Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A serious post: justice and mercy

Perhaps my favorite journalist today is Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. He writes a humor column for the Post Magazine each week, writes much longer feature stories a few times a year, has some books out, and hosts an absolutely incredible chat each Tuesday at noon Eastern Time. Each week, the chat begins with a poll, sometimes more than one, and they can be on anything from buffet shame to analyzing poems to, this week, a man who has been convicted of possessing child pornography. Here's a link to this week's chat, which had some excellent discussion and very good points brought up about the poll and the ways different people answered the questions.

This poll stimulated a very intense and interesting discussion between my best friend and me, and several important things came out of it. But one of the things that we discussed is something I've come to feel more strongly about, especially the way I saw the words tossed around in today's chat - it is the words justice and mercy.

I believe that justice and mercy are two completely different things, totally different ideas. They are related, and they do co-exist and interact - and this is important - but they are different. Mercy is not some lesser degree on the Spectrum of Justice. Mercy is not justice that has not been fully applied. I also believe that justice and punishment are two completely different things. We tend to equate justice with punishing someone, but I think that is a grave misunderstanding.

Justice is a big deal. It is important. We need to know that we live in a just and fair society, where people are treated the way they should be treated, the way we would like to be treated ourselves. And justice is every bit as much about encouraging positive norms as it is about discouraging negative ones. I forget now where I read it, but I remember encountering a science fiction novel in my teens where a character said that the law should not be Don't hit people, but that the law should say, If you hit someone, this is the consequence that will happen to you. I found this both powerful and liberating. I'm not being told what to do or what not to do. I'm simply being presented with the consequences of my actions, and offered a choice. And I'm sure that any group of people could come together and debate whether the consequence of hitting someone is a just or unjust one; however, I do not think they would disagree that, if John Doe hits someone and has the prescribed consequence called out upon him, justice has been done. Justice is the prerogative of our government, whom we elect and delegate the responsibility and authority for setting and enforcing these laws. (And, by the way, these laws could be positive, too. If you serve the community by helping paint the walls of your neighborhood school - to pull an example out of thin air - then this positive consequence will happen to you.)

So if justice is having a stated law and applying it when it gets invoked - when John Doe hits someone, or when he paints the walls of his neighborhood school - then it is mostly a head thing. It takes only brainpower to discern that the law applies and then to initiate the prescribed consequences. Mercy, however, is like faith - it engages one's whole being. Mercy takes head, and it takes heart, and it takes spirit, and it takes body. All of these inform mercy. Mercy is a gift, a grace. It is not earned, and it is not deserved. Mercy is like a butterfly that alights on your hand, or a cat that jumps unbidden into your lap for snuggles. Mercy can be asked for, but is most meaningful when it is not, and mercy can be given and withheld. But mercy is not the same as justice, nor is it the flip side of the justice coin. Mercy is a concept that should go hand-in-hand with justice, but that does not all the time in practice.

In this case, what is justice and what is mercy? I am conflicted. I am very thankful that I did not have to serve on a jury in a case like this. I have the utmost respect for a group of people who could come to a consensus on this very difficult subject. And as tough as this poll was to take, and as tough as the discussions of it during the chat were to read, I am very much looking forward to reading Mr. Weingarten's story when it is published.

And now, I will go a step farther. I believe that justice is our responsibility as a society. As a group living together in community, we are responsible for ensuring that our community members are treated with justice - in the US, by electing a government to which we delegate this responsibility. And mercy is our responsibility as individual humans, and most especially for those of us who are Christians. (This applies to other faiths as well, but I will not presume to speak for them.) As Christians, we are taught to love and forgive, and we are also given some very practical advice on dealing with someone who refuses to follow the norms of our community. While the just action - according to the written laws (and assuming that they are good and fair laws, which I know may very well be a stretch) - may be to lock someone up for committing an act that is contrary to our society's norms, the merciful action may be to look deeper, to identify an underlying brokenness, and to address that. I do not say that the just and the merciful actions cannot be the same thing, or that they cannot both be taken at the same time. In fact, the most loving choice for all concerned may very well be to separate the offender (ugh - I hate that word!) from the society for a time so that the mercy of helping him or her to heal that underlying brokenness can take place.

There is enough, just, stuff to these ideas to write books and books and books - and they already exist out there. I'm just doing some thinking out loud for the moment, trying to figure out what I believe and why. There is great work being done in restorative justice, and I'd like to learn more about it. But it is very important to me to be clear and precise in how we use words, especially weighty words like justice and mercy. And I'm interested to hear from others who have thought about these things, too.

Peace be with you today. May you continue on your journey, disturbed perhaps, but unhurt by the ideas that you've encountered here. And may God watch over you, creating Father and Mother, loving Christ, and inspiring Holy Spirit.

Tuesday Writing: The Key

This week's writing prompt at Writers Island is The Key. Instead of sharing a poem this week, a little meditation spoke in my mind. Hope you enjoy.

At the house where I last lived, there was a bowl of keys. We didn't know what any of the keys unlocked any more, but we could not bring ourselves to discard them. Each one of these keys was important to someone, somewhere - otherwise, it would not have been shared with us. This one might be the key to a friend's house, to unlock the door to his or her home. And this one might open the shed in the back yard - the shed we'd never locked and never planned to. This one here, it looks like a key to an office somewhere, a place where people gather every day to work together. And this one could open a file drawer, revealing many secrets, or to a storage locker with treasures within.

These keys were fun to play with. We usually have to be so careful with our keys. Without our keys, we cannot get into our home, and we cannot drive our car. Without being able to lock things up, we cannot protect ourselves. To give someone a key to one's home is a statement of trust and honor - we only share our keys with people we trust completely. You do not want your key to be lost or stolen or broken. And yet... this bowl of keys to unknown locks - these keys did not have to be treated with such care and respect. They had not been used in years, so they were dry, dull, dusty, dead things. So they became a toy. It was fun to reach into the little bowl, pick up a handful of keys, and let them plink-plink-plink back into the bowl. They sang, did these keys; they made music. We could no longer find the places these keys could unlock, so instead of becoming the means to enter new spaces, they had turned into playthings and music-makers. I thought about cleaning and polishing them, and hanging them from string to make a key mobile or windchime. They sang beautifully, and they could look beautiful again, and sing whenever the breezes blow.

And I think, what would it be like if we could turn all of our keys into playthings and music-makers? What if we no longer lived in the fear that if we left our doors and windows unlocked, we would be in danger? What if we were not so attached to our things that if our belongings were taken, we simply shrugged and said, well, I guess he needed that more than I do! What if we realized that they really aren't our belongings anyway? What if we finally came to the conclusion that everything on this earth has been entrusted to our care for the short span of our life, and that when we move on, these things pass into the trust and care of those who live on after us? What if, instead of being a symbol of our separation and brokenness, our keys turned into objects of beauty?

I close my eyes.
In my mind
I can see the windchime hanging over my patio -
silvery shimmery keys
bright brassy keys
gilded golden keys
red and blue and yellow keys -
glittering in the golden sunlight
swinging in the gentle breeze
tinkling and chiming and singing
and telling me that
are the answers -
not locked cars and windows and file cabinets and doors.

is the key.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lectionary Musings (and #150!)

Good morning, all! Just a quick observation that this is my 150th post on this blog. My 100th post was my first lectionary reflection, so it's amusing to me that #150 falls on a lectionary post, too. The readings for this coming Sunday in the Episcopal Church are...

So it appears that this week, we are continuing in the grand tradition of really tough readings during Ordinary time. Bleah. Once again, I'm so glad I'm not preaching on these week after week, having to find a kernel of truth that won't make my congregation want to throw me out of the pulpit, but still get across the really tough things that Jesus is telling us here, and in such harsh language, too!

Amos is cranky again this week, but Amos is always cranky. I'll admit that I love the imagery in the second section of this reading, even if he is condemning these things. I can just place myself in the picture and experience them all...

4Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
5who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
6who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

... and while beds of ivory don't sound exactly like my cup of tea, that all sounds like pretty nice stuff there! At least, it does until he says that those of us who enjoy these luxuries are going to be the first to get the axe. Ouch.

The story of Lazarus and his rich master from Luke's gospel isn't much nicer for us. The rich master is in agony in the flames, and he wants to warn his family and friends, but is told nope, sorry, they have their chance and you aren't going to change their minds. (And I have to admit that I read this story and wonder if this is where Charles Dickens got the idea for A Christmas Carol.) Yikes. 'Cause I know - I read Moses and the prophets and the gospel, and I squirm uncomfortably and think about the things I could and should be doing... and then I continue not doing those things. So yes, I'm the rich master, too. And while I wouldn't ask for a servant to bring me water in the flames, I'd certainly be looking for the indoor plumbing to get a drink from the tap.

This week, we get our comfort from the epistle and the psalm. The psalm is nice in that it shows the downtrodden being uplifted, but it doesn't say that those of us who already live in abundance are going to be tossed into the pit. And I have to say that it hardly seems fair for God to toss away so many of us, who were born into abundance and wealth completely by accident. I find it hard to believe that God loves me less than someone else, because I bring home a larger paycheck.

I know that God's kingdom is very different from the one here. Perhaps the language of lifting up the poor and pulling down the wealthy is part of helping us see that in God's kingdom, we're all together, in the same place, without advantages from material things. But I have to think that in God's kingdom, I just won't care about material things or the advantages they lend. I see the kingdom being beautiful and wonderful because of the union with God and with all of my brothers and sisters in the communion of saints - not because of riches or clothes or food or cars or computers or houses or land. In God's kingdom, it is about love and peace and harmony and unity. Achieving those in this world is hard, because we have to strain to hear God's voice - heck, we have to strain to hear each other's voices, and we're all here together! We don't know how to achieve union, oneness with God and with each other. But God does. And God will show us.

It is nice to get some practical advice at the end of the letter to Timothy. While Amos and Jesus say important things, Paul gives us advice on how to love those things out. Don't be haughty. Don't count on money to be the solution to everything. Trust in God. Do good things. Share. Be kind. Be generous. And my favourite, take hold of the life that really is life.

That's a powerful statement there, and I suspect that's why it was chosen to be the end of this lesson in the lectionary, to leave us with that thought. Jesus talks several times about what is real and what is an illusion, and how we fool ourselves. The life that is real, that really matters, is the life that is eternal. I know there are people who think we Christians are fools for believing that anything is eternal - heck, sometimes I think we're fools for believing that anything is eternal! - but this is the hope that we pin everything on. The hope of a Christian is that this world is not all there is; that our bodies in this world may die, but that Jesus will bring us into God's kingdom to live forever; that we will be united with the God whose scandalous, extravagant love and ache for us is so completely incomprehensible; that we will all join together in that kingdom, still unique and special, but now part of such an amazing whole, united in the Spirit's love and peace.

This is the life that really is life. And we have the choice - right now! - to take hold of it. Every decision we make, we have the ability to take hold of this life. Remember choose life from a few weeks ago? We're still getting this same theme, but from a slightly different direction - a specific way in which we can choose life by helping those who need help in this world. Amos and Jesus and Paul are asking us to choose life by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor, visiting the imprisoned, helping the oppressed find justice. Choose life by being generous and loving. Choose life by sharing what you have with someone who has not. Choose life by helping to make a difference for the wealthy and powerful in this world, before they have gone too far astray like the master of Lazarus. Choose life by praying for the wealthy and powerful, like Paul advised us last week. Choose life by trusting in God rather than in money. Choose life by praising God and thanking God, even (especially?) when we don't feel very grateful. But the point is - we get to choose.

So go out there, my beloved friends. Go out there and take hold of life - take hold of the life that is real. Choose goodness. Choose generosity. Choose love.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Late lectionary ramblings

Well, I guess this isn't truly late, since it isn't Sunday yet... but I do try to write these on Monday or Tuesday, so it's late for me. This Sunday's lections in the Episcopal Church are...

This reading from Amos is disturbing. Of course, this should come as little surprise - Amos is a prophet. And the job of prophets has ever been, not to tell the future, but to tell people things they don't want to hear. I'll tell you, if there's an opening for any of the jobs in the bible, prophet is not one that most people would sign up for, and not just because it lacks a retirement plan (they all get killed, usually pretty gruesomely, so the International Brotherhood of Prophets has never seen the need to establish one). Of course, we all do think of prophets telling the future, and there is a good reason for this. Prophets call us to change what we're doing - or what we're not doing - but who is going to change his or her life if there aren't pretty compelling consequences linked to the current course of action? So a prophet who wants to see change come about has to say, if you continue on this current track, horrible things are going to happen. And even then, we can be pretty stubborn... or as God said to Moses last week, stiff-necked. Now Amos's injunction here is a pretty simple one to understand: don't cheat the poor. I think we probably all agree that this is a good message. And I know Amos can be a pretty cranky guy - surprise! he's got the worst job in the bible! - so I wasn't expecting this reading to be sunshine and light. But the last two verses of this reading really hit me like a blow to the gut:

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.

On first reading, it sounded to me like God was saying, okay, you're going to screw the poor, that's it. I've had it with you. To quote Cartman from South Park, screw you guys, I'm going home. And we would be left starving for God, thirsting for God, quite literally dying for God... and not finding God.


This is so contrary to the way I try to envision God. In fact, it is so frightening to me that I'm going to set it aside for a moment, and look at the other scripture lessons. The gospel lesson is a tough parable. On a quick reading, it sounds like Jesus is saying that it's okay to be fiscally irresponsible. But on reading through it again, I get the impression that this manager had been overcharging his master's customers for years. He panics when the master is going to look at his records, and the manager starts issuing credits to the customers, so that they don't owe as much. But for some reason, his master commends him for this. Now, I have a feeling that after publicly commending the manager for his honesty in admitting to these "mistakes" and correcting them, the master would then take him privately aside and give him an earful. It sounds to me like the manager had been doing all along what Amos warns us against - taking advantage of the poor and the needy in order to accumulate wealth for himself.

The letter to Timothy seems totally unrelated to these, but it is linked. Amos says, don't screw the poor. Jesus says, be faithful to God, and not to money. And Paul here says, pray for the people who have power, who have money. The closing line of this reading is a powerful one:

8 I desire, then, that in every place the [people] should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.

It is important for us to pray, for many reasons, and prayers for those in power are very important. People who have a lot of money or a lot of power have the ability to make decisions that can affect many, many others. Bill Gates can - and does - affect many lives by sharing his wealth. Thus a prayer for Bill Gates affects not only him, but all those whose lives are touched by him and by his decisions.

So what on earth is Amos saying here, in those last two verses?

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
12They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.

My reading is not that God is intentionally and deliberately pulling out of our lives. Rather, I think that by making the choices to take advantage of God's beloved children - our sisters and brothers - we are intentionally and deliberately pulling ourselves out of God's life. We remove ourselves from God's presence at each decision to hurt the poor, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, the orphaned, the widowed, the lonely... and even at each decision to hurt the rich, the powerful, the free, the joyful. And when we travel too far down this road, removing ourselves further and further from God, we lose our sense of direction. We can no longer find our way back. We cannot see God's light any more, or hear God's voice. At this point, we probably can't express ourselves in these terms any longer, either. We may say something like something is missing from my life, but I don't know what. We may try to cover this aching and longing with alcohol or drugs or sex or work or many other things - especially if we are not able to admit to the aching for God. And we will never ever ever admit that we did this to ourselves, by our own free choices that take us out of God's bright and loving presence.

Pretty grim, no? But there has to be good news, right? I mean, the lectionary never gives us only grimness and darkness; there has to be a spot of light somewhere in here. Personally, I found it in the psalm, in three different verses:

4 When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me....
8 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.
9 The LORD will make good his purpose for me;
O LORD, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.

And the good news is simple. Call on God, and God will answer. This may sound like the opposite of what Amos says, but I think it is actually the remedy to Amos's scary prediction. I believe - and the gospel supports me on this - that no matter how far we withdraw ourselves from God's love and light and presence, God still aches for us to return. And when we realize where we are - alone in the dark, far from God, hurting and achine and lonely - and when we are able to turn around and face God and ask for help, God says yes. And God doesn't just say yes, God runs to help us, just like the father of the prodigal son; just like in the gospel parables from last week, God rejoices that we are turning back, that we want to be with God. God strengthens us and saves us, and God never abandons us - even when we abandon God. God throws a party to celebrate our return. And that is very, very good news.

The problem is that simple is not always easy. Jesus teaches very simple truths, but they are very difficult to live out. It is hard to admit that we've been making bad choices, that we've been heading away from God. It's hard to admit these things to God - who most assuredly already knows, and who doesn't even require that we admit these things out loud! It's hard to admit them to ourselves, and it's certainly hard to admit them to others. But if we find ourselves in that famine, in that thirst, wandering aimlessly, running to and fro - then we know it is time to change something. Simple, yes. Easy, no.

And I think the ultimate lesson there is one that our mothers and fathers and teachers and bosses have tried to teach us from childhood - it's much easier to make those good decisions from the beginning, so that we don't have to reach that place of famine and thirst and feeling lost. It's easier to make a habit of good decisions than to make a u-turn and try to break the habit of bad decisions. So choose now. Don't screw the poor. Pray for those who have the power to screw the poor, that they will be able to make good decisions and stay in God's light. And when you find yourself wandering, alone, feeling far from God - stop and ask for help. Because while you may have taken yourself far from God, God will never ever ever take God far away from you.

Friday Five: De-Cluttering

Today's Friday Five on RevGalBlogPals has to do with de-cluttering, simplifying. It's kind of a fun one, but with important ramifications - especially given our appointed gospel lesson this week... so here goes!

Making the most of our resources is important, I have been challenged this week by the amount of stuff we accumulate, I'd love to live a simpler lifestyle, it would be good for me, and for the environment I think...

With that in mind I bring you this Friday 5:

1. Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?

Um... yes. :-) I have aspects of both. There are some things - books, sheet music, MP3s, anything I've created - that I have a very hard time bringing myself to part with. There are others - clothes that don't fit, appliances I never use - that are much less difficult.

2. Name one important object (could be an heirloom) that you will never part with.

My flute! And my piccolo! And my sheet music! And my music stand! And my Lord of the Rings books! And my Harry Potter books! And...

Just one? I can only pick one? Do my children count? 'Cause I don't think I could choose between them. I'm really not sure how to answer this. There are many, many belongings that I cherish, but I have a hard time choosing one that I'd never give up. Perhaps... my collection of photographs. That is the only thing I own that could never be replaced.

3. What is the oldest item in your closet? Does it still fit???

Strictly speaking, the oldest things in my closet are my birth certificate and baptismal certificate, and those have never fit. But I think you mean clothes... in which case, nothing in there is all that old. I regularly pare out my closet - especially with the weight I've lost so far this year - so the oldest clothing items in there are certainly no more than 5 or 6 years old. And they would be golf shirts that I can still wear, 'cause who cares if your golf shirt is a little baggy?

4.Yard sales- love 'em or hate 'em?

Hate 'em, hate 'em, HATE 'EM!!!!!

Ugh. I'm a Navy brat, so when I was growing up, a couple months before every move, Mom would gather stuff together for a yard sale. There was no point in dragging with us clothes that didn't fit my sister or me, or bicycles that were outgrown, or toys or books that were too immature for us. And of course, we would have to help gather the merchandise, man the table - usually on a sweltering summer day - and then cart everything that was left at the end to charity. These days, I skip the yard sale, and if I don't know anyone who can use the stuff, I post it on craigslist or take it straight to the charity.

5. Name a recycling habit you really want to get into.

To be honest, I really haven't availed myself of the recycling dumpsters at my apartment complex yet. I need to get something to keep recyclables in until I'm ready to walk them down to the dumpster... and it can't be anything that holds too much, since my shoulder is still recovering from surgery. But I know I really need to make this a habit again.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday Catch-up

I know I owe you a lectionary post, and tomorrow is poetry day over at Writers Island, too. But in the meantime, I thought I'd give you a personal update.

Last Wednesday, I had my second voice lesson ever. I've always loved to sing, but I had been told for years that I shouldn't, that my voice was awful, that nobody wanted to hear me sing. But just in the last year, I can count about a half-dozen times when people would tell me at random how wonderful it was to hear me sing. I was completely gobsmacked by this, and didn't know whether to believe it or not, except I kept hearing it again and again and again. In the middle of all of it, I transferred to my current parish, and I joined the choir. I'd missed singing in the choir for years. There is something very special about being in a group that is making music together, that is bringing light and beauty and life into the world together. And I kept hearing this from people. When I admitted to the lady who is now my teacher that I'd never studied the voice ever in my life, she flatly refused to believe me! I'm really enjoying working with her.

Friday morning, just before noon, I signed the separation agreement that my soon-to-be-ex had already signed. I am now legally separated, effective June 22. This means that next June, I'm eligible for a divorce. This feels really good. It has been a very long time coming, and it has been hard, and it has taken a lot of strength and clarity and courage. But here I am, living in my own home, filling my life with things that inspire me and fulfill me and feed me, rather than things that tear me down and hurt me and anger me. I have found a parish that really feels like home and family. Even though not everything is easy, I have joy and freedom. Thanks be to God!

This appointment at my attorney's office was actually my third of the morning - after my orthopedist checkup and a session of physical therapy - and it was not my last of the day. Afterward, I went home and had some lunch while working for the afternoon. And when my soon-to-be-ex picked up the kids for his weekend with them, I left for the 40-minute drive to my spiritual director's house. I hadn't seen her for direction in 18 months or so, but we picked right back up and had an absolutely wonderful session. She recognized those themes of joy and freedom, and not only affirmed but encouraged the things I deeply, deeply desire to do with my life right now.

Saturday morning, I stopped by the music shop that my flute teacher owns to drop off my piccolo to be brought into playing condition. Of course, I was dumb to go to a shop that rents instruments on a Saturday in September, and I was idly looking at and fingering merchandise on the wall while two different families negotiated their instrument leases (a violin and a saxamaphone, I believe) when I caught a glimpse of my flute teacher, who smiled and waved and came out to talk to me. He asked, "Did that band get back in touch with you?" I was confused for a moment, and then said, "Oh, they called you?" The story is, I'd gotten into contact with a local concert band, and the conductor called my flute teacher to ask if I'm any good. My teacher told me that he gave me a glowing recommendation (though I won't quote his exact words), and then he handed me the ticket book and had me write up the service ticket for my piccolo. :-) Okay, he's mostly blind, and I've spent enough time in that shop and gotten enough work done - on two flutes, four or five violins, and now the piccolo - that it's not like having to fill out my own service ticket was a burden! It was great to see him, because he's usually cloistered in the back when I stop by.

After that, I went to a local high school for a rehearsal of a joint service of the two oldest Episcopal parishes in Virginia Beach - Old Donation and Eastern Shore Chapel. Our two choirs joined forces to lead worship and sing the offertory anthem, and this was our one and only opportunity to practice the music together... as well as to be in the space and run through how we would navigate ourselves through the service. It was a fun rehearsal.

I went back home to relax before a party at the church, but I've been struggling with fall allergies for about a week now. So I took a heavy-duty decongestant and stretched out on the couch with a movie... and then zonked out and missed the 90th birthday party of one of our altos in the choir. I was bummed, but not until morning, when my brain operated a little less like molasses.

The Sunday morning service went wonderfully. Our rector preached a marvelous sermon on those awful readings, and the music was uplifting and heavenly, and the eucharist was feeding and healing. I went home again to relax and connect with friends for a few hours, until it was time to go to my very first rehearsal with the Chesapeake Bay Wind Ensemble. I haven't been able to play music in a big ensemble like that in almost twenty years, and it felt amazing. And I already noticed differences in my ensemble-playing, that have grown out of ensemble-singing, just in the last few months. I was really transported.

Then I stopped at my former home to pick up my daughter for her time with me, and my soon-to-be-ex gave me a check for my portion of our savings. The comment line said Blood money. He and the kids were laughing over this, but I didn't find it funny at all. My daughter sounded awful - congested, sniffling, sneezing, even coughing a bit, and her voice was really rough. I felt her forehead, and it felt really hot to me, but her brother and dad disagreed on this. When I got her home, I took her temperature, and it was 100.8F. So I gave her something to bring it down, and got her to bed, letting her know that she wasn't going to school on Monday.

Morning came, and she felt a little warm, but not hot like Sunday night. But her voice was completely gone, and she felt completely horrible. She slept until almost 9am, which is late for her, since she's normally up by about 6:30, and then we tried to go to a doc-in-the-box. We sat in the waiting room for more than thirty minutes without even being checked in, and I kept trying our family doctor's office to see if we could get an appointment there. We finally got one, so we left the doc-in-the-box and came back home to have some lunch and rest for a while. At the doctor's office, Becca was prescribed two different medications, given samples for a third, and given instructions for two other over-the-counter ones.

This afternoon, her temperature spiked to 102F, and stayed there for a few hours. My last check showed it at 100F, so it's on its way down, but I'm going to have to watch it and stay on top of it. Poor kid feels like hell, and just wants to stay in bed but can't sleep. Meanwhile, I'm fighting off a sinus infection from my allergies, and my chest is feeling tight, too. The decongestant that helps the most turns me into a virtual zombie, so I'm glad I get another day to work from home. I just hope that's enough to make the difference.

So... it's been a full week. And this week will be another full one. Today is my dad's birthday - Happy Birthday, Dad! - and we'd been planning to have a friend from church over for supper, but had to cancel so we wouldn't get her sick. I have my voice lesson, choir rehearsal, a volunteer shift, and a flute performance in church before next Sunday's band rehearsal again. And, oh yeah, work needs to fit in there somewhere, too. :-)

But in the midst of all this busy-ness, I have found room to listen to the voice of the Spirit. And I am starting to pay attention to what that voice is telling me. Freedom and joy are beckoning, and they will mean some more changes and a lot more growth. It's frightening and exhilarating and intimidating... and wonderful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Poetry TUESDAY at Writers Island!

Today marks the opening of Writers Island, with this week's prompt and open Tuesday post. I haven't been yet to read the contributions, but I'm sure they'll be lovely and inspiring. I can't wait! In the meantime, here's my poesy for the week.

My Imaginary Life

This life is witnessed
by a young mother with twin girls in a stroller
not noticing as she crosses my path,
by a tired man who tries to be cheerful
as he greets each shopper who enters
and I smile and try to catch his eye
but he looks down at the floor before I succeed
and then back up at the next customer's mouth.
To him, I am one more body, one more mouth,
one more person who might set off the alarm,
and my smile and good morning mean nothing.

This life is witnessed
by a secretary at the front desk
smiling and saying hello when I arrive at the office,
by an manager who stops by to ask how I'm doing
but does not stay to hear more than
fine, how are you
before she shuffles back to her desk.
To her, I am one more employee, one more coworker,
one more person who might penetrate the veneer
that covers the eyes and the lips
so they say nothing.

This life is witnessed
by a friend who knows me, more or less,
calling when something exciting happens in his life,
by a cousin who emails from far away
and knows more about my life than most
but at the end of her email, has moved on to something real.
To her, I am one more address book entry,
one more person who lives inside her computer
but whose physical presence and reality are nothing.

This life is witnessed
by a boy and a girl that I gave birth to
wrestling with adolescence and middle school,
by a man who does not understand me
thinking of me as an extension of his body, his mind,
To him, it is inconceivable
that I have my own body, my own mind,
because separate from him
I am nothing.

This life is witnessed
by a frightened girl hearing her parents argue
by a lonely teen dreaming about love
by a young woman learning what she might one day be
by a mother discovering who she is.
To them, this life has a shape and a colour
but does not often make sense
as it flows past them into the future.

Just like the twins' mom, the greeter,
the secretary, the manager,
the friend, the cousin,
the children, the spouse,
these women do not see everything
and certainly do not know everything.
Somewhere in the middle of all of them
I see the nothing that is me
and want to make something -
like the Creator, who made everything from nothing -
and so I sit
and I write
and I ponder
my imaginary life.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Lectionary Musings

Our readings for this coming Sunday in the Episcopal Church are:

And I have to say, after reading through these: ugh. Yuck. Blecch. I'd like to say that the folks who put together our lectionary were on crack. I mean - all these awful readings during Ordinary Time - and just in the last couple weeks since I've been reflecting on them here, we got Humility, followed by Choice, and this week, we have...
Great. So yesterday, we were asked to Choose Life rather than choosing death... and this week we'll be hammered over the head with See, I knew it! I knew you wouldn't choose Life! I know you couldn't keep it up! Sigh.

Thankfully, this week, the readings start out heavy and hard, and they get better as they go. This seems to be a pattern in the lectionary. Usually if the gospel is a tough one, the old testament lesson isn't too tough, and we work up to whatever Jesus tells us that we never manage to get right. But when the gospel is a more comforting one, we seem to get beaten up by the old testament lesson, and they lighten up progressively until we get to the comfort Jesus offers.

So we start out at Mount Sinai, and Moses is up at the summit having his conference call with The Lord, and the Israelites are milling about at the foot of the mountain, totally lacking a clue what to do with themselves. They've been delivered from slavery, so they don't have to work for anyone else, but they're not exactly in an environment where they can work to take care of themselves, either. Somewhere is this land of milk and honey they've been promised, where their descendants can outnumber the stars, but right now they're huddled together in the desert, beneath a mountain. Their leader appears to have deserted them, and I'm sure they feel frightened, angry, betrayed, alone. So somebody says, Hey! We need gods! The Lord only talks to Moses, and we're all alone down here and don't know what to do with ourselves. Only problem is, The Lord may be on a conference call, but The Lord has eyes in the back of God's head. And The Lord knows - because The Lord created us - that we are stiff-necked and perverse and prone to making bad decisions when our emotions get the better of us. Moses begs God not to destroy the Israelites right then and there. And I'll admit that I have to wonder whether God is really planning to destroy them, or whether God is trying to get the measure of the man God has chosen to lead them. If Moses is the right leader, then Moses will do anything to keep his people from being incinerated. And Moses rises to the challenge, so God appears to change God's mind. Or maybe Moses has just misunderstood. Maybe God said the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Homer Simpson's Why, I oughtta...! I don't know. I can't know. But I wonder sometimes.

The psalm here is the one included in the rite of reconciliation that is in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It is a good psalm, and just right for that context. And I recognized it right off the bat when I looked at the scripture references: uh oh, Psalm 51. This doesn't bode well for this week's readings... This psalm has some really tough words in it: wickedness, evil, sin, transgression, offense, iniquity, judgment, purge, cast, death, sacrifice, broken, despise. It also has some good words: contrite, deliver, loving-kindness, create, praise, teach, favorable, gracious, clean, right, joy, gladness. It is very much a psalm of contrast - as the Exodus reading is. This psalm is a before-and-after picture of a sinner. Before: broken, wicked, evil. After: clean, joyful, glad, praising. The question is, what comes in the middle there? The short, one-word answer: God. The longer, one-word answer: forgiveness. Deliverance. Absolution. So how do we find these? The psalmist says we must have a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Is that enough? Do we need a Moses to plead for us, in his weekly telecon with The Lord?

The answer begins in the letter to Timothy. Jesus pleads for us. Jesus offers us grace and mercy and deliverance. Jesus fills us - overflows us - with grace and forgiveness and love. And the conclusion of the answer is in this week's gospel lesson. Every last one of us is the lost sheep, the lost paycheck. You are, I am, all of us. And God knows this. God knows what stiff-necked, stubborn, foolish people we are, even when we don't want to admit this to ourselves. We lose ourselves, by making choices that run counter to what God wants for us. But then we turn up again. And maybe we wander back to the flock on our own, and we wonder why nobody seemed to notice we were gone. Or maybe we were pursued and sought out and carried back to the sheepfold by a friend or family member. Or maybe we're still wandering, not sure yet whether we want to rejoin the 99 righteous sheep just yet. Maybe we think those 99 sheep are stiff-necked (and they are) while we are not (but we are), and we are waiting for the 99 to change. And that's okay. It really doesn't matter. Because choosing to engage with God, to engage in the narrative of the bible, to engage in the story of Jesus - all of these things will change us, will change anyone who chooses them. The overflowing love and forgiveness and grace of Jesus pour over us. And just as a mountain is shaped by the pouring of the rains and winds and snows, we are shaped by the things Jesus pours out so scandalously over us.

So, yes. I'm a sinner, broken from my mother's womb. But I am learning to choose to stand before God in humility and to ask for forgiveness. The wonderful thing is, God just can't wait to shower me with forgiveness and love. I can see God sitting on a golden throne like a child wearing his father's clothes. God's crown is too large, and slips down over God's forehead and ear. God is practically swimming in God's grand robes, as they fall all around God. The scepter is too heavy for God to hold still, but that doesn't stop God from twirling it and swooping it and laughing as God plays games with it. God is smiling and laughing and singing to Godself. And then I approach. Um, God? I hate to interrupt you there, but I had to say I'm really sorry. God looks up at me and grins at me. God jumps up, crown toppling from God's head, robes under God's feet almost making God trip as God runs to me, arms extended to wrap me in a hug, brilliant smile lighting up God's entire being. It's okay! I forgive you, see? I love you SO MUCH! Thank you for choosing me. Welcome back!

Welcome back, my beloved friends. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Every last one of us. Christ Jesus came into the world to save Hitler and Mussolini and Genghis Khan and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson. Christ Jesus came into the world to save Archbishop Akinola and Archbishop Williams and Bishop Jefferts-Schori. Christ Jesus came into the world to save Bishop Robinson and Bishop Iker. Christ Jesus came into the world to save that cranky guy who works at the 7-11 where you get your morning coffee, and Christ Jesus came into the world to save the lady who flipped you the bird in traffic yesterday, and Christ Jesus even came into the world to save the man who ticks me off so badly by parking his white Lexus on the sidewalk in front of the grocery store every day. Christ Jesus came into the world to save ex-husbands and mothers-in-law and ungrateful children. To save child abusers and CEOs of companies that exploit workers. To save everybody. To call us back to the sheepfold, where God sits on God's too-big throne. To laugh in delight as we approach, and to jump down from the throne and run to us and say, I love you SO MUCH! Welcome back!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Darkness, Silence, Separation

I have a dear blog friend who is in a dark place right now. Having walked through the darkness before myself, having clung for dear life to the walls of The Pit - I feel for her. And I want her to know that no matter how dark and silent and separate and alone she feels, she is not alone. There is light, and there is hope, and there is beauty, and there is love, and we are here.

Meanwhile, there are some specific things I want to say to her, and I'm not sure they'll flow well together, so I'm just going to start writing and see how it turns out.

First, you are right, friend, that you do not have a choice about the darkness circling about you; your choices are in how you respond to the darkness. Of course, the darkness makes those choices hard, and that really sucks. It's so easy for someone who is not depressed or who has never tasted depression to say really thoughtless and unhelpful things - even harmful things. And sometimes they are saying exactly the things we need to hear, though we'd much rather plug our ears and sing Lalalala - I can't hear you!!! Or we may just plug the ears of our heart, and refuse to listen, but those right things do lodge in our minds and hearts (just as the wrong ones do), and eventually, they find a place to surface.

That said, there is power in knowing that we have choices, in recognizing our choices, in taking ownership and authority and responsibility for our choices. I had a therapist who quoted once the line that goes something like, I can't stop the seagulls from pooping on me, but I can keep them from building a nest in my hair! And this is true. Yeah, so some days you get pooped on, and it sucks. Some days, it feels like a truckload of manure gets dumped on you. And I'll bet everyone who has read this far is nodding. But it's your choice - my choice, everybody's choice - whether to stand up and start cleaning it off, or to sit down and let the crap stay there and wallow in misery. Now I'll admit that sometimes, I indulge in a good misery-wallow. Sometimes I want to scream and cry and pound things with my fists like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum. And this is okay... as long as I choose my temper tantrum, throw it deliberately and intentionally (and appropriately!), and then choose to stop: to pick myself back up off the floor, to smooth out my clothing, to say "Well, then!" and to find a constructive way to deal with my anger or frustration or sadness. It is in my power to choose to express my anger and sadness; it is in my power to choose how and when and where I am going to do this; it is in my power to pick up the pieces afterward and move on. And this is big stuff, especially when I feel weak and powerless and hopeless.

I am also familiar with that I can't pray any more feeling. And I have come to learn that this feeling is complete and utter bullshit. (There! I said it!) Because the truth is, we are praying constantly, all through the day, and a person living in constant pain is reaching out far more than they think. The problem is, our prayers are probably not in an established form, and they are probably not pretty; they probably are not words or thoughts we would express in public (or for that matter, even in private in front of our mothers or grandmothers). But some of the deepest cries of our heart happen when we are in these places. And often they are single words, and they are powerful words, but we may feel ashamed of them. Please! is one. Another is Help! And I'm sure we're all familiar with O God, why ME?!? These are all prayers. They are very authentic prayers. And I will tell you something that I believe to the deepest core of my being. I believe that God is far happier with an authentic and honest prayer - God, this SUCKS. Why is this happening to me? - than an insincere recitation of the Lord's Prayer or the Daily Office. I imagine, as Jesus told in parables, a loving parent. Would you, as a mother or a father, want your child to come to you - obviously upset and in pain - and start addressing you with praise? Or would you prefer for your child to ask for help - help that you want very much to give, because you love her?

When I was in the hospital with severe depression, a rather remarkable priest came to see me. His advice on the darkness - especially the thoughts and fantasies of self-harm - was to give them to God. I know I made a face, and possibly even snorted at this. What use had God been to me through the depression?!? He smiled gently and continued, "It's okay to have a bit of an attitude. It's okay to express doubt. You can say, God, I don't know what the hell you're going to do with this, but take it, please. And God will." I know I smiled at this, too, but I don't think the doubtful expression left my face. But then I tried it. And it was very powerful for me. See, God wants to help us. God wants us to know how very precious we are, how unique and special and wonderful, how completely and extravagantly loved we are. But God does not force God upon us. God wants us to want God's help. And when we ask, God's help is there.

The problem is, in the darkness, we feel so separated and alone. We are under eight feet of water, and every thing we do, every word we speak, every thought we think is dampened and slowed and smothered by that weight and pressure. Every sight we see, every sound we hear, is distorted - it all looks and sounds like the water that is closing in over us and around us. This is true of the voices of the friends and family who care about us and want to see us whole and happy again. This is even true of the voice of God. What sucks is that we have to work harder to choose to hear these voices. It is so easy in the darkness to relax and let the negativity crush us, to let despair close in. Because light and good and positive things seem to take effort, and any effort at all wears us out. And we don't recognize the effects that those light and good and positive things have on us - that we just smiled, for the first time in days; that we actually did have more energy, if only for a few hours; that for a brief time, we felt that maybe there is hope that we can emerge from the darkness again.

There is lots of advice I could give. There are many practical things that have worked for me, and many, many more that haven't - and that made me feel worse for trying them and having them not work for me, like this was a failing on my part. I'm not going to go into those right now. I have some very basic thoughts for you, my dear friend, and I hope they help you keep going. I am expressing these from your voice, and I hope that, if you find yourself in a quiet room alone with the computer, maybe you can speak them out loud, hear them in your own voice, and know that they are true.

  • I am worth something.
  • There is hope.
  • I am made in the image of God.
  • I am unique and precious.
  • I am wanted.
  • I can pray.
  • I can find the light.
  • I want to find the light.
  • I am lovable.
  • I am loved.
Peace be with you, my friend. May the peace that passes all understanding be with you. May you feel the love of the Creator who shaped you and breathed life into you. May you see the light of Christ who saves you show you your path. And may the warm breezes of the Holy Spirit tickle your heart, lift you up, and guide you on the way.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Coming soon... Poetry TUESDAY!

With great thanks to those who have organized it, writers island is now hosting a Tuesday event for sharing poetry. The inaugural writing prompt is My Imaginary Life, and poems can be posted next Tuesday, September 11, starting at 0001 Eastern Time.

I'm so happy! As much as I love to write poetry, sometimes I need discipline and structure to help me get words to paper. Poetry Thursday was a great help to me in doing this, and I'm looking very much forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones as writers island gets up and running.

Thank you again!!!

Lectionary Reflection

The readings for this coming Sunday in the Episcopal Church are:

You know, I'd always wondered about Ordinary Time. As a child and a teenager, I don't remember a whole lot about it, just the interminable time of GREEN. But it seems like we get these really hard readings during Ordinary Time, and I don't think I wonder any more why so many Episcopalians take the summer off from church. :-) Getting this stuff week after week is tough, and I feel for those clergy who have to preach every Sunday. I think I'd be really worn down by the end of summer, and more than ready for Advent. Not that Advent is easy, but still!

This week, the main theme I see in these readings is choice. And I find this interesting, because I don't remember hearing very much about choice in church. But free will - the power and the responsibility to make choices - is a very important part of Christianity. I have said for years that faith is not some nebulous feeling that we either intrinsically have or don't have, but that faith is our deliberate, conscious choice, made when we engage heart and spirit and mind, made with our doubts, in spite of our doubts, because of our doubts. Faith is what we choose to believe, and how we choose to respond to God. A funny story about this. Last month, the choir director at Old Donation treated the choir to dinner, and I was chatting with the rector. I asked who was preaching in the morning, and he told me that our new assistant would be preaching on faith. I said, "Oh, I have quite a speech on faith." And from several directions, the eyes of everyone around me turned to me, including those of two Episcopal priests and a retired Methodist minister. "Okay, then," I said, and gave this little speech. The rector smiled and said, "You'll have to hear what she says about faith tomorrow morning." And darned if she didn't preach exactly what I'd said at dinner! As the sermon wrapped up Sunday morning, the rector's wife tapped my shoulder from behind me in the choir loft, and said, "Preach it, Hedwyg!" We both cracked up, and the rest of the choir thought we were nuts. (For reference purposes, we are.)

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depression) on New Year's Day 1998, when I was hospitalized with severe depression. The next two months were a study in how low my soul could sink. I was hospitalized as an inpatient three separate times. The first time was because I wanted to harm myself and was afraid. The second was because I expressed to someone else the desire to end my life. The third was because I had actually made a suicide attempt. And in that third hospitalization, the hospital social worker came to see me - a lady I'd gone to college with, had been in the same service sorority with - and she very sadly said, "Hedwyg, I wish you'd made a different choice."

Whoa. Those words hit me like a punch to the stomach. Choice? What choice did I have? I couldn't think straight. Everything I did, it felt like I was doing through jello - walking through jello, talking through jello, even thinking through jello. It was almost impossible to do simple care-taking things like brushing my teeth. And this was a choice? Well, yeah. It was. And that was simultaneously the most awful thing anyone had said to me, and the best lesson I learned in my journey through depression. Because every action we take, every word we speak, even a great deal of our thinking, is our choice.

The Deuteronomy lesson is probably the clearest on this topic. Here, God is speaking to you, to me, to all of us. And God is laying out our choice: I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. What God doesn't tell us here is a very hard lesson to learn. Unfortunately, we don't get to make this choice once and for all, so that everything afterward is just gravy. We have to slog through our lives, making this choice every day, every hour, every minute. In every word we speak, every place we go, every person we meet, we are choosing between life and death.

Sounds dramatic, doesn't it? The truth is, there are many kinds of death. One does not have to be in the grave to be dead. Rather, one could be devoted to the pursuit of money, or one could spend one's time being mocking and cruel, or one could be so enamored of the pursuit of happiness that all the fancy cars and big-screen televisions and beautiful women in the world can not satisfy the aching for true joy and wonder. One could choose to disengage from the world, whether from anger or cynicism or grief or depression. But there is life. There is the play of sunlight on the leaves of a tree. There is a sleeping infant. There are squirrels at play and dragonflies darting from place to place and oceans and rivers and mountains and meadows. There is poetry, and there is music, and there is beautiful sculpture. There is the whisper in one's heart - or the clue-by-four to one's head - which is God, saying I am here, and I want you to live; choose me.

The psalmist recognizes this, saying that when we choose life,we are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. When we choose life, God fills us with life. When we choose life, the seeds of joy and love and wonder are nourished, and it becomes easier to continue to choose life at the next stop along the way, and the next, and the next, and the one after that.

Jesus is a bit more... hmm... demanding in the gospel lesson for Sunday. I like to think that Jesus is indulging in a bit of hyperbole here, since that seems to be one of his favorite teaching techniques. But he does say that when we choose to follow Jesus, this choice will cost us everything. And perhaps it does, but not in precisely the way it seems on first reading. Yes, it is good to give up possessions and to live simply. But all of them? Surely Jesus doesn't mean my bed or my pillow. He couldn't possibly mean that I have to give up my socks and my underwear! What I think is more important here is not the choice to actually give away everything we own to somebody else. Rather, I think what Jesus is telling us is that we must choose to not be attached to our possessions, to not let our possessions own us. Because when it comes down to it, possessions do not give us life. My television does not give me life, nor does my dining room table, nor do my socks. But if I choose to be attached to these things, to give them power over me, then I am choosing a path of spiritual death. And that is hard.

So today, I am going to try to see myself as that tree, beside the stream of living water. And I will imagine what my leaves will look like - healthy and unwithered - and what kind of fruit I will bear. Am I a weeping willow? A strong oak or maple? Am I a pine tree, with deep roots to withstand the fiercest storms? Am I an apple tree, feeding my friends?

And what kind of tree are you, my friend? How do you choose to let that stream of living water feed you? What do your leaves look like, and what kind of fruit do you bear? I hope that you and I both are able to choose life today - in the words that we choose to speak, in the actions that we choose to take, in the prayers that we choose to pray, in the thoughts that we choose to think. And as we choose life, I pray that God opens us up to those wells of wonder and joy and love and peace that help us to continue to choose life day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Choice by choice.