January 29, 2009
"O LORD, you have searched me and known me....I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. " - Psalm 139:1, 14a
e.e. cummings ought to know. Here's a poet with no capital letters in his name. Right off the bat, he claims his truth: I am not everybody else.
I am struck by the claim that the world is doing its damndest to make sure I fail in the quest for integrity. It affirms my experience. My Self is a dark threat to the Powers of This World. Even in the realm of spirituality, there is the strong tug of pantheism (God is everything) and panentheism (God is in everything), which ultimately compresses all individuality into a cosmic soup.
In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis's devils want to consume the souls they lead to hell -- to destroy their individuality.
That's not what the God of the Bible has to say. No, he has counted every hair on my head. He knit me in my mother's womb. Me, in my mother's womb. He affirms that there is a uniqueness to me, intended by my creator.
Yet, living in the world, I feel pushed and pulled on the inside and the outside to be what someone else, or even my moralistic, judgmental self, thinks I ought to be. As if what God created isn't enough. That's how I so often feel -- like I'm not enough.
I think one of the biggest lies is that there is a "normal" to which "most people" can or should or do conform. I'm not normal. Who is? What does that even mean? I don't know. What I'm learning is that, in my very best moments, I know, maybe, a tiny fraction of the person God has created me to be. I need to go inside and find the Spirit of Christ, and find the "me" who He redeems and recreates, and live from there. I'm not everybody else.
January 26, 2009
It’s the finest time to strike
Said Napolean Bonaparte
Inmates make their break
into it Cavemen make their art
Spy planes fly and
Somewhere in the dark
"Batman catches criminals in the dark of night
Saving Gotham City from evil designs
Darkness, lovers love in and
Dreamers tend to like
And if you think you’re neither one
Well, in the dark, that’s just what
You might become
"Some celestial bodies like to
Strut their stuff a lot
But we know Mr. Black Hole is the Big boy on the block
King Tut looked pretty comfy
In that old dark tomb
What’s good for an Egyptian mummy
Might be right for you
"What’s the fun relying on something you can see?
That’s just so passe when you run toward the light
Why not make a dangerous tryst with mystery?
It’s a downright frightening hole
Watch your head
Down you go
"Larry lost his inhibitions
Sally felt a spark
Jacob saw a mystic vision
Somewhere in the dark
"Black cats eke out a descent living
Monsters make it far
You might find what you’ve been missing
The Dark "
- lyrics, "The Dark" by Peter Mayer
"On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
"In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.
"In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
"This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me--
A place where none appeared.
"Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
"Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
"The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
"I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."
- "The Dark Night of the Soul," St. John of the Cross
Sometimes I'm afraid of the dark. It's not the monsters under the bed. It's not the threat of burglars. It's nothing, and it's everything.
I can lie in bed at night and squirm as nameless demons crawl out and roam around my brain, scaring sleep away.
I pray. I want it to help immediately. I want to be flooded with peace and joy and relief, so I can drift off to sweet dreamland. But it doesn't work that way. Not for me, not most of the time anyway.
I've heard people call insomnia "God's night school." Someone even wrote a book. What's He trying to teach me? I'd like here to impart some lofty words of wisdom. I'd like Peter Mayer's sly spirit of adventure and mystery, St. John's mystical enlightenment. Instead, I am left with dark circles under my eyes and more questions than answers.
God meets us, meets me, in the dark, that is certain: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5, RSV).
A light is meaningless when it shines at noon. But when it shines in the dark... It has famously been said, "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." Be Thou my candle, O Lord.
* Fear of dark or night
January 25, 2009
This must be one of the most enthralling stories in the whole of the scriptures. Where to dig in? There are so many possibilities! Discuss Saul of Tarsus' fire-breathing zeal turned into the zeal of Paul the Apostle. What does it mean to me that, when Saul persecutes the early Christians, he is persecuting the Lord himself? What about the implications of Saul's blindness?
But here's what strikes me most today: The person of Ananias. He is a footnote, really. Paul is a figure of heroic proportions in the life of the early church. His influence on world history as the apostle to the Gentiles is immeasurable. Then there is Ananias.
First, it is impossible to ignore the scriptural echo with last Sunday's first reading, from 1 Samuel, where Eli the priest, when he realizes that young Samuel is being called by the Lord, instructs him to reply, "Here I am." Here is Ananias, with the same reply, "Here I am, Lord." Samuel, in the end, is called to anoint the king -- first Saul, then, in turn, David. Ananias is given a similar call -- anointing another Saul, through the laying on of hands, in the name of the King of Kings.
Apart from this singular act, Ananias evaporates into history. His glory is reflected at infinite remove; he is the man who invokes the Holy Spirit upon Paul, who reflects the glory of Christ, who reflects the glory of Almighty God. And yet, without the obedience of Ananias, who courageously makes his way to the street called Straight against all reason and good sense, Paul the Apostle remains Saul of Tarsus, neither eating nor drinking, his eyes covered with scales. Did Ananias ever even know what he had done?
Today, I ask God that I might be given the faith of Ananias. I ask that I may be given the grace to serve in obscurity; to say, "Here I am," whenever the Lord decides to call; to obey irrespective of reason or common sense. That I may somehow reflect his glory, at infinite remove.
January 23, 2009
One Friday night in May, when I was in college, some friends and I, rather inexplicably, decided to ride up and down the elevator of our nine-storey residence hall singing Christmas carols to the lobbies of each floor. The next day one of my neighbors approached me laughingly and said, "You guys were really drunk last night, weren't you?" What a funny question, I thought. We'd been, I assured her, stone-cold sober. Was alcohol necessary for such silliness? Not for us.
I wish I had more stories like that. I know people who do, people who have littanies of dancing on tables with lampshades on their heads after drinking nothing stronger than a strong draught of joy. High on life.
Unfortunatley, I'm a lot more like my neighbor, and Michal, more often judging cynically or scoldingly the frivolity around me. I'm jealous, of course. It takes courage and self-forgetfulness to leap and dance before the Lord. I'm afraid. I'm caught up in my image. What would people think?
No one is carting the ark of the Lord around my suburban neighborhood. What would it look like for me to get up and dance today?
January 22, 2009
I take things too seriously -- life, myself, everything. I often think I ought to spend more time laughing. I was watching a friend's two year old play tug-of-war with his mother and a scarf and laughing until he cried. I wished aloud that I could laugh like that, so easily. Maybe it's part of what God means by calling us to become like little children.
A couple of summers ago, on a whim, I brought the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers home from the library for the kids to watch. I was thinking of Harpo, the silent clown, thinking that the kids would enjoy him.
At first, they thought I was crazy. "You want us to watch this? It's in black and white!"
But we did, and then spent the rest of the summer with Harpo and Groucho, Chico ("Chick-o," because he was so popular with the ladies) and Zeppo. We watched all the early films over and over, laughing until we cried.
There are all kinds of cliches about laughter, the best medicine and all that. But my favorite moments with loved ones tend to involve that deep laughter, the kind that you can't explain, the kind that, once it starts, you can't stop. The Marx Brothers, The Simpsons, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, Calvin and Hobbes -- they give us this precious gift of release and freedom from the seriousness of life.
Because life is serious, but Jesus promised, "I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly." I never feel more alive than when I'm laughing.
January 21, 2009
This, of course, is the end of the beautifully familiar story where Elijah is searching for word of the Lord in the wind and the earthquake and the fire and finally hears it in the still, small voice. But today, I am caught up in the cave.
I suppose we all have days like this, but when I have one, I feel alone. I want to be alone, in my cave. Elijah is running from evil Queen Jezebel who is more than a little put-out that
Elijah has destroyed all the prophets of her favorite god, Baal. Elijah, meanwhile, is tired of his thankless prophet job, so he does what any sensible person whose life was on the line would do -- he runs away. He goes quite a distance and finds a nice cave and along the way sleeps for a good long time (with an angelically provided lunch on the side).
Caves make me think not just of Elijah, but of hermits and millenium cults. They are for people who want to be left alone.
I feel like that sometimes too. It's just plain easier, isn't it? Other people can be so demanding. They ask me to do things when I'd rather sit and read the paper and drink my coffee. They have opinions that I don't always like. They praise me for things I think are lousy and ignore my great achievements. Living in my head promises to be so much easier. Like an old Joni Mitchell song says, "Nobody calling me up for favors, and no one's future to decide." I get to be the god of my little private dominion. Like Jezebel and her Baals.
But God says in response to Elijah's perfectly valid complaint: Get back to work. No hanging out in the cave. You've had a rest, now there are things to do.
I may have some very good reasons to want to stay in the cave, but, like Elijah, in the end I am here so I can outrun the queen and her Baals and hear the voice of God. And he says, Get back to work.
January 20, 2009
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." - President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009
I'm not usually in the minority. I'm white. I'm a woman. I'm married. I'm a Christian in America. During the election campaign of 2008, I felt like a minority. Among weekly churchgoers, the majority supported the other candidate. I did not.
As a result, there were incidents. I avoid incidents. I don't like to be in the center of conflict. Who does? But I really supported the other guy, so I wore a button and put a bumper sticker on my car. So people knew.
The day after the election, I was with someone who was really disappointed, and said so in a way that made all the blood run to my face -- unfortunately by-passing my brain, fortunately missing my mouth. I protested in silence, by the grace of God; no words to later regret. But I was mad and hurt, and everybody knew. There were witnesses.
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of misunderstanding at work. She didn't mean... I didn't mean... Days intervened before we were together again. I was afraid; she was too, I later learned. I did what God needed me to do -- I showed up. She did what I (and maybe God) needed her to do -- she said, "Wanna talk?"
So we did. First we hugged. Then we prayed. Then we talked. We agreed to disagree and agreed to agree -- because we had a lot more to agree than disagree about. And all the witnesses got to witness again.
This is exactly what it looks like to live in the Kingdom of God, I thought and said. And it is. "With malice towards none; with charity for all," we had "chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
January 19, 2009
This story is so familiar that it's hard to hear. Like Samuel, I hear the literal words, but they don't necessarily lead me where I need to be led, because I think I already know. Samuel keeps running back to Eli; I keep running back to all my old assumptions about what it looks like to serve God.
This Sunday I heard something new. I noticed -- why did I never notice before? -- that "Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him." That's funny. He's been living with Eli the priest since his weaning. He was "lying down in the temple, where the ark of God was," and yet he "did not yet know the Lord," because "...the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him." He didn't just soak it up? Even if, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days [and] visions were not widespread," you'd think that living in the temple, Samuel would have picked up on what was what. Didn't Eli fill him in?
Eli seems to see what's going on even though his "eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see." Once he wakes up enough to realize what's going on, he tells Samuel right away what to do: Listen.
But no. Samuel doesn't know what's going on until Eli tells him. But then Samuel immediately does what Eli tells him to do.
That got me to thinking. God knows he's got a plan for Samuel. Hannah has promised God her son and followed through by turning him over to Eli. God's got Samuel where he will need him, but then God waits. And I imagine Eli was waiting too, on God.
Then, suddenly, God determines that it's time, and he calls out to Samuel. But Samuel doesn't know what to do... Or does he? He runs to Eli again and again, because that is his duty. He serves Eli, or so he believes. But in serving Eli, he is being prepared to serve God.
I imagine Samuel's temple work was thankless -- lost to his doting mother, his horse hitched to this old man's wagon. Read a little of Leviticus or Deuteronomy and remember how bloody things were around the temple. I expect Samuel did a lot of the dirty -- and I mean dirty -- work.
Instead, God has called me to do the dirty work. It can be pretty dirty too, sometimes blood or other bodily fluids flowing from a child or a pet. More often my dirt is just dirt -- on mountains of dishes and heaps of clothes and floors and toilets and sinks. Maybe here, in the dirt I am just where God wants me, so when he calls, I can run to my duty and be led to listen.
January 17, 2009
I used to roll my eyes at the idea of "spiritual warfare." I'd hear people talk about it and imagine some B-movie silliness involving demons and angels and darkness and flames. Now I'm not so sure. I notice that in the times when I draw close to God, chaos encroaches on my life in new ways. Sometimes it's dreams, weird, disturbing, vaguely evil.
C.S. Lewis begins The Screwtape Letters with the following two quotations:
"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."—Luther
"The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked."—Thomas More
Consequently, in one sense, I try not to take evil too seriously, but to take it just seriously enough. Right in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus instructs us to pray for deliverance "from the Evil One," even if we don't always translate it just that way.
St. Theresa of Avila, in her dense, mysterious writings, talks about how the spiritual dangers increase dramatically the closer we draw to the person of God. The only refuge is to draw closer still. She warns of how one can fall from the greatest heights of union with God to the lowest depths of Hell.
In me, there is nothing dramatic about my fall away from grace. It is a pitifully short lurch from heighth to depth; if Theresa is descending from Everest, I'm falling out of bed. I just get lazy and quit my evening prayer, then my morning prayer. I forget that I'm not God. Again.
And that's that, and evil has managed again to separate me from God. For the moment. I, in my sin and weakness and doubt, am left with the climax of Romans 8. I have thought, if I were left with only two verses of scripture, I hope they'd be these. Because they give me hope long past the point of my deserving to hope. Neither death, nor life, nor laziness, nor ignorance, nor stupidity nor any other human failing... Nothing. Ever.
January 16, 2009
"My right is disregarded by my God," says Israel. And I. "He does not grow faint," but I do.
There are so many days when it's easy to think I've got it handled. I am riding high, doing my thing. God, who? He can keep his distance, because I've got it under control. Israel too. There they were with the great king they'd asked for, conquering the land. They were on top of the world. It didn't last. A few lousy kings, marauding hoardes of Assyrians, a conquering mob of Babylonians, and it was all a distant memory.
It takes far less than armed soldiers to throw me off my game. Something happens that disrupts my plans for the day. Someone makes a comment that gets under my skin. Next thing I know, I'm in some God-forsaken Babylon, wondering what happened. Where is He anyway?
"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. " The ends of the earth. That's where I feel like I have slunk off to some days. You mean to say He's here too?
"Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." Someone wiser than I once pointed out in my hearing that this says: Maybe you can fly. If not, maybe you can run. Or at least get up and walk.
On the worst day, I can put one foot in front of the other, because "He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength." And maybe once I'm up, walking, I'll learn to run. And then, maybe, I'll fly. Even today.
January 15, 2009
Little Ping loves flowers too, and he is a master gardener. He is filled with great joy over the opportunity to engage the challenge. He lovingly places his seed in a small pot filled with rich soil. He waters and tends it. It does not sprout. He moves his little seed to a roomier pot with soil that is black as ink. Days and weeks and months go past, and still the soil remains unbroken.
In despair, Ping returns to the throne of the emperor with an empty pot. Surrounding him are happy children with unimaginablely beautiful blossoms bursting from their pots. Ping is doubly heartsick knowing that he has grown flowers more beautiful still. But not this time.
The emperor examines the children's flowers one by one. Though each is more exquisite than the last, the emperor becomes more and more sullen. As he reaches the last child's flower, his face is darkly clouded and creased deeply with sadness.
At last he espies Ping. Ping's head is hung in shame, yet he bravely approaches the king. "Your pot is empty," says he. "Why?"
Ping haltingly and earnestly explains the small pot and the rich soil and the large pot and the black soil and the watering and the tender words and the hope and the love and the abject failure.
The emperor, to everyone's great shock, laughs with joy and embraces little Ping.
"Meet your new emperor!" he cries. "I do not know where you got those seeds," he says passingly to the hoard of speechless children still holding their beautiful blooms. "Every seed I gave to you was cooked and so could never grow."
The test was never what it appeared to be. It looked to all the world to be flower growing, but it wasn't. It was virtue growing: patience, endurance, hope, honesty, humility, courage.
My pot may be empty today. I may hold it with an empty heart too, and with shame and disappointment and a feeling of real failure. I could have grown a beautiful flower, but my pot stands empty. The emperor is waiting. Will I come and lay it at his feet?
January 14, 2009
I've been thinking a lot about resurrection and what it means. My five year old son is excited for his resurrection body, because he'll be able to go through doors when they are shut. I feel excited about the scars.
I have long thought it is intensely interesting that the risen Christ bears "the print of the nails." If I'd planned it, I'd have healed those up. When I play God, I want the wounds to disappear and the flesh to be as if there were never nails or thorns or the rough wood of the cross. God begs to differ. We only know about one resurrected body, Jesus', and we know that Jesus enters new life carrying the deepest scars of the old.
So will I. If I think that God is going to remove the evidence of either the sin I've committed or the sin I've suffered, I've got another thing coming. The scars will all be there when creation is renewed. When I meet Jesus face to face, I'll see his. He already sees mine. There's no point in pretending.
That's what's so exciting. If I believe, and I do, that I have been born by baptism into the renewed creation starting now then I can claim my scars today. I can look at the scars I've caused and the ones I carry in my flesh. I don't have to show them off, but neither do I have to hide them.
Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," but I suspect that most of us are more like Thomas. I am. It's easier for me to believe when I see the scars, both my own and others'. Did Thomas really touch the wounds of Christ? Maybe. Or maybe it was enough that the offer was made. If I'm called to bear the image of God, like Christ, then I need to make the offer too.