Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Foolin' around

For some reason I was thinking last night that flirting with another religious denomination might be a little like cheating on your spouse--not that I have any first-hand knowledge in that area, of course, but I can imagine that it must be exciting at first, new and different and a little daring.

In the beginning you would probably notice with approval all of the bad habits this person didn't manifest; imagine living with someone who didn't ever work late on Fridays, snore, or forget that wiping the counters is part of cleaning the kitchen. After a while, though, you might start to miss those traits you did appreciate in your partner. What if the new guy didn't bother to bring you your morning coffee so you wouldn't have to crawl down the stairs to get it, didn't understand that it wasn't a good idea to talk to you until after you'd finished at least one cup, or didn't think it was a man's job to clean the kitchen?

In time you might give up on the new guy and reconsider your partner with renewed appreciation, or maybe you wouldn't go back, but you'd move on understanding that this new situation wasn't going to be perfect, either.

Would gladness outweigh regrets, either way?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Bike riding on Memorial Day

Memorial Day, a holiday--hooray!

Even though I like my job and don't mind going to work, thinking about what to do on the third day of a three-day weekend is like balancing your checkbook and discovering that you miscalculated and still have a lot more money in the bank than you thought.

How to spend it? For starters, I took a 10-mile bike ride (all right, it was really only 9.2, not a lot but at least it's a start, considering I hardly rode at all last year due to my injured foot) through the woods and fields just outside of town. As Lance Armstrong said, it's not about the bike. For me it was about time to breathe the perfume of blooming wild roses which is everywhere in this season and sort through all the random thoughts that have been bouncing around my brain these past few days:

For starters, the puzzle that the beauty of the natural world on a day like this speaks to me about God's goodness, but how to hold that thought when old grannies drown in their attics in hurricane-swept New Orleans, or when children are swept from their parents' arms by tsunami waves?

Similar thoughts yesterday morning in church, as I admired the play of leaf-filtered sunlight across the fresh-cut flowers at the altar. I was at one of my alternative churches just because some small voice told me to go there. The first reading was about the selection of Matthias to replace Judas: They prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:24-26) I have been thinking even more than usual lately about discernment and this reading inspired a sermon about the process of discernment, and the comment that a lot of people don't believe anything happens by chance, but see the hand of God in everything.

Which makes perfect sense to me, especially as I so often find that what I need comes into my life just at the moment I need it most--but still there is that same problem as above. If the hand of God is in everything, how to explain all the bad things that happen to people?

Anyway, here's a weird coincidence: I went on an educational field trip from the university to a large state prison last week, and afterward my thoughts kept going back to the terrible sadness and wasted humanity of that place. Then yesterday, as we were driving to have dinner with my parents, we made a wrong turn switching highways and unexpectedly found ourselves driving right up to the prison.

It was as if this place that had been pulling my heart back all week had somehow managed to pull my body there, too.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

But would "Love One Another" have made it past the spam blockers?

I like to think about technology and the ways it affects how we relate to each other, in our business and personal lives and for better or worse. It has occurred to me before that things might have been quite different 2000 years ago if St. Paul traveled with a laptop--though I'm not sure email would have been a net benefit. Sure, he would have had an easier time getting those epistles out and he might have written more often, but it's also possible he would have given less thought to each letter. And though it might have been more difficult for early Christianity to compete in the broader marketplace of ideas made possible by enhanced communications, the Howard Dean phenomenon certainly demonstrates the way the Internet can provide fertile soil for the right idea at the right time.

In a modern context, I've been interested in the way the smaller churches I've come to know in the past year use email and their websites to build community. Two emails arrived yesterday from the church I attended on Sunday, a precise demonstration of both the joy and disappointment I find there. The first was a birth announcement; a young couple who are regular attenders had a baby boy, and I was glad for them and glad to hear the news. The second was an invitation from the "Ladies Group," which will be going off together to see The Da Vinci Code, a movie I have no interest in criticizing but also no interest in seeing. I mean, why would I want to get together under the auspices of a religious organization and go see a film that got bad reviews and trashes some of our (or is it just my?) fundamental beliefs? This is a wonderful, warm, caring, and inclusive church community, but still I can't help wondering if there's enough going on there spiritually and intellectually to sustain me.

This morning, thanks to the "convenience" of the Internet, I sat at my computer in my bathrobe at 8 am and spent 45 minutes banging away in an effort to enroll in a course called Christian Ethics and Modern Society next fall at the university. Although I eventually did succeed, it took three different credit cards because things kept crashing when I was in the middle of checking out, and then when I'd get back to the payment screen I'd be informed that my payment had been rejected by the credit card company as a fraudulent duplication. I can't wait to see how many times the charge appears on my bill. The error message I liked best, though, was the one that notified me after more than half hour of working away at this that I'd been logged off the registration site due to prolonged inactivity.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Some thoughts on Sunday morning

Sunday morning in the Episcopal church I have mostly attended for more than a year now. I am so moved to be here, I can't believe I almost didn't come. All the way in the car I was thinking about three other churches I might belong to, planning when I might attend each one and how I might approach the task of studying and comparing them. And then I walked into the church that is as close to being my own as any and wondered why I thought I needed to be anyplace else.

Sun was streaming through the stained glass window at the front of the church, and familiar faces were all around me. Everything seemed more beautiful than I could have imagined, from the flowers on either side of the altar, and the felt banner with cut-out hands representing members of the congregation young and old, to the prayers we prayed and the bread and wine we shared. I sometimes fret at the plainness of this church, but this morning I saw it the way you see the face of a family member, putting aside the usual abstract standards of beauty and replacing them with a fondness that's based on familiarity, that's based on love.

Lately I've been catching up on some reading I meant to do before I was inundated by assigned reading for the class I audited this past semester, and this past week I've been reading Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical God Is Love: "Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history," he says, "he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives."

These men, women, and children do reflect his presence for me. They share prayer and life, know and honor each other's stories, reach out to each other in times of need, and strive together to understand what God wants from us and to live it. All the time I've been coming here I've been thinking about what I'm looking for in a faith community. Isn't this it?

And yet, I know there's still more that I want, including, yes, a beautiful church building, but also a charitable presence in my own community, a large enough base to sustain more outlets for spiritual learning and expression beyond Sunday morning, and more formal liturgical celebration of important holy days. This morning I'm wondering if maybe the answer isn't to accept this community exactly as it is, appreciating its many gifts and especially its wonderful charism of hospitality, and looking elsewhere to satisfy whatever needs I still have.

Then I wonder if I shouldn't be asking the same thing about the parish community I left. Yet I find myself determined not to make the mistake I made the last time around, investing myself in a community which (I must admit if I am honest) really never did seem completely right. Is it wrong to want it all?

How will I know what place is right for me, I keep asking myself, how will I know? But that's a question for another time, not for this morning, as I stand after the service, coffee cup in hand, in the midst of a small group of people who are talking and worrying about the future of their congregation as it moves forward, and who accept my presence without question, as if I belonged there.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Long as I have my plastic Jesus ...

As an afterthought to encountering plastic action figure Jesus on Comm. Ave. in Boston earlier this month, I've been remembering the little set of plastic Apostles we had when I was a child. I'd forgotten all about them until plastic Jesus brought them back to mind. These weren't exactly action figures, being all of about two inches tall and incapable of any jointed motion, but I was fond of them.

I think the set included Jesus, although as I recall we didn't have all twelve of his mates--and anyone who really knows me will understand how much that incompleteness bothered me, because I like to have things in order that way. I don't remember who was missing, but for some reason I do recall that Doubting Thomas was in the collection and that he was one of my favorites, which now seems appropriate.

My house had other statues, too, not made of plastic and therefore more probably for the benefit of my parents than for us kids. I remember Mary, and possibly St. Francis, but I can't remember exactly who the rest were. We also had a little kit for anointing the sick, kept handy in a convenient bedside drawer. The crucifix lid slid off and could be inserted into a special slot and stood upright; the kit also included a small pair of beeswax candles and a container for holy water. To my knowledge it was never used as intended, nor is it likely to be, though it likely still resides in my parents' bedroom, since in our world of modern technological wonders we seem far more likely to suffer and be anointed in a hospital than at home in our own beds.

I'd like to think that having these things around as familiar household items suggests just how much religious expression was part of everyday life for us in those days, but for one thing we never actually played with the plastic apostles; that wouldn't have felt quite right. (Although "playing" Mass with candy wafers seemed a perfectly suitable activity for small Catholic children.) We mostly admired the little statues and lined them up for display in various configurations (I don't remember if we did nor did not give the mother of James and John her wish by placing her boys at Jesus' right hand). One day, when we were supposed to be taking a nap, my little sister sat straight up in bed and gave plaster Mary a whack that sent her flying halfway across the room; she got glued back together but was never quite the same again after that.

"It was looking at me," was the only explanation my sister could provide.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

We must all hang together or ...

I recently had the opportunity to compare three very different styles of church in the space of a week. First there was the enthusiastic, drum-driven Sunday evening Mass at the local Catholic mega-church, then the companionable and rather intimate Tuesday afternoon Eucharist in the university chapel, and finally a Sunday morning with the Rite II crowd at the tiny Episcopal church up the road.

The Sunday evening Mass was crowded, and loud. The crowd swayed in time with the music (though I noticed that hardly anyone in the pews actually sang). It really did remind me of a huge, non-denominational Christian worship service in a hockey arena that I once saw on TV. Of course there would be no mistaking the university chapel for anything but a church, but the Eucharist there had its loud moments, too, thanks to the appearance of two small children who had their own ideas about how best to give praise. There were no children at all on Sunday morning and that felt odd, though the ten o'clockers were noticeably younger than the white-haired crowd that populates the early service at this same church. By and large this seems to be a fairly liberal church congregation, and we were well into the hour before I managed to figure out why it felt so very old-fashioned. The church is quite small and the altar stands against the front wall, with the priest facing away from the congregation. I can't even remember how many years it's been since I prayed to a priest's back that way.

I came away from all of this thinking how curious it is, really, that we humans should feel drawn this way to public worship. Certainly it's related to the impulse toward God, but it's not exactly the same. What is it we hope to take from our fellows at prayer? A turn at riding along in their slipstream? Affirmation that we aren't crazy for believing that there's a deeper reality beyond the bricks and mortar world that's most obvious to us? Or is there something that just doesn't happen until we’re all there together?

I don't know the answers, but it did occur to me as I took a deep breath and marched myself into the third church where I wasn't completely at home in such a short time that life would be a lot simpler without it ...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sometimes a cigar is just a piece of plastic

Spotted in a shop window in Boston: Matching 5-inch plastic action figures of Jesus and Freud. The mind boggles.

I wouldn't have recognized Freud without the help of the package labeling, but I knew Jesus right away, which seems curious since I have seen actual photos of Freud while there are no contemporary portraits of Jesus with the possible exception of the Shroud of Turin, which didn't help much in this case. But who else could it have been but Jesus, with his long, light brown beard and hair, creamy white skin, and white robe? It was dark and his eyes were too small to see if they were blue, but I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. Freud was dressed in a three-piece suit with a cigar in his hand (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar ...), but he didn't have the trademark dark round glasses you see in later photos, so maybe that's why I didn't recognize him.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) the store was closed, because if it had been open I'm sure I would have marched in and purchased both figures on the spot. I found myself trying to imagine what kind of imaginative play the person (one can hardly suppose it would be a child) lucky enough to own both would engage in. Would Freud and Jesus accuse each other of being responsible for screwing up a significant portion of population of our world? Would Freud inquire about Jesus' relationship with his mother? Would Jesus boast that, being all knowing, he could answer the Freudian question, What does a woman want? (and perhaps add a little dig that it isn't really so very different from what a man wants)?

I took a closer look at the little statues to see what gave them “action” status. Turns out their arms--held slightly away from their sides, with the front of the elbows facing forward--are jointed, so they can raise their forearms in a gesture of bemused wonder; I imagined them exclaiming, Momma mia! or words to that effect.

Poor Jesus; what we make him into.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Changes

The group that showed up yesterday for the Tuesday afternoon Eucharist in the university chapel was a small (but hardy?) band. It's the last week of classes, junior papers are nearly due, senior theses just completed, and everything is winding down, but each one of us who was present really wanted to be there; I think we recognize that in each other, and appreciate it.

My head was telling me, "You know you belong here in this church." My heart answered, "You know you don't belong here." In church these days in rapid succession I feel joy, sadness, apprehension, confusion, impatience. I make up my mind to go, to stay, to join one church or another, and then I'm sure I'll never be able to make up my mind to do anything at all.

In our reading from Acts, Saul stood by while Stephen was stoned, not realizing how soon he would be a different man. The priest spoke in her homily about change: how we fear it, how we can't escape it; Jesus, she reminded us, tells us not to be afraid.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

When reading takes the place of doing

Thanks to comfortable circumstances and the proliferation of used book sales through Half.com and its successors, I could own pretty much any book I wanted. It wasn't always so. When I was a teenager, each book I owned was precious. I remember watching my little library grow book by book to fill the top of my dresser and then the painted white bookshelf my dad and installed on the wall of my old bedroom (it's still there, but no longer full of my books).

Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain was an early acquisition. It belonged to my parents, but I appropriated it for my collection since they seemed to be done with it. It was a book that made a huge impression on me at the time, though I reread it when a fiftieth-anniversary edition was issued a few years ago and found it a little prissy. Then there was more Merton, which I purchased, in paperback form, whenever I could find anything he wrote. (Before Amazon, that wasn't always easy.) I enjoyed his reflective, journal-like writings. I remember asking for and receiving Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in hard-cover--way beyond my budget--for Christmas. Later, I discovered Malcolm Boyd (Are You Running with me, Jesus). An Episcopal priest--interesting.

After a long time--I'm talking about years--it occurred to me that what I was doing was trying to find God in a book, and that books weren't really the right place to look. I realized that it was more important to experience God than to read about God; more important to pray than to think about praying. That's a hard lesson for someone who's been conditioned to answer every question by looking it up in a book (this was before the Internet, obviously).

So it seems ironic that now I have this little pile of religious titles sitting on my desk: The Anglican Understanding of the Church, The Anglican Spiritual Tradition, Welcome to the Episcopal Church. I justify these because they aren't really spiritual reading, just me trying to understand context.

Anyway, what I knew a long time ago, I sometimes still forget, so part of the point of the moratorium on thinking about religion (aside from the fact that I could see I was making myself crazy) was to relax and experience it. I knew I needed more time for prayer, too, real prayer, not just the hit-the-button-on-the-iPod-and-listen-to-someone-else- pray-while-I-concentrate-on-turning-left stuff, and I've been working on that.