Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

So, as of today, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the entire world population is 6,793,000,000 (found that out here). This extremely large group of people is entering 2010 (by the Gregorian calendar, anyway), a nice round number at the end of a decade, a unit of time to which many people tend to assign some sort of arbitrary meaning. Retrospective articles on the past decade are already flying fast and furious on the web as we humans, creators of meaning and interpreters of the times, seek to understand what has and hasn't happened, and what we are to make of our presence here at this particular time. These articles are written as fast as we can read --and as fast as we can forget-- them, and honestly, most of them seem to be kind of a lot of hoo-hah over nothing.

It's enough to make a girl feel kind of insignificant. I mean, really... I'm one of almost 7 BILLION people, waking and sleeping, eating and breathing in my one fairly insignificant corner at a fairly insignificant time in thousands of years of human history. I haven't invented anything, really, and have contributed precious little to the improvement of humankind. Year after year, I work, I do my best not to be an a**hole to people around me, I pray and go to church and try to follow what I believe God wants me to do, I pay my bills. I'm kind of a little cog in the great big machine of the universe, doing my thing, not particularly important.

What, really, does it matter whether or not I make New Year's Resolutions?

It matters. It matters a LOT. It matters because I matter. It matters because you matter. I may be one of 7 billion people, but the choices I make every day touch the lives of the people around me, who in turn touch the people around them, who in turn... you get what I mean. If I don't take responsibility to honestly look at my life and consider what I have and haven't done and what I've done badly and whom I've hurt, neglected, or just been sort of limply apathetic toward... if I don't honestly and fairly look at my limited resources and figure out what I can and can't do in the new year, and make plans to distribute those resources among the various things that are necessary and important in my life...

...well then, I risk wasting it, this next year. I risk wasting the time I'm given. I risk wasting the life God gave me. I risk doing what I'm put here to do. I risk being a blob of a person, so convinced of my own insignificance that I miss out on taking action so that I *am* of significance, at least to the folks right around me who could use whatever I have to offer them.

I have no clue who reads my blog these days other than my Dad and a few friends and folks who go to my church. I know I've experienced some Blog Exhaustion the past few months, so if you're here, thanks. I appreciate you giving me your time... and even if it sounds cheesy, I really hope you don't underestimate your own importance, your own ability to change things right around you. It really doesn't matter if you can see how at the moment... it's more important that you push yourself towards believing it. Fame is a social construct and who is famous or not is really kind of arbitrary and a bit of a dull subject, really. So, err, you should really sort of forget that if you haven't already. No one is insignificant by definition, but you can act as though you are and become functionally insignificant as a result. Please don't do that with your life.

Err, and that's all for now. Hugs.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I Sound My Barbaric Yawp

So, Gideon Addington is dead by suicide. And I am f**king PISSED.

(Before I proceed, let me say that this has been written about beautifully and with some sensitivity by Jonathan Brink here, Josh Hale here, and Katie Mulligan here. I used Walt Whitman's line as the title of this post because I feel like bashing things in, and you'll see that here. If you're not in the mood for that, then you'd probably better stop reading now.)

I don't want to add any hurt to any of those who are mourning this loss, but I keep stumbling across more and more examples of how this person was bringing seriously beautiful ideas, poetry, and friendship into the world, and I am really, really, really angry that he's gone.

It's not that I've never been there. I was suicidal throughout my teens and was literally at the point of going through with it twice during that time... but something always stopped me and I always assumed that something was God. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND why this same God who kept me in the world allowed this soul to take himself out. And I don't want to dance around that, folks, I want to stand right in the middle of that and scream at the top of my lungs.

It's NOT FAIR. How come I soldiered through and you didn't? How come you gave in? There were people who really liked you and who even may have loved you as time went on and they got to know you better, and there are people posting to your Facebook page who CLEARLY loved you and knew you in the flesh. WHY????? Did you try meds? Did you live with roommates? Did you have friends who were your suicide watch buddies and you could call if you were at that point?

Or did you do all of the above and just got sick of managing it? Because I did, in the end, get better. It's been a long time since I've been that low... and if it never really let up for you, Gideon, then I guess I understand. It is hard to stagger blindly through that darkness day after day after day. It is hard to continue to force yourself to believe that it will get better. If you truly lived with this every day, then I don't know if I would have made it to 30 if I were you.

I, we, have no choice but to forgive you, and to speak holy words about your death because all deaths mark the passage into the spiritual realm and into Mystery... even the ones that leave us outraged, helpless, pounding words into our keyboards as though this will bring you back because it's what brought you to us in the first place.

I just found this song via @hardlynormal, Mark Horvath of invisiblepeople.tv, who found it here courtesy of @MelissaRowley. It's a homeless guy named Mustard doing the best cover of Creep by Radiohead that I've ever heard. I dedicate this to Gideon, because this was one of my all-time favorite Songs to Be Depressed By back in the day.

Rest in peace, brother. I look forward to meeting you someday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mary's "yes" and God's sovereignty

I've been asked to post my meditation from this morning's service at Church of the Common Table. Just to put a little context on it, we decided to bring the story of Mary's Advent waiting a little closer to us this morning by asking three of the moms in our congregation to share their experience of pregnancy as waiting. I gave this meditation after that.

Gabriel is one very busy angel in Luke 1. Luke opens up his account of the life of Christ with two separate --and very different—annunciations. In the first, the Angel Gabriel greets Zechariah, a priest whom Luke says was “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly”. This, despite the fact that God had not blessed he and his wife with children even though he had prayed for this for many long years. In the second, the Angel Gabriel greets Mary, whom is introduced simply as a virgin whose father had arranged to marry her to a man named Joseph, himself a descendant of David.

Zechariah was performing temple service when Gabriel showed up to talk to him, and he was filled with sheer terror at the sight of the angel. Gabriel was tuned into this and told Zechariah not to be afraid, that he had good news for him and that his wife would give birth to a son who would be filled with “the spirit and power of Elijah”, the great prophet of the Jewish tradition. Zechariah, attempting to get a grip on the situation --and on himself-- blurts out “How can I be sure of this? I’m old and so is my wife.”

Me being me, I hear exasperation and sarcasm in Gabriel’s response: “(sigh) I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God?? and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now? You will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Bam! And just like that, Zechariah --the upstanding priest of God-- is totally mute and reduced to using sign language to try to communicate to those standing outside the temple that something big has gone down.

The situation with Mary is totally different, though. This young woman --whom until this point Luke has described only in relation to the men whom were her caretakers-- is not described as being overcome by terror at the very presence of an angel, but as being “greatly troubled” by his greeting… not because there was an angel in her room, but because she didn’t understand what he meant when Gabriel said “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Like Zechariah, Mary greets the news of the angel that she will give birth to the eternal king of the house of Jacob with a question, but it’s not framed as an incredulous “how can I be sure of this?” but rather as curiosity over logistics: “How’s THAT gonna happen? I’m a virgin, after all.” So Gabriel responds to a straight question with a straight answer, explaining how it will happen, and mentioning that her cousin Elizabeth is also already preggers in quite similar miraculous circumstances: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

And then Mary says something fascinating, which has been the subject of much poetry, music and theological speculation: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Gabriel, satisfied with this response, returns to the presence of God.

When I was in the Catholic Church, a LOT was made of Mary’s answer to Gabriel. Look at Mary’s servant-like nature! Look at her willingness to be used for the LORD, no matter *what* it cost her personally! Look at this example of pure, unblemished womanhood, submitting fully to the LORD in complete, child-like faith! Hail, Virgin Mother of our LORD!!

But I’m more interested in the fact that she responded… as though she knew, in some way, that God required her assent in order for this to happen. And upon receiving her assent, Gabriel’s work there appears to have been finished, like that’s really what he was waiting on. I remember being in a conversation with some Catholics once who posited the possibility that Gabriel had actually gone to several women *prior* to Mary, but that she was the first one to accept his proposition with such calmness, and therefore to become the Mother of God.

Why? Why did it *matter* whether she said yes or no? After all, Gabriel evidently didn’t require Zechariah’s assent. He came to Zechariah solely to report what would occur, and promptly took away his power of speech upon meeting his incredulity. Of course, what he was describing to Zechariah wasn’t happening to Zechariah. He would be affected by it, but it was actually happening to Elizabeth. Gabriel’s later annunciation to Joseph also served the purpose primarily of informing, rather than asking for any sort of assent. We don’t have an account of Gabriel appearing to Elizabeth, of course, so we can’t verify a parallel, but still… it is strange, isn’t it?

I mean, think about it. I’m assuming we all know *how* babies are made, but we have so unbelievably little control over when and how, really. And --as we have heard in the testimonies of some of the mothers in our congregation-- the whole process of pregnancy is a series of uncontrollable events as a woman’s body is transformed into a baby incubator, her own lifeblood mined for nutrients for this growing body inside of HER body. Every woman experiences this process differently, and differently even with every child she has. She simply CANNOT predict with total accuracy what is going to happen to her. The process is miraculous and beautiful and all of that, but the more salient point is that it is deeply, deeply physical and deeply beyond our ability to really control. At best, we firefight once problems become apparent. And we pray a lot. But it’s not like God asks us, “hey, are you cool with this?” before the process gets started.

And it’s not like He asks us this with other things in life, either. I mean, we all, I’m sure, have wondered in passing if we could have had some notice before experiencing the big changes in our life, good and bad. Would it have hurt for God to give us a little heads up? Some sign? I find myself going back over the events preceding each huge, life-changing event in my life, mining for clues... a Colombo of faith, sniffing around for any evidence that God could have been telling me what was going down… and in many cases, that I could have prevented that thing from happening.

…which raises a very interesting and important question. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines purgatory as a city with a sprawling suburb in perpetual grey twilight, and the portal to heaven as a bus stop in the middle of the city that takes its passengers to a meadow with hills in the distance. The hills are heaven, but the passengers in the bus find that they are like paper-thin ghosts in this new land, that the grass hurts their feet and the sun hurts their eyes and they are afraid to go forward from the bus. Some choose to go back to purgatory. But even beyond that, there are those in the land of twilight who have moved far, far from the city center, who never go into town and don’t even know about the portal to heaven. It seems that, to Lewis, our every decision every day points us in a direction, either towards, or away from heaven. Toward the light, or towards the dusk that will someday deepen into a blacker night than we can possibly imagine.

So which is it? Does God have the control? Or do we? This is not a philosophical question. If you believe that our choices matter deeply, that God is in some way limited by our permission for Him to act in our lives, then our actions and decisions are directly linked to God’s ability to change the world for the better. If you believe that our choices are something of a side issue, or perhaps even irrelevant in the face of totally sovereign God, then you can find either rest or despair in the fact that your choices, while important insofar as you are obedient to God, do not have any real ultimate effect on your life, your salvation or the affairs of the world. Your perspective on this affects everything: how you make your decisions, what you think of prayer, how you enter into relationships with one another… everything. Really.

Even in Romans 8:28-30, part of the passage we read this morning, God is seen as predestining, controlling our futures. But then it says that all things work together for good to those who love Him, placing the agency back on us and our love for God. So which is it? What do you think? Is God totally in control? Or are we?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The waaaaiting is the hardest part...

Below image is from here

So, we've entered the season of Advent, the time in the church calendar where we all think and talk about waiting and meditate on the value of it and the difficulty of it... and we tell the story of Mary and the Angel Gabriel coming to her and then her waiting for the birth of the Most Important Person In All of History, who, in a most unexpected turn of events, happened to be growing inside of her.

In the Northern Hemisphere, this is happening as the days are getting shorter and shorter, and it really works with the whole waiting theme. Darkness implies waiting for daylight. The creeping cold and naked tree branches imply a waiting for spring's warmth and light. You feel it in your bones. In Iceland, for example, they're down to about 5-6 hours of murky twilight at this point in the year. The effect on me physically when I visited there a year ago was pretty dramatic. I could NOT wake up in the mornings, and although I had a great time, my senses were sort of muzzled the whole time I was there, the grey and dark of the world muting every sense perception I had.

Winter is nature in the womb, waiting.

This year, my Advent has begun with a very odd (for me) period of waiting. For the past two weeks, I have literally not been allowed to work due to some government snafus with my security paperwork. The situation will be resolved, but we're waiting on people who have no motive to hurry, so this is dragging on a bit. Last week's wait was broken up by my ill-fated trip to Pittsburgh, but this week has been 100% me sitting at home. Waiting.

I don't do this well. I work. It's what I DO. I realized this week that --aside from the 3 weeks I took after graduating with my Masters degree in May-June 2007-- this is the longest break I have had from working since I entered the work force upon my return to the U.S. in 1999. For 10 YEARS, with that one exception, I have never taken more than a week of vacation at a time. Never. And even THEN during those times of vacation, I checked my work email at least once, sometimes more. And I've NEVER spent this much time in my apartment. Sitting. Waiting.

One very notable side effect of this waiting is that it's kind of like sitting in a mirrored room. I haven't been able to get away from myself. I mean, I've been doing volunteer work for Emergent Village and my church and what-not, but being by myself has forced me to listen to my thoughts in a way I haven't had to for a really long time. It hasn't been pleasant a lot of the time, but I've had to be very honest with myself about some things and my hope is that this bears a lot of fruit. We'll see.

Probably the most painful thing about waiting is what it does to your faith. Kierkegaard said that the only unforgiveable sin (the "sickness unto death") is despair, but waiting for an extended period of time can and does lead to disappointment and eventually to despair. Yes, you have to battle with these emotions, but they're a natural reaction. "How long must I wait for this situation to resolve itself?" "When will You give me what You've promised, LORD?" "Am I missing something? Am I doing something wrong?" Advent's waiting invites a question we, or at least I, rarely articulate: Jesus, where ARE You?? You said You'd come back, and we have 2000 years of theology grappling with the fact that You haven't, at least not in the way You said You would. How long must creation wait?? Are You really coming back???

My friend David Hottinger has an amazing, amazing blog about his work as a hospice chaplain. He just did a post containing a homily he delivered at the memorial service for a patient who unexpectedly committed suicide this past week. In it, he says

The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever.

And there is NOTHING in all of creation – death, disease, depression, despair, broken relationships, loneliness, – NOTHING – smashed dreams, unfulfilled expectations, regrets, rejection, shame, trauma – NOTHING – can separate us from the love made known through Jesus the Christ.

As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.

It's hard to believe this when you're in the middle of it. Does God really reach out to me when I am doubting Him so fiercely? When I'm finding my faith stretched to the breaking point, not by tragedy, but by interminable waiting? Where in the mysterious dance between my free will and His omnipotence do I cross the line into preventing myself from receiving His love? How do I keep from getting to that point?

Waiting can be like having a single drop of water falling on the same spot on a rock every minute on the minute for years. The rock is worn away, slowly, almost imperceptibly. Our faith wanes and wanes until it's gone and we don't even know when it left.

As I've been in this mirrored space of waiting, I've been noting the effect that disappointment over waiting for years for certain things in my life has had on me... how it's sometimes made me cheerfully fatalistic, with a kind of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" attitude. I joke about small tragedies and disappointments that eat away at my faith every day. I move within my life as though I will never see these promises and dreams realized, and as though that's ok.




So. This year, Advent is, for me, about meditating on what waiting does to a person... its effect on faith. Am I more patient as a result, or simply more resigned? Am I wiser now or simply more jaded? Where is the line between faith and fatalism, and if I have crossed it, how do I cross back?

LORD God, keep me honest.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Didache Community - Then and Now

... a meditation on Chapter 3, "The Didache Community—Then and Now", of The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community by Tony Jones...
(which you can, of course, buy here and here.)

First off, the Didache is really worth a read on its own before you read anything I have to say about it. It's short, and you can read Tony's translation of it here (scroll down through the stuff about the blog tour and you'll see it). Try reading it slowly. It helps.

When I first read through the Didache, I was put off by it in much the same way as I've been put off by reading the Deutero-Canonical books (the Apocrypha to all you Protestants out there). It seemed like someone had taken a pair of scissors to the Gospel of Matthew and then re-pasted the interesting parts in an order that pleased them, chucking in some of their own deep thoughts on the same themes so it didn't read like straight up plagiarism. I'm aware that what we consider plagiarism wasn't an offense in the days of the early church and isn't an offense in many cultures now --instead being seen as a way of honoring the teachings of a respected elder-- but why should I want to read *this* when I have the Gospels?

But then I read it again. And again. And again and again and again. And I started to get it, and Chapter 3 of Tony's book helped me understand why.

Chapter 3 starts with a picture of the circumstances under which Christians, then a sect of Judaism, were operating in 70-110AD, the broad time span during which the Didache is thought to be written. Infighting between the Nazarenes (as the Jewish Christians were often called) and other Jewish sects had led to the expulsion of all Jews from Rome in AD 49. The Christians that remained in (or returned to) Rome in AD 64 were persecuted by Emperor Nero, blamed for a fire that had destroyed much of Rome. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus in AD 70, and around this time, Christians had been made exempt from taxes levied upon other Jews, which removed them from the protections offered to Jews in the Roman Empire. In other words, times were --and had been-- tough, and there was a lot of uncertainty around what it meant to be a Christian. One thing that was certain is that it still meant being a Jew, but what kind of Jew?

Sitting with this part of the chapter and thinking on how contested Christian identity was in the first centuries after Christ was actually very unsettling for me. I've studied early Christian history, and I know that things have changed a lot, but reading about the Christians who would have been familar with the Didache brings it home to me that their faith may well have been NOTHING like mine, not just in practice, but in substance as well. The truth is that while my reaction to the Didache is that it feels like a knock-off of the Gospels, it actually pre-dates the Bible I have. Tony points out that the authors of the Didache seem to have no knowledge of the letters and theology of the Apostle Paul, and that the text was written well before the Gospel of John. How much of my theology --that which I believe and that which I wrestle with and reject-- is formed by the Pauline letters and John's presentation of Christ? I'm well familiar with the fact that the Bible as I have it now is the product of a lot of political back-and-forth between powerful bishops a few hundred years after Christ, but that doesn't change how I feel about the Bible or about the beliefs I have held on to (and those I've rejected) that have been informed by that Bible.

Knowing that Christians were Christians before the New Testament as a fact and believing it are two different things. If I internalize the reality that the Christianity and the scriptures that I have are dramatically different than those of the early Christians, then I am put in a place of much deeper dependence on simple faith and God's guidance through the Holy Spirit. I could take refuge in an argument about God's sovereignty and how all of Christian history has been guided by His Will and we are exactly where He wants us to be --current scriptures and theological beliefs and all-- but I don't totally buy that. The intersection between God's omnipotence and man's free will is a fairly mysterious thing and I tend to think we've mucked things up rather a lot.

Which brings me to the second part of chapter 3, where Tony introduces us to the Cymbrogi (named after an ancient Celtic word meaning "Companions of the Heart"), a group of 10 or so folks in rural Missouri who have grown disenchanted with the institutional churches from which they've come. Not all of them have chosen to leave those churches, but they have chosen to meet and to attempt to practice a Christianity that more closely resembles that of the early church, before church hierarchy and the Bible as we know it. They decided some time ago to study the Didache and to try to put it into practice within their community, and have testified that it has changed their lives, making them more honest with one another, more connected. Tony talks about the reaction of Trucker John, a member of the Cymbrogi, to the Didache in this passage on pages 42-43:

As the church grew in the first centuries, the emphasis became more and more on what you believe, which creed you recite, which doctrine you believe. But the Didache, John says, preserves a Christianity that emphasizes how you live. According to Trucker John, this seems more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus than the later controversies over doctrine ever did.

After reading it through a few times, it was clear that this is the appeal of the Didache to me, too. Its teachings are very simple, yet deep, much like the Sermon on the Mount. Love God, really, with everything you have. Don't be selfish. Put others first. Always give when there's a need, and don't take when you have plenty. Don't engage in behaviors that will start you on a slippery slope to really destructive patterns. Don't do all of these things because God doesn't want you to, and God knows the correct way for you to live... because He's God and He loves you.

Reading the directives of the Didache, once I got over my initial criticisms, was soothing and comforting, like being a child receiving the instruction of a trusted parent. I found myself reading it and feeling like "oh, ok". I don't feel like that very often, and I can see how reading this in community and trying to live by it would simplify things a lot, and would bring a kind of peace and order. My usual alarm bells about legalism do go off when I contemplate a list of "to-dos" of the spiritual life, but that's not what the Didache is. I really do welcome the clarity and simplicity of the teachings (they clear my head, so to speak) and they are rooted in common-sense principles, not just a list of mindless actions that you have to perform in order to make God happy.

Trucker John, as it so happens, is the ex-brother-in-law of Trucker Frank, a theologian/trucker who reminds me quite a lot of my Dad (formerly Trucker Mike, now in seminary at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry). Tony has an ongoing conversation with Frank throughout this book, and each chapter ends with an observation from him. Chapter 3 ends with

"What we [the Cymbrogi] share is a deep, soulful commitment to each other and to a fellowship beyond the walls of institutional church structures,” Frank says. “We are sometimes viewed with suspicion by others because we refuse to stay within the boundaries of a particular church hierarchy. We are, in that sense, an organic structure somewhere between the local church and the Church Universal.”

As I've expressed on this blog before, I am indebted to institutional expressions of the Christian faith and I question folks who want to believe that the Church Universal just needs to shed those institutions in order to be in the Will of God. I really resonate with Trucker Frank's statement, though, and find that it is in this in-between space where I am most comfortable, as well. It's in the smaller faith community centered mostly around trying to have a common life centered in Christ where I find I'm able to breathe. Anywhere else I go I find that I'm tempted to care too much what others around me think, because I can pretty much lay money down on the fact that they will not like what, or how, I think (IF I ever tell them what I think, which I'm not likely to do). When I'm in a small community like Common Table that is not defined by denominational lines, I feel like I can bring what I have and folks will either accept or reject it without necessarily accepting or rejecting me.

As this post is only about Chapter 3, I won't go on to talk further about the book, but it is well-written, substantive without being too heady, and a STEAL on Amazon for only $10.11! Pick up a copy. It'll be worth it... and stay tuned to the blog tour... a complete list of bloggers can be found here.