Monday, March 21, 2016

march 21

I'm reasonably certain that I was a surprise to my parents.  My brother and sister are much older (10 and 8 years), and my parents split very shortly after I was born.  No one ever said I was a mistake, and I don't think that.  But I continue to be a surprise, even to myself.

Today, I am 31.  (Actually not until 3:43 pm, but whatever.)

One of the most surprising things to me is that there are so many people who love and care about me.  The ones in the picture are just a few of the ones who have held me together (and been okay with me falling apart).  That was at my birthday dinner, where they indulged me by being extra-fancy.

I have never been the most popular, or the most beautiful, or the most charming.  That's okay.  I don't have to be.  I hope I can just know that I'm the luckiest and be the most grateful.

Monday, March 14, 2016

dedicating my practice

At the beginning of each yoga class, our instructor asks us to calmly come into our bodies and our breath, to attempt to clear our minds (impossible for this monkey brain), and to set an intention for our practice.  This might be a quality that we want to focus on, or a characteristic we are hoping to bring into our bigger lives, or we also might dedicate this practice to someone or something.

In an attempt to get outside of myself a little bit, I am taking the next few months to dedicate my practice to someone.  I have spent a lot of yoga sessions thinking about what I want to bring to myself and my life.  It's time for me to think about someone else for a little while.

I started last week.  In many ways, this is very similar to one of Richard Foster's methods in the exemplary "Celebration of Discipline."  He writes this about holding people in prayer prior to corporate worship:

"When people begin to enter the room, glance around until you see someone who needs your intercessory work.  Perhaps their shoulders are drooped, or they seem a bit sad.  Lift them into the glorious, refreshing light of his Presence.  See the burden tumbling from their shoulders as it did from Pilgrim's in Bunyan's allegory.  Hold them as a special intention throughout the service."

I try to imagine the person to whom I am dedicating my practice being bathed in a gentle, golden light.  I see this light being cast on them from above.  Anytime my thoughts begin to wonder, I take the mental image of the marauding thought and place it into a mason jar and put the lid on and put it off to the side of my mat.  I focus back on my dedicatee.  If I know they are suffering a lot, I imagine myself holding them tightly against my chest as they sob and let all their feelings out into the world.  I envision myself holding them like I hold one of my children when their emotions are beyond them:  I don't shush them, I don't try to talk.  I just hold them close and gently rock them and give them a safe place to exhaust themselves.  I try to offer them very pure compassion.

I have been the recipient of some exceptional compassion in the last few months, from all my friends and loved ones.  They have been patient and kind and yielding with me.  They have allowed me to greedily take from their emotional reservoirs.  Sometimes I still wonder why anyone would want a friend like me, so self-centered and thoughtless.  But I can't think about that too much.  I just need to accept the gift.

And then I need to give the gift.  I hope that each of you can feel me directing this warmth and care at you as I try to offer this gift into the world.

Friday, March 11, 2016

parable boxes

I have always been so drawn to Jesus' parables.  I think I just love analogy and metaphor and the way they help me organize the world.  So when Jesus says,

"The kingdom of God is like this . . " 

"Actually it's like this . . ."

 "No, try this . . ."  

I just get it.  It's how my mind works, too.  You have to approach this concept, which is beyond human understanding, from every possible perspective.  God is so good at that - meeting us in exactly the language and people and situations that we need at the time we need it.  Translation, I guess.

I have been making these Godly Play parable boxes for the last few months.  (I'm not going to explain the whole program, but here's my one-sentence treatment:  Montessori religious education based on prepared environment and presentation of materials.)  They are for presentation with our kids.  You can order all the stuff here for seven billion dollars.  I prefer to make what I can (mostly from felt), supplement with items from Hobby Lobby, and go from there.  The great benefit to hand-crafting is that it helps me learn the presentations thoroughly.

There are six main parable boxes, and then a few enrichment ones I will work on next:

Clockwise from top left:

Parable of the Leaven

Parable of the Good Shepherd (this was the first one I made, and is very dear to me, as Jerome Berryman also started with this handmade material as the first thing he made for his newborn teaching method)

Parable of the Great Pearl (this is a kid favorite, with all the little items picked up from the dollhouse section at the craft store)

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Parable of the Good Samaritan (you can see my little wonderers in the picture, along with the Circle of the Church Year in the background.  I loved making this one - all the additional texture from the burlap underlay, and I knit the little blanket that the Samaritan uses to cover the traveler from purple nubby silk yarn)

Parable of the Sower (this one is my favorite, I think.  I love the ones with the little bitty birds)

I love telling these stories, and I love seeing all my gold boxes stacked up.  The mysteries and the secrets they contain are fresh for me every time, too.  As part of the introduction to each parable, I tell the group that sometimes we cannot enter into a parable, even if we feel ready.  But if we keep asking questions, if we keep wondering . . . we will find a way in.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

two sides of the same coin

I have been reading a little bit of my favorite theologian, Paul Tillich.  His sermons in "The Shaking of the Foundations" are some of my very dearest writings.  (Find it free and online here.)  It's the sort of stuff where I have trouble finding a quote to lift out, since all of it is so damn good.  The sermon "You Are Accepted" is sort of my manifesto on the power of sin/sickness/death and the concomitant power of grace in our lives.  Yesterday, this particular bit of "You Are Accepted" glued itself to my mind:

"Man is split within himself. Life moves against itself through aggression, hate, and despair. We are wont to condemn self-love; but what we really mean to condemn is contrary to self-love. It is that mixture of selfishness and self-hate that permanently pursues us, that prevents us from loving others, and that prohibits us from losing ourselves in the love with which we are loved eternally. He who is able to love himself is able to love others also; he who has "learned to overcome self-contempt has overcome his contempt for others." But the depth of our separation lies in just the fact that we are not capable of a great and merciful divine love towards ourselves." (Paul Tillich, "You Are Accepted")

Have you ever noticed that people tend to have a distorted understanding of how they relate to the broader whole of humanity?  Tillich says it this way:  "Have you ever had the experience of being at a party full of people, and yet feeling completely alone?"  (That's my gloss on it, anyway.)  

I am so intimately familiar with that "mixture of selfishness and self-hate" that are really two manifestations of the same brokenness.  Justification is simply the restoration of a proper understanding of how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the Ground of Being (the Spirit).  And yet it's not simple at all, because most of us hate ourselves so much.  I have so much shame and guilt and contempt for myself.  This is the power of sin in me.  It's not something I do - not at all.  It's how I am.  I try to make myself small because I am terrified of the greatness with which God has created me.  

Todd put on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" this morning (his new thing is dancing naked while I make breakfast), and "Within You Without You" started playing.  George Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle, and this is one of my favorite of his raga-style songs.  In college, I made an little illustration of this lyric, and I can't find it anywhere now.  But I found this picture of me and baby Vicki and you can see it in the background, next to the Christmas tree:

"And to see you're really only very small and life flows on within you and without you."

Finding our proper relationship to ourselves, others, and God is a life's work.  But although sin abounds, grace abounds yet more.

Friday, March 4, 2016

the gospel of personal responsibility

I was washing the dishes last night when my daughter put on a Cat Stevens record that my friend Jennifer got me for Christmas.  (I love the fact that my kids know how to operate a record player, even if it means all my records are scratched.)  This tune started playing, and I began reflecting on the events of the day.  Dish-washing is some of my favorite mindless, middle-distance-gazing time.

I thought about the "first cut" for me.  My heart was broken for the first time when I was 14, by Neil.  I loved him as much as I've ever loved any other man.  Funny enough, Neil and I chatted just the other day, and he offered me some words of encouragement and advice that can only come from someone that broke your heart 16 years ago but still cares about you.

I thought about how having your heart broken is one of the truly passive acts of vulnerability.  We never say "I allowed someone to break my heart."  We acknowledge, in the the passive grammar of the phrase, that it is something that is done to us.

For a long time, and mostly through my work in Al-Anon (which is a ridiculously amazing way of managing emotional responses and living life and setting boundaries), I have hewed to the idea that we are responsible for our own emotions.  No one can make me feel anything.  And likewise, I cannot make anyone else feel anything.  Our feelings are our own to manage.  But I'm realizing now that I've been wrong about that.

What's so funny to me about all of this is that I have long known, from a political and economic standpoint, that this narrative of personal responsibility and rugged individualism that Americans love so much - it's just a fallacy.  Especially in light of Jesus' teachings on the Kingdom of God, in which we are truly responsible for one another.  All this world of bootstraps and self-made men and hard work and determination . . . Sure, it can help.  But some people are born so far behind that this narrative just doesn't even apply to them.  And it only heaps moral judgment and misunderstandings of the nature of poverty onto people.

So, from a material perspective, I have embraced the logic of the Kingdom for many years, and have been working in my ministry and my life to create that Kingdom here on earth, through an economy of grace and sharing.

But somehow, the emotional and inter-relational side of that was just like another country to me.  I still thought that everyone needed to be personally responsible for their feelings and their reactions.  We needed to be differentiated enough that we could see that other people cannot force us to feel anything.

Having your heart broken changes everything.  You see that someone can, indeed, make you feel something without your permission.  And that in the Kingdom, we are truly responsible for the totality of one another - materially and emotionally and every other way.  That is terrifying to me.  And it's messy.  And it's complicated.

Yesterday, my mentor and beloved teacher Doug Meeks said this sentence, and it has been echoing in my mind ever since:  "The gospel of the world is self-sufficiency."  Emotional self-sufficiency has been my gospel, and it's time for me to exchange that for the gospel of Christ, which is inter-relatedness.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

my heart

I remember, as a girl, looking forward to the time when I would have my own children (I just knew I would have some, somehow).  They represented an object of my love and affection with whom I could be completely, wholeheartedly, unashamedly obsessed.  I never had to worry about whether they reciprocated.

And now I'm thirty years old and they are everything.  They are my heart.  And the most thrilling, maddening, infuriating, blessed part of all is that they do reciprocate.