29 July 2011

Feeling More Than One Thing

You know those days that you remember forever? Graduation, engagement, marriage, death, beating cancer, falling in love, having a child. They're the important days, the ones that change you or that usher change into your life. They make you who you are and, once they're past, you'll never be the same.

And then there are the important days that no one else would notice. Maybe you hear a conversation in passing and it makes you think, or you read a phrase that you proceed to mull over for the rest of your life. These days aren't any less momentous, but they're a little harder to explain.

One of the most important days of my life was the day I learned that human beings can feel more than one thing at a time. I remember that I was reading and even what I was reading, though I've never again been able to find the exact quote that triggered those thoughts. But that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that I read, and it changed my emotional life forever.

Before that day, I believed that I could only feel one thing at a time, and I would agonize over what I was feeling. I felt like it had to be black and white, because that's what I'd always been taught, and I didn't know what to do when things seemed I'd look at my motivations and try, over and over and over again, to figure out if they were more good or more bad, so I could know what to think about why I did what I did.

I can't tell you the agonies this sort of thinking caused me. I felt so stuck, because I wanted to feel happy about certain things but I could never unequivocally say that I was thrilled. I felt like a liar, like anything I said about my feelings was false, because there was always some nuance that went in another direction.

I remembered all of this the other day when I was talking to my daughter about someone leaving. She doesn't like it when anyone goes out the door without her, even when she's left with other people she knows and loves. But if she gets to wave goodbye and blow kisses, and if she's held, she'll let you go with a minimum of fuss.

So someone left, and I gathered her into my arms to say 'goodbye' to them. I told her that Daddy was leaving, but she'd get to play with Mama and Grandma while he was gone. She looked at me, smiled, then looked toward her departing daddy and seemed upset. "Yeah," I said to her, "it's hard to see Daddy go, but you're excited to stay and play outside with Mama."

It was a little thing. Not much to say, not too many words. But afterwards I realized: I believe that, now. And maybe my daughter won't have to hit her twenties before she knows what it means to feel more than one thing. Maybe she won't have to be overwhelmed when talking about how she feels, because she won't feel the pressure to sum it up in one nice, neat package. It was a little thing, but it has the power to change her world.

28 July 2011

Meditations on Liturgy: In the Name of the Father

In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don't remember the first time I said these words. I've said variations of them so many times that it all blends together. And in some ways, saying them is just habit. When I pray Morning Prayer, that's just how I start. So if nothing else, these words are a marker. "You're praying now," they say, "And you're praying to God." 

There are things I don't like about that fact. As a writer, I'm a firm believer that words are supposed to mean something and that these particular words are important. After all, I don't think Western Christendom would have started so many prayers that way if they weren't. 

There's a lot of truth, a lot of deep theology behind these words. They denote a triune God, and one with the persons we've come to label as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They mark the equality of each of these persons, and yet hint at order in their relationships because they're always referred to in the same order. While we tend to take all of these concepts for granted now, I know that many Christians did hard theological, psychological, and interpersonal work for years in order to hammer out these doctrines in ways that were as true as possible to Scripture. I know that people still work on them, refining them and nuancing them, to help Christianity as a whole have a better picture of who God is. 

These words also say that this is the God in whose name we pray. It's this God who has the characteristics we go on to delineate, this God who cares for use enough to listen to our words, this God who allows us to come close enough to say anything at all. 

And maybe it's here where words-as-marker becomes acceptable. In the hustle and bustle of my days, it's easy to forget to pray altogether or to make my prayer time as crazy as the rest of my hours. But when I say these words, I remember who I'm talking to and the gift it is that I have the ability to talk to him. I don't always think about Trinitarian theology, but I do begin to think about God. And the theology is there, somewhere in my thoughts. Maybe that's the true power of words: to take us to a place beyond words, to bring about a state of mind that's different from the usual, even if we don't consciously know how and why it's different. 

In the end, there's nothing wrong with words-as-marker. We all need to see the way laid out before us, sometimes. And these words function like the cairns that mark the way on a confusing trail. They help us (or at least, they help me!) stop and remember where I am and who I'm talking to. They denote sacred space and time, especially when they're used to do that time and time again. 


20 July 2011

Meditations on Liturgy: The Sign of the Cross

Morning prayer always starts with the sign of the cross. Forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder.

* * *

I first made the sign of the cross when I started going to an Episcopal church during my last year of college. It was something I'd been afraid of, something Roman Catholic and, therefore, something sketchy. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to believe it did something magical to me or if, on the other hand, it meant nothing at all but was a ritual carried over from more superstitious days.

And so I didn't do it. For months, I participated in the liturgy but didn't cross myself. I wondered if anyone noticed and what they thought of me, or if they were all being properly devotional and so unaware of things happening outside the realm of their own souls. During that time, I got to know some of those people who crossed themselves, and they seemed normal to me. Sane, everyday, properly Christian people who came to church on Sunday and made the sign of the cross.

I don't remember who finally asked the question, but I was there when the priest answered it. "What does the sign of the cross mean?"

And he told us, then, that it was many things. Most common among these was a reminder of salvation. Making the sign of the cross said, "I believe in what Jesus did on the cross. I believe that I needed that, and that he did it for me."

Well, I could sign up for that one. Certainly, the cross had always been central in my understanding of the Christian faith. And, quite frankly, making the sign on my body seemed to be doing more about the cross than what I'd seen from many Christians.

But the priest went on. "Many use the sign of the cross to claim truths that are spoken during the liturgy. They use it to say 'This belongs to me, too.'" Thus, many make the sign of the cross when references are made to the name of Jesus (to claim his death and resurrection as their own), or when the words comment on the resurrection of the dead (to say that they will be among those who rise).

When I heard that, I began making free use of the sign during my liturgical practices. Making it seemed like an act of faith, or at least a reinforcement to faith, saying, "I believe this. No matter how I feel this morning, no matter how improbable it sounds, this is what I choose to believe in this moment, this morning."

* * *

I don't attend a liturgical church anymore. I still find my spiritual home in the words and phrases I said during that time, though, and in the sacraments and symbols I learned to love during my time at that church. And so I still cross myself, even in my current evangelical setting, I make the sign on my body when we talk about (or sing about) things that I want and need to claim as my own.

I suppose people are watching me do it (I support this claim with the fact that a number of them have mentioned it to me, over the years), and I know they don't always understand. I hesitate, sometimes, because I don't want my practices to be confusing to others or to keep them at a distance. 

At the same time, the sign of the cross has become something meaningful for me. It's my way of saying, "This isn't just an abstract idea, but something that I need." Jesus acted for me, and I want to remember that. 

And so, when given the option to open my prayers with the cross, I do it. The prayers before me aren't, after all, just words on a page, but something that I intend to pray from the center of myself. I can't always fulfill that intention. I get distracted, the baby cries, my anxieties and thoughts about the day take over. But I can always intend it, and so I begin with the sign of the cross.

18 July 2011

Meditations on Liturgy



Every day, I try to pray the Morning Prayer from the Celtic Book of Prayer. While I'm not nearly as successful in the dailyness of this as I would like to be, over the last five years the words have gotten inside of me.

Liturgy does that, I think. It opens you up by the simple repetition of it all. Some days, I'm too tired or hurried to notice the words, but even then I say them. I say them, and in doing so I accept them. I bring them into myself. I say, "This is true, even though I can't think about it's truth right now."

I've especially appreciated liturgy since I became a mother, especially as I've struggled to figure out what motherhood looks like for me over the last, very difficult, 20 months or so. There are many days when I don't have words for God. I don't know what to ask anymore, or I don't know what (or if) I believe he still notices us, let alone loves us, or I'm hurting and don't feel like talking at all.

Those are the days when liturgy helps the most. It gives me words, words that I know are true, words that I have loved in the past even if I don't feel anything for them in the moment. Beautiful words, simple words, words that speak truth for me when I can't speak it on my own.

Now, these words rattle around inside of me. They influence how I talk to God outside of my morning prayer times. Occasionally, they even come to mind in other situations, when I need them. I feel them wrapping themselves around me as I fold myself up in them - in their truth, their simplicity, and their safety.

And so, as I have time over the next weeks, I want to share some of what I've come to think about these words. I expect this to be a slow, contemplative, meditative process, and I'd love it if you added your two cents every now and then. After all, there are parts of this liturgy that many will be familiar with, and I'd love for this to be a conversation.


07 July 2011

The High Calling

Welcome to readers coming over from The High Calling. Please feel free to look around, and to leave comments with any questions or thoughts you might have. I look forward to your input and I'm excited you're here.

Betraying Ourselves

But it was not your fault but mine,
And it was your heart on the line.
I really f***** it up this time,
Didn't I, my dear?
-Little Lion Man, by Mumford & Sons

She'd been away from home for a long time, this girl, and had returned largely against her will. Upon coming back, she found out that her most beloved brother had, years ago, been involved in something large, dark, and awful. Just in case that wasn't bad enough, she had become a victim of this awful darkness, though neither she nor her brother knew of the other's involvement. 

Several days after the horrifically awkward situation where they found this out, he managed to catch her alone. "What must you think of me?" he asked. He had to know.

She ponderd her tea for a minute. Old anger and rage filled her, but she knew her brother. He gotten carried away by rhetoric and let other people tell him what greatness was. Like her, he'd spent years forgetting the person he was and trying to replace him with someone a bit more dazzling. She could not hate him.

"I think," she said, then paused for a moment. "I think we all make choices, sometimes, that betray ourselves and the people who love us. And it's not about whether we make them, because we all do, but about what we do afterwards that counts."

***

I wrote that, a couple of weeks ago, and stopped. Her sentences, there, are what my book is about. I thought it was about leaving and coming home, and reconciliation, and joining together to fight something bad. And it is about all of those things, but they're all responses to the self-betrayal that she mentions here. They're all part of the "what we do afterwards."

I stopped because I'm in awe of those sentences. I can't quite believe that I wrote them, in fact. Times like this, I know that I don't write alone, because I don't think like that. I don't usually manage to sum life up in phrases that actually make sense. 

***

Self-betrayal and what we do with it isn't just what my book is about, but what life is about. If we were originally made in God's image, after all, then all sin is self-betrayal. It's something that takes us away from the beings we were created to be, something that keeps us from becoming the people we could be.

It's also endemic. We all sin, we all betray ourselves. But afterwards, we have choices. Whether the betrayal is big or small, we can run from it or we can face it. We can't always undo it or undo the damage done, but we can choose how we move forward. Denial or acceptance, defensiveness or repentance, trying to ignore it or struggling through the truth, there are always choices.

It's hard to come to terms with the evil that we've done, especially when the sin is large and guilt and shame are competing for prominence in what we feel towards ourselves and our actions. Sometimes it takes years to pick up the pieces of the actions we've chosen and move on, to figure out which direction is actually forward and to choose to move that way. 

***

It's especially hard to come to terms with the evil in ourselves when we've hurt ourselves along the way. It's hard to say, "I would be hurting like this if I hadn't made particular choices," or "I was a bright-eyed little child with so many ideals and I'll never live up to them because of the choices I've made." 

I don't think this is hard because we can't see or feel our own pain, but because it's so hard to hold the fact that we can be both a victim and a perpetrator in the same action, at the same time. That's what my character sees, though, when she sees her brother. She sees the pain he's felt at his own choices, and she chooses compassion for the wounded brother rather than vengeance on the stupid one. 

Of course, the only reason she can see all of this is because she's experienced it in and of herself (she's a perceptive one, that girl). And maybe that's one of the most important reasons we need to face our sin, acknowledge all of the victims including ourselves, and choose truth as we move forward. If we don't, we can't choose compassion on other sinners, either. 

***

My characters aren't all happy in the end. They aren't all living the lives they'd have lived if they hadn't made the choices they made. And, though I think they'll do it eventually, they haven't all chosen to look truth in the eye, to choose to walk in who they really are and not who they want to be.

I think that's real. I don't know that seeing sin for what it is is something that everyone can do, though I do know that many capable of doing it won't choose that. But I do know that seeing the truth is the best way. And asking our own forgiveness may seem like it's only something that sentimental musicians do in popular songs, but I think it can take us far. 



05 July 2011

Playing With Boys

Healing comes in strange places, sometimes. One little boy, a mama whose heart was injured long ago, and a sweet girlie who loves everyone the same.

My daughter makes friends wherever she goes, so it shouldn't surprise me that all the neighbors know her and love her. And I guess it doesn't; one look at her charming one-dimpled smile and most people are smitten.

But one of her friends does surprise me. I didn't expect a six-and-a-half year old boy to fall under her spell.

What I know of boys that age could fill books, but none of them would be good. When I was younger, boys were competition. They were mean, they thought they were smarter than me just because they were male, and I had to prove them wrong. I could go on and on about the boys who wronged me, teased me, made me cry and even about the one who challenged me to a playground competition (of his own design, of course) to prove that boys were better than girls.

The fact that I ever fell in love is astounding, but then again, Dave is an amazing man.

What I know of boys is to keep my distance. If they prove themselves over time, they might be worthy of my friendship. But you never know when they'll say one of the harsh things, usually in jest, that I've come to associated with men, and then my heart will break all over again. And so my inclination is to keep her away from strange boys, to hold her hand until I know they won't bowl her over. I want her to be safe and not hurt, and that's one of the ways I know to do that.

But the neighbors have boys. Two of them, and they're outside all day long, just like my girl. And they have this dog who the girl loves, especially since we don't have one of our own. Meeting them was inevitable. Friendship was not.

I didn't expect gentleness from this little boy. I didn't expect him to call my girl to the fence and help her touch his dog through the wires. I didn't expect her to come home saying his name. I didn't expect him to invite her over to his tire swing and then, when I brought her, to push her gently so she wouldn't fall out.
I didn't expect any of this for my girl, but it's what I found.

My heart still rolls over when he comes to the fence calling her name, but not because I'm worried. Now, it's because I'm amazed. There is at least one little boy with a gentle soul, who loves babies and knows how to play with little kids.

I pray for him, now, that no one takes that away from him. I pray that, no matter what the other boys say, he becomes a man who knows how to cradle and comfort. And I pray that, someday, he has a little girl of his own . . . because every gentle man needs one of those.

03 July 2011

Broken

My daughter learned about "broken" the other day. We were in the car and she started crying. The doll's dress wouldn't stay on and she didn't know why. "The snap is broken, love," I said. "Mama will fix it when we get home."

"Boken," she said, and pointed to the snap. I nodded.

"Sometimes things break," I said, "but usually we can fix them."

At home, she showed me again, so I pulled out needle and orange thread and let her watch me stitch the snap back in place. I showed her how the dress worked again, how she didn't need to worry about it anymore. "Boken," she said again, but she smiled when she pointed to the snap this time, as if to say, "Not broken."

I didn't think much of it until we were out on the patio later. My daughter, she has a thing for bugs. I blame the four-year-old boy she sometimes plays with. Anyway, she saw a moth on the porch and ran up to it. It didn't move.

"Mof?" she said, and pointed.

I glanced. "Yes, love, that's a moth."

"Mof?" she said again, kicking at it with her foot and frowning when it didn't fly away like most of them do.

"Yep, it's a moth."

She kicked it again. "Mof. Boken mof," she said, and then I looked up.

The moth was indeed broken, beyond all hope of repair. "Yes," I said, "I think he's broken."

"Mof boken," she said, and it was only then that it dawned on me. I had fixed the doll's dress, and now she wanted me to fix the moth.

"Mama can't fix that one," I said. "Sometimes we can't fix things that are broken."

She didn't understand. I knew she wouldn't - it's too abstract for 18 months. And so she kicked at the moth some more, clearly wanting me to fix it. I explained again and again, "Mama can't, love."

And my heart broke for her, for the things she must learn in this world, for the fact that there are broken things no one can fix and she won't understand why. For the fact that no matter how powerful the people in our lives are and no matter how we look up to them, there are some things even they cannot fix. And for the fact that she has to learn about "broken" at all, that's it's such a part of her world that normally I wouldn't think twice about it.

I don't think Jesus usually raises moths from the dead, but I hope that someday she knows that things don't have to stay broken forever. I hope she learns that, though mama can't fix everything, there's someone who can and she can know him. I pray that the broken things break her heart but don't take away her hope and her joy.