Friday, November 09, 2012

It's in My Nature

If you don't care for nature -- if, like one thoroughly urbanized child of ours, unidentifiable insects and strange birdcalls and midnight shufflings in the shrubbery make you all verklempt -- living in the middle of outstate Michigan is probably not for you. We are not, technically, "out in the country" -- our property borders a subdivision at one end of our small town -- yet we are surrounded by trees, giving us the illusion three seasons out of the year that we're all by ourselves in a large forest; our large back yard is home to everything from Michigan's ubiquitous chickadees and downy woodpeckers to occasional turkeys, a fox, an opossum and about a dozen deer who wander through the neighborhood every day.

We enjoy nature. We enjoy it around our house (even our tribe of skinks who spend the summers sunning themselves on our patio and landscaping rocks, when they're not fleeing from the cat); we enjoy living two minutes away from a huge patchwork of farm fields and woodlands, from quiet country roads lined by trees whose branches meet overhead, from lakes and rivers. And because one of our daily rituals is taking Chica the dog on a long, energy-expending run, every day is like a field trip for us. The other day, for instance, we saw not one but two bald eagles -- no longer rare in these parts, but certainly not common birds -- circling in the air above us as we drove down an unfamiliar lane. A couple of miles away, passing the rows of brown stubble in a harvested cornfield, I noticed, out in the middle of the property, easily the largest elm tree I have ever seen in my life -- a stunning, vase-shaped beauty silhouetted against the sky. 

Being a farm kid, and an only child, I've always spent lots of time exploring the out-of-doors; I used to practically live in our pasture and hayfields during the summer. I was tacitly encouraged by my father; someone who, ironically, couldn't say the word "environmentalist" without preceding it with "goddamned," but who nonetheless possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife borne of a lifetime farmng, fishing and hunting, who for all his gruffness could be startlingly sentimental about some wild things (taking the time, for instance, to save a trembling young fawn from harm while cutting hay, waiting patiently for a reunion between baby and mama away from the hayfield before he commenced his work again) and who held to his family's Old World principles about engaging with flora and fauna -- for instance, considering it good luck to feed birds in wintertime, and to plant trees where there weren't any. My maternal aunt and uncle were also great amateur naturalists who knew the name of every plant and animal on their farm, whose reference books regularly shed pressed leaves and flowers, whose windowsills always held found objects from their fields like fossils and arrowheads.

Fellow Traveler is a city girl, but her 15 years in Maine, as well as our rural life now, has given her an ever-increasing appreciation of nature. And she has that "beginner's eye" that can make me appreciate what I tend to take for granted. 

So the other day I started a nature journal, with a nice, softbound leather notebook that Fellow Traveler had given me one year but that I'd been reluctant, given my sad record of diarist follow-through, to "spoil" with my handwriting. I've given myself generous parameters in this project -- I can journal, or not, anytime I want; I am not keeping to a given format; I am using a mechanical pencil, not a pen, for writing and sketching. So it's not exactly The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. But I feel that at least some of what we see is too interesting or beautiful or odd to simply try and preserve in memory alone. My goal is to keep my journal lively, and to actively pursue a bit of mess -- pressed specimens, photos from my smartphone, notes in the margins. I'd initially considered keeping sort of a multimedia journal online...but I think it's good to actually write with a pencil once in awhile, to attempt hand-drawn pictures instead of always falling back on cameras and clip art, to create a written work exclusively for our household. 

So far I've accomplished one page -- a short summary of our eagle and elm sighting the other day. I'm sure I'll have material aplenty for days to come.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Taking a Break, and Why That's Not a Bad Thing

In the world of relationships the phrase "taking a break" is usually a bad thing, at least for one of the parties involved...but in my church relationship, taking a break from lay ministry is, for the time being, a good thing.

Our team of lay ministers had been front and center in our congregation, either as assisting ministers or preachers, pretty much nonstop for the past couple of  years. With the arrival of our pastoral intern, we had to rethink the schedule; for the first couple of weeks we found ourselves trying to lead worship with an awkward trio of pastor, intern and lay assistant, something that felt like much of a muchness in our small, MOTR/down-the-candle congregation. And then one lay-preaching Sunday one of the other lay ministers delivered a sermon that was so -- well, without going into details, I'll just say, as a stunned listener in the pew, that it was not a good day for anyone, especially a hapless visitor, to have attended the service expecting a sermon compatible with Lutheran theology and comforting/edifying to the faithful  -- that at our next lay ministry meeting our pastor basically called a lay ministry time out, at least in terms of sermonating, for all of us for the near future.

My response? Relief. I'm tired, even with our relatively relaxed one-Sunday-on, three-Sundays-off rota. Especially in this past year when I was recovering from my seizure, sometimes not feeling steady on my pins or comfortable preparing for whatever the day entailed, this modest schedule was still a burden, especially if one of the other players needed a substitute on a given Sunday. It's also nice, frankly, to be able to sit in the pew with my partner and simply experience worship without having to lead it, especially now that we have a new voice and perspective in the pulpit.

I'm still our congregation's Facebook editor, a job that I spend, I think, a good hour on every day just providing some daily content to keep our page fresh and informative, and I'm happy doing that. We seem to have about 55 frequent fliers out of 167 "Likes," which I think is great considering our congregation's general lack of access to the Internet.

In the meantime, I'm rethinking my role in lay ministry -- not rethinking it all that hard, but wondering what the term "lay minister" even means, or at least what it means for me at this point in my life.  It's never been all that defined in our congregation.  Is it something that is useful to others and satisfying to me to a degree that makes me want to continue to be one? I don't know. But at least I have a hiatus in which to think about it. And to do other things.

Friday, October 26, 2012

All Booked Up

This Friday's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five is all about books. Which is great; I've been all about books lately.

1. STUDYING: What is your favorite book or series for sermon prep or study? Or have you moved from books to on-line tools for your personal study? Because I'm a lay minister, and a lay minister in a relative academic desert, I don't have ready access to a lot of Bible commentaries or theological works; I have my New Interpreter's NRSV (a great Bible, by the way), a smattering of my own theology books and whatever I can find in my pastor's office, plus what's left of the wisdom I gained in three years of working in a serious pan-Christian bookstore with liberal lending privileges for employees. That is why I rely fairly heavily on online resources like The Text This Week and Working Preacher when preparing sermons or, more frequently these days, our Prayers of the Church.

2. IN THE QUEUE: Do you have a queue of books you are longing to read or do you read in bits and pieces over several books at a time? What's in the queue? This past spring and summer, for a variety of reasons -- perhaps in no small part to convince myself that my cognition was back to normal after my double-whammy seizure event and concussion -- I became intrigued by the concept of classical education, the trivium, and filling in the blanks left by my hit-and-miss liberal arts education. Susan Wise Bauer's The Well Educated Mind has been a great inspiration to me. I downloaded to my Kindle numerous free or low-cost versions of books on her list of must-reads, amended with additions from lists of multicultural Great Books -- everything from the Gilgamesh saga to The Tale of Genji to Jane Austen to Martin Luther King, Jr. And I'm just reading them, very slowly, mostly chronologically. (Even when it hurts, as in the Gilgamesh story -- I apologize to any fans of Near Eastern mythology, but I was so mind-numbingly bored trying to slog my way though this tedious ancient bromance that I could barely get through it, and I cannot say that it has enriched my life in any discernable way.)

This past month I also enrolled in a Greek and Roman mythology class through Coursera, an amazing, free experimental online school offering non-credit courses from legitimate universities, which means I've been reading Homer and Hesiod these days, with I think some Virgil on the horizon.

Of course, I'm interested in a lot of other things as well. I have a number of gardening books in my queue that I read in bits and pieces. I'm entertaining a wild hare about beginning a nature journal -- just a diary of what goes on in our backyard -- and just bought a book about ways to do that. And I loves me some Dan Silva international thrillers. I kind of have a yen to re-read some overviews of Old and New Testaments, to keep my edge, but all in due time.

3. FAVORITE OF ALL TIME: What's one book that you have to have in your study? Is it professional, personal, fun or artistic? (For instance, I have a copy of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It just helps sometimes.) Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I loved them when I was five, and I love them now.

4. KINDLE OR PRINT? or both? Is there a trend in your recent purchases? Great question. There's no question that the Kindle is an amazing device -- I mean, here I am with an entire library right next to me in a gadget smaller than a TV dinner -- and the Kindle Fire is just so cool that whenever I open mine I can hardly stand the coolness of it all. But it has some drawbacks, depending on the book you're reading. I find it hard to navigate reference books, like my gardening encyclopedias, on a Kindle; it's very hard to find, or regain, one's place. It's difficult to cite passages in books without page numbers, or make notes even with the Kindle features that allow one to do so. And sometimes the editing in a digitalized book leaves something to be desired. (Maybe the proofreading profession will make a comeback.) And sometimes you just want to turn pieces of paper, or scribble a note in a margin. On the other hand, it's very spatially liberating to not have to find places for print books, or have to schlep them around. And in most cases Kindle books are cheaper.

5. DISCARDS: I regularly cruise the "FREE BOOKS" rack at our local library. (I know, I know. It's a bad habit!) When's the last time you went through your books and gave some away (or threw some away?) Do you remember what made the discard pile? We're in the process of sprucing up our home interior -- painting, redecorating in some of the rooms, de-cluttering -- so this summer I was quite ruthless in discarding books from our bulging bookcases and overflowing end tables; I donated them all to our church yard sale, where books are always a big seller, so I felt confident they'd find good homes. Most of the discards were "seemed like a good idea at the time" impulse purchases from the Barnes and Noble remainder racks, cookbooks with recipes I know I'd never actually make, gift books that we didn't really enjoy and some old books of mine that I think had survived three moves but that I hadn't read in years and that I just seemed to be holding onto as souvenirs. It was very liberating, frankly, to pile these into a big cardboard box and send them back off into the reading universe.

Anti-Bonus: I'm feeling a little lazy about taking a photo of my bookcase (actually, my phone is in the bedroom and my camera is AWOL elsewhere in the house), and a photo of a Kindle is kind of here's a bonus addendum of my own. And with any luck it will be a bonus for me. What are some good books you've read lately, of any genre? Thanks for any suggestions.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Random Friday Five

It's Random Friday for the here are some totally random questions.

1. What is the best thing that happened to you all week?

Taking our new vicar (that's pastoral intern to some of you) up to the Leelanau Peninsula for a little cultcha. We had great fun. Chocolate and wine will do that.

2. If you were in a Miss, Ms., Mrs, Mr. Something Pageant, what would your talent be?

Cat whispering. I have a unique talent for getting cats -- even feral, human-averse cats to like me.

3. You've just been given a yacht. What would you call it and why?

Oh, I think I would call it the Mecklenburg, in honor of my ancestors who came from the Mecklenburg region of Germany. I think that's perhaps where I get my love of seashores and seafood.

4. If you could perform in a circus, what would your talent be?

Probably cleaning up after the animals. It's that whole Lutheran usefulness thing.

5. What do you have in your bag/wallet/backpack that best describes your personality?

My secret stash of money -- a legacy of my Depression-kid parents. I never feel financially secure unless I have an extra roll of money tucked away in an obscure pocket. Fellow Traveler used to think this was funny, but I've converted her to the wisdom of the secret stash.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Confessions of an Autodidact

Autodidact: It's a strange word. Something about it sounds suspect, possibly even nasty. She is a practicing autodidact.

But all it means is "self-teacher." And that's what I am. I like to teach myself stuff. Always have; even when I was a little kid looking through my parents' old schoolbooks and going through the lessons myself. Sometimes I've failed -- for instance, no amount of effort made me a successful music reader or practical sewer or shorthand writer. But sometimes I've succeeded: bread baking; knitting; enough German to bump me into the third-term class my freshman year of college (although I had the good sense to immediately demote myself back to German 101 before my deficiencies became apparent).

When I was a twenty-something slacker working in a bookstore, a couple came in one winter evening, back in those pre-Amazon days, with a long list of special-order books on two particular topics -- I think maybe a certain period in art history, and the Civil War. When I asked the middle-aged pair if they were taking classes in these things, they laughed and said no; but that, every year, each of them had committed to learning about one new thing. It was a New Year's tradition for them. I was charmed; I thought at the time that it was one of the coolest and most romantic ideas I'd ever heard of.

My embrace of that lifetime-learning ethic has been spotty since then; some years I pull it off, while other years not so much. But every now and again I feel that compulsion to learn in a systematic way. That's how I've felt this summer -- I think spurred in part by my recent experiences with brain  injury and my gradual return to feeling and thinking in a normal way. I no longer take it for granted, and I want to keep that sharpness sharp.

During my long recuperation this past winter I did some reading on homeschooling. We have shirttail relations who Waldorf-homeschool, and their children are so interesting and articulate that I decided to learn more about that particular school of thought. While parts of it appeal to me -- the integrated curriculum, for instance, and emphasis on arts -- much of it is, frankly, too oogity-boogity for me to take seriously; and I strenuously object to the Waldorf principle that actively discourages children from learning to read until they're 7 or 8. I don't care what the faeries or angels told Herr Steiner; it's a dumb idea. I learned to read when I was three, because I wanted to, and I'm grateful for that; I think it's criminal to hold children hostage to arbitrary developmental timelines.

Anyway, while researching that particular school of thought I was introduced to another pedagogical method that's gained some traction with homeschoolers and others: the Charlotte Mason method, named for a 19th century educational reformer. At first I got the impression that she was a darling of conservative Christian homeschoolers, and assumed that meant anti-intellectual nonsense wrapped in piety and Victorian sentimentality; but then I found out that plenty of homeschoolers without an overt religious agenda find Mason's ideas useful. And as I read more about Charlotte Mason herself, I learned that she was a pretty right-on woman for her time; an advocate both of girls' education and in giving all children, regardless of social class, a broad liberal-arts education based on the classical model and a lifelong love of learning. Her method includes short, focused lessons that allow the teacher to tackle many subjects; using "living books," books written by authors in love with the subject at hand instead of bland textbooks written and redacted by committee; emphasis on the out-of-doors, on nature study and play outside; teaching practical or self-improving activities instead of dumbed-down "twaddle";"dictation," by which she meant expecting students to be able to articulately summarize, aloud or in writing, what they've learned on a given day.

One thing led to another, and while reading about the Charlotte Mason method I discovered Susan Wise Bauer, a contemporary educator popular with classically minded homeschoolers. And -- yay! -- she's written a book for adults, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide To the Classical Education You Never Had, I stayed up until the wee hours reading it. In it Bauer lays out a general outline for tackling subjects as a self-learner, and also provides lists of books in different genres that can help a  motivated adult student deepen and broaden his or her understanding.

I feel like I've gotten my intellectual groove back. So I've been integrating some of the ideas I've been reading about into my own learning programme. I've had a lot of fun downloading lots of free Kindle e-books on Bauer's list, and have been leisurely working my way through the very oldest texts. I am also trying to check off a line item on my personal bucket list by undertaking Spanish, at least on a conversational level, toggling the Byki Deluxe program with an inexpensive Spanish grammar (because I just can't stand learning sentences without understanding the why of the sentences.) And -- I almost hesitate to mention this because it's so incredibly nerdy -- am revisiting the bane of my teenage existence, algebra, because I honestly think that without the performance pressure of misogynist math teachers and highly competitive fellow students, I might actually understand it this time around. Who cares if it's taken 40 years to summon the fortitude necessary to peel away this particular layer of shame? Game on!

I do one of the short Spanish units almost every day, or at least review the previous day; but the other stuff I just fit in, the way that I suspect female autodidacts throughout the ages have managed to steal learning time throughout the day. And -- thank you for the suggestion, Ms. Mason -- I am attempting to, every night, write myself a short summary of what I've learned. And cut down on the twaddle.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday Five: Help!

Help me if you can
I'm feeling down
And sure appreciate you being 'round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won't you please, please help me?

Here's this week's challenge from the RevGalBlogPals:

"I hate to ask for help. I love to give it. You may identify with these feelings.
"So, for this Friday Five, please list four ways you have been helped when you didn't want to ask for it and one way you had a chance to help that meant a lot to you." 
I do identify very much with these feelings. I come from a family where asking for help was a sign of weakness and failure; where you were supposed to get it right on your own, preferably the first time. So I've been on a learning curve these five decades when it comes to asking someone to help me get my feet back on the ground. But when I have asked for help, here are four responses that have stayed with me through the years.

1. The merciful professor. I was sophomore in college; it was final exams week; I somehow misread my schedule and missed my German Lit exam -- a third of my grade. I was aghast and ashamed; here I was, a 4.0 student, and I'd blown my GPA, not to mention a good chunk of tuition money, because  of a moment of inattention. So I slunk up to the German Department offices and, winking back tears, asked my professor if I could take a make-up exam. To my surprise he didn't lecture me or tell me, "Tough luck." Instead, he said, "Well, these things happen," and made arrangements for me to take the exam later in the week.

2. My first therapist. I was working in Cadillac, finding myself at a multiple crossroads in my life, personal and vocational. I felt overwhelmed; paralyzed; defeated. So one day I worked up the nerve to call a therapist -- someone I picked out of the Yellow Pages -- and made an appointment. A week later I found myself circling her office building, so hesitant to park my car and go inside. But it turned out to be the best decision I could have made; gaining a caring but objective advisor and sounding board.

3. The long ride home. One of the ironies in dealing with the death of a loved one is the fact that, literally minutes after experiencing this loss, one is suddenly bombarded with bureaucratic questions related to release of the body. I was fortunate that after my mom died my pastor came to the hospital to walk me through this process. Then he asked me, "Would you like a ride home? Don't worry about your car; we'll take care of  it." I wasn't sure who the "we" was, but at that moment, pondering the prospect of driving back home to my empty house, I knew I wasn't clear-headed enough to get there safely. So I mumbled, "Okay," and collapsed into the passenger seat of the pastor's Jeep. It was just one of many gifts of kindness I accepted in the days that followed.

4. The fateful flat. I was nervous but excited; I'd just been invited to my first get-together with other lesbians...and it was just down the highway in a neighboring town. I was looking forward to whatever affirmation I could get at this luncheon meeting involving about a dozen women from a 40-mile radius.

Then I discovered the flat tire on my car; flatter than a flat thing that is flat. Oh, no.

I'm not a mechanic; not even a flat-tire-changer. And it was Sunday.

I called the organizer and asked if someone could give me a lift to the festivities. She was one of the more far-flung participants and had no real idea where I was on the map; she hesitated, then said, "Why don't you call _____? I think she lives near you." She gave me the number.

With some trepidation I called, realizing how odd my request would sound to a total stranger. It sounded like the premise for one of those Lifetime serial-killer dramas.

To my surprise, the woman who answered the phone agreed to find me and give me a ride to the luncheon.  "I'm not good with directions," she added, "so I might have to call you back."
Which she did, several times, including once from my neighbor's driveway.

And that's how I met Fellow Traveler. True story.,

5. The raggedy man in the woods. A few years ago we were on our way to one of our semi-frequent trips to the Leelanau Peninsula. We'd gotten an early start, this foggy morning and were feeling hungry about halfway along the route. We stopped at a local McDonald's for a quick to-go breakfast, then headed for a nearby city park to eat and give  the dogs some exercise  time.

We'd just parked the Jeep and had started unwrapping our food when a dark, wraithlike figure appeared from out of the woods and the morning fog that still swirled through the park. We watched as it drew closer.

It was a man -- a skinny old man, in ragged layers of clothes, headed for one of the park trash cans. Soon he was digging through the can, apparently looking for bottles to scavange for deposits...or maybe, we realized, he was looking for food. 

We knew what we had to do. We got out of the Jeep, McDonald's meals and hot coffees in hand, and gave everything to him.

"Thank you," he said.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Five: Character Study

Question time from the RevGalBlogPals: "What five characters would you switch places with for a day? can use plays, movies, comic strips, cartoons, anything you'd like. For bonus points, tell us WHY for each or some."

Better late than I type I'm watching the minute hand round the clockface, headed for midnight, after getting home from an early extended-family birthday party for Fellow Traveler. (That also explains the relative brevity of what is to follow.)

Disclaimer: I am a nerd. As you will soon find out.

1. Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass: One of my favorite literary characters of all time, I loved Alice so much as a tiny child that one day I nearly sent my mother into cardiac arrest when she found me nibbling on shelf fungus from a backyard tree, and I calmly informed her that I was trying to make myself bigger and smaller. (Mom later said it was a good thing that I'd narrowly missed the "turn on, tune in, drop out" generation.)

2. A Middle-Earth Elf: Not Galadriel or Elrond; just an anonymous Elf hanging out in Lothlorien. I've always had a fascination with elves and faeries and such, and Tolkien's Elves are more evolved  and multidimensional than the typical folkloric elf.

3. A Merry Person: For some reason I seem to be drawing from my childhood bookcase tonight. I loved the Robin Hood stories; loved the idea of a self-sustaining alternative community dwelling in Sherwood Forest, thumbing its nose at oppressive authority while aiding the needy. And I like eating wild game; one could do worse than communal meals of venison and humming ale around the fire.

4. Jerry Seinfeld's anonymous teevee neighbor: Not from a memorable episode of the series, mind you; just a random neighbor who is periodically invited into Jerry's apartment to talk about nothing. (I once dreamed of being in a similar apartment with Jesus, who while being Jesus was dressed in Seinfeldian jeans and sneakers. Jesus was talking to a group of us, seated around the kitchen bar, about something, not nothing, but was doing it in such a wry, deadpan way that I kept wanting to hear more: "I could sit here and listen to him all day." Which is, of course, when I abruptly woke up.

5. Northern Exposure's Marilyn: For those of you who don't remember that quirky dramedy about a village in Alaska, Marilyn was a taciturn Native American receptionist in a bare-bones (so to speak) doctor's office staffed by a fish-out-of-water New York physician who'd reluctantly relocated there. Marilyn's groundedness, her self-possession, her calm in the face of a frenetic and befuddled boss, the gravitas of the few words she chose to utter on a given day -- Marilyn was like a Zen master in a fur parka. I'd like to feel like Marilyn for 24 hours, I think.

Hmmm...that was fun. Maybe I should write here more.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rambling Thoughts on Health, Salvation and Oprah Winfrey

I've noticed that most people have a real love-hate relationship with Oprah Winfrey -- they either think she's Wonder Woman, or else they can't stand her. And boy -- start talking about Oprah to a theologically literate Lutheran, and you will very often see that scary high eyebrow of disapproval; you know, the Oprah who appears to embody the sort of pretension to spiritual self-reliance and self-improvement that stands in contrast to the insight that, as Luther put it, we are all beggars before God.

But I've been thinking about Oprah as the year's lectionary readings have been leading us into Mark's Gospel, filled with all those short vignettes of Jesus' BANG! POW! BAM! healings, coupled with his message that the Reign of God was "at hand."

I used to watch Oprah, before her show got so self-absorbed, celebrity-driven and bling-dispensing. And I've subscribed to O magazine, before the ratio of advertising to editorial content and the cognitive dissonance therein -- you know, "You are capable and talented and beautiful and empowered, and that's why you need to look a certain way and buy all this stuff" -- finally got to me. I enjoyed and was inspired by the stories of everyday people who overcame desperate situations in extraordinary ways, I appreciated the practical, accessible cognitive psychology that underpinned many of the articles and I also liked the affirmations and uplifting quotes that were there in between all the cosmetic ads and photos of Oprah's Favorite Things.

So while I find Oprah's self-aggrandizing brand of celebrity spirituality, what I can understand of it, goofy in a Shirley MacClaine/Tom Cruisey way, and while I get tired of her seeming constant celebration of herself as personification of her "brand" -- I also see someone who, having struggled to free herself from a very damaging family experience and destructive personal choices to become successful, has a genuine interest in giving other people hope that they can do the same. And that is not a bad thing.

The problem is, I run into a lot of my coreligionists who, in their ongoing battle against "works righteousness," wrongly conflate the notion of spiritual self-betterment, the climbing-Jacob's-ladder model of salvation that's the opposite of the Gospel message, with what I think is a healthy realization that we can be enslaved by faulty thinking, by learned responses to stress that don't work anymore or that never worked at all, by the messages imprinted on us by parents and our culture, by a paralyzing helplessness...and that there are practical, proactive ways people can overcome those patterns of thinking and doing.

Living in struggling rural America, I see every day the result of "stinking thinking" in the lives of people stranded here -- people who live in communities like mine not by choice but because it's their perceived dead end. The local backwoods culture sends the message to children not only that education isn't important but that seeking anything beyond a kind of minimal literacy and local folk smarts is a dangerous, antisocial thing; the greater pop culture encourages a self-indulgent nihilism that tends to get a lot of young people here in trouble at an early age via pregnancy, paternity, drugs and/or criminal behavior. So by the time people are in their 20's, a great many of them are stuck -- stuck with kids they don't have the tools to adequately parent, stuck in the social-services system or in strings of part-time minimum-wage jobs, stuck in relationships of convenience, stuck in a cycle of whatever chemical or other pleasure-seeking gets them from one day to the next.

I would like to respectfully suggest to folks who do ministry in communities like these that it is possible in this sort of milieu to be so heavenly minded in terms of affirming the Lutheran idea of justifcation by faith that, when it comes to community outreach and care of the whole person, we do no earthly good. If someone's m.o. from day-to-day is enculturated learned helplessness, high-minded discussions about our inability to earn brownie points for good behavior with God don't make a lot of sense; because that person has somehow internalized the idea that brownie points from anyone for anything -- getting out of pajamas in the morning, staying in school, learning something more than Ma and Pa and Uncle Earl know, aspiring to a challenging career or even to a self-supporting job, delaying gratification in service to a greater good -- are either totally beyond their grasp or else are just not worth the effort. "Don't try to impress God with good works, because God isn't impressed by them," can sound very much like "Don't try," period.

Take that, steeple-fingered, middle-class Lutheran theologians and pastors and lay leaders. I'm just sayin', me, a little semi-trained church elf here in the depressed hinterlands. What is the good news for these folks? How do you get from the Gospel message that God is our friend, not our enemy, to the message that this life is a good gift of God that's worth living in a mindful way, and that there are ways of escaping the hopelessness of bad thinking and bad choices? Or is that the point where you pull out the business card of the local CMH office and make a referral, because that's not the church's job? I'm not being snarky here; I'm interested in how other people in ministry of whatever kind navigate the territory between "care of souls" and care of the rest of us.

All of which, as I'm sitting here thinking about stuff and procratinating housecleaning on this cold February day, leads me to pondering the Lutheran tendency, at least as I've experienced it, to maintain a very Western, penal model of sin and grace and to reduce the idea of salvation to God's free key to a heavenly condo. I mean, that was certainly the definition of salvation that I grew up with; my unearned fire-insurance policy won for me by Jesus. Many decades later, after having lived a lot of life and being exposed to both the Eastern Church's ideas about salvation -- salus indeed -- being about spiritual and other health in this life as well as the next, and to the very real benefits of cognitive psychology and counseling, I wonder why so many of us are still stuck in a rather simple-minded and to me unhelpful salvation paradigm starring Jesus as our defense attorney, Satan as prosecutor and Judge Sky Daddy gravely perusing our multi-paged record of criminal charges. That's how it seems to me, sometimes, in our collective Godtalk.. How does that mesh with Mark's image of Jesus as One whose healings are a powerful sign of God's intention that we be freed of whatever it is that alienates us from God and from one another and from living "the life that is life"?

(As you can see, I really do not want to vacuum the living room right now.)

Our local fundamentalist churches, of course, offer their own version of the eternal get-out-of-jail-free card (some conditions may apply); and they are also fond of promoting the tempting idea that struggling rural people's personal chaos and community malaise are largely blameable on certain predictable Evil Others, so that if American society just purified itself of the Evil Others life would return to a  comforting scene from The Andy Griffith Show with Jesus, the Duggars and a really big, flappy American flag thrown in. You can laugh at that, or get angry at that -- but do those of us in the Christian mainstream have any kind of compelling alternative vision of a life healed by God that makes sense to a teenager with little competent adult guidance or role models whose only idea of an "abundant life" is a boyfriend, or some aimless young man who drifts between Mom's basement, under-the-table odd jobs and baby mamas, or a proudly self-sufficient entrepreneurial couple who suddenly find their tenuous grasp on a bit of security and dignity yanked away when a major local employer moves its operations elsewhere and all the money bleeds out of the community?

How does the Gospel we encounter in Mark become real for people like this? Discussion is welcome and encouraged.

On Living With the Squid

As some of you who still hang around here know, after my big Medical Event this past fall I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, which means that I stop breathing, for several seconds at a time, many times -- in fact, dozens of times in my case -- every hour that I'm asleep.  My doctor said that this could well have been a factor in my going into respiratory arrest after some routine, "twilight sleep" day surgery.

Occasionally sleep apnea has a neurological basis -- the brain, for whatever reason, is simply misfiring when it comes to sending the message to breathe. Most often, though, it's a function of body mechanics, whether that be enlarged tonsils or, most commonly, excessive weight that can physically obstruct one's windpipe if one is sleeping in a certain position.

Even though I think it's sometimes misunderstood as merely a snoring problem, it's actually a pretty serious condition that brings with it a whole constellation of unhealthiness, from daytime grogginess and cognitive slowness to full-blown depression to metabolic imbalances and hypertension to increased risk of stroke or heart attack.

All of which made my choice to invest in a CPAP machine kind of a no-brainer, even though the thought of going to sleep every night hooked up to this odd contraption made me sad and got me going all Charlie Brown over myself: You blockhead; you can't even breathe like a normal person. It didn't help, either, that the tech who came to the house to fit my machine and run me through its use and maintenance was a dourly melodramatic young thing, a CPAP  user herself, who intimated that if I were careless in any aspect of wearing or caring for my machine, or even if I carelessly indulged in a CPAP-less naptime on the sofa, I'd die, pretty much. And my first night lying there in the dark, feeling like an unholy hybrid of Darth Vader and a vacuum cleaner, was not fun. I couldn't get comfortable; as I tossed and turned the hose would get twisted and would pull my mask, breaking the seal and causing a distressing hiss that kept both Fellow Traveler and myself up much of the night. I later described it as trying to sleep with a large squid attached to my face. Trying to speak with the pressure on is uncomfortable, to say the least; turning the pressure off before loosening the mask can feel like having the life sucked right out of you.

And -- I'm not a vain person, but no matter how hard the medical supply catalog models try, you cannot rock this look. Unless you're one of the more disturbed individuals who write classified ads in the Village Voice personals section, a CPAP mask is not something that you really want to visually inflict upon your mate as the last image of you before s/he goes to sleep. It just isn't.

Well, this sucks, in many and various ways, I thought in the morning, dutifully washing my headgear with Ivory soap and setting it out on its little towel on the bathroom sink; a new daily ritual to follow for the foreseeable future.

But the next night, something interesting happened; after repeatedly tweaking the fit of my face mask, I finally got it to where I could sleep on my side, as I am wont to do, without pulling the thing away from my nose. And -- I got a good night's sleep. I woke up with my head spinning from all those good, complex dreams that come with some decent REM action, and an urge to work out on the Wii  Fit and write and inventory our antiques and play Words with Friends and clean the house and go snowshoeing -- all at once. Oxygen is amazing stuff when you've been depriving yourself of it for years. In the days that followed I became a whirlwind of energy; while that's peaked somewhat, it's still nice to wake up feeling, as someone once put it, Good morning, God rather than Good God -- morning. I also started thinking more clearly, which can be a bad as well as a good thing -- along with feeling like I'm getting my old sharpness of mind back, I also keep coming upon evidence of a mental fog that, while certainly being amplified by having a seizure, had been there to a lesser degree for a much longer time. Half-done projects that I had completely forgotten about, just lying here and there...confusing strata of personal clutter in my favorite caching spots...lots of stuff that makes me think Omigod -- did I really do this? Did I really not do that? What is this? Omigod...Omigod...

So I love this machine that I  hate, because it's made the difference between experiencing my world in one-dimensional sepia and in 3-D Technicolor.

And I hate this machine that I love, because as this article points out about Type 2 diabetes and the medical industry that's sprung up around it, CPAPs are evidence of a culture in which we've largely (pardon the pun) given up the idea that we can wean ourselves from unhealthy food and habits; we've consigned ourselves to simply creating technology and pharmaceuticals that help us survive a little longer and more comfortably while we still remain dependent on ways of food production and leisure and marketing -- think Walter Wink's powers and principalities-- that damage us. I hate the idea that over the years I've imbibed the poison cultural Kool-Aid and damaged my body to the point where I need a device like this.

But I cling to a stubborn hope that it doesn't have to be like this forever, either for me personally or for great swaths of society. My DO, henceforth to be referred to as Dr. Awesome (as opposed to my previous physician, Dr. Drive-By), is a complementary-medicine practitioner -- improbably located just 45 minutes away from my small town -- who is absolutely convinced that chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes are reversible in many people with the right balance of lifestyle guidance, motivation and judicious use of medical technology. She isn't mean or condescending, but she holds me accountable, and I like that. And she suspects that if I lose enough weight I may well be able to eventually wean myself off my CPAP. At the same time, she told me that my CPAP is a very useful tool that is going to gradually lower my blood pressure, amp up my metabolism and do a lot of other good things that will in turn make it easier for me to work on my other health goals. I wish everyone had a Dr. Awesome.

So at this moment I am loving the squid more than hating it. And last night I actually got a very sleepy Fellow Traveler laughing by donning my headgear, turning on the machine and intoning, "Luke...I am your father..."

Friday, January 13, 2012

S*it Lutherans Say

A quick update on what's going on in my life right now: Our Annus Horribilis (look it up -- it's not naughty) continued through the holidays, with Fellow Traveler having problems maintaining a healthy potassium level and me getting food poisoning from -- and I'm ashamed to say this -- mall food-court sushi that, in a random moment of insanity, looked like something I wanted to have for lunch while we got in some last-minute Christmas gift shopping.

Despite this, were able to celebrate a scaled-back Christmas, battered but unbroken...and then at the cusp of the new year we received devastating news from both sets of kids: Our son-in-law is in ICU as I write, after worrisome month or so of feeling increasingly weak and unwell, and eventually winding up on an ambulance ride to the ER and then in an induced coma while staff worked to keep him alive while trying to understand what was happening to him. Thanks to his wonderful team of healthcare professionals he's making some small but very encouraging increments of progress in overcoming this medical crisis, but he's still in critical condition, and Son #1 and our in-laws are pretty much living at the hospital for the time being while Son-in-Law grows stronger.

Meanwhile, across the continent Son #2, up in the California mountains on an extended-family vacation, was in a sledding accident -- the plastic sled he and his small nephew were on hit a rut and began careening out of control, and while trying to shield the boy and stop the sled #2's leg got caught underneath somehow -- and he wound up getting airlifted off the slope with three compound fractures needing complicated and expensive surgery to fix. For a young family with a small child, trying to establish themselves in a new place, this is a very hard burden to bear.

Both sets of children had, in the past couple of years, been enjoying the kind of thirtysomething personal and professional milestones that we all hope for in the next generation, and as elders we'd been kind of relaxing into the idea that The Kids Are Alright...and then all this happened; one frightening phone call after the other.

At first it felt as if the Universe were engaging in a kind of cosmic mob hit directed at our family...but then I kept getting Facebook updates from friends all experiencing grief and loss and anxiety and frustration, all seemingly concentrated in this past month. I thought back to that famous first line of Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult." Tell me about it.

All of which is really less of a kvetch  (although not entirely kvetch-free) than a necessary prelude to what is really bugging me at this moment:

I was reading a Lutheran website the other day. Now, as someone who's been active online for a pretty long time I understand that the Internet has created, for all intents and purposes, a kind of transcontinental, 24/7 bar where anyone with an online connection can swagger in, grab a barstool and, inhibitions loosened by anonymity, proceed to share multitudinous Deep Thoughts with the rest of humanity. I also know from experience that most of these Deep Thoughts, including my own, are crap. And yet I am regularly lured into pulling on my mental Sorels and wading into this crap...especially into the Religion corner of the virtual bar, where the crap tends to be particularly deep and odiferous. I don't know why I do this to myself; probably for the same reasons that I spend precious hours of my life on earth toggling the TV remote between "Celebrity Rehab" and "Swamp People."

But anyway, I'm browsing through the various conversations on this website, and I start reading a conversation about the wrath of God. Hmmm, I think; there's a topic that doesn't have a lot of traction in mainline Christianity these days. So I start digging deeper into the verbal back-and-forth between the participants.

Now, most of what is being said is pretty reasonable: That we human beings do a lot of stuff to one another that makes God angry; that these days it's unfashionable to think about how angry we make God; that we need to start taking God's anger more seriously as a faith community so that people can in turn take God's grace more seriously. See, I grew up in an LCMS congregation where the Law was drilled into the congregation like a jackhammer hitting concrete every single week -- where one pastor, in fact, once noted in a sermon that he disliked seeing worshippers smiling in church because it was an indication to him that they weren't sufficiently sorry for their sins. So I have been inured to a fair amount of Wrath O' God rhetoric. And, frankly, I agree with it to a point; not to the point of "Don't smile in church, you miserable sinners"; but when I read the daily news' nonstop litany of human violence and inanity and apathy and injustice...and when I get real about my own lamentable failures in loving God and the people around me...I have no doubt at all that God is angered by all of it. I also realize that actions have consequences; I get the concept behind "temporal punishment," even if I wouldn't normally use that phrase.  And I understand that, in the Lutheran way of thinking about the saving grace and mercy of God, there needs to be a Law/Gospel dialectic; first you have to understand you have a problem, as the 12-Step folks say.

So I'm reading along, thinking, "Yeah...yeah...I get this." But all of a sudden this one Lutheran guy starts talking about God killing sinners; I think the actual words were, "God kills sinners every day." He also notes that we should all be on our knees every day that we escape being killed by God.

That is when my brain explodes. This is when I start thinking of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, portraying the infamous SS officer Amon Goeth, casually picking off concentration camp prisoners as morning target practice. Seriously, dude? That's God to you? "Hmmm...which pathetic bastards do I take out today?"

I wonder what Lutheran Barstool Guy would think of my family situation, and that of our friends dealing with their own suffering and sorrow. My God...maybe this guy is a pastor, Maybe this is what he says to people who come to him for help. Maybe this is the speech he'd give me, sitting there in his study with my guts in a grocery bag, blubbering out my tales of woe.

I hestitate. Maybe I'm not giving Lutheran Barstool Guy the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he has a much more nuanced theology, one that would actually be be much like my own, that he simply has trouble articulating without resorting to a kind of obsolete religious shorthand. Maybe he just needs to learn to talk like a person -- talk like a bright 21st century person to other bright 21st century people.

Then I conclude: Yeah, right. What a lousy jerk. Go jump in a lake. [I've decided to substitute random 40's-era movie euphemisms for my actual thoughts.Use your 21st century imaginations.]

Especially when I am in the midst of real-life drama, I have a tendency to take virtual drama like this and just gnaw on it like a bone. And then it's 2 am and I can't turn off the problem-solving switch in my brain, and in between trying to mentally fix all the various hurts of my loved ones I'm also trying to take some swings at Lutheran Barstool Guy.

First of all: It's about grace, stupid. Yes, you need the Law; but Law without Gospel is like an ER doctor looking down at some mangled human being on a gurney, smugly noting, "Yeah, you're pretty messed up -- what'd you do to yourself?" and then walking away. Even in my dour Pietist childhood church, the pastors (including the Rev. Smiley, cited above) always eventually got around to grace.

Secondly -- I know I'm preaching to the choir for the most part here, but I also know I may get some frowny-faced combox responses to this from more conservative readers, and I don't care -- I'm calling bullshit on the idea that physical death is "punishment for sin," just because it's illogical. Life on earth is predicated upon cycles of life and death. The idea that, once upon a time everything alive in this finite world remained alive forever -- while being commanded to "Be fruitful and multiply," no less -- is just not possible. (Buy a fishtank and a bag of guppies, if you need some empircal evidence for what I'm saying.) And that's the sort of thinking that leads to making stuff up in order to make the Bible, or one's pet theological theories, come out right -- arguing that, pre-Fall, carnivores were grass-chomping vegetarians is just one ludicrous idea I've heard floated in an effort to defend the honor of a literal curse of God upon creation, and Paul's "The wages of sin is death." And once you decide to go down this path, you'll find yourself being backed into a variety of theological culs-de-sac: For instance, if the wages of sin is death, are people who die in especially painful or prolonged ways worse sinners than someone who passes away quietly in her sleep? How does that theory square with Jesus' own refusal to make moral pronouncements upon the victims of misfortune? What did the rest of sentient creation ever do to God to bring this "curse of death" down on them as well, or are they just collateral damage? There are certainly ways to understand truth in Paul's statement without understanding it in the alarmingly wooden way of Lutheran Barstool Guy. Augustine once cautioned his colleagues about making ignorant, illogical statements about Christianity that would lead the pagan intelligentsia to assume Christians were all, roughly paraphrasing, yahoos who just fell off the turnip truck. Depending on your attitude toward Augustine, you may be thinking, "Physician, heal thyself" -- but the guy had a point.

Theodicy -- trying to figure out why God does or doesn't do what God does or doesn't do -- is always dangerous territory. Personally, my preferred approach to such stuff is a three-word sentence that I first heard from a clergyperson as a college student in a campus parish one Sunday morning: I don't know, said the pastor, as he described his struggle to understand some enigmatic comment of Jesus' in the Gospel lesson. I don't know what he meant. I had never heard this statement uttered from a pulpit before; I was so stunned, and impressed, that I think I even noted it in my journal that evening. What a liberating idea; that one didn't have to know what every utterance in the Bible was intended by its authors to convey; that one didn't have to know the why of why God seems to be "large and in charge" in some situations and AWOL in others. I am fine with I don't know as a way to process my family's recent concentration of misfortune and other calamity in the world. To me it beats turning God into a pathologically capricious judge and executioner whose message to the world, in the words of a friend of mine describing the cognitive dissonance in fundamentalist thinking, is I just love you so much that I have to kill you for being so bad.

And -- one more thing, Lutheran Barstool Guy. One thing I do know is that God has a strange way of showing up -- as a healer, not a hater -- in the very circumstances that you seem to interpret as God's righteous wrath directed toward the sinful. This past week, for instance, I have experienced God showing up in a rather remarkable way in the midst of our son's and son-in-law's friends and colleagues, and FT and my friends, and people none of us even know who've heard about our son-in-law and want to help. Every night at 9 pm they stop and pray for our son-in-law and family. They've set up an online store to help raise funds for medical expenses. They've kept Son #1 and our in-laws fed and cheered through this thing. Every evening I read their messages on a special Facebook page they've created for our son-in-law, and I am moved to tears by the grace and generosity I find. (Anyone out there interested in joining this team of supporters, let me know and we'll talk elsewhere.)

Maybe, Lutheran Barstool Guy, if you actually got off your online barstool and out of your theology books long enough to engage with the real world in a compassionate way you'd start to realize that God looks less like a cosmic Amon Goeth working on his divine Final Solution and more like...well...Jesus. What a concept.