Thursday, August 31, 2006

Growing toward the light


When you encounter unexpected twists and turns, you just have to keep working at it.

They're baaack!

Well, not all of them, but the "Undergraduate Registration" signs went up this week and the early arrivals are starting to move in. The freshman in the university's pre-orientation community service program arrive Sunday, with the rest of the new class to follow in a few days. I'm excited. It's been quiet on campus all summer, but the last week or two has been downright deadly. I like the hustle and bustle when campus life is in full swing. There's a purposeful feeling in the air, and I find it contagious. I'm looking forward to starting a new year.

Ah, new beginnings. I remember getting a new bookbag and new shoes every August when I was little, preparation for the new school year. The distinctive smell of fresh shoe leather remains in my catalog of sensual impressions that have the power to transport me straight back to another time and place. Music does that, too. Bob Dylan has a new album out this month; his album Nashville Skyline had just been released when I was a freshman. It seemed to be playing everywhere in those early months, and when I hear those songs today I am filled again with all the excitement and anxiety I experienced as I put one foot in the boat and moved away from my parents, launched on the way to becoming my own person. It was a thrilling, scary time, though the photos from those days make me cringe. Bad hair, bad clothes--and more than a few bad decisions, I have to admit. What were we thinking?

The older we get, the less we anticipate new beginnings, and the ones that present themselves are often less than thrilling. I watch my parents and the difficult transitions they are making into old age, and I see just how very hard it is for them.

And then one day you find yourself facing an opportunity to start over again in a way you weren't expecting, and it's even more unsettling than being a young adult. For kids starting out on something new is a way of life, while we middle-aged types tend to think we've arrived at our destination. It's scary, and it's taking a long time to get to the point where it's beginning to feel right. But I don't think it even occurs to the young people I know to cling the comfortable past when it's time to embrace the future, and I admire that, so ...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Where are we going?

I feel asleep last night and woke up again this morning wondering (or, perhaps more accurately, figuratively shaking my fist at heaven and demanding to know) where God is taking me.

I've pretty much narrowed my church choices to two: one Roman Catholic, one Episcopal. I made myself crazy for a while thinking too much about how they stacked up against each other and trying to choose one. Then I resolved to quit comparing and just be present, praying as if I belonged wherever I found myself, and waiting to see if in time I might come to know that one of them was the right place for me.

I thought that was a good approach. I thought it would make me happy, since there are things I really like about each of them, but the result at the moment is that I've become a hypercritical consumer of liturgy (as per yesterday). Both places feel inadequate to the point where I'm ready to considering giving up church completely for awhile, except that I know I'm way too much in the habit to see myself happily sitting alone somewhere on a Sunday morning.

Hmmm, what's the message here? You can't be two things at once? Maybe, but I figure I'm not what changes. I'm the same no matter where I am. I just gotta figure out where that's supposed to be ...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

My sister came to visit this weekend

My sister came to visit this weekend. Given her choice among my various churches, she picked the 8:30 Mass at my local Roman Catholic parish, where we sang the dumbest hymn I have ever heard. God forgive me for making fun of someone's earnest effort, but what is this?
For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power ...

I support the sentiment, but I thought it had all the art of a badly composed public service jingle. Although come to think of it, maybe that isn't really fair to public service jingles. "Don't cross in the middle in the middle in the middle" is a lot catchier.

Anyway, I guess this was supposed to make up for the reading from Ephesians about wives being submissive to their husbands, which I've always found problematic. The priest skipped right past that in his homily, which he read from a piece of paper. He speaks so slowly I sometimes forget the beginning of a sentence by the time he gets to the end, so it's hard to remember everything he said, but as I recall he told us Jesus asks us to choose whether to follow him or not, and if we have faith, we'll choose to follow him. Can't quarrel with that, I guess. At least it was short.

This church used to have a priest who was popular for his witty and intelligent sermons, a retired guy who came to help out on Sundays, but he got swept away in one of the latest waves of the seemingly never-ending sexual abuse scandal.

Sad times.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Back to School Friday Five

It's Saturday, so I'm a little late, but I couldn't resist playing the RevGalBlogPals Friday Five. Who doesn't have a blog full of early school memories just crying out to be shared? Here goes:

1. What is your earliest memory of school?

I do remember kindergarten, but not much of it. I clearly remember my first day of first grade. I thought the teacher told us we were all going to the laboratory and I got pretty excited. Science! What a letdown when she took us to a place where there were sinks and toilets. Turns out she said lavatory, not laboratory.

2. Who was a favorite teacher in your early education?

I don't remember any particular favorites until fifth grade, when we had Miss Carter. She took a small group of kids who did well in social studies to New York City (just a train ride away from my suburban home). It seems likely my parents had already taken us to the top of the Empire State Building, because they were big on stuff like that, but this is the trip I remember, probably because it was really windy up there and Miss Carter had a hard time keeping her skirt from blowing up around her face. We went to the UN, too; I remember the tour guide showing us a Persian carpet and explaning that the person who made it intentionally wove in at least one imperfection because only God is perfect.

3. What do you remember about school “back then” that is different from what you know about schools now?

Parents of other kids in my children's classes were horrified at the thought of class sizes over 20. I remember one year when we had 48. You know where those kids are now? The ones I am in touch with mostly have PhDs. Go figure.

4. Did you have to memorize in school? If so, share a poem or song you learned.

Any Catholic kid of my generation is going to answer the same way. Of course we had to memorize: Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this world and to be happy with him in the next ... It doesn't seem like a very profound way to teach religion, but the funny thing is, when you get right down to it, "know, love, and serve" does pretty much sum it all up, doesn't it? Half a century later, I'm still working on those same three things.

5. Did you ever get in trouble at school? Were there any embarrassing moments you can share?

Did I get in trouble? Almost never. Were there times I should have? I remember hanging out in a bathroom cutting a class when a teacher walked in and started writing everybody up for being out of class. I walked over to the sink, washed my hands, said excuse me, walked past her, and left. Not typical because I didn't usually have that much chutzpah, but it does demonstrate what self-confidence will get you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Uh-oh

Yesterday I blogged about my motorscooter ride to work as a metaphor for my life's journey.

Today I thought about riding my scooter to work again, then decided it was just too hot for it.

Hope this doesn't indicate anything about where my life's journey might be leading ...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lost and found

When went out to leave for work this morning it was such a perfect day I turned right around and went back in to get my motorcycle jacket and helmet and trade the car keys for the keys to my motorscooter.

The first third of the ride was just terrific, and then I got to one of the roads I'd been planning to take and found it had just recently been tarred and chipped and was covered in loose gravel, which is a very treacherous surface for two-wheeled transit. I turned off as soon as I could onto a different road, but before long I had to detour around more loose gravel, so I ended up taking a convoluted route to work.

I was on some incredibly beautiful roads, roads I know about but don't travel very often because they aren't exactly on the way to anywhere. Sometimes my ride was a bit scary because I had to go a little faster than I wanted, but when my knuckles started turning white I just reminded myself to relax and loosen my grip and it was fine. Sometimes when I thought I was lost, I was actually very close to where I needed to be, and sometimes when I thought I knew where I was going, I was really pretty lost, but I didn't worry because I knew I would find my way. I never doubted that eventually I would turn onto a road I recognized, and it would take me where I needed to go. And I did, and it did.

I've got to remember that.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Making melody to the Lord

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
--Ephesians 5:18-20

Having enjoyed several different hymn-singing experiences this week, I was already thinking about the singing of "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" before I heard this reading in church this morning.

Yesterday I sang at a Grange fair with an informal Quaker singing group. They had actually invited my Friendly husband to come and accompany them on his portable keyboard; I was sort of an add-on, but they let me sing with them anyway, and it was fun. I was reminded, though, of something I had already known about this group. In Quaker fashion there is no choir director, and one result is they tend to sing the same small collection of hymns over and over again.

I never joined the choir at my former Catholic church but for a while, when I was thinking about going back there, I considered it. I figured that up in the choir loft I'd be somewhat apart from the fray that was tearing the congregation apart, but I knew some of the others in the choir too well, knew who liked to gossip too much and about what, knew which side of various parish disputes they were on, and what subjects I shouldn't discuss in front of this one or the other, and that really was what I was running away from in the first place. (But I acknowledge that dealing with this kind of stuff may in fact be the unavoidable nitty gritty of being a community.)

I've also considered joining the choir at the Catholic church I attend most often now, because it might be a way to get to know some people and begin to become part of the life and worship of this church community while doing something I enjoy. I haven't done so, mostly because I don't feel ready to make that much of a commitment. I've also observed that in this modern church there is no choir loft but instead a sort of choir cave. The singers are a separate group occupying space apart in a darkish recess with a low ceiling in a back corner of the church, which I have to admit I don't find particularly appealing.

In the Episcopal church I also sometimes attend, there is no choir. Everyone sings, every verse and with great enthusiasm, but not always perfectly in tune, and a few of them really are too loud.

Seems to me you can tell something about each group just based on the singing ...

Friday, August 18, 2006

In the style of Taize

It's been a big week for extracurricular church services for me. Last night I went to a Taize service at one of my churches. Taize is the well-known ecumenical monastic community in France. I'd heard of the place, and I've noticed the hand-lettered sign that appears outside the church every month or so for this service, but I'd never attended. When it was announced in church last Sunday I decided I felt comfortable enough there to give it a try.

Naturally I did a little online research before I went. I learned that Taize worship typically takes place in a candle-lit church and includes chant-like hymns, a couple of Scripture readings, and periods of silence. A good combination for a Catholic Christian who likes to sing and who has been heavily influenced by Quakers, I thought.

Six of us showed up. We sang well and read well, and as usual I really enjoyed the special quality of shared silent worship. It lasted about an hour, which I guess was a good length though I would have been happy to go on longer. At the end, one of the regulars said she had experienced a strong sense of community that evening, and I had one of those "duh!" moments. That was the one thing missing for me on Tuesday ...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A paradox in honor of the Feast of the Assumption

I went to Mass last night in honor of the Feast of the Assumption. I really wanted to be there, and in fact I was glad I went. The choir did some modern stuff that was unfamiliar but sounded good, both in composition and execution. We got multiple verses of everything but the recessional hymn (the prudent choir director does not attempt to hold back a church full of Catholics once they think it's time to go) so I had ample opportunity to exercise my voice, as well as my sight-reading abilities. Despite the fact that I can't remember much of the short homily beyond the point that Mary was someone who gave of herself to others, my impression at the time was that it was decently eloquent. The rest of it was pretty much as it always is.

I left feeling satisfied, but also not satisfied. This is often the case these days, but how is it possible? How can you be full and famished at the same time? Am I doing something wrong? Should I be doing something more? Or is this just the human condition?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Long as I got my online Jesus ...


Anybody out there been feeling their prayers aren't being answered lately? I have news: It turns out Jesus has been offline.

One of my favorite Internet oddities is the website of the Monks of Adoration, which offers the opportunity to sit in silent reverence via the Internet before an altar at the monks' monastery in Florida. (http://www.monksofadoration.org/chapel.html ) The monks have set up a webcam that sends a fresh picture every minute, 24 hours a day. There's a link to open the picture in a small window so you can keep it up on your screen while you work on something else. Another link down in the "Quick Picks" section of the rather cluttered web page lists the times when "the Blessed Sacrement is Exposed on the altar." (Yes, I know I'm being snarky, but I couldn't resist including the typo. The same page invites your prayers for more vocations, and I think I will pray that someone with editing and web design skills will hear the call.)

Silly as might seem, I have to admit that I am rather fond of this page. I am fascinated by the varieties of spiritual life in cyberspace. I think it's just amazing that you can sit down at your computer and pray along with a streaming Rosary, make an online retreat, go to a site to request prayers for a special intention, read the archived sermons of some great (and otherwise) preachers, jump into a discussion of the day's liturgical readings, or study long-distance toward a Bachelor of Divinity degree. I don't know if online religion is keeping pace with online sex, but at least it's in the running. I find it reassuring somehow to realize that no matter how advanced the technology we employ, we are still our same old human selves.

I like to drop in on the monks' chapel from time to time. In fairness, they do not want anyone to believe that they think they are projecting Jesus through the Internet to your computer. "Regarding the Webcam and adoration, just to clarify, it is not to replace visiting Jesus in church. It is for those times when you cannot visit Him in a church," they say. So you could think of the web page as a particularly vivid sort of 21st-century holy card.

On my most recent visit, when the altar stayed empty during the announced adoration period, I was honestly disappointed. Then I found the notice that the picture I was seeing "is a still capture of the chapel," taking the place of the live shot while the monks are moving to their new monastery.

I do hope they go live again sometime soon.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lift every voice and sing

I got to church about a minute late this morning. Actually, by my watch I was a minute early, but they were already well into the opening hymn when I arrived. I hurried up the path, eager to slip into a pew and find the right page in the hymnal while they were still singing.

I love to sing, and I especially love to sing in church. Though we don't cease to exist as individuals when our voices join in song, we truly do become part of something bigger than ourselves, and I wanted to take my place as part of that something. Yet anxious as I was to get inside, I paused to listen before I went in. There's something so sweet about the sound of a hymn that refuses to be contained inside the church and drifts away like a soft breeze on a summer morning. The sound was so pure, the essence of our prayers sent heavenward; in that moment it wasn't hard to believe that this church truly does embody all of our best ambitions for ourselves as a community.

Then I opened the door and the moment was over. I found myself fumbling to find my place in the hymnal, a little short of breath when I opened my mouth to sing. Heard up close, it turned out that some of us--myself included--were a little off key and off tempo this morning. Reality check: I am not Gracie Slick and this is not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gathered around me.

And what about our best ambitions? We're not quite there, I'm afraid, but that's OK. We're only human, after all.

I believe that, I really do. I believe that the striving toward our ideals is what matters, despite the impossibility of achieving them. Though I like to think about what the perfect church would be like, I don't expect to find it here on earth. I believe church can bring us closer to God despite our shared imperfections. We may be only human, but we are inspired and guided and loved by God.

So why can't I let go and stop blaming the church I was raised in for being less than perfect? Why can't it be enough just to do what little I can to make it better? Why can't its great potential for goodness be what matters?

I ask myself those questions, and here's the problem I see: If I took my place in a pew and went along, even with my fingers crossed, wouldn't that contribute to making a statement that says it's OK to worry more about who we need to exclude from the table than about how to make all of God's children welcome, that it's OK to believe God gave more of his gifts to men than to women, and so on and on? And wouldn't that be wrong?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pray it again, Mike

It's interesting to note, as I ponder the meaning of community and how it ought to play out in a Christian context, that my steadiest morning prayer companion these days is a disembodied voice called AT&T Mike.

Mike is one of AT&T Labs’ “Natural Voices," and I paid extra for him as an add-on to the text-to-voice software I use to listen while I'm driving or walking the dog to interesting articles I find on the Internet. AT&T boasts that he and his friends represent "the most human-sounding technology available today," but I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that he sounds far from natural. On the whole, though, I have found him to be an earnest and steady presence whose reading is surprisingly soothing, without any of the chilling undertones of HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I change the prayers Mike offers from time to time. Often he reads one of my favorite Psalms, then the confession from the Book of Common Prayer. I might splice in the day's Scripture readings, downloaded as an MP3 podcast, and end with a prayer I wrote myself. I try not to let my mind wander to the implausibility of it all. It was only while writing this that I thought about how absurd it is to hear Mike intone, "We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." No, of course he hasn't.

He still has some idiosyncrasies of pronunciation. He's said to be trainable and I have taught him a few things, including how to pronounce merciful accenting the first syllable instead of the second. There are a few word he still has trouble with, though, unfortunately including amen, a word that tends to come up often in prayer. He doesn’t seem capable of giving both syllables nearly equal accent, as most of us do; instead, he bites off the first, flying past it as if he were embarrassed to have reached the end so soon. He hasn't got a great sense of poetry, either. When he reads, “My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water,” he's clearly no match for the best lectors I’ve heard--though frankly I think he might represent an improvement over some the well-meaning folks who read in church.

Mike is a strange prayer companion, and he's not much of a friend, either. He doesn’t ever ask how my kids are or invite me across the street for a cup of coffee when we're done, but then again, he's never shown the least interest in church gossip or politics. I guess after all I've just said you might wonder why I use him at all, and in fact, when I first thought of loading prayers onto my iPod to use during the dog-walking time or my long commute to work, I tried recording myself reading the prayers I wanted to use. I was entirely too self-conscious for that, as it turned out.

I've come to think of Mike as a companionable presence, a friend with a speech impediment. I know it would be better to go off and pray with real people, or to sit down alone with a book, but that isn't always possible. For those times, I'm glad I have Mike. I'll say it again: What a strange and wonderful world we live in.

Monday, August 07, 2006

From an ad for an online course offered by the University of London:

Study theology by distance learning ...

They got that right!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Don't think I just wanted to keep my doughnuts to myself

I was supposed to show up early this morning at the Episcopal church I've been attending lately, baked goods in hand, to be introduced with the others in the current Inquirers' group to the rest of the congregation at the little reception they hold between services, but I never made it. I had a bad night, feeling kind of lousy and not sleeping for more than a couple of hours, and I just couldn't do it.

Looking at it as one who tends to parse everything searching for hidden meanings, this one seemed obvious. Back when I still thought I would be there this morning, I was afraid I'd be appearing under false pretenses. The bishop is scheduled to make an official visit to the church next month, at which time most of the Inquirer's group will be officially received into the church. This visit looms as a sort of deadline for making up my mind, though it's an artificial deadline, because obviously this isn't a one-time offer. Anyway, I don't really expect to reach a decision in the next six weeks, but I wish I could. I'm still struggling to figure out how to even approach thinking about it.

How do you go about deciding which church to belong to? This was originally decided for me, long before I could take up the question for myself. Much later, I went through a process of embracing that choice and making it my own, but for me then it was a matter of being Catholic or not--I wasn't deciding whether to belong to the Catholic church or some other religion.

Do you decide based on what you think? I think my beliefs are a closer fit with the Episcopal church. Or is it better to pay attention to what you feel? I wonder if I'll ever stop feeling more Roman Catholic than anything else, but I also feel deeply hurt by by the Catholic church, by things that couldn't have happened as they did, in my opinion, if the institutional church was not deeply dysfunctional.

Do you make a list of pros and cons of switching, or two lists detailing what you like most about each of the churches you're considering?

Here's something I really like about the Catholic church: I like the emphasis on the idea that God is present in church in a special way. You might think that means that God isn't so present in the world beyond church, but in fact the opposite seems to me to be true. Though it might seem contradictory, the awareness of God's presence in church is just the beginning of the awareness of the Divine presence in the world, God with us always and everywhere, which is an amazing and wonderful thing to believe.

Here's something I really like about the Episcopal church: I like the way that people come to church on Sunday because they want to be there. For the most part no one comes late, and no one leaves early. People expect to arrive on time and they expect to stay until it's over, out of deference not only to God but also to the rest of us. They seem to recognize that we're there not just to pray but to worship, that our coming together to stand before God as a community is something that's important and deserving of respect.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that my issues with the Catholic church are all about some aspect of community. Who do we welcome to the table? How do we get along as a group? How do we go about making decisions, and who carries them out? What kind of community did Jesus intend to leave behind to go on his name? How I wish I could answer those questions ...