April 30, 2012

What of the sisters?

I have found myself wondering since I heard about the Vatican's crackdown on U.S. nuns whether this will be a watershed moment.  It feels a bit silly to think of, acknowledging that the sexual abuse scandal seems to have done not one thing to deter the hierarchy from their self-destructive path of escalating authoritarianism.  Why should this be different?

But I'm not alone in imagining it might be.  I have heard several women in my life with ties to the church as Catholics or as former or non-practicing Catholics say, "If there is going to be change, it's going to come from the women." 

When I was a girl, I was introduced to the inequality in church roles for men and women when I was not allowed to be an altar server.  I could be an acolyte, carrying the candles, but then I would have to sit and watch while my male peers did the real work of serving at the altar.  I was told that girls were not allowed because then they might want to become priests. 

I already wanted to become one, although I knew I wanted to be a mother more; even if I had been allowed, I would have eschewed the celibacy in favor of a family.  Still, I wanted what I thought the priesthood meant -- not I might add, the power of consecration or other sacramental functions, but the opportunity to dedicate my life to the service of God.  It would be many years before I understood that I have that opportunity, even without the collar.

Now girls do serve at the altar, maybe because nobody, at least in the U.S. seems to want to be a priest anymore.  Anyone who has belonged to a parish in the past couple of dozen years has experienced a pastor or associate whose accent was difficult to understand, because his first language is not English.  There are too few American men entering the priesthood, so many have to come from other countries around the world.  Otherwise, one might expect to find an older, guitar-mass-and-felt-banner Vatican II Catholic priest or a young, right-wing, traditionalist American priest.  That seems to encompass the range.

As for nuns, I came of age when they were wearing polyester skirts and pant-suits rather than habits.  They got to keep their baptismal -- feminine -- names.  I didn't know very many of them, having gone to public school.  Even at my Jesuit university there were only a couple of Sisters I remember, both from the office of campus ministry.  What I remember about them is that they were not in charge of anything important or interesting, even then, in the mid-to-late 80's.

All I knew of nuns was that they taught my mother her perfect penmanship and that they tended to do the dirty work of caring for the young or infirm.  I never thought of them as rebels until college, when they became the face staring down Central American guerrillas or the officials at nuclear weapons facilities.  They were, are, heroes, following the narrow path of peaceful resistance in the face of institutional violence.  Just like Jesus.

They continue, these American nuns, to do the same thing today.  It is tragic that the face of institutional violence is, in this instance, the face of a priest, a bishop, a pope.

Will it be the women to bring the change, to restore the church universal to the call of her Lord, the call to serve with selfless love?  When I look to the gospels, I see that God calls the church his bride.  I see that the first witnesses to the resurrection were the women, faithful at the foot of the cross, fulfilled in encountering the risen Christ.  I have hope.

April 23, 2012

On time

I've been wanting to write about Andrew Sullivan's Newsweek cover story about Jesus.  Then, I read Fr. Robert Baron's  response about why Catholics stop going to church and the America magazine article that prompted it, and I wanted to write about that.  Then there is the business about the Vatican's crackdown on nuns in the U.S.

But I don't have enough time.

Sometimes I get caught up with the notion that I am going to have a Voice and take part in the Big Conversation.  I'm skittish about getting political as you might notice here and also here, and yet I have a lot of opinions.  Writing about them in this forum, in public (however small the readership may be) gives me a sense of personal agency.  I feel less oppressed by the other voices outside of me and in my own head.

But it takes time.

There is input -- reading, praying.  And then there is output.

What I know is that whatever God really wants me to do to fulfill my mission in the world, I'll have time to do.  Sometimes it doesn't feel that way.  But it's true.

That means if I feel too busy, if I feel like I don't have time for something, one of two things must be true:  Either that something is not really for me to do, or I'm doing something else that is taking up the time that ought to go to that something.

I want to have time, first, to listen.  When you call or e-mail, when my kids come home from school, when my husband drags in from work, I want to have time to listen. 

Right this minute my eight year old is waiting impatiently for us to finish a game of Monopoly over a bowl of popcorn.

So for today, and maybe tomorrow, the Big Conversation will have to continue without me.

April 22, 2012

Two Truths and a Lie

Let's just start with the lie and get it over with.  I have spent a fair amount of time lately, as I approached my 45th birthday, thinking about linear time.  Time keeps passing, and I just keep losing things.  That's how I've been thinking about it.  That's the lie.

I learned recently from something I read -- although it would have been obvious, had I only thought about it -- that a primary difference between the Hebrews and other ancient tribes is that the Hebrews thought about time as linear.  While other ancient peoples saw their gods acting cyclically, as the sun rose and set and the moon waxed and waned, the Hebrews saw God acting historically, linearly, in time.  God's action can be told as a story with a beginning, the past, and a middle, the present, and, somewhere in the future, an end.  Our story is part of God's story.

But the ancient Hebrews' neighbors didn't have it all wrong either.  There are cycles in nature, and I find that they mirror the cycles of my life.  Still, they're the smaller pattern inside the bigger pattern.  The big pattern is clearly about birth, life, and death, one straight line.  It's death that has been tripping me up.

In Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett says, "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."*  There's something that is essentially true about this.  We know that this mortal life will end.  In cosmic time, it is barely an instant.  We lose.

The first truth is that even as I lose as I walk this linear road from birth to death, beginning to end, I don't leave behind what I love.  I realize that that's one thing that has left me feeling sad and afraid, the idea that I leave what I love behind.  The truth is, I get to take it with me.  It is me in a more real sense than the aging body I live in is me.  It is eternal, starting now.

The second truth has to do with the seasons of my life.  Certain periods of our lives have built-in time limits -- our childhoods or our children's childhoods; as women, our childbearing years.  We know about how long these last and roughly when they will end.  Other seasons of my life seem equally limited, although I don't know how long they'll last until they are over.  Lately, two of those -- our homeschooling season and the season in which my husband has owned his business -- have been winding down.   I recognize that their time is up.  Whatever we had the chance to learn during those seasons we have learned or not learned.  Either way, we need to move on.  From the past and into the future.

The largest view of my life is the same.  I get a limited time, and I don't know when it will be up.  I have the chance to learn and do a lot of things.  Some I will do and learn.  Some I won't.  Either way, eventually the time will be up. 

Then there is the judgment.  People think about that in a lot of different ways, I know.  But if I extrapolate from what I experience when a season within my life ends, here's what I notice:  I notice that I feel not judged, but loved.  I have been tempted to look back with judgments of my own.  I've been tempted to regret the things I've done and the things I've failed to do.  And I have done wrong and I have failed, make no mistake.  But when I hold the time in prayer, I don't experience judgment.  I experience acceptance.  I have lost what I have lost, but I also have gained what I have gained, measured in love.  That love I gather up and take with me into the next season.

In the end, I will gather up all the love -- it will survive the refining fire (1 Corinthians 3:13) -- and I will carry it along into the age where there is no longer sun to rise and set or moon to wax and wane: "There will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light" (Revelation 22:5).

* Thanks to Jon Stewart (of all people) for quoting this a couple of nights ago to great comic effect.

April 19, 2012

You are with me like a handprint on my heart

It's my birthday today.  Ever since I first heard this song I knew I could never express as well as the the composer the debt of gratitude I owe to the many amazing people who have so graciously touched my life.  I have come a long way in 45 years.  What God has given me -- and my blessings are countless -- have come almost entirely through you, my family, my friends, acquaintances.  I have not always noted or acknowledged what others have done to rewrite my life.  It hasn't all been happy or easy.  We have hurt each other sometimes.  I do ask forgiveness for the the things I've done you, no doubt rightly, blame me for.  And if there's blame to share, know that I can regret nothing, because we have made it to today.  I am grateful for it all.

I know I'm who I am today because of you.  I have been changed.  For good.

April 18, 2012

A right and necessary kind of loss

My sister-in-law just had a baby, a tiny, perfect little girl.  When I'm with her, my body remembers exactly how it is to have a new baby -- how to hold her, pat her, what her cries mean -- and she's not even mine.

Mine is sixteen today.

When I hold that tiny infant, when her mommy's in the shower and I'm alone with my thoughts, I always end up thinking the same thing:  Remember when there was nothing but possibility?

I was going to be the perfect mother.  When my babies were new, especially the first two, I was obsessive about everything involving their care.  Cloth diapers.  No bottles, ever.  Sling-carrying.  Co-sleeping.  I know people who engage in all of these practices in healthy, balanced ways, but I, honestly, was obsessed.  I was going to do every single thing "right."

That is a part of why I home schooled.  Home schooling was a natural extension of the rest.  There are a lot of wonderful things about home schooling, but, for me, it was also about control.  It was about me

It's a fine line between them and me.  My intentions have always, I believed, really believed, been in their best interests.  Breast milk was better than formula for their growing brains.  Family was better than institutional school for their growing characters.  But in ways that I couldn't see or chose to ignore, I was as interested, sometimes more interested, in my status as a "good mother" than I was in helping them develop into the people God has created them to be.

Now they go to school.  They go because, one by one, it is what they have evolved into needing.  Now that I'm willing to be more honest, I can admit that I need it to, so that I can develop into the person God has created me to be. 

But all of this honesty and change comes at a price.  I have to admit that all of my best efforts have never created a perfect world or perfect children according to the mold that I envisioned.  That, of course, is the trap I fell into, thinking that my mold was the right, righteous, one. 

Now I see that I have to step back and back and back and ask very different questions.  The world is a much bigger place than I allowed it to be for a long time.  In that big world, the questions and, consequently, the answers, tend to be very different than what I thought they were.

When a baby is new, like my niece, she knows herself as an extension of her mother.  Only minutes or days or weeks before, they shared one body.  Now the child, in nature's design, still takes all of her nourishment from her mother's body.  Before long, though, that will change.  The separation grows and grows and the mother needs to recognize -- I need to recognize -- that the child is essentially other.  She was once a part of my body.  Now she is on the verge of adult independence.  That is a loss to me, however right and necessary.

My children are not created in my image.  We share things in common, but we're also different.  I thought that it was my job to mold them.  In letting them outgrow my expectations, they are molding me.

April 17, 2012

Other people's heartache

Several years ago I kept up with the forums on a home schooling web-site.  One woman there, particularly literary and articulate, already had her own blog, which I visited from time to time.  I got to thinking this morning about her, and her mothering and writing journeys, and I thought I'd check in with her blog.  I googled its name, and the helpful search suggestions included this:  "[blog name] son death."  What?  This woman is a complete stranger to me apart from her writing, but I know that she has -- had -- a son and two younger daughters.  My heart was in my throat.  I had to know what had happened.

I remember reading about her son, who was so bright and curious.  When he was yet a young teen he was studying Shakespeare deeply.  His life seemed to hold such promise.  I could not believe he could be dead.

And the mother.  Her grief.

I cried.

I want to believe I'm crying for her, but really, I'm afraid I'm crying for me.  What gripped me was this:  If it happened to her, it could happen to me.  This is the thing that, of all possible things, I least want to confront.  One of my children could die before I do.  I can avoid the thought much of the time, but here it was, before my eyes.  Her child died.  Mine could too.

I think this is why it's tempting to avoid other people's heartaches.  Someone loses a loved one.  I send a card, maybe even go to the funeral.  A week passes, then two, then four.  I'm done, and I want my friend to be done too.  Move on.  Let's get back to living.

But grief does not work that way.  Not at all.  My own experience is that it comes and goes for years, probably forever.  I was shopping for a birthday gift for my son last week. The woman behind the counter said, off-handedly, "My daughter turns 44 next week." I turn 45 this week, and my mother is nowhere that she can tell a stranger. I didn't expect it, but suddenly, there I was, with a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes, although this will be my 12th birthday since my mother's death.

In truth, it is easy for me to cry along with somebody else, easier than it is for me to cry for myself.  My kids will tell you that I can scarcely get through reading aloud without something choking me up, whether it's Wilbur's goodbye to Charlotte or Harry's noble speech to Voldemort. 
But I know that my own private sympathy is not enough.  I could cry for this mother and her son and their family this morning and move on with my day, get back to living.  They become for me an outlet for self-satisfaction, reassuring me that I have a heart.  I don't know for sure, but it looked to me like this young man died a soldier's death.  I hate to admit the relief I felt, because now I can see his death at a remove from my life.  I don't have a soldier son.

This is not entering in but holding myself apart.

A lot of people see God as dwelling at this same sort of remove from our griefs.  God sits in some faraway heaven, looking on, detached from our suffering.  It's the basis from which people ask how a good and omnipotent God can allow humans to suffer so.  And if it were not for the incarnation and the cross, it would be a very good question.

In Jesus, God demonstrates once, for all, that he does not nor ever has sat apart from us in our suffering.  He does not wipe away a tear and then move on.  He enters in.  Our grief becomes his grief.  He takes on our life entire. 

Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."  I often try to grapple with what that means.  What I know is that it is a direct rebuttal to the idea that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.  All is clearly not right, which is the evidence that sin is still at work.  And God did not stay in his heaven, but instead immersed himself entirely in our condition, which is to be battered on all sides by the suffering that sin produces.  The consequence of all this is that sin itself and the suffering that attends it is transformed. 

By means of the Spirit, we are called to participate in this saving work.  Am I willing to go all the way with you in your sin and your suffering?  Am I willing to stand by you not just for days but for weeks and months and years?  Am I willing to remain when it hurts me, because your suffering becomes my own?

April 16, 2012

I've lost 14 pounds

It would be both true and clichéd -- and therefore uninteresting -- to say that I have lost and gained and lost and gained this same fourteen pounds as many as a dozen times in the past thirty years.  For reasons I'm not sure I can explain, I feel certain that this will be the last time.

I know, to those of you who have walked a similar road -- or who have watched me walk mine -- this sounds ominous, like a sure sign that I intuit my impending death.  But that's not so.

I have tried many strategies to lose weight.  I have eaten hard-boiled eggs and grapefruit.  I have serially Weight Watched.  I have participated in a Twelve Step program for compulsive overeaters.  I have taken up relentless exercise.  All of these methods worked.  I lost weight every time.  That was my goal, and I always achieved it, at least in part.  I never reached my elusive goal weight (always receding into the distance, ever smaller), but I always lost until I quit whatever plan I was on.  And I always quit.

There's another cliché:  Dieting doesn't work.  I need a lifestyle change!  Honestly, I've never been big on weight-loss diets.  I didn't last a week on South Beach.  Atkins?  Too much protein for someone who goes easy on the meat.  Plus there is the risk of ketosis.  Don't know what that is?  I do.  Know why?  I know enough about nutrition, exercise, and food generally that I could write a book.  I'd like to say I learned it all so that I could feed my family well.  But it wouldn't be true.  The truth is that it's been another strategy to help me control my weight.  If I know what to do, I'll do it, I figured.

I've been all about "lifestyle change."  The way I eat now is a dramatic change from my sugar-soaked, hot-dog-a-day childhood.  From my encyclopedic knowledge of how to create a balance of essential amino acids and anti-oxidants to continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting when I am wrong, I have indeed changed my life.  But I've remained overweight.

Maybe you're ready to object.  "You're not fat," you might say.  But you would be wrong.  By all objective measures I have been fat since I was a teen.  I have gotten fatter as I have gotten older.  When I was at my top weight, I wore a size 16 (I am 5'1" tall).  You can still see the jeans; I have them in my closet.

You might well ask, "Why in the world do you think losing weight this time is going to be any different?"

My answer would be this:  "I'm no longer trying to lose weight.  I'm trying to keep from gaining it back."  Maybe that sounds silly or even evasive.  In the past, all I have cared about is losing.  I have honed my mathematical skills by playing numbers games in my head:  If I lose a pound a week, I will have lost 40 pounds by Christmas.  But wait!  If I lose 1½ pounds a week...  How much will that be by Christmas?  By the end of the year...  You get the idea.  I was fixated, obsessed even, with losing weight, fitting into a smaller size -- usually last year's clothes.

I have always found my weight to be a special source of shame and humiliation.  No matter my gifts or the service I offer the world.  No matter that I can be witty or useful or kind.  Most of my life, in secret, I have felt that the truest thing about me is my size.  If I were a size 12 or, God forbid, 14, I wouldn't want to see people or have my picture taken or participate in my life.  I would want mostly to hide.  If I were a size 8, I would want to see and be seen. 

I was never willing to talk about any of it.  I would make excuses to remain outside of my own life.  In the darkest times, I would check-out in order to be alone and eat.  What a vicious cycle of self-destruction.

Sometime in the past few months I crossed a threshold I can't see.  It's the demarcation point between self-hate and self-love.  I started to pray, not to lose weight or stay on a diet, but to finish whatever the work is that keeps me coming back and regaining the fourteen -- or forty -- pounds I already lost.  I'm praying to stay at this size or weight until I finally learn whatever it is I have to keep coming back to because I didn't learn it the last time. 

I don't know what I'll weigh at Christmas.  I'm still praying to complete my size 12 lessons.  In another five pounds, I'll be praying to learn my size 10 lessons.  I am willing, at last, to stay here as long as it takes.  Because I don't plan on passing this way again.

April 14, 2012

On Christianity's staying power

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a book called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  The book description on Amazon.com says in part,
 [Douthat] argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read the book -- I'm currently 7th out of 10 library holds -- but I saw that NPR did an interview with Douthat.  Among these published highlights, it is the final topic that I found jaw-dropping.  I don't know the question (although it's easy enough to imagine), but the heading is "On Christianity's staying power."  As in, "Do you think this Christian thing is going to last?"  Douthat's answer:
I'm not without hope. I mean, Christianity is a 2,000-year-old religion. And if you look back across these various crises in Christianity's past, there's again and again been an assumption: Well, the Roman Empire is falling and Christianity will fall with it. Islam is rising, and it's going to just erase Christianity from the map. Charles Darwin has just disproved Christianity, and nobody's ever going to hear from it again. And Christianity has been very resilient.
I don't know whether to break something or cry.  Douthat is a very well-known, well-respected conservative voice.  He's a Roman Catholic.  He's got a lot of value to contribute to The Conversation, because he's got a strong, open mind.  (See this complimentary article from the liberal Mother Jones on the conservative Douthat).

I wish he hadn't said something so careless about "Christianity's staying power."

It all depends on what we mean by "Christianity," I guess.  Douthat refers to it as a "2,000 year old religion," and if that's how you think of it, I suppose it makes sense to describe it in terms similar to those you'd use to describe other human empires and institutions.

Only, as far as I am concerned, Christianity is neither a religion nor another sort of human institution.

Even in a secular forum, the New York Times or NPR, I hope for better from a confessing Christian, especially one with the opportunity to speak to an enormous audience.  "I'm not without hope," strikes me as pretty anemic response for a believer.  Take a look at Paul in Romans 8:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (vv 38-39)
Or how about Matthew 16:18, usually a favorite among Catholics:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 
Paul and the evangelist of Matthew's gospel offer much more than lukewarm hope.  The difference is that they are talking not about a religion, but about a reality. It is how the world is.  We believe that, in the resurrection, the new creation has been set in motion.  God's kingdom is breaking into the old creation and redeeming and renewing it through the work of the Spirit in the Body of Christ. 

Christianity is not in competition with Rome or Islam or Darwin.  They are part of a world order created by a good and loving God, and everything that is good and true about them will last into eternity; what is neither good nor true will ultimately pass away (see 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Christianity is not an alternative to some other empire or religion or philosophy.  It the way that God is fulfilling the eternal plan for a creation made good and broken by sin -- sin which was defeated once and for all on the cross.

Christians, remember 1 Peter 3:15:  "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you."  And that hope need not be half-hearted, because "hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." (Romans 5:5)

April 13, 2012

A community of like-minded individuals

A pastor friend who I respect very much posted this.  It's a compelling question -- "Why can't I have a conversation with the religious right?" -- and one I have asked myself.

When I was first in college, I signed up for a program called the Saint Ignatius Institute.  Here's its description from the University of San Francisco web-site; it is much the same as it was when I was applying to the University over 25 years ago:

The St. Ignatius Institute (SII) is a Great Books program offering a curriculum founded in the Western intellectual tradition, focusing on texts in Philosophy, Literature, Classics, and Theology …. Students who complete the SII curriculum are awarded certificates with their diplomas. The SII curriculum largely replaces the University's Core Curriculum requirements with smaller, often seminar-style, courses on a variety of subjects in the Liberal Arts.… All SII courses incorporate primary sources as much as possible. The SII is an academically challenging course of study geared towards students who want a rigorous academic college experience while having the opportunity to live and study in a community of like-minded individuals.  (emphasis added)

What's not to like?  It seemed to me to be the ideal sort of curriculum and environment for a liberal arts major in search of a challenge.  In my 18 year old naivete, I missed the coded language:  a community of like-minded individuals.  It would be a gross understatement to say that I was not "like-minded."

I grew up in a post-Vatican II Catholic parish.  I call it the guitar-mass-and-felt-banner era.  It was all I knew of Catholicism.  SII was run by and filled with pre-Vatican II Catholics.  These were kids who went to daily mass and thought that singing was distracting from our purpose there.  Women were not generally welcomed either to read from the scriptures at mass or to minister communion; ideally, communion was only distributed by the priest.  Were they ever conservative -- politically, theologically, soup to nuts.

My first reaction was not to rebel, but to try to understand and fit in.  I may have been the only college freshman in history who went home for Christmas break more conservative than when I left home in the fall.

Spring came, and, one day, I was sitting in a required ethics class.  The professor took time out from his lecture to tell a couple of "jokes."  They are so offensive, I will not repeat them here.  Suffice it to say that they were vicious slurs against homosexuals.  In San Francisco.  In ethics class.  On a Catholic Christian campus.  I was horrified.  I feel the same feeling now, even as I write this.  I was trembling with anger and disbelief.  I was speechless.  And then, my ethics teacher had the gall to say, "I couldn't say that in some other class."  Meaning, that we were like-minded individuals.  I picked up my books and left the room.  I only returned for the final, and the next year I was done with SII.

Years later I encountered the thirty-something homeschool mom version of the Saint Ignatius Institute.  I tried again, for a time, to fit in, and again I experienced a now-familiar smug self-righteousness and narrow-minded, exclusionary ideology.  I'd finally learned my lesson.  This was not a group with whom I could ever engage in conversation.

We humans are prone to dividing the world into groups.  Liberal and conservative.  Capitalist and communist.  Black and white.  Christian and Muslim.  Greek and Jew.  Them and us. 

Then I build my ego-self by identifying with my particular groups.  Christian.  American. White.  Woman.  Stay-at-home mom.  Liberal.  It makes me feel good.  I belong.  And I get to be right, along with all my friends.  And I can feel smug and self-righteous in my narrow-minded exclusionary ideology.  I can.

Maybe "they" feel like they can't have a conversation with me.  Maybe "they" feel judged and labelled and dismissed, left out from among me and my like-minded friends.

We are not connecting.

My personal mission in Christ is to co-create a world of deep connection where we, together, can discover and live the truth in love, so I think a great deal about how that comes about.

I'm not sure that engagement with any group I can label will ever result in genuine communication. Deep and meaningful connection is soul to soul. When I have a real encounter, a Spirit encounter, with someone who believes even very differently than I do, I discover that our differences are less relevant than I'd thought. I discover that underneath politics or ideology is another human for whom Christ died who hurts and rejoices and loves. That is our common ground.
I have friends whose politics makes me cringe.  But our friendship isn't based on our politics.  We don't even have to avoid talking about it, because we can do so with mutual respect, built on a foundation of genuine love.  Without love, at the root, any argument, any philosophy or theology, is nothing but a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.

April 12, 2012

I'm going grey

I'm getting older.  I turn 45 next week.  That's middle age, folks, half-way between born and 90.  There's no getting around it.  From here, I start living the second half of my life, if I'm very lucky.  At my age, my mother only had eight years to go before she died.  It's sobering.

I'm at an age where I can't keep up with every new trend.  I know Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but only from watching Glee.  I'm on Facebook, and I have a Twitter account, but I've never tweeted.  I know the language, but I'm not really a part of the culture.

Take texting.  I recently spent several days with a group of teens, and I was fascinated to see how texting functions as part of their pattern of communicating.  It wasn't what I would have assumed.  Many of them did text almost obsessively.  But what surprised me was that it wasn't really distracting.  Until I thought more about it.  What I mean is that, a girl (it was mostly girls on the trip and girls with phones in their hands) would be chatting with me or someone else, glance down at her phone and receive and send a text without missing a beat in the present conversation.  It didn't feel invasive at all.  Until I thought about it.

So, this young woman was here, communicating with me, but she was also somewhere else, communicating with someone else.  I didn't know who.  I didn't know what they were talking about.  I presume that person's ignorance was similar.  He or she didn't really know where my companion was or what was going on around us.  My texting friend was strangely divided, but it didn't show in obvious ways on the outside.  She had created an illusion of presence.  I guess we all do that in ways.  I attend to a conversation, but I'm also in my head, composing a shopping list.  Is this so different?

It feels different to me.  It feels like a further step on a path that allows and even encourages a blurring of the distinction between what is immediate and real and what is mediated and imagined.  It's like Google Goggles.  Why have plain old reality when you can have internet-enhanced reality?  This brave new world sometimes tempts me with it's bells and whistles -- I confess to having coveted my neighbor's iPad -- but it gives me pause as well.

That's one of the reasons I'm going grey.  To be honest, I first made the decision, when I still had few enough grey hairs that I could pluck them out, because I know me -- I'm cheap and I'm lazy.  I would never be willing to spend the money to get my roots done every three weeks, and it's a bother to do a home dye job (I've done it, for fun, in my younger days).  I'd get tired of keeping it up, and then, when I decided to quit, I'd be really grey all at once.  I wouldn't like that.

As I have seen myself aging in the mirror, I could have balked.  I had a friend who said that she was all about going grey until she turned 45 and saw that old lady in the mirror.  I have another friend who was grey when I met her.  She looked fabulous.  Now she has dyed her hair, and she still looks fabulous -- and she looks younger.

But she's not really younger, and neither am I.  I don't mean to say that it's wrong to maintain the illusion of youth, but I cannot bring myself to do it.  I need the reinforcement in the mirror,  reminding me that I am getting older.  I want to be present with the person I am becoming.  Dyeing my hair would be a capitulation to my own augmented reality.  I'm sticking with the real thing.

April 11, 2012

Something I don't like to talk about

I end up hearing a lot of things via Facebook that I would never otherwise know.  Maybe some that, all things being equal, I'd be better off not knowing.  I'm sure it's the same for you, if you have a Facebook account. 

What I know right now is that there is a woman somewhere who is known by someone I know only slightly, and who is pregnant with a baby with a serious medical problem.  The woman is planning to abort the baby, and my Facebook friend is asking us all to pray, which I have.

Abortion is so hard for me to talk about, but it's there, and it's real, and my kids ask me about it, so I have to figure out what to say.  It's hard because I used to think it was a bad-but-okay thing and better to be legal, and because people I love very much still feel that way, and I don't want them to feel like I'm judging them -- because I don't feel that way anymore.

I just found out about and joined an organization called Feminists for Life.  I like their approach -- "Women Deserve Better."  They advocate for supporting women (and children and men) in ways that address the unmet needs that may lead a woman to feel that abortion is her only choice.  Why, they ask and I ask, should a woman have to choose between work or school and carrying a pregnancy to term?  They talk about access to health care and adoption resources.  I put a Feminists for Life bumper sticker on my car, but I hesitate to put anything on my Facebook. 

To say anything about being against abortion, I fear, will lead to my being lumped in with the picketers with their bloody signs and the man who stands up in my church every year inviting us to "adopt" and pray for an unborn baby, even encouraging us to give "our baby" a name.  Those approaches disgust me.  They do nothing for women who seek abortion but shame or ignore or devalue them, and I want nothing to do with any of it.

So I remain silent.

I know women who have had abortions.  Maybe there are women out there for whom abortion was a neutral, if not good, experience.  I haven't met any of them.  I have met any number of women whose abortions have left them deeply damaged.  They are guilty and grieving and confused and ashamed even many years later.  It has tainted their relationships with men and with their other children.  I imagine that our public discourse about abortion continues to wound them.

When I sit in church and hear the rhetoric on "Respect Life Sunday," and many other Sundays as well, I think of the women sitting there who have had abortions.  I know they are there, but there is nothing I have ever heard from the pulpit to indicate that anyone else knows.  And I grieve for them, for the additional hurt or shame that they experience in the place where they should instead receive welcome and healing.

I know healing is possible, because I have seen it.  I have seen it when women have first felt safe enough to claim their truth -- that they have had one, or sometimes more, abortions.  I have seen healing when, then, a woman has been allowed to grieve.  Sometimes it is grief for the baby, who she still remembers.  Often it's grief for the woman she was, who was hurt or lied to or just alone and did the very best she could or thought she could.  Finally, I have seen healing when that woman is accepted without judgment and without conditions.

I don't know what is going to happen with the pregnancy of the anonymous Facebook woman.  I imagine that she feels an enormous amount of pressure and doesn't know for sure what the right thing is to do.  I imagine that she might be very afraid to carry this baby to term and love it and then have to watch it die.  Who wouldn't be afraid?

I'll be honest -- I hope she finds the support and the strength to continue her pregnancy.  But if she doesn't, I pray that she receives love enough love to heal the hurt, to grieve the loss.  I pray that she is welcomed back and not ostracized, that she is offered love and not rejection.

April 10, 2012

If you are new or visiting, please raise your hand

Only three hands went up.  The church was packed.  There were chairs in the aisles and in the vestibule.  But only three people copped to being visitors.  I suppressed a giggle and a scoff as I looked around.  Really?  None of you other people is new or visiting?

Obviously, all of those people aren't at church on an ordinary Sunday (unless they are the ones who show up the weeks I stay home; maybe whenever I miss, they bring in all those extra chairs).  So I figure one of a couple of things is going on when they decide not to raise their hands.  Maybe they feel embarrassed.  Maybe they don't want to be outed as the Easter-Christmas-crowd.  Okay, I'd rather people not volunteer to feel shamed.  Maybe they're afraid they're going to be asked to do something or say something.  Maybe they're afraid they're going to be given something they don't want.  Fair enough.

But maybe it's something else, something sweeter.  Maybe they still feel like this is their home.  Maybe they don't feel new or like they are visiting, because they feel like they belong here, even if they haven't been since Christmas or last Easter or Grandma's funeral or their own wedding.

Isn't that who we want to be, as Church?  A community that welcomes back the wayward son?

I've been thinking a fair amount lately about that parable, the one we call The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  I read Tim Keller's book, The Prodigal God, which I can recommend, and I've discussed some of its points with a couple of friends.

I picked up the book because another friend thought I'd like it.  As I began to read, part of me thought, "Yeah, yeah, I know all this."  But I didn't.  For instance, I'd never thought about the fact that, when the father divides the inheritance, the elder brother gets his, larger, portion too, so when the father says to him, "Everything I have is yours," that is literally true.  When the father takes the ring and the robe and the fatted calf and all the other trimmings for the feast, he is taking from the elder brother to give to the wayward younger son.

Here was the other thing that I had never, ever considered:  According to Keller, when the younger brother took off and never came back, somebody should have gone out looking for him.  Look at the context of this parable.  It follows immediately after The Parable of the Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Lost Coin.  What happens in those stories?  Something is lost, and someone -- the shepherd, the woman -- searches high and low until they are found.  Not so the lost son/brother.  And Keller says that the one who should have gone looking, according to the culture, was the older brother.  But he doesn't.  And when the younger brother comes back, the older brother is not rejoicing.  He's angry, hurt, and disgusted.

It's tempting.  I'm here in church week after week...  They only bother to show up at Easter, and now I can't have my regular parking space or my pew.  I sniff.  I huff.  I sigh.

"Everything I have is yours."  That means, if my wayward brother, sister, is going to have any -- because she's spent hers -- it has to come out of mine.  My inheritance, my parking space.  Am I willing to share?

The older brother in the story is not willing to enter into the feast.  We don't get to know if he ever joins in.  Somehow, he feels like there is not enough for him if his wayward brother gets any.

I found a place to park and a place to sit, even though we got there later than we'd planned.

Why do I feel like there's not going to be enough for me? 

When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”And he said, “Bring them here to me.”Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:14-21)

April 9, 2012

On a lighter note

I can make my life so ponderous.  Sometimes I behave as if, for something to be worthwhile, it has to weigh two emotional tons.  I am drawn to the extremes of life.  I like strong tasting food -- black coffee, red wine, dark chocolate, and broccoli.  When I cry, I sob.  My husband says my sneezes shake the walls.  When I laugh, tears stream down my face.

But I don't laugh too often.  And why not?

I'm a textbook oldest child, overly responsible, serious, hard-working -- except when I am evading responsibility, looking for gossip on the internet, and finding excuses not to wash my floors.  It's all the same pattern, two sides of a coin.  I want to look serious all the time, so instead of playing for real, in healthy ways, I cheat.  I don't want you to know I eat cake and drink Diet Coke.  I don't want you to know how addicting I find political blogs or that I know everything there is to know about Mad Men. 

I have trouble having fun.

I want to do better.

Here's the thing:  I've been feeling a lot lately that life is short.  Maybe it's that I'm on the verge of 45.  The impending menopause?  The grey hair?  My oldest turning 16?  My parents and parents-in-law edging into their 70s?  (Feel free to stop me any time...)

I'm also tired of the clandestine "fun," which, truth be told, often isn't that much fun.  I'm sort of over cake, believe it or not.  Politics gets old.  And I don't have cable, so I can't watch the new season of Mad Men until it gets to Netflix.  But I digress.

I'd like your help.  I'm going to start a list of things to do for fun, and I want you to join in.  What, pray tell, is fun for you?  What makes you smile or laugh out loud?  NOT, please, what you think you ought to find fun (for example, playing Candy Land with your darling children; that may be noble, but it is NOT fun).  Post what you really enjoy, maybe, if you're like me, in spite of yourself.

Post your answers in the comments here or on Facebook.  Here are a few of mine:

roller skating
watching The Daily Show with my husband and the Muppets with husband and kids
hiking where there are lots of trees
dancing to 80's music
playing in the pool
listening to my kids tell jokes or play the piano
visiting with my sisters, in person, because they make me laugh so hard
folk music and show tunes

I'll add more.  You do too.

Dying for Love

Have you read "I'm Christian unless you're gay"?  If not, you can start with this

Dan Pearce published this in November at his blog "single dad laughing."  I just read it today.  There are a couple of outtakes that I want to highlight.  First this:

Why is it that so many incredible people who have certain struggles, problems, or their own beliefs of what is right and wrong feel so hated? Why do they feel so judged? Why do they feel so… loathed? What undeniable truth must we all eventually admit to ourselves when such is the case?

Now, I’m not religious. I’m also not gay. But I’ll tell you right now that I’ve sought out religion. I’ve looked for what I believe truth to be. For years I studied, trying to find “it”...

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this man, Mr. Pearce, is not a Christian, but "for years" he has been looking for the truth.  Do you know what he sees when he looks into our churches and our lives?  Hate.  He talks about Jesus having taught us to love, and he then goes on to draw equivalence between Jesus' teaching and that of the Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, Rama, and traditional Judaism.  I solemnly believe that the Truth is the Truth, and I feel nothing but gratitude that the reality of God's love has been experienced and taught by all the world's major religious traditions.  But, Christians, we're supposed to do more, be more, than pointers to some old written teaching.

We are not supposed to be practicing religion. Christianity is not some set of rituals meant to appease an angry God.  It is what is true about the world.  Isn't that what we say when we "proclaim the Gospel"?  In the ancient world, where those words come from, the "gospel" was about the king.  "Caesar is king!"  That was the Roman gospel.  It was not something to believe or not believe.  It was a fact, the fact, of life.  We Christians say, despite all appearances to the contrary, "God is reigning as king through his Christ, Jesus."  Then, in theory, we live as if that were true.

And that's not all.

When I say, "I am a Christian.  I have been baptized into Christ.  I am dead to sin (that is, my old self) and alive in Christ" (Galatians 3:27, Romans 6:3-4, 11, among others) what does that mean?  What does it mean that I am "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, John 14:17, and others, but especially 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19). 

What -- God help us -- does it mean when those of us who claim, by our baptism or membership in a church, to be incarnating the Spirit of Christ today, have only hatred and judgment to offer? 

We say we stand over and against "the world," with Christ, who came not to condemn but to save (John 3:17).  What would that look like if it were true?  

What would it look like if we Christians lived as if Christ were the King of creation and as if we were nothing but vehicles for His Spirit to do our living (2 Corinthians 4:7)?

I know, I know, there are a lot of people out there who want to say, "But this [behavior, belief, action, teaching] is wrong and God tells us what's right in His Word/Church."  I want to say that too.  Too often.  Here's what I know:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
It does not matter if I'm right or you're right or what God's Word or Law or Church say if we do not have love.  It doesn't make any difference.  It does not allow the proclamation of the Gospel or the incarnation of Christ through His church.  It only perpetuates the sin of the world, the same sin that sent Jesus to the cross.

Getting back for a moment to Mr. Pearce, he says:

I wish we didn’t all have to find ways that we’re better than others or more holy and saintly than others in order to feel better about our own messy selves. I wish people wouldn’t cluster entire groups of people together and declare the whole lot unworthy of any love and respect.

But that is the point of such thinking and action, isn’t it? I mean, it’s simpler that way. It makes it easier for us to justify our thoughts, words, and prejudices that way.

All these people become clumped together. And in the process, they all somehow become less than human.
They become unworthy of our love.

That final sentence, "They become unworthy of our love," makes me feel sick, because I know that that's the message that people hear from us so-called Christians.  They hear it on picket-lines.  They hear it on T.V.  They hear it from the pulpit.  They hear it over coffee.  Them and us.  It's still a big worthiness contest, and everybody loses.

And, incidentally, none of this has a single thing to do with what it looks like for Jesus to be King.  His Kingdom, which we fervently pray to come so that God's will might be done, is a big ol' feast for sinners, wayward sons, prostitutes, and tax collectors.  No bouncer at the door checking my worthiness card.  And it's a good thing for me.

I am not worthy.  I am blessed and gifted and, at the same time, a ruin of pride and laziness and judgment and self-pity and blame and selfishness.  So are you.

I am not worthy of the love of God in Christ, "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

So, at long last, I lay down for us a challenge.  Mr. Pearce says this:

Find somebody, anybody, that’s different than you. Somebody that has made you feel ill-will or even [gulp...] hateful. Somebody whose life decisions have made you uncomfortable. Somebody who practices a different religion than you do. Somebody who has been lost to addiction. Somebody with a criminal past. Somebody who dresses “below” you. Somebody with disabilities. Somebody who lives an alternative lifestyle. Somebody without a home.

Somebody that you, until now, would always avoid, always look down on, and always be disgusted by.

Reach your arm out and put it around them.

And then, tell them they’re all right. Tell them they have a friend. Tell them you love them.

Amen, I say.

And, Christians, we know something more.  In order to love with the love of Christ, something has to die.  What is it in me that needs to die today so that my brother, my sister, might live?  What judgment, fear, resentment, self-righteousness has to go?  What will it cost me to offer love, life, to a woman or man of whom the world says, "You are unworthy"?  Christian love costs. And I believe that only, only when I am willing to pay -- with my own pride, dignity, need to be right, to be clean, to be safe -- only then am I loving with the love that is in Christ.

April 8, 2012

The darkness did not overcome it

I don't know if it's against the rules to critique a homily -- an Easter homily no less -- by the Pope.  It feels like it ought to be verboten, even if, by some strange oversight, it's not.  Nevertheless, here I go.

At the Easter Vigil at the Vatican, the highest of high holy liturgies for Catholic Christians, the Pope delivered what is, in my view, a beautiful teaching.  Except for this passage:
The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil. The darkness enshrouding God and obscuring values is the real threat to our existence and to the world in general.
My soul cries, "No!"  The whole point of the resurrection and the realization of the kingship of Jesus is that darkness can no longer pose any real threat to mankind!  Look at Saint Paul in Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… 2....For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …3637No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv 1, 31b-35, 37-39)
Understand, I don't mean to say that I know more than the Pope.  That would just be ignorant, not to mention arrogant.  And yet, and yet...  The church has been overtaken recently, both traditionalist Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, by a cacophony of hand-wringing about moral decay.  Maybe it's not recent.  Maybe it's always, and it's just seemed extra loud of late with all the press about the health care law and contraception.  Is that really what we were baptized into Christ to talk about?

The Pope's sermon, the passage quoted above in particular, was brought to my attention because it was reprinted in a newsfeed.  I read the whole thing (you can too, here). 

There was a time in my own faith walk when I was convinced that we had to do something, or else!  I think now that this is a deeply unChristian way of approaching the darkness in the world.  I was coming from the left.  I thought that more social programs, more money, more people who thought like I did could solve all the problems of poverty and injustice.  The current conversation, while from the right, says the same kind of thing from the other end:  Less sex, less license, less freedom.  But aren't we saying the same thing?  We have to do something, or else!

It is right to recognize the ways in which the world still seems to tend in the direction of hell-in-a-hand-basket.  To deny that this is true is just whistling in the dark (as I said here ).  What I think the Pope fails to make clear (though I feel quite sure he'd agree with me here) is that we know beyond any shadow of doubt, that no matter how dark things may still seem, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (John 1:5).

The darkness cannot, will not, overcome the light.  Now, none of that is to say that there isn't work for the Body of Christ.  We are called to shine the light in the dark places.  By the Spirit, we must illumine the places of injustice and the places of moral failure.  What's more, we've got to start in our own backyards (cf. Matthew 7:3-5).

But let's not forget that we know the ultimate outcome.  That is what Easter is all about.  Death and all of its minions -- hatred, malice, envy, greed, covetousness, and all the rest -- have been defeated once for all (cf., for example, Hebrews 10:12-14).

With all due respect to Pope Benedict, I contend that there is no longer any "real threat to our existence and to the world in general."  All we have to do is say, Yes, and join in the feast of the Lamb.

He is risen!

April 7, 2012


Tonight in the solemn Easter Vigil the church universal will recall the whole of salvation history from creation through the great flood, from the call of Abraham to the crossing of the sea, from the mighty prophets to the empty tomb.

Wiser souls than I have sought to understand and explain how the cross and the resurrection change everything.  Who am I to add my voice?  Who am I to remain silent?

The great procession of stories from Genesis forward is a reflection of the truth of humanity as a people of story.  We live not in ideas, philosophy, not ultimately.  We see our lives as stories, unfolding.  "Once upon a time" to "The End."  God's revelation is the story which is the foundation of all our stories.
Once upon a time, when the Spirit, the mighty wind, swept over the waters, all that was brought into being was good.  It is good.  Humankind was created the best of all, in the image and likeness of God, who one day would reveal the original from which the image is cast in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Humanity's election from among all God's creatures was for the revelation of God's perfect image to God's creation.  We were to be the good shepherds.  In order that we might perfectly reflect the Creator, we had to be made free like God.  We are free to worship God.  Which means we are free not to worship God.  And so it went.  And so it goes.

Once upon a time, God elected a remnant of humanity to fulfill the call of God-image-bearer for all of humanity.  The family of Abraham were to be the light of God-image to all the nations.  But in order that they might perfectly reflect the image of God, they had to be free.  They were free to live for the world or live for their own tribe.  They were free to worship their Creator or the local counterfeit.  And so it went.  And so it goes.

Once upon a time, God elected a remnant of the Jewish people to fulfill the call of God-image-bearer for all of creation.  As the prophets foretold, a King, anointed to rule, would stand at the head of the nation who stood at the head of humanity, who stand at the head of created things.  Messiah, Christ, Anointed.  Jesus of Nazareth, begotten of God, incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin in the fullness of time, the Man in whose image Adam (Hebrew for man) was made.

In the fullness of time Jesus the King entered into his eternal destiny by exercising his freedom, our freedom, in a perfect Yes to God the Father.  In the fullness of love, which is to will the good of Another, Jesus allowed that all of humanity's Noes to God be gathered unto Him:  No to God's sovereignty.  No to peace.  No to the call to stewardship of the earth.  No to gentleness and kindness and faithfulness.  No to life.  All the Noes and the destruction they wreak, Jesus carries in his flesh to the cross.  Human suffering is united with the eternal, perfect love of God the Father to redeem all that is broken in creation and to inaugurate creation’s renewal.  Death, the final NO is confronted with the perfect YES.  And death cannot endure.

"The End," to our great and joyous surprise, is a new beginning.


"Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne!
Jesus Christ, our King is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

"Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!

"Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God's people!

"My dearest friends,
standing with me in this holy light,
join me in asking God for mercy,
that he may give his unworthy minister
grace to sing his Easter praises.

"The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
"It is truly right that with full hearts and minds and voices
we should praise the unseen God, the all-powerful Father,
and his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

"For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,
and paid for us the price of Adam's sin to our eternal Father!

"This is our passover feast,
When Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

"This is the night,
when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slav'ry,
and led them dry-shod through the sea.

"This is the night,
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin.

"This is night,
when Christians ev'rywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

"This is the night,
when Jesus broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

"What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?

"Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

"O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

"Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

"Of this night scripture says:
'The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy.'

"The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace,
and humbles earthly pride.

"Night truly blessed,
when heaven is wedded to earth
and we are reconciled to God!

"Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church's solemn offering.

"Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.

"Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!

"May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen."

[For more information about the Exultet in the Easter liturgy, click here.]

The Day After

For us, it's The Day Before.  We'll spend the day on an Easter egg hunt at church, dyeing eggs at home, pulling out pastel-colored clothes and baskets, awaiting spiral hams and chocolate bunnies.  For them, it was the day after.

When the disciples ran, where did they go?  As I imagine it, they all, men and women, eventually made it back to the upper room.  It was a kind of safehouse to begin with, thus the sign of the tethered donkey.  Now it was not Jesus who was on the run, but his followers.  Jesus was dead.

As far as anyone knew -- despite what they had been told they might expect on the third day -- this was their new reality.  Jesus, their friend and leader, was dead.  They were all in grief.  The men were probably wanted as co-conspiritors.  And it was the sabbath.  They were not going to travel.  What did they do?

My mother died in the middle of the night.  We were at the hospital.  Afterward, we gathered at my tiny, rented house, where my grandmother, husband, and small children were sleeping.  In a stupor of disbelief and helplessness, we spent hours sitting on the floor.  We cried and were numb.  We talked and didn't talk.  I don't remember what we said, but I remember very well sitting on the floor until the sun came up, not having a clue as to what else to do that night or any day or night that was to come.  I image that the disciples felt something like that.

I imagine them sitting on the floor, crying and numb, talking and silent.  I imagine the stupor of disbelief and helplessness.  I imagine the fear that there would be a knock at the door and some soldier would want to take them away and crucify them too.  I imagine Mary the mother of Jesus praying.  I imagine some other Mary offering food which nobody wanted to eat.

And where was Peter?

I imagine Peter, in his shame, somewhere else, God knows where.  The others would be worried that he had been arrested too.  Finally he would come back, knock at the door, frighten everyone half-to-death, but then, by his presence, fill them with relief for a moment before the dark truth of their reality seeped back in.

Some of the women would do what women do and get busy with the business of living and dying, in this instance, with planning for the proper burial that was to come.  They would find a way to gather the spices.  They would make it a king's burial, as Jesus deserved.  Such preparations would give them a sense of purpose.  They would be ready to rise before dawn to be at the tomb as early as they could.

Eventually, although it was day, we all went to bed and slept a little.  Then the children, not-yet-three and not-yet-one woke, hungry.  Life moves on regardless of our grief.  The day dawns, the children need feeding, arrangements have to be made.  It seems as though no tomorrow worth living is going to come around again.

April 6, 2012

At the foot of the cross

We have been there.  We know what is dumped and piled there, at the foot of the cross, seemingly foresaken.  We've heard about it, seen it, lived it.

There is the ruin of our lives.  Every abused child and loveless marriage.  Angry words.  Gnawing fear.  There are the broken promises and the faded dreams.  Lonely, sleepless nights.  Disappointment and disease.  Famine and poverty and war.  Greed and corruption.  School shootings and execution chambers.  Drug overdoses and abortions.  Hopelessness, helplessness, and despair.  Nameless, senseless death.

There are all the places where our live cease to make any sense.  Where meaning is gone and all that remains is emptiness.  There is nowhere to go from the cross but into the heart of the tomb, cold, sealed with a stone.

I know we know the ending, but there is an ending before the true ending, which is itself a new beginning. 

Gather courage and enter with me into the tomb.  Put off the glad rags and the sugar-coating.  See your sister and know that she carries within her a burden of pain.  Look upon your brother and acknowledge his wounds.  Look in the mirror.  See the truth of the hurts you have suffered and the hurts you have inflicted.  In all this, gaze on the cross.

I have had enough of tired religion that wants to skirt this truest truth.  The cross is a scandal and an abomination -- and nothing else would do.  God entered into the darkest darkness of our lives.  The cross is not an afterthought.  Jesus was never "plan B."  This was always the way, from all eternity.

I am finished with religion that wants to encourage me without first encountering my pain.  I have had it with spirituality that does not recognize the truth of a world wracked by sin.  The solution makes absolutely no sense apart from the problem.

I am naked, broken, bleeding, dying and so are you.  We and our world are in desperate need of a savior.

April 5, 2012


Of all the events of the passion of Jesus, I think of the agony in the garden as being the most difficult.  Of course there is the physical agony of the scourging, the humiliation of the crown of thorns, the near impossibility of dragging the cross beam through the streets of Jerusalem, and, of course, the horror of the crucifixion.

But what's different to me about Gethsemane is that Jesus still has a choice.  I remember the first time a wiser soul prompted me to think about it -- that Jesus didn't have to remain in the garden waiting for the soldiers and then submit to his arrest.  He could have run, lived to fight another day.  He could have stood in opposition, his disciples an army with swords at the ready.  He had choices.

That's what I think makes Gethsemane so difficult.  I think that is why Jesus sweat blood.  He had to stand in the conviction of his own will, believing that he knew and could assent to the will of the Father in this final hour.

After Jesus' prayer in the garden, once the soldiers arrive with their clubs and swords, the choice becomes irrevocable.  Yes, Jesus could "summon twelve legions of angels" (Matthew 26:53), but we know that he's made his choice, and it is to submit "like a lamb led to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7).  He is now at the mercy of the powers of this world, the High Priests and the Pilates and the Herods, because of his Yes in the garden.

What does it take for Jesus to say that final, Yes, to the cup that he is called to drink?  It is night.  He is alone, with not one friend who can watch and pray for even an hour, even this hour.

What does it take for me to say, Yes, to the cup that I am called to drink?  For you to say, Yes, to the cup that you are called to drink, the crosses that we must carry?  We face the night too, on our knees, in desperation, sweating blood. 

But we are not alone.  There is One who watches and prays with us in our hour.  He suffers with us, bleeds with us, carries the cross with us, dies with us.  With me.

Holiness, Addendum CORRECTED

My husband was horrified that I did not include this link in yesterday's post, so, in the interest of maintaining marital bliss, and because it is a good and fitting song, here it is:

Peter Mayer's Holy Now

(That should be better.  Good grief!)

April 4, 2012


crux, from the Latin, cross
  1. The decisive or most important point at issue.
  2. A particular point of difficulty.

A wise friend who is dear to my heart asked me to clarify something critical:  Do you really see the cross of Jesus' crucifixion as a failure?

I actually think it is difficult from here, 2,000 years of Christian history later, to remember that in Roman Palestine, the cross was an ignominy, a sign of cursedness.  Now it's art, jewelry.  I remember being an adult, maybe even in my early 30's, when I first became aware of how many people were crucified by the Romans.  I had never given it a thought.  There were just those three in my mind, Jesus and the nameless men on his left and his right.  In reality, there were thousands.

If you don't already know -- as I didn't -- crucifixion was a punishment for rebels and slaves.  The convicted carried only the horizontal cross-beam; the upright would have been stationary.  He was stripped naked, denied the modest loin-cloth that depictions of Jesus crucified allow.  The crucified died of asphyxiation.  It took me a while to understand how that could happen, but it has to do with the weight of the body and the need to support that weight in order to allow the lungs to fill with air.  You can find a much more detailed -- and gruesome -- description somewhere on the internet, I'm sure.  It's a horrifying form of torture.  What's more, it's public and humiliating and it's meant to be a lesson to everyone about the power of the powerful.  I have heard that there is no depiction of crucifixion in art until after every generation of first-hand witnesses had died.  No one who had seen a crucifixion could imagine rendering it as an image for reflection or worship.  Crucifixion may be the cruelest means of execution ever to spring from the imagination of fallen Man.

I said in the earlier post about failure that a crucified messiah was necessarily a failed messiah.  The whole point of messiahship was about defeating Israel's enemies.  The proximate enemy was Rome, but in the context of Jewish history you could as easily substitute Babylon or Assyria or -- and especially -- Egypt, and tell the same story of oppression and injustice, the powers of the world in conflict with God's chosen people.  The best of the good-ol'-days was the time, a thousand years before Jesus, when King David ruled and defeated all of Israel's enemies and established the center of his kingdom -- God's kingdom! -- on Mount Zion, Jerusalem.  The expectation of messiah ("anointed"; Greek - christos) was for a re-establishment, finally, of that sort of kingdom, where all the world would know that God was king, ruling through His chosen, Israel and Israel's anointed king.  Crucifixion meant exactly that that was not going to happen.  Rome wins.  Israel loses.  The real messiah could not end up on a Roman cross and be messiah.  But Jesus did.

A lot of people think that, for Jesus of Nazareth, that was the end of the story.  People thought it 2,000 years ago.  Some people think it now.  In this post-Enlightenment world we have adopted this quaint notion that, somehow, ancient people didn't understand how death works.  In fact, even two thousand years ago, people knew that dead meant dead.  And they knew better than we that crucified meant Dead. 

So, Jesus of Nazareth, would-be messiah, crucified on a Roman cross, was a failure if that is the end of the story.

There's so much temptation to talk about Easter, empty tombs and the sunrise of new creation.  But let's not yet.  Let's wait.  Let's spend the next three days with those women at the foot of that Roman cross.  Let's spend a moment of awareness of the abject failure that it all appeared to be. 

"Holy Week"

On Sunday, Palm/Passion Sunday, the priest talked, predictably, innocuously, about Holy Week as (duh) the "holiest" week of the year.  It steamed me.

A few years ago, in a cliched attempt to read the whole Bible in a year, from the beginning, I valiantly persevered all the way through the book of Deuteronomy.  That meant that I read all the Law in the course of about twelve weeks.  If you've never done it, let me warn you -- it's a bloody business.  There is all sorts of detail about how to make a proper sacrifice.  When my 20th/21st century mind hears "sacrifice," I imagine it as a painful, if intangible, letting go.  Not so in the ancient world.

Every ancient culture participated in some sort of animal -- or human -- sacrifice as a way of communing with their gods.  "Religion" and sacrifice were more or less synonymous.  And was it ever bloody.  In the Hebrew scriptures, it is not just the fact that animals were killed.  Their blood was gathered in bowls and splashed around.  So much for the privilege of the priestly class.  Their lot was to do the gathering and the splashing and, one presumes, the getting splashed on.  Think of the smell.

The other thing I noticed in reading the first five books all in a row was what it meant for something to be "holy."  There is, to be sure, plenty said about the sacrificial animal's being unblemished or the first-born.  But, at least to my understanding, the thing that made it holy, the crucial thing, was that it was set apart for God.  By being so designated, as belonging not to me, but to God, it became holy.

Now, that makes sense to me when I think about "Holy Week," I guess.  We can look at this week as the most set apart for God.  We can.  There are a lot of extra church services, particularly if you are a Catholic.  Time set apart for God.  Holy.

But here's what nags me, to the bone:  What about next week?  Or last week?  Do they somehow belong less to God?  Are they less holy?

It's the same thing that irks me with all the things we label "holy" -- church buildings, clergy, saints, icons, certain songs, crosses.  Holy, holy, holy. 

Gerard Manly Hopkis, Jesuit and poet, said, "The world is filled with the grandeur of God."  Amen.  You know what I think is holy?  What I think is reflective of the greatness of God and deserves to be set apart?  Let's start with chocolate ice cream.  And babies.  How about that wilted dafodil in my front yard that the snow is just melting off of.  Beethoven's 9th.  My husband's warm legs against my icy feet in bed (yes, he is a saint).  My son's toothless grin.  Clean towels.  The moment when tomorrow's school lunches are made.  Holy, holy, holy.

I will go into the church building this week and listen to the clergy and recall the saints and gaze on the icons and sing the songs and venerate the cross.  But things are every bit as holy in the home I leave and come back to.

I am surrounded by my failures

It is very quiet here today.  I am home alone, which never used to happen and now happens all the time.  I find ways to fill the emptiness of the time and the space -- housework, errands, the internet, meals, phone calls, e-mail.  Yet sometimes, like today, all of those are dry like dust.  I cannot do it.  I cannot do anything, it seems.

So I sat outside in the sunshine, feeling the feelings that emerge out of the quiet:  loneliness, fear, ennui.  I looked around the yard, and I wanted to see the spring and the melting snow and feel happy.  And I did.  But I also saw the weeds.  The broken toys.  The houseplant, a gift, that I let die.  I thought of wasted days and years and opportunities.  I thought, "I am surrounded by my failures."  And it's true enough.

What I want is to escape, to run away from the brokenness and the waste and the failure.  I want to sleep or eat or cover it up.  I want to deny it.  I want to erase it.  And I can't.  I will wake up.  I will be hungry again.  The wind or the dog or the kids will throw back the cover.  No denial, no eraser, no distance or wish will change the past.  What I have done and what I have failed to do...

It's sad.  There's nothing else to it.  What might have been isn't, and what is is.  And I'm sorry.

So I sat and thought about failure.  And about Jesus.  And about Holy Week.  And about the cross.  When Jesus was arrested and condemned to crucifixion, it was the very public pronouncement of a colossal failure.  A messiah on a Roman cross was the very definition of world-class failure.  Epic.  Unredeemable.  The game was over.  The jig was up.  A real messiah would win, and crucifixion was loss, full bore.

I thought about the women who watched and sat at the foot of the cross, in the shadow of failure.  What did they think about?  Did they blame Jesus or just pity him?  Did they think about their own  failure?  This was the messiah they followed.  They had other choices.  This one ended up on a cross, bleeding, naked, dying.  They must have wanted to run away.  But there was nowhere to go, no sleeping or denying or hiding this failure away.  It was on display on a hilltop in view of everyone.

That's a little, tiny bit of how it's going to feel when I click "publish."  Like I have put my bleeding, naked, failure on display.  You don't know all the details.  No one can know every time I've let my kids down, yelled at them, chosen some selfish pursuit instead of loving them.  Instead of loving my husband.  Instead of taking care of my house.  Instead of pulling those weeds.  But I feel like you know.  Today, I feel like you might as well know.  I am a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

You are too, of course.  No matter the face you put on.  No matter how well-weeded your yard and well-tended your kids or your job.  You live in the shadow of the cross too.

That's why I will post this.  It's why I will drag myself to the foot of the cross and look at the bleeding, naked, dying messiah.  I'm up there and you're up there too.  Which is why he's up there.

Wait with me.  Watch and pray.