Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Makes perfect sense to me

It's fall break week and even though a lot of students have stayed around, things are noticeably calmer than last week when they had midterms. I felt the difference as soon as I got to campus yesterday, and I realized the stress had been affecting me even though I don't have to jump through those hoops any more. Been there, did that, as they say.

I worry sometimes about the amount of pressure these kids are under, and I try to be sensitive to how the ones I know are doing. I've also been turning my bulletin board (home to plastic Jesus and plastic Freud) into a sort of self-help station.

I put up the seal that says I sat through the school's official depression awareness training, along with some fliers that describe the symptoms of depression and list where you can turn for help. Then I put up my Feminists for Life flier with resources for problem pregnancies. I stuck my "I'm straight but I'm not narrow" button from the LGBT center next to it, to suggest that that being pro-life doesn't mean I'm narrow-minded or judgmental.

One of my colleagues, teasing, said I put the gay-acceptance button next to the pro-life flier so the world would know how truly confused I am. I told him that I myself am not the least confused.

What I can't understand is why the rest of the world doesn't get it.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Endless cycles

I spent the afternoon raking leaves and (because I didn't finish the summer jobs when I should have) mowing grass.

(DearQuakerHusband doesn't do these jobs because he is violently allergic to grass and leaf mold, as well as to dust, which pretty much rules out the inside maintenance jobs as well. Because he tends to be more fun when when he's breathing, I do all of them. Mighty convenient on his part, if you ask me. In fairness, though, he does do some other jobs that I hate, including folding laundry and shopping for groceries, so I can't complain too much about this.)

Anyway, as I worked, I found myself wondering how many billion leaves I have raked in my life, and how many billion blades of grass I have mowed.

Not to mention how many socks I have laundered, how many dishes I have washed, how much dog hair I have swept up ...

And how many times I have regretted being short-tempered and snappish with husband and kids, turning away from a situation where I could have helped, saying unkind things about someone ...

Wouldn't it be nice if we could break these circles? I don't mean the raking and mowing, obviously; I figure global warming is about our only hope there. But sometimes I wish my sins were more dramatic, or at least more interesting. ("Sin boldly," Martin Luther said.) What hope is there for building world peace if we can't even stop picking at each other in so many little ways?

(Thought-provoking bumper sticker spotted on a car parked at church this morning: Who would Jesus bomb?)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

No such thing as a coincidence?

In the mystery stories I like to read, the characters will occasionally encounter some incredible coincidence which of course has great significance to the plot, then announce to each other that there is no such thing as a coincidence. In fiction, that's probably true, but in life? I wonder if everything's connected by a Divine hand, or if it's the way we make the associations that creates that patterns that in turn give meaning to our lives. Maybe a bit of both?

I stopped working at my desk to enjoy a few quiet minutes before I had to leave for work yesterday. This is something I keep making resolutions to do, but things always get ahead of me. There is always more I wanted to accomplish each morning, and I so I always seem to be falling behind according to my mental plan for the day before the day's even really started. And it's true that commuting gives me plenty of time for thoughts and prayers, but I find that generally it's not such a good idea to close your eyes and empty your mind while driving--although at times the traffic moves so slowly I don't think it would make much difference if I did. Anyway, I had taken my hands off the keyboard, leaned back in my comfortable desk chair, closed my eyes, and tried to step away from everyday pressures and concerns. I put my usual question to God: Where am I going in all of this, and what am I suppose to do next? This lasted for about two minutes before the phone rang.

What to do? Answer it, or sit listening to it ring and waiting for the answering machine to pick up? After two rings I answered. It was the priest from my church, calling to follow up on my offer to work on the church website. Among other things, he would like to see it grow to be more of a spiritual resource. I'm excited about doing that, and when he thanked me for volunteering I told him I was glad to have an opportunity to make a contribution in an area where I feel modestly competent, since planning teas and such--the other areas where they've been looking for volunteers lately--definitely is not my area of expertise.

So I was glad I picked up the phone, and I think maybe the call did represent an answered prayer, though I must say that I'm not accustomed to receiving such a prompt and direct response, and I'd like it if that trend continued!

I am still waiting, though, for a response to my request for information about the program in spirituality I mentioned in a recent blog. I know it's not an emergency but I am excited about the idea and eager to have more details to consider. If nothing comes by the end of next week I'll call, but I'd rather not have to do that because my thoughts about this are still in a state where I'm not sure what I'd say if asked why I'm interested. Some things are easier (?) to write about than to talk about.

A final comment: Today is my 28th wedding anniversary (28 on the 28th, and to make things even more connected, we will be back this morning in the place where we were married, for a memorial service for a man who attended the wedding and went outside when it was over to paint a glorious picture of the scene--blazing fall foliage and all--that hangs in an honored place in my living room). Love is still a miracle and a mystery, which I continue to explore and understand only a little more with each passing year. Marriage is a relationship that in some ways resembles the relationship we have with God: we love, we trust, we try to live in harmony with the Other, we have confidence that we are loved in return. With God, though, we believe that love will never be withdrawn, that trust will never be violated. In the human relationship we know it could happen, and yet because of a promise exchanged we go on living as if it won't happen, and that is what makes it both scary and miraculous. The adventure continues ...

Friday, October 27, 2006

One more story

One more story about ethical behavior before I get off the subject, because I think you could go crazy if you spent too much time trying to figure these things out.

Most of the ethical decisions we make are very small scale. The larger ones don't up very often, and few of us ever face the really, really big ones. I'm thinking now in particular about the mother of a college friend. She was still a student in Holland when the Nazis arrived. One day she watched Germans carelessly tossing Jewish children into the back of a truck for deportation, and she was changed by that experience. She felt she could no longer stand by and do nothing; she had to get involved She began working with others to protect Jews. She helped move many Jewish children to safety, and she hid a Jewish man and his three children for nearly three years. One night they were all discovered by a Dutch policeman. She reached for a hidden gun and shot him dead; others helped get rid of his body.

What would I have done. I've given that a lot of thought since I first heard this story. I hope I would have become involved. I hope I would have been courageous enough to risk my own life if that were necessary to do the right thing. But what about shooting the policeman? That I don't know about it. If it were just me, maybe I would have been willing to lose my own life for the principle of nonviolence, but what about the others? What about the children?

And how could you ever go back to normal everyday living after an experience like that? This woman went on to marry, moved to the United States, raised three boys in Westchester County, and is now living in Vermont. Amazing.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tough love, indeed

I've been thinking a lot about war and peace lately. Well, who hasn't been, I know, given the state of our world, but I'm coming at it more from the head than the heart this time around. Pacifism is a big topic in the Christian ethics class I'm taking, in part because it is so timely but also because some of the authors we are reading see it as the central, defining stance of Christianity.

The biggest surprise for me has been discovering myself seriously willing to consider the validity of the just war tradition. As I have hinted in earlier blogs, I am a child of a certain time and place and we aging flower children still tend to lean toward pacifism, but what I'm realizing (yet again) as I rethink this issue is that having children has changed everything. As a parent, I have a much greater appreciation for order and stability as foundational to living out our human calling and potential.

I still want to be a pacifist, but here's what I see more clearly now: If you reject the idea that force may regrettably be necessary at times in the name of justice, you bear a heavy burden of responsibility for those who suffer genocide, systematic starvation, and the other injustices we have seen in the closing years of the twentieth century. Some writers call that kind of military intervention policing, as opposed to warring. If you're willing to accept that we need a police force to maintain order in our own relatively tranquil civil society, isn't using military force to establish order and justice on wider basis the next logical step?

I do find some merit in this argument, but would I be willing to send my son or daughter off to do it? That's another matter altogether, and if it's selfish I'm willing to extend that selfishness to everyone on either side. I want to cry every time I hear another story about the death and misery and heartache that have come out of Iraq. Forget Saddam and forget the futile search for weapons of mass destruction; I can't imagine (approaching it from the heart, now) how spending human life this way could ever be right. Why should any mother's child be sacrificed?

For love, some would say. As an act of love and mercy, to deliver God's children from oppression.

And that thought takes me back to some of our earlier reading about euthanasia, where the more "conservative" thinkers remind us that we're not God, and because we're only "creatures--not Creator" there are limits to how far we have to go to make things turn out right. That's God's problem, in other word.

If it isn't right to kill people in order to preserve human dignity, or to relieve human suffering, why is it right to kill people in war in order to preserve peace?

Because in war (or at least in policing) the people we aim to kill are the bad guys, I suppose, but still.

Switching ethical questions, at dinner last weekend we were talking about capital punishment and one of my relatives said she thought it was justified in cases where very heinous crimes had been committed, and she listed a few examples. I asked if she saw executing those criminals as a matter of justice or vengeance, which really was a loaded question since I think most people can see that pursuing justice might be noble but pursuing vengeance probably isn't, regardless of how they feel about it. She dodged my question and said her reasoning was based neither on justice nor vengeance but rather on her belief that the people who committed such heinous crimes simply did not deserve to live.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

This and that

You might have thought midterm week would present an excellent occasion for a little extra prayer, but apparently not. Our Tuesday afternoon congregation was reduced to three students and myself. I sometimes hang back a little on the responses because I tend to blurt out the wrong ones (slightly different wording from another church, that is) and the students were hanging back also, which meant our poor presider was left to answer himself a couple of times. Oops. I'm not sure preaching to a congregation of four would be very rewarding, either, but he did an admirable job with that as well. Afterwards, we all took a close look at the carving of the man and guide dog behind the altar and decided the writing was in Welsh, but that's as far as we got with it.

One of the students who works in our office is a senior who was thinking about applying to seminary for next year, but now he's pretty sure he won't. He's a religion major who took the same course last year that I'm taking now, and we've had some interesting conversations about it. In fact, through our conversations I sometimes feel I'm vicariously completing his religion major with him without having to sit down and write the senior thesis, which is fine by me. I think I was also sort of hoping to vicariously go on to seminary with him, so I find myself a little disappointed, but overall I think this is a good thing. If it's meant to be he'll get there eventually, and he'll be a better seminary student for the other things he's done in the meantime. I'm going to miss him when he graduates, though; time to start looking for a new conversation partner.

Meanwhile, I've been looking into my options for a course to take or audit next semester and finding nothing on campus that feels just right. Poking around on the web I discovered that a Catholic college about an hour a way from us offers a Graduate Certificate in Spirituality at a location that's more or less just around the corner. This would be a very strange thing to sign up for under the circumstances, but it struck me as an intriguing possibility so I asked them to send me info. Out of the frying pan and ... what, back into the frying pan? Ah, well, they probably wouldn't have me anyway, but it's an interesting possibility to consider.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Family feud

One of the things I particularly enjoy about being part of a university community is the diversity you find here. I love being in a place where ideas are valued, where you hear different languages and accents everywhere you go. I like the variety of religious viewpoints represented, and the respectful dialogue that takes place between people of different religious faiths.

Why is it that the religious group for whom I feel the least tolerance is those other Christians who don't share my view about how we're supposed to live out the Christian message?

Some guys with bullhorns and big gruesome photos of aborted fetuses showed up on campus yesterday, along with a truck with more huge bloody photographs plastered on the sides that kept roaring up and down the street, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to go out and dialogue with them. This group turned out to be part of a national organization that travels around doing this, and I found myself relieved that they weren't our students. I stopped to talk with a young man who pressed a gory full-color flier into my hands.

I didn't expect to change his mind, but I had to try. I asked him if he thinks women have abortions because they don't know that pregnancy produces babies. I asked him if he thinks this protest is an effective way to reduce the number of abortions taking place. I told him I think working on ways to support women so they can raise their children would be a more Christian approach. He told me there are plenty of Christians out there willing to adopt unwanted babies, which wasn't my point at all.

He wore a sort of deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression, but his lips were pressed together in resolve. He explained that he must tell the world that abortion is murder; like Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the temple. With a whip! he added. I told him I thought the situation in the temple was different, and I asked him if he could think of a time when Jesus dealt with someone who was suffering by lecturing them instead of taking care of them. He couldn't; in the back of my mind I was wondering if there is such a story that momentarily escaped my recollection.

I don't think he was expecting this. To be challenged by people who disagree, yes, but not by someone who claims to agree and cites the Bible back to him. He seemed to be leaning just slightly backward, away from me.

I went on about the compassion of Jesus but he didn't answer that. At a certain point it became clear that we would continue going around in circles until one of us broke it off. I went back to work thinking I'd won the argument on points, but neither of us changed. Maybe he was thinking the same. I was frustrated because I think this tactic is all wrong. I believe that if we're ever going to change minds about abortion it isn't going to be by waving ugly photos in peoples' faces. I think we should be concentrating more on changing attitudes and advancing programs to support mothers and children, but I haven't gotten anywhere with that idea here. This group is also known for being very confrontational about other issues such as the sinfulness of homosexuality. I don't think they succeed in convincing many gays, either. I hand his flier back to him and walk away.

I'm not the kind of Christian who normally lectures people about the Bible, and that part was sort of fun. Maybe this is a whole new start for me? I imagined walking back into my office and asking everyone if they've accepted Jesus as their savior; that would certainly turn heads. But no, I would never do that. I like to tell myself I proselytize by the way I lead my life, but part of me knows that's a cowardly answer. Back at my desk I continue to feel upset, at least in part because of all the dead baby pictures--but maybe also because I suspect I shouldn't have been so pleased with my part in this conversation?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Thank God it's Monday, so I can relax

It happened again. I arrived at church yesterday feeling a little homesick, and then as everyone came together I was deeply moved and grateful to be part of this community. There was a notice in last week's announcements that they needed a webmaster, and I volunteered, so now I have my first official job in my new church. For a while I believed I'd never let myself get involved in a church again; why am I not surprised to realize I've pretty much tossed that resolution aside?

A lot of thoughts came together for me this weekend. Friday will be the two-year anniversary of the event that marks the beginning of this time of looking inward, and I know it's time to look outward again; the webmaster gig is just the beginning.

It was a busy weekend, as we spent time with family, old friends, and the boy we call our "Russian son," who has fits into both categories. He has been in the U.S. for the past nine years pursuing an American education, and during that time he has become a part of our family, though his own parents are alive and well back at home. For him we have done most of the things parents do for their kids, everything from cheering him on at soccer games and wrestling matches, to staying up with him most of the night while he completed his college applications just barely ahead of the deadline, to helping out with tuition.

It is an odd thing to try to love someone else's child as if he were your own. Some boundaries you cross, but others remain. Now he is two semesters away from completing a five-year business degree and two hairs' breadths away from being tossed out for academic insufficiency. As amateur psychologists we diagnose depression; he started to work with the mental health services people at his college but now says they didn't help and he has to solve it on his own. Stubborn, stubborn. At his age you can't force your own children to do anything they don't want to do, and there's even less we can insist on with him. But once he's out, he'll have to go back to Russia, where he won't have a Russian education or a complete American education. What will happen to him then? Sometimes we feel angry that he is wasting the resources we've invested in him, emotional and otherwise; other times we feel heartbroken because we know that if he is sent back home now we'll lose touch with him, and that will feel like losing a member of our family.

Kids ...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Off pitch and out of sorts

We had Taize worship at my church last night. I look forward to this hour of chant-like singing, silence, and readings, which we do once a month. I wish I could say last night's version was a sublime experience, but it wasn't. One of the women had to leave early, and in order to fit more in before she left we moved things around and cut a few parts short, making it all feel a little disconnected to me. The singing wasn't very good and I thought that had a lot to do with one voice in particular that was loud, off pitch, and preemptive, which tended to drag the rest along to the point where we had to stop at one point and start over again. This problem wasn't helped by the organ, which seemed to be playing everything higher than it should have been. Our organist insisted she was playing everything as written, but I don't usually have trouble reaching notes until we get to d if I'm not really warmed up, and I was straining to hit b's.

Well, you get the picture. I arrived home feeling a little disappointed, but for some reason at the exact moment I came through my back door it hit me that God couldn't care less what the singing sounded like, and if I was unhappy the only possible reason for that was that I hadn't been able to show off my great (yeah, not really) voice. And the reason for moving things around was because the woman who left early was getting ready to go stay with her daughter who is going to have surgery, and she still wanted to be in church for some of the parts she finds sustaining, so making those adjustments for her was absolutely the right thing to do. And if I had a problem because our worship didn't please me that sort of suggested that I thought I was God and it had all been done in my honor.

I had a laugh at myself and I was OK with it, I really think I was, but for the rest of the evening I felt sort of sad, as if I'd lost something I cared about. I'm pretty sure it wasn't all about one evening's Taize worship, but then I'm not sure where it came from.

I'm thinking maybe I'll play something in the car on my way to work that I can sing along with and pretend that I have perfect pitch and see if that helps. (At least I know I'll be playing to a thoroughly appreciative audience.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

And now for something completely silly

Anybody remember the Firesign Theatre?

If you answered yes to this question you've just identified yourself with a certain time (late '60s, early '70s) and place (the great American counterculture). It may be hard for those who know me today as a middle-aged housewife to imagine that I once wore hip-hugging bell bottoms, granny glasses, love beads, and ragged army surplus (what were we thinking?), placing me squarely in the group who thought the Firesign Theatre were really, really funny (though I admit that much of my amusement was probably chemically induced, which may be why I can't get my own kids to see their humor, or at least to admit to it in my presence).

For those who don't know the group, let me introduce them. The Firesign Theatre were (and actually still are, though I no longer find them very funny; I'm not sure whether to blame that on me or them) a comedy group that specialized in complex skits mostly spoofing radio programming. Their albums that are most dear to me are Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and I Think We're All Bozos on this Bus, released in 1970 and 1971 respectively. I'm sure I still have them somewhere in the house, but I'm not sure I could bear the memories digging them out would bring. Wikipedia notes that "because of their complexity, Firesign recordings tend to become funnier with repeated listenings as new jokes are revealed." Yes, that certainly is true. They also tended to become funnier as the night wore on, as I recall, for reasons hinted at above.

Anyway, the group came to mind Tuesday when I was in chapel. (Really!) The wall behind the altar where the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians hold their services is wood-paneled, with several carved bas relief memorials. Actually the entire chapel is filled with memorials to various alumni, most of them soldiers who didn't come home from the various armed conflicts of the twentieth century, and I generally don't pay much attention to any of them.

From where I usually stand when we gather around the altar, though, I get a good view of this bas relief of a man and a large dog. It has fascinated me for the past year, and on Tuesday I finally went up to have a good look. I found writing carved into an oval frame around it, but that didn't help because I couldn't read it--I'm not even sure what language it's written in. Up close, the dog appeared to be wearing the kid of squarish lead you see on guide dogs for the blind. A religious reference: God is my guide dog? As I walked away, unenlightened, I found myself humming the tune of a "hymn" featured in a Firesign Theatre skit poking fun at religious programming. I could sing it to you today:
O blinding light
O light that blinds
Look out for me
I cannot see.

The person I was remembers the words. The person I am today no longer finds them particularly amusing, but the next step is, I start thinking about their meaning and decide it is scarily close to the truth: Look out for me, I cannot see.

I'm pretty sure the Firesign Theatre never imagined anyone would actually meditate on these words in church. I'm sure I didn't, either. How strange life is!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

To want is to have

This blog is about rain and joy and the way things sometimes fall into place so you get just what you need when you need it. I'm not talking about manna falling from heaven here. I mean things that would have been there with or without you, so the miracle lies in whatever led you to see what you needed and then go find it.

Though maybe it is like manna from heaven, since God didn't send bread until the Israelites complained in their own grumpy way about how hungry they were.

Following? Let me go back to yesterday and I'll explain.

It was a rainy, rainy day. At lunchtime the campus looked so deserted you might have thought we were on break. I didn't think anyone would make it through the rain to the chapel for the Tuesday afternoon Episcopal service. I was tempted to skip it myself. I thought I was tired of it. I was tired in general. I didn't want to be there with just one or two others. I expected it to be even gloomier than usual inside the chapel, which is beautiful but does tend to be dark. But I couldn't put it out of my mind and so at 4:20 I found myself slopping through puddles in that direction, and when I arrived, I found perhaps double the usual attendance, my favorite presider (not what it had said in the email reminder they sent out), the light seemed brighter than ever and I experienced a more intense level of something--joy?--than I had been feeling lately.

I was still thinking about that feeling when I got home and started the reading for this morning's class and found this about joy:

It might seem strange to stress the significance of joy for the Christian life, since we normally associate joy with the momentary response to the unexpected. Joy, we think is spontaneous but has little staying power. It cannot sustain us over the long haul. But the joy we receive as Christians is not that of a passing occasion. Rather it is a joy that derives from finding our true home among a people who carry the words and skills of God's kingdom of peace. That such a people are joyful does not mean they think that their struggle is over, for their sense of the tragic character of our existence cannot allow any shallow optimism or sentimentality. Rather their joy is possible because of their assurance that they are at least in the right struggle.

Stanley Hauerwas
The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics

Interesting, I said to myself, but I'm not sure that's what I'm thinking about. Maybe what I'm feeling is indeed "a response to the unexpected"--the discovery, no less surprising because we experience it over and over again, that God loves us.

I considered that idea for a while, and eventually I remembered reading a book by C.S. Lewis called Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. I'm not that much of a Lewis fan (heresy, I know) but this one I liked. I read it a long time ago, and what struck me at the time was his description of something he called "Joy," a feeling I recognized immediately but had never seen described in quite the same way anyplace else. How had I forgotten this book for so long? I wanted to read it again. I wanted to have it as a book I could flip through and write in, but I was so eager to see it I was willing to settle for an ebook download--but there were none to be had online. Eventually, when I took the dog out for the last rainy walk of the night, I decided to take my wallet and wander as far as the bookstore.

I live in an interesting little town, a place where things tend to close down early but if you are looking for joy the two things you can still buy late on a rainy evening mid-week are a drink or a book. I passed on the drink but was thrilled to find the bookstore still open when I got there. I dragged the wet dog in (she had no idea what it was about but she gets excited about any new adventure), told the clerk what I wanted, and was on my way home with book in hand (or more precisely, fortunately, in a big waterproof bag) five minutes later. Ask, and it shall be sold to you. (It wasn't terribly expensive, as a matter of fact.)

... an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in any sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

Later, he says, "the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and to want is to have."

Yes, that's it for sure. I'm looking forward to reading more. I told the clerk in bookstore how great I think it is to live in a town where the bookstore stays open for anyone who happens to need a book late on a rainy evening, and she sort of shrugged and said nothing; it's a line I'm sure she's heard before. I trust my thanks to God were more graciously received.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The home team won, by the way

I went to a football game Friday night with friends at the university. The stadium is near my assigned parking lot so I pass it every day, but I had never been inside. It was like going on an anthropological field trip. Cheerleaders, marching band members in bright blazers, hunky boys in football uniforms, gangs of girls on the prowl, adults clad in more fleece in the strikingly odd school colors than I might have expected to find in the entire state--what a strange little world they've got going in there.

I suppose this is what a lot of people imagine when they think college, but it's not the side of campus life I know best. I guess it's not surprising since the mission of my office is to get people focused on the problems of the world beyond, but the students I encounter are thoughtful individuals. They all seem to be at work fine-tuning life plans that account for how what they are doing now will get them where they want to go. Their goals generally have something to do with making the world a better place, and most of them have already started on that part. They know they are lucky to be where they are, and they see that they owe something back in turn. If the future is theirs, we have much to be hopeful about.

When I tell people I work at a university they often have disparaging things to say about young people today, and indeed there are aspects of the current youth culture that I don't necessarily appreciate, but these kids are an idealistic lot and it's hard not to like and even admire them.

I flatter myself, I know, but I like to think we--they and I--have things in common. I feel like a kid again myself when I hurry off to class (though this time around I have generally accomplished the assigned reading, which was frequently not the case in my first college career), and I am experiencing my own new beginnings. I don't have any plans, though, just the hope (and trust) that my future will unfold the way it is meant to.

Sometimes I want to these students them to relax, that things will work out just fine even if life doesn't t proceed along the exact track they are imagining (and to warn them that it probably won't!), but I expect that's a lesson they'll have to learn in their own good time.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Living in the now

The best sermons in my view are extemporaneous as per Merriam-Webster's second entry: "carefully prepared but delivered without notes or text." (I'm a tough audience, I know; would it help if I said I see preaching not as a performance art but as a sort of partnership in which what I do with it is important, too?) In most cases I find those easier to absorb than something that's been written out in advance, then read from a piece of paper. I'm usually sitting there thinking that I could just as easily take that paper home and read it myself--though one advantage of written sermons is that you can do just that. I have a copy of a sermon by a priest whose reflections I appreciate very much, and I've gone back to it repeatedly over the past few months. In it, he talks about the need to take exodus risks in following Jesus, and about understanding God's purpose in giving us places to rest along the way.

Jesus, he points out, “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out ... " Out, that is, not in--out of the relative safety of the sheepfold and into a place of uncertainty, where trusting and following the shepherd is the only way to go.

He goes on: "It is all too easy for us to misinterpret the peace and respite God may give us along the way. We can convince ourselves that we have reached our journey's true goal, when in fact we are very far from the Promised Land. It is also easy for us to forget that these grace periods are often the direct consequence of our refusal to be shepherded further by God."

I'm still thinking about that part. I got where I am (I'm talking here about religion) by putting one foot in front of the other while looking to God for reassurance that I was going in the right direction. Each individual step felt right, and I don't see how all of them combined could have taken me anyplace else. But despite the comforts it offers, this isn't where I ever expected to be, and there are things I miss yet from the old place and haven't found here. So I'm wondering, is this the destination, or one of those temporary resting places? Doesn't matter for now, I suppose; I trust I'll know when I need to. Just got to concentrate in the meantime on being where I am.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

It's not about the coffee

These are some of the things that happened in my church this morning in the time between services, when some of the early folk and the later folk were briefly together:

The organizer of our Christmas giving tree bustled around a little Christmas tree in the back making sure everyone understood how it was supposed to work: You pick a gift tag off the tree, purchase the gift specified for a needy child in our area, and bring it back to church by mid-December. I think she's unnecessarily anxious about this project--witness the fact she felt the need to get started in mid-October--but it's understandable, since it's the first time she's ever done anything like this. "I was always complaining that we should do more outreach, and then it occurred to me that I should stop complaining and do it," she said.

A small group gathered around to listen to a woman whose daughter has been ill and will have surgery this week.

The reader, pressed into service on short notice, spent some time alone with the readings for the day.

A couple of people came in, took their places, and sat quietly.

The organist and one of our better singers went over a new piece of music they were getting ready to teach the rest of the congregation.

Other folks talked about what they did last night and what they planned to do on this glorious fall Sunday afternoon.

Two women discussed who would represent the church at this week's meeting of our local council of churches, which has a big food pantry as its major project.

And yes, there was a coffee pot in the corner, and that good coffee aroma did fill the room like a hymn.

And gradually the pews filled up for the second service and the early people left, and the room fell silent for a few minutes, until the organist started to play and we all stood and sang with our usual enthusiasm, and it was time to begin again:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid. ...

I think I have been looking for this place for as long as I can remember.

It's not about standing around and chatting with your friends. It's about building Christian community. How can we comfort the sorrowful if we don't know who they are? How can we effectively evangelize people we don't get a chance to talk to? Is there a better time than Sunday morning to get everyone together to plan what we'll do next to support the needy in our broader community? We care about each other in a personal way because we know each other, and together we care about God's other children. This kind of fellowship is deeply interwoven with the readings we hear and ponder and the hymns we sing during the formal part of our worship. We come together to celebrate the eucharist as a family, then we go out to be ourselves a sign of God's presence in the world.

We are a small church without much auxiliary space, so all these things happen in the sanctuary, and in a way that's a blessing. It's good to be reminded that our prayers flow from the rest of our lives, and our lives in turn proceed out of prayer.

... Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Show me the way

Show me the path I might follow to be the person you created me to be.

Last weekend DearQuakerHusband's Quaker meeting observed its 200th birthday and we spent parts of both days celebrating. There was a lot of silence as well as plenty of talking, seeing old friends, reminiscing, feasting on two covered-dish lunches, etc. All the other churches in town were invited; few responded, but the priest from my new church came and ended up sitting next to me during silent worship the first day, an unexpected connection between old and new places in my life. This prayer jumped to life during that quiet, and it's been with me since.

FavoriteDaughter, the younger of my two children, just started her junior year in college. I remember thinking before she left for her freshman year that life would probably change for me once she departed, bringing an end to the daily, hands-on-mothering phase of my life, that her new beginning might be a new start for me, too. What I imagined was basically that I get more involved in the kinds of volunteer work I'd been doing all along.

If I thought my life might change a little, I could never have imagined all that has happened to me in the past two years. I have a new job, in an entirely different field, so it's really a whole new career, one that draws together my diverse interests and experience. Out of the job I have new friends. I also have the opportunity to audit college classes, which is a second chance for me as a student, since I must admit I was a rather distracted undergraduate. Even outside of class the university is a lively intellectual community where people are engaged in ideas and there's much to think about. I've also left the church I belonged to for 26 years, and now I have a new church, in a different denomination--a new Christian community to go forward with and within--so it's been an eventful time spiritually as well as intellectually.

So much is new and exciting, I'd really like to stop here for a while and enjoy this new landscape. And yet it doesn't feel finished yet. Something's telling me I can't stop now because there's still more to come. Where does it end--or does it? Do we ever experience enough of God, or learn enough, or feel we've finally found our place in the world, or does it just go on this way to the journey's conclusion?

Show me the path I might follow to be the person you created me to be.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The trolley problem

I am frustrated by most of the "thought experiments" we're reading about in my Christian ethics class. They're supposed to reduce complex problems to simpler terms so they become easier to understand, but as far as I'm concerned, most of them don't accurately represent those complex realities. I'm fascinated, though, by the trolley problem, which I mentioned in yesterday's blog.

Originally devised by Phillipa Foot in an article addressing abortion and the principle of double effect (the distinction between intended consequences of our actions and foreseen but unintended consequences), the trolley problem has spawned a slew of trolley sub-problems and taken on a life of its own. I've started some interesting conversations by trying a few of them out on friends.

The basic trolley problem goes like this:

A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward five innocent people, who will surely be killed unless something is done. You can't stop the train, but you can flip a switch that will divert the trolley onto another track, where only one innocent person will be killed. What do you do?

In a variation on the basic problem, you are standing on a footbridge above the track, in between the trolley and the five anticipated victims. A large man is standing beside you, and you know enough about this particular kind of trolley to realize that if you push the man off the platform in front of the train, his body will stop it. He undoubtedly will be killed, but the other five will be spared. (You may not try to stop the trolley by jumping in front of it yourself.) What do you do?

If you said you'd flip the switch but couldn't bring yourself to push the man standing next to you, you're with the majority in each case. Which is interesting, because the result of each of those choices would appear to be precisely the same: Sacrificing one innocent person in order to save the lives of five. For most of us, though, the idea of physically pushing a person into the path of a train carries a repulsion factor far beyond that attached to simply flipping a switch and letting it roll over someone. (Although it turns out that subjects with brain damage in the area controlling emotional reactions are significantly more likely to say they'd go ahead and push.)

I heard an interesting lecture last week by a guy who has used brain imaging to see what parts of the human brain light up when we think about things like this this. He went on from there to devise a collection of further trolley problems and tested them out on large survey groups to test his hypotheses about brain function with respect to moral reasoning (an approach known as neuroethics).

So all the times I thought I was praying to God and receiving divine guidance about the right thing to do in difficult situations, it turns out it was actually just my old monkey brain at work, according to his theories. It's fascinating stuff to ponder--not that I'm about to switch from prayer to bananas in facing my personal dilemmas.

Just don't get me started about unconscious famous violinists.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A collage of ideas for Friday

I have no words of my own to offer just now. The ideas that are swirling through my head and heart defy synthesis into anything coherent. I am full of shreds of thought about the nature of God's presence and the meaning of Christian community (personal and church issues), trolley problems and unconscious famous violinists (these from my Christian ethics class), and how we are supposed to live out our calling to be followers of Jesus Christ (a combination of both of the above, I suppose). What does it mean to be good?

In place of my words, I offer instead a few snippets from other sources that I've been thinking about:

Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which people can take refuge ... houses of God filled with his silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily.

Thomas Merton

For if we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom,
we must run to it by good deeds
or we shall never reach it.

But let us ask the Lord, with the Prophet,
"Lord, who shall dwell in Your tent,
or who shall rest upon Your holy mountain" (Ps. 14:1)?

After this question, brothers and sisters,
let us listen to the Lord
as He answers and shows us the way to that tent, saying,
"The one Who walks without stain and practices justice;
who speaks truth from his heart;
who has not used his tongue for deceit;
who has done no evil to his neighbor;
who has given no place to slander against his neighbor."

Prologue, The Rule of St. Benedict

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

The Catholic tradition is unified in its belief in God's active and intimate care for the world and each person in it, and in our own correlative obligations to care for those who are in need--preventing unjustified harm, alleviating pain, protecting and nourishing the well-being of individuals and the wider society. There are deep roots in the Catholic tradition that anchor a commitment to the most poor, the most marginalized, the most ill; and that in doing so sustain a commitment to human equality in its most basic sense.

Margaret A. Farley

Consequentialism may be described as that moral theory which holds that from the fact that some state of affairs ought to be it follows that we ought to do whatever is necessary to bring about that state of affairs. And, although teleological theories of morality are very ancient, consequentialism as a full-blown moral theory is traceable largely to Bentham and Mill in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To remember this is instructive, since it is not implausible to suggest that such a moral theory would be most persuasive when Christendom had, in large measure, ceased to be Christian Those who know themselves as creatures--not Creator--will recognize limits even upon their obligation to do good. As creatures we are to do all the good we can, but this means all the good we "morally can"--all the good we can do within certain limits. It may be that the Creator ought to do whatever is necessary to bring about the state affairs which ought to be, but we stand under no such godlike imperative.
Our responsibilities (as creatures) are limited--that the responsibility for achieving certain results has been taken out of our hands (or, better, never given us in the first place).

Gilbert Meilaender

We have in fact to distinguish between two kinds of Samaritan: the Good Samaritan and the Minimally Decent Samaritan. ... After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said "God, and do thou likewise." Perhaps he meant that we are morally required to act as the Good Samaritan did. Perhaps he was urging people to do more than is morally required of them. At all events it seems plain that it was not morally required of any of the thirty-eight that he rush out to give direct assistance at the risk of his own life ... I have been arguing that no person is morally required to make large sacrifices to sustain the life of another who has no right to demand them, and this even where the sacrifices to not include life itself; we are not morally required to be Good Samaritans or anyway Very Good Samaritans to one another.

Judith Jarvis Thompson

(In fairness I've taken these last two quotes out of context; Meilaender was talking about euthanasia and Thompson about abortion, but I find them even more interesting to think about away from those significantly charged issues. Out of context I find it difficult to agree with them; in context ... well, that's a subject for another day.)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Fresh brewed

I sometimes think coffee is the third sacramental element in the Episcopalian tradition. I'm not sure if there's any support in Scripture for this, but considering the intensity of my personal relationship with coffee, I'm all right with it.

Actually, if you were to go looking for a Scriptural basis I think you'd find it in the table fellowship Jesus shared with his friends throughout their time together, not just at the Last Supper. Coffee hour is where a church strengthens the bonds of community among its members and reaches out to newcomers. I think it really is a shame most Roman Catholic parishes I've known don't do this. (Though I know many staunch Roman Catholics such as my own parents who would be appalled at the very notion; they never thought going to church ought to involve that much togetherness.)

I was thinking these thoughts--not for the first time--as the pot gurgled and the aroma of fresh coffee filled the church this morning. Coffee hour takes place outside as long as the weather permits, but a driving rain drove everything indoors, and the church is so small the only place you can put a big coffee pot is behind the last pew. It was a grey day indeed when I arrived for the early service, and I felt cheered and welcomed to see the light pouring out of the church windows as I drove up.

Breaking with the usual schedule, the second service was canceled in favor of proceeding to walk as a team in the local AIDS walkathon this morning. Fortunately, the sky turned blue and the sun came out right about the time the walk started. About 18 of us participated--not a bad turnout for a small congregation. I cheated and walked back home after about a mile and a half because I knew I wasn't good for the full six miles, but it meant a lot to be there as part of that group. Most of us had come straight from church but a few turned up later at the start of the walk, and glad greetings were exchanged among all as we gathered. I suspect--in fact I know--that these people don't all like each other, and yet they seem to know how to make this community thing work.

I have wished for so long that I belonged to a church that did things like this.

It was a heartening finish to what has at times been a sad week for me, to be perfectly honest. I had a long phone chat with a good friend of mine from my old church who told me how much people missed me--not what I wanted to hear right now--and I sent back the where are you questionnaire that came with the we miss you letter from the same church. It will be interesting to see if they decide now to follow up or let me go; I'm betting on the latter. It was good to be reminded that what I did last Sunday was a matter of walking into a new community, not just walking away from the old one. Being sad is not the same thing as having regrets, but trusting you are headed in the right direction doesn't necessarily make it easy to let go of the past.

While we were standing around together waiting to start walking, a photographer from the local weekly newspaper posed us all behind our church banner and took our picture. It will be interesting if it is published, since this is a small town where it's sure to be seen by many people who would not have expected to find me in an Episcopal group portrait. With that in mind it occured to me to step out of the picture, but I'm glad to say I didn't. I'm here now.