or pointy hats. Many of them even go back to the words of the 1928 Prayer Book to feel like they are getting their way--like the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, back then, had some kind of special gnosis that made that edition of the Prayer Book akin to the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain.
I think about a time a few people expressed their dislike for the short time we used Eucharistic Prayer D. I'm not sure why, but my best guess was, "It was long." Even Episcopal seminaries teach the "ABCD's" of the four Eucharistic Prayers-- I always heard EP-A was "Adoration," EP-B was either "Blessed Virgin Mary" (because she's more prominently featured in this one,) or "Benediction" (because of its emphasis on gratitude), EP-C was "Confessional," and EP-D meant "Don't."
But in reality, EP-D is the closest one we have to the earliest forms of the Eucharist--much of it comes from the Sarum Rite, and is probably the closest one to Eastern Orthodoxy. If we want to play the "let's get back to what the church originally thought," we are talking EP-D. Yet it is the least liked of the four, if we start talking "likes and dislikes," and "what I want."
I don't worship to get what I want. I worship to become who I need to be in the totality of God's reign on earth. If I am getting hung up on standing or kneeling, which Eucharistic Prayer we are using, the quality of the preaching, or some of the ickier messages in the Lectionary, I am missing the point. When I feel like I want "my way" on this, I am too focused on the wrong things.
I remember being a little irked that I have been "put back in the corner" as acolyte. During our interim, as acolyte I was allowed "behind the table" with the presider, looking out at the pews, instead of where I used to be, before our interim, looking from the side at the table toward the priest. It wasn't because I wanted to fantasize about presiding. It was because from that vantage point, I suddenly got a new view of the Eucharist I had never had...that it wasn't something the priest did, it's something that the gathered body of people did. But when our new priest came, we went back to our old spot for the acolyte.
I admit, I don't like it as much, being in the "old spot." But I got the opportunity to see it from the "new vantage point," and that memory has not left me, and I have come to realize individual priests have individual preferences, and that's all it is. Every priest has his or her personal piety that must be attended to in order to be authentic to his or her sense of who they are as an ordained person--it shouldn't be compromised. As the presider, that is his or her right, just as how, when I'm the driver of the car, I get to put the heat or the A/C how I want it--because I hold the life of the passengers in my hands. The presider holds the spiritual life of the gathered body in his or her upraised hands as the Holy Spirit's conduit at the Eucharist, and what he/she wants (if they are healthy) is not a whim or a power thing--it's just a preference as to how they see the Eucharist. I came to understand that's okay, as long as none of the rubrics of the Prayer Book are being violated. It's just "who they are" as a priest and the experience of how they were trained.
Sure, "My favorite Eucharist" is a certain way, with certain types of music and certain types of prayer, and with things arranged in a certain fashion. But as long as I'm getting consecrated bread and wine, I'm getting what I need, and I've come to realize that what I need to be doing as part of fulfilling my Baptismal Covenant is not entering in these nit-picky discussions with other parishioners. I am happy to state my opinion and show up anyway, whether I get "my way" or not. I've decided part of fulfilling my Baptismal Covenant is to listen to what bothers others, and be compassionate, but not necessarily to take sides. To know the rubrics and make it clear that "if it's in the rubrics, I'm good with it, because I get what I need in the Sacraments."
In short, I found out "why I worship," by letting go of "what I want in worship," and accepting I always get what I need.
(Fragment of Berlin Wall near Checkpoint Charlie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
"(Saint) Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our hearts so that this generation does not miss accompanying the innocent to Calvary as the last one did. Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our souls so that the God of the unexpected can come in."
-Joan Chittister, on the Rule of St. Benedict
I woke up this morning with the realization that part of the true Benedictine meaning of "welcome" is to be open to welcoming the unexpected.
I have had a person on my mind a lot lately, that I encountered in Joplin. It has been a good two weeks since I was there, but I still go to bed and still wake up with both the visual and the visceral images I took in while volunteering there.
During the second day of my time there, we distributed, as well as cold drinks and snacks, a variety of "cleanup tools"--various sizes of work gloves, industrial brooms, and shovels. Our crew, riding in my truck, was the definition of the word "ecumenical"--this Episcopalian from Kirksville, a Presbyterian orignally from Joplin, now living in St. Louis (who knew the Kirksville Presbyterian pastor well,) and two 19 year old Mormon missionaries from Utah and British Columbia, Canada.
We drove by a house where a lone man was nosing in the rubble, obviously looking for something. He was a thin guy, with a madras plaid shirt and jeans, the shirt "mis-buttoned." He was happy to accept a shovel and pair of work gloves from us, then he turned to me and grinned sheepishly with tobacco-stained teeth, "But really, I'm lookin' for my cat. He's an orange tabby, part Manx. You know, no tail?"
We hadn't seen such a cat but as we talked, I learned many things. He lived alone, he had just gotten out of the hospital, where he had been treated for broken ribs, a punctured lung, and internal injuries. He flipped up the tail of his mis-buttoned shirt to reveal a scar covered with Steri-Strips--the scar from the splenectomy he had received to alleviate his internal bleeding.
I heard about before the tornado, during the tornado, after the tornado, the food in the hospital. But every two or three lines, he punctuated it with "...but what I really want is to find my cat. My neighbor said he saw him running around yesterday. He's still alive, I think."
All I had done was offer the guy a pair of work gloves and a shovel, and I was given a very unexpected glimpse in his life. In some ways, it felt like an overshare of a huge magnitude, and that I, in some ways, entered in a more intimate conversation than I was ready for. I found myself telling him he was truly a blessed man, to have survived that. I offered to keep an eye out for his cat. I have not been able since that day to totally get him, or his cat out of my mind.
Had this guy been in the lobby of my hospital, I probably would not have given him a second look. He just would have been one of many nameless, faceless people, who kind of seem on the edge of "people of Wal-Mart." I don't believe I would have been mean to him. I think I would have just not noticed him.
This is a reminder to me that even the simplest acts of hospitality put us in an unexpected place.
These unexpected places are not always pleasant places. Sometimes they are places of sadness and despair. I am still catching myself having "re-entry" difficulties. I might be enjoying a pleasant, cool night in my yard, and the image of the bare concrete foundation pads of Joplin's Ground Zero creep into my mind. Or I might smell food in the microwave at noon at work, and the smell of the rotting food in demolished refrigerators in Joplin fills my nostrils.
But then, I am also just as likely to have the image of the man looking for his cat, only one day out of being released from the hospital, grinning from ear to ear, and saying, "I know this sounds crazy, but I'm blessed. Truly blessed. I feel blessed in a way I never felt before," then leaning forward and adding, "...but I DO really wanna find my cat."
Really, though, isn't that how it works?
When we feel blessed, or touched by the Holy Spirit, or in that place of divine contentment, it's our natural inclination to share it in an intimate way. I'm sure that man's cat was a very close companion in his life. He innately knew there would be a wholeness to even his disaster-ridden life, with his cat on his lap.
For that to come to us, though, we have to allow for some barriers to be lowered. These are generally barriers we erected. Sometimes, we are rather obvious about our barriers and send very clear messages that keep people far away from them. We all know someone who has a fear of a particular thing, almost a pathological fear of it, and all of us have little fears that people close to us know about.
Sometimes, though, we are rather clever and surreptitious about our barriers, and use distraction to maintain them. Sometimes we place certain facets of our persona "out front" so all the attention (or all the flak) will be directed at "that person," not the deeper, more vulnerable parts of us. I am a person who tends to use that method much more than the first one. I learned a long time ago, to place the gregarious, energetic, slightly over the top "me" out front in public, because I do not like people to get very close to the vulnerable, deep hearted, almost ridiculously woundable part of me. That part of me feels things with such intensity, it's hard to move when it's involved.
I want to make it clear that "out front" person is not a straw person, or an illusion, or a "false" part of me. That part of me is very real, but that part takes a lot of energy and work to maintain, and can only be out there so long, before the oxygen runs out. Just like how Cinderella's coach turned into a pumpkin at midnight, that out front, over the top version of me has a finite time it can be "out," and it kinda implodes all at once when the air runs out of it. My friends have seen me many times acting like the life of the party then all of a sudden, I go, "Well, that was fun. Gotta go. Thanks! Bye." It bewilders them at first, but over time they learn it's not them, it's me.
I think we all have those versions of us that we put out front. The one I told you about is the one I rely on the most. But I have others. Everyone does.
But as we start to more fully understand what St. Benedict is talking about, I think we discover that to offer the hospitality of Christ, some of those "barrier people" inside of us have to retire. Oh, sure, we will use them now and then, but we discover after being just a little more vulnerable, just a little more woundable, we can handle it better than we thought we could. So we don't need the barrier person as often.
When we invite the God of the unexpected, we invite ourselves into a fuller journey.
(Father Lelere testifying at the Flossenbürg trials, June 1946, courtesy of Wikipedia)
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
I was recently reading a little bit about the Flossenbürg trials. For those of you who hadn't heard about the camp at Flossenbürg in WWII, it was one where a lot of Polish political prisoners went, as well as those who were rounded up as homosexuals dangerous to the Third Reich. It also was often the destination for religious political prisoners, and is famous as the camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed. Several others involved in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler were imprisoned, tried, and executed at Flossenbürg.
It's interesting that a significant number of Nazis were tried at Flossenbürg (46 in all) but it was overshadowed by the more high profile Nazis tried at Nuremberg. All but five were found guilty. The U.S. Army marched the townspeople of Flossenbürg to the camp to see piles of emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood. By and large, the people denied knowing exactly what had been going on at the camp, although over time, a few stories broke as feelings of guilt grew.
How much did the townspeople of Flossenbürg know? No one will ever know for sure, but we can probably be close with this educated guess: Probably most everyone knew something was going on that they thought it was best not to know any more than what they might have heard. The townspeople also feared the SS in some ways; to know and protest was dangerous. Some very likely knew much more but felt it dangerous to stand out with that knowledge. Some might have been very knowledgeable about what was happening and might even agreed, and now had guilt and shame for what they once believed. Probably some knew, but were faced with the seemingly impossible task of reconciling the fact that people they knew as "good people" and "nice people" were simultaneously capable of such brutalization.
One of the things I have learned when people find themselves in a surreal situation, no matter what role they might occupy in the drama, is that in times of trial, denial runs high. Memories soften and change over time and become unrecognizable woven bits in a much larger tapestry. But the bottom line is there becomes a place where the raw memory of the truth is no longer of much use--even for the victims. By the third generation following an event, even the memories of the last remaining survivors weakens and begins being lost to the ravages of time, and even when written record of their more raw memories still exists, they don't carry the edge of when an army of live survivors can back it up.
Frankly, it's one of the things that makes interpreting the Bible difficult. Thousands of years later, we don't fully understand the genre of storytelling in the Hebrew and Greek traditions. We don't fully get what is real, what is symbolic, and what is sheer hyperbole or metaphor.
In our reading in James, we are told that our personal trials have the ability to create an endurance in us and a constancy of our love for God.
What it doesn't talk about, though, is that in this endurance, memory fades, and justices we once might have clamored for don't always happen...yet at some point it no longer matters in one sense of it.
Although most of us will, thankfully, never have to have our spirit tried in the way the prisoners at Flossenbürg did, all of us have certainly been through difficult physical and psychological trials in our life, and the process to healing encompasses many of the same things.
Take, for instance, something as common as a very contentious divorce. We all say we're not going to take sides, but we do. Over time, we might discover if we did take a side, we took the wrong one. The heroes become less heroic as their flaws are exposed, and the goats become less "goaty" as time reveals some things the other person did wrong, too.
In short, there's enough "despicable" to go around for everyone.
The other problem we have in those sorts of trials is we can't always reconcile the smiling, generous person we know from work or social events as someone who is also a drug addict, alcoholic, spouse-beater, or child-terrorizer. We can't always see the stronger willed person as a victim, and we have a hard time believing a shy, wounded-appearing person as the aggressor.
But over the years, I've come to realize all these things are possible in the human condition. I've come to realize I can't change others' opinions of me, if the part of me they hook to are the uglier sides of me. I can never totally seem a victim to people who have watched me verbally line people out in my episodes of hot temper, and I can never appear to be an aggressor to people who have seen me be laid back and charitable in the heat of others' moments. I'm only using "me" as an example. This is true for each and every one of us.
No one human being ever fully knows the total of who we are. Some people can be intimate enough to get close, but even those people never fully get there. Only God knows all of it.
But what we find in the development of that endurance, as we become fuller people as a result of it, we find it takes a lot of letting go. Things we might have obsessed for years to "get our due" over, die of atrophy. There becomes a place we accept it won't happen, and we either have to move to a different place with it or the toxicity of it will poison us with bitterness. Old and bitter is a truly sad state of being.
Really, I "get" why the people of Flossenbürg, by and large, were in denial--denial that shreds of it might even have been carried to the grave. There was just a place where the "now" was more important than the past, their guilt had been worked out, and there just was no reason to upset people. Many may well have internally finally believed their friendly neighbor probably was a brute in the camp, but it simply got in the way of polite living. I am sad this happens, and I am sad that the victims never got the acknowledgement of their victimhood that they deserved, but really, most of the victims had moved on with their lives, too.
However, with that said, there are times the "late apology" can be tremendously healing. I thought about a time my Jewish friend Mitch had heard about Pope John Paul II apologizing to the Jewish people for the atrocities the Roman Catholic church knew about, but remained silent. It softened Mitch's stance on the Vatican from that day forward.
I thought about a time I once learned what I had been told about another person, and had believed it wholeheartedly, turned out to be absolutely, positively dead wrong, and I went straight to that person, hat in hand, and admitted it. It not only opened a door to my own healing, but put closure on that person's pain over something else.
I've thought about the times people came hat in hand to me, and I had the grace to accept it. Things changed for me from that moment on greater than 90% of the time.
Granted, sometimes the late apology is too late. Sometimes we aren't at the place with our own healing, or the other person with theirs, that it can be accepted with grace. But it's a chance worth taking, because when it does work, it becomes a quiet joy--one of maturity, wisdom and sufficiency.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.
I returned from Joplin to see the contractors have been working away. I now have a window. As of this writing, some of the new insulation has been put in the walls. I am not totally sure I have peace within my walls again just yet, but I DO have insulation within them!
That's an interesting juxtaposition. Insulation vs. Peace.
Insulation can bring a certain degree of peace, but too much insulation wrecks the peace.
With no insulation at all, too much cold gets in the house in the winter, and too much heat gets in the house in the summer. Insulation dampens annoying and distracting sounds to a degree. But too much insulation stuffed into a space, doesn't let air catch between the spaces in the insulation. If you smoosh too much insulation in the walls and smack down some drywall on top of it, the insulation doesn't work properly, as you need a certain amount of "dead air" between the fibers in the insulation for it to have the power to insulate. Also, in that situation, moisture can get in the wall and mold can start to form, which can be harmful to everyone in the house.
To a certain degree, quiet creates peace in my world. I long for more and more quiet time with each passing year. But there is a point of diminishing returns with quiet for me. When it's too quiet, for too long, I can only hear the gears in my own head running and nothing can run without fuel. For those gears in my head to whir and spin, for me to churn out thoughts and blog posts and good deeds, I need a little noise. I need other voices. I need other ideas, other opinions. It is not peaceful to me when my brain slows, and I don't hear those gears churning in there.
"Finding the balance" is a keystone of Benedictine spirituality. St. Benedict saw three legs to the stool of a balanced monastic life--work, reading and prayer--and the "work" he talked of was clearly physical work.
I have plenty of work, but it's not physical--it's mental--and I am at a place lately where my re-entry back into this mentally challenging world of my job, after volunteering in Joplin, is not going well. A couple of days doing the physical task of jumping in and out of my truck a hundred times or so, climbing in the back and rooting around, reminded me I am not making room in my life for physical work. I have had a mild gastric discomfort all week--just this dull ache--which has really affected my appetite. I over-ate last night, comparatively speaking (I've hardly eaten at all these last two weeks) and I really paid the price. I was miserable all evening and even miserable at 3:30 this morning.
My time in Joplin and my time at the diocesan discernment conference felt so alive--and now things just feel really stale and stagnant, for lack of a better term. Oh, I know what's wrong. I'm having "re-entry" pains again. This happened to me in 2008 when I helped during the Iowa City flooding. This happened to me when I used to go to the (now defunct) Abbey of the Companions of St. Luke, and returned home. This happened to me when I went out to Wyoming last year. When I engage in something that is spiritually or emotionally profound for me, I go through a period a couple of weeks later, where my whole life feels out of synch. I just get a wave of despair that the thing that made me feel so good, is now suddenly "nothing" and "a drop in the bucket," and a very large bucket at that. Then it gets followed by a heavy curtain of "drabness."
There's nothing "wrong" in my life. There's no crisis. I am grateful and, in many ways, sated. I am not lacking anything in my world. I have no acute needs at this moment. But there is just this stale place I enter into after an exciting, profound experience--this "doldrums" sort of place--where I can barely venture out to take a walk.
About the best way I can describe it, is that when I become profoundly positively moved, in order to achieve "steady state," I must counter-balance it with a drabness that, if I stayed there, would most likely be called depression. What's weird is I almost need the despair, simply to escape the drabness.
It's also the wrong time of year for me to be dealing with drabness. I dearly love summer in NE Missouri--the long days, the peaceful late nights in my yard among the stars and the lightning bugs--and this drabness is robbing me of the mystery of it. A mystery so precious to me that, if this were the final year of my life, I would kick myself for squandering the last one I was ever meant to have. I am supposed to be dealing with drabness in February, when it's cold and muddy and miserable, a drabness I always survive by having the hope of spring. Oncoming fall, shorter days, and summer ending does not engender hope quite so well.
We human creatures are an odd lot. We build while knowing at the same time, we have other things we wish would die. This drabness is hooking a fear I have about this house project of mine. The last time I remodeled a house, and had it exactly how I wanted it, within 24 months of its completion I had taken another job and moved to another town. I got it just the way I liked it, and left it. I think of other episodes in my life, and I have done similar things many times--this phenomenon of "making a big push to build things the way I planned them" very often results in me walking away from them, never to return.
The problem is, sometimes I never really get to totally walk away. I get stuck with a sticky messy piece of them. I own a house in Columbia I no longer wish to own, but I have a renter there, who, frankly, is a good renter, and I know her story. She needs this house but cannot afford to buy it. I just signed a contract to do something for another year I no longer have any desire to do. I have been doing this thing for 30 years, and I'm tired. I no longer have the enthusiasm for it. Yet at the same time, the contract for the thing I desire to do, I have yet to see. I've been doing this for nine months now, sans contract. I fear they are looking to cut me off. Oh, deep down inside I doubt that is the case, but that contract means stability to me. Working without a contract on this thing, feels very unstable.
I had two very interesting "cold calls" this week at work. One was a call from a person looking at a certain job in the area, but he has an emotional impairment. It has been difficult for him to find work in his chosen field, because he requires certain accommodations. His impairment is not ADA recognized. In order for him to do this job, he needs certain things and for things to be set up a certain way. His impairment made it difficult for me to converse with him on the phone in a way I could "get through" to him.
He is very reluctant to reveal his impairment to potential employers. It would not be found on a background check, but what would be found on a background check are the problems he had being credentialed for his job, based on a time when his impairment was not in control. He had been urged to talk to me, by a mutual friend. He kept wanting to talk about the job he desired, and I kept countering, as politely as I could, but still sounding a little like a broken record, "But if you need these certain things to do your job, you have to ask for them. You seem dead set on not telling them about your impairment, and it's certainly your right not to. But if you don't ask for what you need, you probably won't get it. Sooooo...tell me how you are not going to end up in the place you were before with your condition, if you don't change something compared to last time you were employed at this? It sure seems to me your reticence to admit your condition sets you up to fail again, and it becomes self-fulfilling prophesy."
He was not happy with my response.
Oh, I hear where he's coming from. I am not the world's greatest at asking for help. But I have learned some things from my situation. I felt like I gave him my best thoughts about this, but I can't control what he chooses to do with them.
My second cold call was from a man who recently, lost his job, allegedly to budget cuts. But the longer I talked to this man, the more I started to wonder if "reduction in force" wasn't simply a no-mess way to get rid of what appeared to be a rather needy personality. His proposal to me had a tone of "begging" to it. He had basically called to ask me to create a position for him at a job I really don't need in my organization, and then seemed upset that I didn't see the need for his services.
He explained his credentials to me repeatedly and told me several times exactly what he could do for my organization, and I said to him, "You know, I think those are wonderful ideas. But I really have no power or authority to create a job for you. The job you are wanting, well, it has more to do with something I work under contract to do, and I have no administrative authority in that. You need to talk to XYZ. And really, once you did these things and we put them into motion, why would we need you anymore? I think what you are wanting to do for me, or for anyone, is more of a consultant type thing, and I don't understand why you are calling people up and practically begging, when you should be knocking on doors and marketing these things as a consultant. I really think that's how you should be approaching this."
I had to really keep my temper in check with this guy. His fawning up to me about my skills, while at the same time, seeming irritated I didn't see how wonderful his proposal was, reminded me too much of the needy people I've dealt with in my life who turned around and cut me off at the knees. But I did not need to drag out that baggage. I simply firmly told him, "You can tell me all this stuff you want, but it doesn't change the fact I really don't have the authority to create such a job for you, and I really don't want to string you along that I might. I have two names for you, XYZ, and ABC. You really need to pitch this to them.
It was at that point he told me he had tried to get hold of XYZ but XYZ was not returning his call. Hmmm. Imagine that.
I wished him well and ended the call.
But back to where these shaggy dog tales were going.
All of us are called to find balance. Earlier in this post, I talked of where I realized I was missing balance in my own life. But these two somewhat odd phone calls reminded me that I'm not special--everyone is trying to find balance.
My first guy was a reminder that we can't be so in-focused on our own stuff that we become deaf to good, sound advice. We need the voices of a community who cares about us, and we need to be open to those voices lest we repeat the same patterns over and over. We can't find balance if we don't reveal at least some of our vulnerabilities that make us three-dimensional people.
My second guy was a reminder that we can't go running around inventing ways for other people to buy into our struggle, and be hurt that they aren't willing to take the bait. I am still struck that my second guy was begging--literally offering to come to town and show me how he could "do these things for me" if I would only pay him gas money--instead of taking what appeared to be assets and gifts and marketing them. We can't find balance by giving away our most real selves, either.
That triad of balance--work, reading, and prayer--is not just a literal interpretation of a form of monastic wholeness. It has a figurative component, too. We must do the work of our jobs and professions to the best of our ability. We must read and commit to memory the core of what got us here, to give us a sense of self-worth, as well as read what discerning members of our community place before us for our own good. Finally, we must pray. Pray that we enter each of these situations as "the authentic us." Oddly enough, it's holding our balance in the wind that will help us find peace within the walls of our true selves.
Isaiah 63:15-19, 64:1-9:
Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion? They are withheld from me. For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you? Turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage. Your holy people took possession for a little while; but now our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary. We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
After returning from Joplin, I stayed at the home of my blog friend Barbi and her family. Now, sitting out in their yard is certainly a little different than mine. There's certainly no vast expanse of pasture to look out across. Their home is in the middle of the city of St. Louis. It's an area that was once quite blighted, but is coming back. They have a way to go. The neighborhood still doesn't have anything within walking distance like a convenience store or coffee or food; the only thing nearby is a corner bar.
But I made a great discovery.
My ability to do my morning coffee and my Daily Office readings and my morning prayer time is much more portable than I once thought it was.
Historically, I've been a stickler for "things being in their proper places"--including me. I would have told you that "the proper place" for my morning prayer time is out in my yard, looking out at the expanse of my pasture, and that it just "won't work quite right" in another spot. Second place would be on my couch, looking at the candles in my "prayer corner" in the living room.
But I discovered, sitting out in that backyard tucked within the heart of a major city, that the prayer time was just as fruitful. I really couldn't even hear the urban noise in the background after a few minutes.
I think unless people really knew me well, they would be surprised at the amount of quiet time I spend. Out in the world, my guess is I am viewed as a very gregarious, even somewhat loquacious person. But unless you put the webcam on me and followed me around, you would probably not pick up on the amount of quiet time I have in a day. I think I'm an all or nothing kind of person--I'm either being the grandest extrovert you ever did see, or a very introverted introvert.
I have been a little adrift in terms of a monastic "center" ever since the shakeup at the Companions of St. Luke, in Iowa, that left them abbey-less and resulted in the people I was closest to in that order, leaving the order. It came literally three-and-one-half months after the huge shakeup of my own parish in 2009.
I felt literally homeless. There for a while I had not only lost my monastic "home," I was in constant fear of losing my parish "home," also. I won't deny now, almost two years later, it was a very lonely time in my life. I had felt literally a hair's breath of being "abandoned by God"--or at least all the people who seemed my conduit to God.
Debbie and Barbi are both associated with the Rivendell Community in SW Missouri. I need to find some time to go down there for a retreat.
But this summer, I am really missing not being at least a "visiting" part of a monastic community. I also have just recently started attending the Skyped once-a-week Evening Prayer sessions of the Anamchara Fellowship. I am intrigued by them for two reasons; one, that they at least try to connect to each other with Internet technology, and two, I like their roots in Celtic spirituality.
But yes, I am feeling the "tug" of the need of a monastic "home" again.
I am a bit of a solitary when the work day is over, no doubt about it. Yeah, ok, maybe more than a "bit." But a solitary without a community grounded in Scripture and the Church is just a sarabaite, not accountable to anyone else. Accountability is important to me. Being alone without accountability just gets me in spiritual trouble. I don't listen to God so well, but start listening to that little demon of "self." I've said it before--I need fences. Rather imposing ones at that.
My spiritual director says I am an odd combination of attributes. He refers to me as a person capable of both strong loving obedience, but at the same time, an iconoclast. I don't obey out of fear well at all, yet my borders need to be imposing. Strong enough to withstand my episodes of trying to tear them apart. It's almost like, "If my boundaries are able to be torn apart by me, I no longer respect them." If I decide I cannot single-handedly destroy them, I willingly and lovingly abide by them.
I have lived much of my adult life under an oath--the oath of Geneva, the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath. In it I promised to practice my art, the art of medicine, with the patient foremost in my mind, to keep the secrets entrusted to me, to treat my colleagues as kin, and teach the younger generation of physicians the precepts of this art, not just the technical details.
It is an oath I pushed at once upon a time and found bigger than me. From that point on, I served her willingly and lovingly.
I desire a similar situation in my spiritual life. I need to be obedient to God above and beyond my Baptismal covenant. Now, that's not to say my Baptismal Covenant is an insufficient guide, it's a VERY sufficient guide. But I always need one step more. One more strand of wire on the fence...because I always push against the fence. That doesn't make me "bad" or "willful" or anything negative. It's simply that if I have just a little bit higher ideal, I will almost always live the basic guide better, as the person God intends for me to be, and I become just a little notch more in tune with what the needs of God's kingdom is. Why does a Marine want to be a Marine? Why does a soldier want to be a Ranger or Airborne, or a Green Beret? Why does a sailor want to be a SEAL? Because being in that "elite unit" makes them a more solid core of the sailor or soldier they were called to be. It is not so much the "prestige" of the unit but the sense of tradition and history that spurs them to pay it forward.
I've come to realize I pay God's kingdom forward better when I am called to embrace a higher ideal. Period. Other people benefit more from this mindset in me.
But back to my morning prayer time at Barbi and Debbie's back yard.
I have also come to realize it is that core spiritual discipline of reading the Daily Office, and praying in my own silence, that helped me weather that time when I felt homeless. I still had a "home" in the disciplined reading of Scripture and the reading aloud of Psalms, in lectio divina fashion. I won't go so far as to say "it kept me stable" (I definitely had my unstable, fearful days and weeks in that) but it kept me as stable as I could be under the circumstances. I have come to have a gratitude about that beyond my ability to explain it. That's the only way I can describe it.
Look down from Heaven and see. For me it's seeing a path "home," no matter where I am.
(Sunlight and shadows near Deilingen, Germany, 2006, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Dear Heavenly Father, I ask that you place your healing hand on my precious husband* and all others who have lost their childhood because of abuse. May they find the loving, caring Father in you that they never had in their earthly fathers. Through your Holy Spirit, may the child in them be reborn and nurtured in a new life with Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
--Ms. Kathryn S. Ford, "Women's Uncommon Prayers," p. 67
(* Note to reader: The words "my precious husband" can be substituted as appropriate. The original prayer has additional instructions in the book cited for substitutions.)
Much of my middle age has been about "making peace with holidays." Really, I've had to make peace with about every holiday except the 4th of July, Halloween, and Harry Truman's birthday. (Yeah, that's a holiday for state employees in Missouri.)
Father's Day, for me, has become a day to be irritated at religious antiquity for carrying a tradition that God is assigned a male persona, and the ensuing hoo-haa about dancing around it.
I haven't made peace with this one yet.
Oddly enough, the intellectual part of my brain doesn't mind calling God "he." But I dislike the message it sends.
Now, I'm sure others will disagree with what I'm about to say, and that's okay. But the female images for God don't cut it for me either. They seem, well...retaliatory. "I know how we lessen God as "he," we'll make him a she!" So we get things like Godde (which just looks like God misspelled to me) and various forms of "Mother" (but I don't think God is female, either.) I mean, you know, God's God! I like to think God is beyond gender.
You see, for me, part of what makes God holy is the notion that God doesn't even deal with gender stuff in terms of self-definition. Truthfully, I think the only reason sexual differentiation exists in life is we had to have some way to share the DNA around to keep the entire planet from being inbred, in order to insure the fitness of species.
It doesn't work to call God an "it," either, because most people don't have much desire to be loved by an "it."
As long as we're talking about sex, that's another aspect of "God the Father" that seems a little off to me. When we are in the presence of the holy, and we're feeling every bit of it, there's a certain kind of ecstasy and delight in it, once we overcome our fear of it.
Ecstasy and delight have a lot of overlapping places, and one of the places it overlaps is in sexually pleasurable things. I honestly wonder if, in the case of sexually predatory clergy, if there is a misinterpretation over some of the pleasures of leading worship in that. I think back to a time I supplied for the Presbyterians and had one of those "huge realizations."
One Sunday, there were about 70 people in there, and I was realizing that people come to church with their most holy selves, in search of a glimpse of a holy moment. They are often smiling and pleasant and radiating their own bits and pieces of "holy." There's an ecstasy in leading a smooth, joyful liturgy. I suddenly realized that a needy person could mistake this radiance for personal admiration of himself or herself. I could also understand how a sexually needy person could mistake those pleasurable feelings about the ecstasy of good worship with some...um...er...um...pleasurable feelings about some baser forms of ecstasy. That person radiating the joy of Christ, who's actually looking through the person up on the chancel, to see God, could be mistaken for someone who is admiring the clergy person. It made me understand why church predators prefer to hunt in church. What was just "Oh, wow, this is great worship!" to me, might feel like, "Oh ,wow, that person has a crush on me!" to a person who was sexually needy.
So, in that light, thinking of God like a parent seems...well...a little incestuous. "Ecstasy" and "parents" are not two words I generally put together.
But my foremost reason for my struggles with "God the father" lie in a very simple (and probably very common) problem: People who had difficult or painful relations with their father might find it hard to fully love a God who is constantly referred to as "Father." In my own case, it was part of what kept me out of the church for over two decades. My gut identification with God was, well, frankly, a mercurial, arbitrary son of a bitch who would punish me at every turn, even when I was not even sure what I did wrong. Who wants to even be in the same room with a God like that, let alone worship such a God?
I am grateful that I grew far beyond any notion of that kind of God. But my own experience made me very cognizant that this issue might be keeping many, many people away from the doors of any church. In that sense, I don't think using the female terminology for God helps, either. That bumps into people who have issues with their mothers.
It bleeds over into other areas, too. Because I don't have a clear positive picture of "God the Father," it also means I don't have a whole lot of identification when we speak of us being "God's children." If one's childhood recollections are of rarely even getting to be a kid, being "God's beloved child" can be bewildering.
So here's my modest proposal for Father's Day: Just start calling God, God. Forget the use of personal pronouns when you can, and when describing God, use gender neutral words when possible. It would take some time, but it's an easy switch to make.
I do want to make it clear I don't feel a need to go so far as to change things like the Lord's Prayer. After all, Jesus referred to God as his father all the time. If I can read anything between the lines in the Gospels, it's clear to me Jesus had good relationships with not just God as his father, but it probably also mirrors that Joseph was a pretty good father to Jesus here on earth. In that, I'm grateful, because it was precisely the realization that most of the time, when we hear about the word "father" in the Gospels, it's Jesus talking about his father--a father he could call abba--"Daddy." I'm actually okay with learning about that kind of a father.
Even if our own relationships with our fathers are not ideal, it's good to know loving ones exist, and in that sense, I don't mind God the Father sprinkled in a liturgy just a little bit, as long as the context is clear. I continue to grow in my own life by "letting God just be God." I just desire to invite others to a comfortable place with the Almighty!
(Team Navy/Coast Guard shaking hands with the Marine Corps after a game of wheelchair basketball held at the second annual Warrior Games, 2011, Olympic Training Center, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
"Touch is one of liturgy’s crucial, human building blocks. The restoration of The Peace to the liturgy almost forty years ago changed our church, but the work is not done. We’ve learned a great deal in the last thirty years about people’s fear of touch, about people for whom touch unleashes nightmares of real memories, of boundaries crossed, of bodies used, of selves made objects. Thinking of boundaries, thinking of people who can’t bear to be touched, thinking of people who abuse touch, I’ve moved from simple frustration at The Peace offered or received by someone whose body is angled away, left shoulder as remote as possible while the right arm is extended in a stiff, distancing handshake. I’ve become curious. I’m looking for grace and understanding in this event. I hope and pray it’s moving me to a new and wiser compassion. And I’m glad when it also moves us past a handshake to a hug."
--Donald Schell, "Touch is a loaded subject," from The Lead, June 16, 2011
What people do and don't do at the Peace says a lot more at church than what they say.
Likewise, how the sanctuary as a whole handles the Peace says a lot about who they are as a community.
How I've dealt with the Peace over many years tells a lot about my story.
When I was younger, I did not care much for the Peace. It was a phase of my life where I did not like to be particularly touched. Now, I do want to make it clear that I was never sexually abused. But it's no secret to my regular blog readers that I was physically abused. There was a period of my life where being touched was physically difficult for me, even warm or loving touches. It was because I knew that within the blink of an eye, a loving touch could turn ugly in a heartbeat. I did not like to physically be where I could not escape--even by people I mostly could trust. I didn't like the Peace because I couldn't trust people to simply shake my hand. They might want to hug me when I didn't want to be hugged. To this day, there is occasionally a holdover from this. I know I have hurt people's feelings when I am anxious or in my phase of "wanting to be alone" as I mull things over, by stiffening up when touched. They feel my shoulders stiffen under their hand and sometimes have thought they had "done something that I was giving them the cold shoulder." Then they feel hurt, and I feel sad that they feel hurt, and it's messy.
When I returned to the church, I returned to a parish that is for the most part, "warm and loving but not over-the-top demonstrable." It has mostly been about right. I have people who I shake hands with warmly, I have people that we exchange "two handed handshakes," I have people I hug, and one that we kiss cheeks, but that is because we've greeted that way for years, starting way before I ever came to Trinity.
I am still not crazy about hugging on the chancel when I am acolyte, but I've gotten better about that. I guess I don't particularly like hugging on the chancel b/c it sends some message that the people on the chancel get a special deal with each other for being more out front in the liturgy. The first time our new vicar hugged me on the chancel when I was acolyte, I know I stiffened up. I now realize, well, "sometimes she just does that," and it's okay. I think she just gets so full of the Peace of Christ and I happen to be the only other one up there. But it wasn't like I didn't have precedent. I remember a time when our priest associate gave a very poignant homily that was emotional for her for a lot of reasons. I hugged her, but it was a hug I offered, not one I got unexpectedly.
When I attend other churches, I kind of hang back to see what the "local custom" is in that parish. I try to more or less fit in with the custom, whether they are aisle-crossers or not, whether they are polite handshakers or beefy ones, whether they are stranger-huggers or not. I've come to realize I'm probably just as bad at "polite handshaking" as I am overly demonstrative Peace-passing. I'm afraid I simply don't know how to give a soft handshake. Those "holding a limp dead fish" handshakes make me anxious.
But the biggest thing that taught me to learn to just let go and let the Peace be what it is with each person was something I learned in attending a workshop about the Eucharist. I was reminded in this workshop that we are not just shaking hands. We're passing the honest to gosh Peace of Christ. It's a time we are invited to see Jesus in the face of the person we are looking at, and to feel the nail holes in his hands! How amazing is that! It is a moment to bond in silent prayer to each and every person we touch. That little tidbit changed so much for me at the Peace. Since that workshop, with every hand I touch, with every hug I exchange, I try to take at least a few nanoseconds for silent prayer about the other person--often just a simple, "Remember them, Lord, and their needs today."
What it also means, is that we need to think about the fact it can be mis-used. I have known people who go to great lengths to avoid giving certain other people the Peace, like sticking to one side of the aisle to avoid the person.. I have even known clergy who could not bring him or herself to giving someone the Peace. I have known people who have refused the Peace from people. I have been a person who has been refused when I offered it. I remember when it first happened, I had an equally despicable reaction. I started using it like a weapon--sticking myself in that person's frame of view where it forced a refusal, so I could feel vindicated for being refused.
That wasn't cool on my part. I should not have used Jesus as a blunt object to smack someone over the head. But I did. On the other hand, as I mentally worked my way through that situation, instead of feeling defensive or retaliatory, I began first to simply feel sad. Sad that they would want to withhold Jesus from anyone, let alone me. Like there wasn't enough of Jesus to share. That's not a very big Jesus. At the very least, it's a statement about control. Someone who refuses me the peace, for some reason, wants to punish me. Maybe I deserve punishment, maybe I don't, but I felt sad that there could not be dialogue.
Then I thought about my own resistances to my own transformations in my life. Sometimes I don't want to do something because I know, deep down inside, that the experience will change me, turn my world upside down. Sometimes I back away from something because I am not ready to be changed.
As this morphed along, I remembered something else--I don't always know what has happened in the lives of others, just as how someone who doesn't realize I was beaten as a child might not understand those few times I stiffen up when touched at a time I am feeling anxious. Maybe that person is trying to control or hurt me because he or she has some terrible thing that feels out of control, and to control the one thing a person can control has power.
It was at that moment I no longer cared whether that person refused me the Peace or not, and I no longer pushed the issue. My concern moved to my desire to heal a broken world, and the understanding maybe I am simply not the vehicle for that person's healing. I can't be the healer if it's more comfortable to see me as the object of fear. It was not my choice to make. So I began to leave it alone. I wish this had a happy ending, but as of this date it does not. Yet I became open to other happy endings. I became grateful to the things I could be a vehicle of healing in, and learned to simply rejoice in that, and to pray that someone changed all our hearts somehow. I became at peace that maybe that person will never be able to give me Peace, and that's okay as long as I give the Peace to those who will accept it, with complete authenticity.
By the same token, I have had times in my life where getting the Peace was the most joyful reminder of God's powers to heal. I had a time where I was the object of a very contentious rant that was not about me, but they seemed to want satisfaction from me. I realized on Sunday, I did not really want to engage that person. But when it came time for the Peace, that person strode over and offered it to me. I looked that person in the eye, called out that person's name, clasped both of my hands on theirs, and said warmly and strongly, "Peace be with you."
Now, that person and I have hardly exchanged 50 words in the meantime. But we wave and nod. I rejoice--seriously and emphatically rejoice--that this person and I can worship together even if we can't see eye to eye on this other topic. I can't describe how much love there is in that. It's one of those moments I remind myself, "This is what my Baptismal Covenant is all about." It is a reminder that we are called to be like Christ even in turmoil and misunderstanding--if anything, that is when we are most exactly called upon to be like Christ, and to see Christ in everyone!
It really is "the Peace that passes all understanding," isn't it?
(St. Teresa of Avila, painted by François Pascal Simon Gérard, 1827, courtesy of Wikipedia)
Christ Has No Online Presence but Yours
Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours,
Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared,
Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours.
--reworking of St. Teresa of Avila's prayer, "Christ has no body," by Meredith Gould
I had the treat today of a rather slow afternoon in the office. My cases were signed out, my computer woes we had earlier in the week were at least partially resolved--enough we weren't inconveniencing the world, anyway--go I got to steal a little time "cruising articles." That's always a real bonus for me, when it happens.
It all started with this article some of my friends had been passing around on Facebook, one that is of great importance, I believe, in understanding that new reality of "online presence." Then I bumped into this piece of research from the Pew Foundation. I think it's important to realize that we may be evolving, as a society, where our "roots" are not simply geographic, but relational, and relational in terms of our ability to network via technology.
It wasn't long after that I got another piece of news--blog friend Kirstin has made the decision to actively choose Hospice care in light of the continued spread of her metastatic malignant melanoma.
You might wonder what these three articles have to do with each other.
Well, I am reminded of many, many things in regards to this prayer above, not just as it relates to Kirstin's situation, but many other situations. In just this year alone, I've seen social networking keep people safe and sane during a tornado, find a dog a new home, and connect people to each other under the backdrop of my Facebook wall (they are there because they are connected to me somehow, but they are interacting more with each other and not me--I call it my "bar n' grill" where I just serve up the entrees and let them go do their thing in a safe environment.)
Now I am watching an outpouring of love (deemed "A flashmob of grace" by our blog friend MadPriest) as people from all over the world send their love, offer their prayers, and interact with her and her roommate Andee. I will be the first to tell you that this is not the same as real, physical presence--nothing takes the place of real hugs, real hands, and real proximity--but it is this outpouring of the social networking and blog community that helps me understand that this is how intercessory prayer works.
I used to be such a butt about intercessory prayer. I used to think it seemed too much like "Persian rug trading with God." I used to think it was a way we deluded ourselves into trying to force God's hand with volume and numbers and intensity of prayers. But what I've come to discover is that it is a net--a net we simply cast out and accept whatever lands in it. I have come to realize I have been both the caster of the net and one of the many fish caught in it. It has taught me valuable lessons about having a mindset of abundance rather than of scarcity.
In short, I have never been so glad to have egg on my face in my whole life about something. Thanks to my social networking and blogging friends, I have come to realize we are all freely swimming in a net packed to the gills with grace and love and hope.
I must say I am sad this day has come for Kirstin. I truly, fervently hoped it would not come any time soon. But in that way that we physicians "smell the end coming on," even from a distance, even not being physically present--when she reported this most recent trip to the ER, something clicked in my head that said, "Uh-oh...I have a feeling this ER visit is different than the others." There was just something about her discussion of her shortness of breath that told me she had moved to a different place with this.
I started to suspect this news would be forthcoming from the time she was noted to have a tumor in her knee that was at risk of causing a pathologic fracture (and did). I guess you could say my nostrils have been flaring to get a whiff of this from the time I heard that, and my antennae were up--not because I could do a single thing, not because I cared to insert my opinion into it, not to poke or gossip--but to merely be "on alert" to simply be there and be present for "when this news would break." I even went home after work and had a meal of sushi in solidarity (Kirstin dearly loves sushi.)
Now that the news has broken, I am crying tears of joy for the outpouring of love that has invaded Facebook and her blog from the "flashmob of grace." I am sad--incredibly sad--that her life is now on course to end, in an unmistakeable way. But I am grateful she is actively choosing Hospice. For years I have waged a private battle to teach young doctors in training that this is not "abandoning care," that this is not "losing," and most of all, "Young docs, this is not about YOU. This is about letting people make decisions that impact their quality of life, not just in pain management, but in finishing unfinished business and having a spiritual quality of life that matters. I have seen people who "got it wrong" in life time and time again, and in their dying process, they finally "got it right." I think there's real rejoicing in Heaven when that happens.
I know both ends of this. I wasn't as young as the young doctors I now train when I went through it, but I was still young. I wanted to win. I wanted to make people well. I wanted to kick disease in the butt. But I have come to realize it was to make me feel better sometimes, not always the patient. But I have spent two decades of my life assigning names to biopsies--names that indelibly change lives, and not always for the better--and I am getting tired of playing to win. I don't care anymore if I'm smarter than the next guy or gal in my field. Instead, I care that I am simply smart enough to be whole. To be whole enough that I can truly rejoice in someone's decision to choose palliative care over "one more sickening, nauseating, weakening treatment" when the odds are slim and none. Yes, it's still important to me that I stay reasonably current in my discipline. But I have realized for about five years now, I care more about being whole, and I no longer care to sell out being whole for being "right." I still have lessons there. But I have hope, because I see progress.
So Kirstin, I say this to you today: Thank you. Thank you for your life, your courage, your humor, and your bravery. I know in your blog you have worried you might disappoint your "warrior friends." I don't know if you think I'm a warrior friend or not. But I think you are still a warrior. You've simply traded storming the ramparts of that fortress of your melanoma for storming the gates of Heaven. I am still not quite sure Heaven can get things ready in time for the likes of you! I thought today my one big regret is I've never heard your physical voice, nor you, mine. But then I quickly said, "Naw. I've heard her voice. Loud and clear."
Thank you. Thank you for teaching me this journey to wholeness is worth it. I've been teaching long enough to know good teachers know when to let the students teach them. I'm proud to have sat at your feet for it. Hugs to you and A. Stay with us as long as you can, but when you can no longer do it, know we will be faithful in our watch as you go to the other side of the river.
Godspeed, my friend.