Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Day in the Life of Moi

Today strikes me as a particularly fulfiling day, here in this period of feeling rather unsettled and therefore often feeling at loose ends and not quite fulfilled, even if I know that what I'm doing matters.

So, today I....

...showered and washed my hair and we still made it on time to church. In this case, "on time" means a little early, since Drazen was helping serve during communion. This is a big deal, as we are often late if I have to wash my hair.

...had thought ahead and put something in the crock pot, so we had a real lunch when we came home. dishes all done and several loads of laundry (still doing that.)

...mopped the floors, which were desperately in need of it!

...went to church again.

...made a stop at the grocery store for some basic things.

...came home, changed clothes, and went out to trim azaleas in the front yard. Got nearly all of them done that have finished blooming. We have so many, there are still a few blooming and a couple just starting to open.

...spent a limited time catching up with friends on Facebook.

Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all that, had a short nap with my honey.

It has just been a lovely day, and I think it's because of all the manual labor. That wonderful sense of seeing a job and being able to see when it is finished. Of course, all those things will need to be done again, and again. But there is something very satisfying about it in a way that paperwork and communications (email, phonecalls, etc.) simply do not satisfy. It's probably also due to the nice chemical reactions that occur in the brain as a result of physical activity, and being outside.

I sigh a happy sigh of contentment and refuse to think about tomorrow. Today has been a blessing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Down to the Ground: a long, introspective post not entertaining in the least

It has been rough, coming out of Holy Week and back into the not-quite-swing of things that is currently my life.

By the not-quite-swing of things, I refer to the lack of rhythm I'm experiencing due to having a different schedule each day and different places to be in. I'm still not used to it and not sure how to get there, but trust I will find a way to create rhythm where it is not naturally occurring. I am a musician among other things, I remind myself.

By it being rough, I refer to both the end of the special focus on "spiritual" things, and some particular "earthly" things that have been challenging. I put those in quotes because I'm not a dualist in that sense, and these things overlap greatly.

"Earthly thing" one: I heard a bird shrieking outside the back sliding glass door. I thought it might be related to the wren's nest out there, and went to see what was going on. It had nothing to do with the wrens. Our dog Tosca had caugh a robin. I feel sick even as I write about it two days later. I opened the door hoping to make Tosca let go, hoping the bird could get away. But it was too late, and the bird could not get away, and the shrieking stopped very shortly, and I wish so much I had not witnessed this. I wish our cute dog did not kill birds. I wish no animal killed another. I wish the peaceable kingdom were already here.

"Earthly thing" two: For my birthday a couple of months ago, Drazen bought me some binoculars. And not only binoculars, but binoculars that take photographs! I never saw myself as a binocular-toting person, but because I do love birds, I had commented once that I could understand why people got them, even though I used to think "birdwatching" seemed a strange and geeky hobby. He remembered this, and now I have these very cool binoculars.

I used them back in February to take photos of an otter I saw. I think I have not written about that, because I was waiting to get the photos to put with the writing.

I used them more recently for shots of the wrens' nest mentioned earlier, the construction of which I had the pleasure of watching.

So, I"ve been eager to get these photos "out" of the binoculars and into some format that I could view. Well, binoculars that take photos are by necessity somewhat complex technologically. And getting the pictures "out" involves connecting the binoculars to the computer. And although I read the instructions, I could not figure out how to do it. So I was waiting for Drazen to help me, and finally Sunday we sat down to get that done.

And....the battery had died in the meantime, it appears, which means the photos I took died with them.

I will never see my photos of the little otter and the precious wrens at work! I could hardly believe it. This was the same day of the robin killing, so that just made it harder. I was so sad about the loss of these pictures. I even got grumpy.

"Earthly thing" number three: I learned about the recent success of a friend, a writing success. Then I sat down to play piano for a bit, and was hit by thoughts of how I used to play, and how I could play today if I had made different choices. That led to thinking about how I used to write more seriously and that I have essentially done nothing in the field of writing beyond one published article. And then, what was it? Oh, I enjoy teaching, but I didn't pursue a teaching career, and I don't have a PhD.

Before long, I was wading through a morass of nihilistic self-flagellation, telling myself that nothing I do really matters, and that I've wasted the talents and gifts I've been given, etc., etc.

What it really boiled down to is that the things I do are not public, are not noticed, are not recognized. My work is done largely in the privacy of an office, and whatever success may occur there is something I will never talk about, because of the nature of the work.

I survived my growing up years partly through performing well and getting feedback on my performance. My high school and college experiences were largely a long line of competitions won, ribbons accumulated, awards granted, words of praise bestowed. Truly growing up has been for me a big struggle in letting go of that and learning to find meaning in living according to deeper values, whether or not anyone ever notices.

Well, somewhere in the midst of that morass and the depressive feelings it was slowly but surely bringing on, a ray of light shone into my mind and said, "Remember what you've been praying for?"

And I looked toward that light, focused for a moment, and realized that since Good Friday, when I had a deep realization that I needed to grow in humility--No, let me be more honest, I realized how much I still struggle with self-righteousness--Well, since then, I have been praying a prayer shared by a friend on her blog some time ago. Here it is:

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. Amen.

Suddenly it seemed clear to me that my prayer was being answered via this struggle with my sad, false pride. By facing this friend's success, and the self-flagellating thoughts of my failures, I was given the perfect opportunity to let go, to be delivered from the desire for esteem, honor, praise, approval. Here it came: Do you really want this or not? If you do, then let this go, and keep praying.


And then I realized, too, that my extreme sorrow and upset over the binocular incident was further evidence of my need for humility. I had not long before been thinking critical thoughts about others and how silly blogging, and now Facebook have made us all, so that the activity of describing our lives seems to take priority over actually living them. But I didn't think this of myself, only of others. And yet here I was, angry and put out about losing photos, so I would not be able to show them to others--when the beautiful thing is that I got to see an otter in the wild! And watch two wrens build their nest! I actually got to do those things, and I will always have the memories, if I choose to keep them.

So, I've done some letting go. Confessing. Coming down to the ground. Growing in humility means you have to grow down to grow up.

It's rough. But I'm slowly getting the not-quite-swing of it.

And next time I'll try to write something less introspective and a bit more fun!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Alleluia, Alleluia

I believe he rose from the dead. For many reasons. There have been times I wasn't sure, also for many reasons.

What I've never understood is the tendency among some Christians to try to uphold the teaching but give it a purely metaphorical, spiritualized interpretation. Well, maybe I can understand some reasons for their desire to do that. What I can't understand is how they stick with such ideas in light of history and the texts. Apparently I'm not the only one:

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

--John Updike (1932-2009)

The Church must stop trivialising Easter
Christians must keep their nerve: the Resurrection isn’t a metaphor, it’s a physical fact

Tom Wright (aka N.T. Wright), Bishop of Durham, in yesterday's Times Online

Jesus of Nazareth was certainly dead by the Friday evening; Roman soldiers were professional killers and wouldn't have allowed a not-quite-dead rebel leader to stay that way for long. When the first Christians told the story of what happened next, they were not saying: “I think he's still with us in a spiritual sense” or “I think he's gone to heaven”. All these have been suggested by people who have lost their historical and theological nerve.

The historian must explain why Christianity got going in the first place, why it hailed Jesus as Messiah despite His execution (He hadn't defeated the pagans, or rebuilt the Temple, or brought justice and peace to the world, all of which a Messiah should have done), and why the early Christian movement took the shape that it did. The only explanation that will fit the evidence is the one the early Christians insisted upon - He really had been raised from the dead. His body was not just reanimated. It was transformed, so that it was no longer subject to sickness and death.

Let's be clear: the stories are not about someone coming back into the present mode of life. They are about someone going on into a new sort of existence, still emphatically bodily, if anything, more so. When St Paul speaks of a “spiritual” resurrection body, he doesn't mean “non-material”, like a ghost. “Spiritual” is the sort of Greek word that tells you,not what something is made of, but what is animating it. The risen Jesus had a physical body animated by God's life-giving Spirit. Yes, says St Paul, that same Spirit is at work in us, and will have the same effect - and in the whole world.

And, finally, to finish up my quite untentional theme of tears that emerged over the past few posts....

Sam believes that Gandalph has fallen a catastrophic distance and has died. But in the end of the story, with Sam having been asleep for a long while and then beginning to regain consciousness, Gandalf stands before Sam, robed in white, his face glistening in the sunlight, and says:

"Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?"

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: "Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?"

"A great shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from bed... "How do I feel?" he cried." Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel" --he waved his arms in the air-- "I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!"

-- J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), The Return of the King

(Thanks to Kendall Harmon and his blog for pointing me to each of these readings on Easter Day.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Resurrection and Repentance

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. --Jesus Christ

Some things I am thinking about this Easter....

Repentance (metanoia) not only prepares us for Pascha; repentance is itself the beginning of the Passover into life--the lifting up of the inner being in anticipation of the raising up of the total being. We have become so accustomed to thinking of repentance as an unpleasant, though necessary and obligatory rejection of the sin we "enjoy," that we have tended to lose sight of repentance as a fundamentally joyous, restorative return to life in its fullness.

While taking critical stock of our own failure, and courageously assuming responsibility for it, the focal point of repentance is, nevertheless, not our imperfection but the perfect love of Christ who "is good and loves mankind...." The primary orientation of repentance, in other words, is not toward our past but toward our future which has become much brighter in the light of the divine mercy, forgiveness and hope offered in Christ Jesus....

Repentance, accordingly, becomes not a repellent magnification of our deformity but an attractive reflecton of God's beauty. It is an invitation not to hopeless guilt but to freedom and responsibility. The purpose is not that we be ashamed, as though this were an end in itself. Demoralization is not the goal. The aim, rather is true life, a life characterized by honesty, integrity and personal accountability to God, to all others and to oneself. Only such a life can bring inner peace and happiness. We are thus told by our Lord: "go and sin no more."

Jesus rose with his wounds; and we, too, rise with our wounds. In repentance, we are able to realize a resurrection of the heart before the final resurrection of the dead....Through baptism, we find that our resurrection through repentance is not a denial or a disparagement of our past wounds and vulnerability. It is not a rejection of our own past, no matter how painful and broken this may have been. The resurrection is not an abandonment of the cross, but the reintegration of all our crosses, the reconciliation of all sinners, the incorporation of all suffering into the life-giving death of Christ.

As we open up through repentance to all that has ever happened to us, we know that nothing is finally wasted. Rather than casting aside the unwanted parts of our selves, we instead discover that childhood pain and adult humiliation, our experiences of sorrow and of joy, our confusion and our many losses all are gathered in and somehow being healed. We feel new life, and see new light--the life and light of the risen Christ. We become enabled to look at our own past with love, not in order to forget our past but in order to measure just how far we have come by God's grace and to appreciate precisely where we are called to go. Where, before, we could only see a wasteland of pain, we can now witness the crops that have been watered by the grace of God.

The light of His resurrection is able to dispel any darkness in our heart and in our world. The power of the resurrection can alone finally change this world. Christ's resurrection is the seed of new life, of life which is greater than sin, corruption and death. This divine life transfigures all that receive it. It can transform the cosmos into heaven, as well as my heart and yours.

--excerpts from John Chryssavgis, Soul Mending

Father in Heaven!
Hold not our sins up against us
But hold us up against our sins,
So that the thought of Thee should not remind us
Of what we have committed,
But of what Thou didst forgive;
Not how we went astray,
But how Thou didst save us!

--from Prayers of Kierkegaard

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday and Hard Hearts

Why is that we are not embarrassed by or ashamed of our sin, but are embarrassed by, and even ashamed of, our tears?

That was a question put to us today at the Good Friday service, by one of the strongest, most courageous men I know. A man who fairly often gets choked up while he is preaching or praying and considers it a normal and appropriate thing.

This after reading three chapters straight through, telling of the betrayal, trial, death, and burial of Jesus. I did have tears, though not many, and I wondered at how true his words are and how hard my heart is.

As a counselor, I often talk to clients about the physiological need for crying, how tears of emotion actually release stress hormones that negatively affect brain function, mood, etc. That tears are a sign of life and love, not weakness.

I'm not much one to cry openly if no one else around me is crying, if I can help it at all. Not because of shame, but because when I'm really moved, I can cry pretty loudly and be a distraction.

So, it's not that I think we all "should" cry more to prove something.

But what does it mean when we don't even cry in private for our sins? When we are more able to explain away our sin than to sorrowfully repent of it?

And not just our own personal sin, but for the sin that has infested the world from the beginning of time, and the results of it that we see all around us? What does it mean when I don't cry for Zimbabwe? Or Rwanda? Or "the world's youngest terrorist"?

I'm thankful for the tears of today.

And eager for the joy of Easter morning.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Holy Week Music

Drop, drop, slow tears, and bathe those beauteous feet,
which brought from heaven the news and Prince of Peace.

Cease not, wet eyes, his mercies to entreat;
to cry for vengeance sin doth never cease.

In your deep floods drown all my faults and fears;
nor let his eye see sin, but through my tears.

Separate from the Tenebrae music by Healey Willan, we will sing this piece, which amazes me with how much it says in so few words.

I remember being at a retreat a few years ago with Michael Card. He had everyone go around and tell a little about themselves and why they were there. One woman began to cry as she talked, and as people often do, she immediately apologized for her tears.

I'll never forget how gently and firmly Michael said, "You have no need to apologize for crying. Tears are simply a sign that something in your soul has been touched. I hope your soul is being touched by being here."

If you'd like to hear it, I found on youtube the version that we did two years ago. Now we are singing a different arrangement. Interestingly, most of the youtube options are sung by non-native English speakers. I like to close my eyes and listen to these Italian accents singing in English. Of course, I know the text. You might find it more meaningful to look at the words while listening:

And I pray that your soul will be touched by it, whether or not it moves you to tears.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Now begins the week of all weeks. The week that for most of my life meant nothing beyond my seeing the words "Good Friday" on my Hallmark calendar and wondering what it meant, because growing up where I did, this simply wasn't a part of life.

Now it has become my favorite week of the year (including, of course, the Sunday of next week.)

This morning's service included the responsive reading of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, in which the congregation reads aloud the part of the crowd that shouted for his death, and of the soldiers who taunted him. It is always very hard for me to say those words. It is bad enough to imagine having been one of the people who said and did what they did.

And it is worse to remember, not imagine, the times and ways in which I have betrayed the very One I have praised, just as the crowd helped to kill the one they had praised when he rode into the city and they waved their palm braches and shouted, "Hosanna!"

And it is painful to realize, not imagine, that I am likely to do it again.

Wednesday night my chorus will sing the Responsaries for the Office of Tenebrae, by Healey Willan. It will be dark, as in the photo above. This is our third year to sing this music, and every time, even in rehearsals, it brings tears to my eyes.

The music is simple, with mostly quarter, half, and whole notes, staying within a normal pitch range for every part. No virtuosity on display here. It's all about the text. Here are some excerpts, the parts that always "get me:"

My soul is exceeding sorrowful even unto death:
tarry here and watch with me:
now shall ye see the multitude come about me:
Ye shall flee and I go to be sacrificed for you:
Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Ye shall flee and I go to be sacrificed for you.

O my choicest vine,
I, even I have planted thee;
How art thou turned to bitterness,
that thou shouldest crucify me,
and let Barabbas go?
I fenced thee,
and gathered out the stones from thee,
and built a tower in the midst of thee....
O my choicest vine,
I, even I have planted thee:
How art thou turned to bitterness,
that thou shouldest crucify me,
and let Barabbas go?

Sometimes I wonder, and of course I can't really know the answer, but I wonder how people who are really familiar with the Christian story can think it is a purely human invention. Or perhaps what I really wonder is whether I could possibly see it that way, and that's what I can't know the answer to.

The longer I live and come to know human beings, the more unlikely I find it. That kind of love, the tenderness expressed in scripture toward people who repeatedly betray, forsake, deny, and even abuse the Lover, is not normal.

You see a sad parody of it in people who are treated badly but have no power to leave a relationship, who are in some way addicted to another person and depend on the relationship for their own identity. This gets called "love," but it isn't the same thing at all.

You see another distortion of it in people who in less dramatic circumstances, simply can't say "no" to others because they don't have the ego strength for it, or they have gotten the idea that love means never saying no.

But that isn't at all what is going on in the Christian narrative, or the Jewish one, for that matter. (The Tenebrae texts are taken from the book of Jeremiah as well as the gospels.)

I don't have time to go further with this right now. Will try again later in the week to finish the thoughts.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Paying Attention

The rest of us were all standing around talking and laughing, shooting basketballs and catching up, and I noticed my young cousin away from the group, walking out into the grass.

This is the same cousin that has had butterflies land in her hands, and who can, if I remember correctly, catch hummingbirds in flight without hurting them. At least that was her goal at one point. Talk about being able to focus!

I've been recently listening to an interview with a co-author of the book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Ages. I haven't read the book yet, but I find myself "amen-ing" a lot while listening to the author describe the effects of our multi-tasking, split-focus-encouraging society. If I can get rid of some distractions, I hope to read the book eventually. As it is, I listen to the interview while driving around town, splitting my focus in the very act.

Since my job change, I find myself very distracted. I work in three different offices. I have a different schedule every day. My schedule on any of those days varies according to when clients are able to make appointments.

To add to the distraction, I've caved in and gotten on Facebook, which is (mamma mia!) the most distracting thing I've encountered since working in a roomful of three-year-olds. The reason for joining was to stay connected to a professional group that chose to use it. I thought I could keep myself private and not get into the social networking part. I was naive! I had no idea that the machine itself would be showing other people that I am now "out there." But it has been fun. I'm not really complaining. I just need to be the one in charge, instead of getting sucked into it.

Like my cousin, I grew up in the country and could wander at will away from the noise and into a world of quiet and wonder and paying very close attention to whatever was around, as well as to what was going on inside me.

I miss that life greatly and love the times I am able to get away and wander, or be still. Even so, I am not immune to the immediate gratification and the intermittent rewards of today's technological devices, and after ten minutes to check email has become a half hour on Facebook, I realize that I could have been sitting on the porch enjoying spring blooming all around me outside. Or getting the dishes done. Or spending time with my husband. Or calling a friend and actually hearing their voice. But that's not what I did. I sat in front of a computer, engaged in "virtual reality."

I have a theory that virtual reality does not promote real life virtuous living. It certainly does not encourage patience or perseverance the way watching butterflies does.

Lent is nearly over, but I am recommitting to being still and to resisting the forces that pull at me, push at me, distract me, and make me less whole.

Thanks to my little cousin for a valuable reminder.