Lopaz | a sonnet for my grandfather

Lopaz

And then the Lamb invited me to look,

and I beheld a faithful flowing steed

with one glorious hoof atop the Book

my life faithfully kept in word and deed.

My ears perceived a gentle rising call

emitted from a distant room beyond

my sight, and all those lost to me were tall

and gathered locked in bright eyes wet and strong.

In life I rode in boughs the wooden frame

painted to color life but pulseless ran

amidst the kingdoms, rivers, stones, by name

I called them mine; yet now I rein my plan.

Gesturing to the stable my mother

stands before my sisters and my brothers.

I wrote this in honor of my grandfather, H. H. Sims. He is transitioning from this life to the next, the last of 10 children raised in Fayette County, West Virginia. Lopaz is the name they gave their rocking horse; he’s really more of a gliding horse. He has served many children through the generations!

Where Is God in Chronic Illness? – Flunking Sainthood

I always liked St. Francis the best.

Readers of Esse Diem may be interested in this excerpt of my essay for A Spiritual Life:  Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers featured today on Jana Riess’s fabulous blog, Flunking Sainthood.  (I could swear she named that for me, but she says no.)

Jana writes:

As we continue with our Thursday Spirituality series for May, we draw from what I thought was one of the most powerful essays in Allan Cole’s anthology A Spiritual Life. I had not heard of Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher before, but her compelling account of being diagnosed with MS at the tender age of 30 had me spellbound.

Where is God when you’re sitting across from the doctor and he tells you that your health and life will get progressively worse with little hope of a cure? How does that knowledge then change the way you live the time you have left?

Click here to read a portion of the essay: Where Is God in Chronic Illness? – Flunking Sainthood

Image credit:  The Legend of St. Francis and the Wolf

Lion of the Morning

Some mornings I wake up with a persistent image in my mind.  Sometimes I know why, but more often than not I really do not have a clear understanding of what brings a picture to the forefront of consciousness so soon after sleep.

Today before the sun rose I was rubbing my eyes and trying to see the coffee pot, but all I could see was the face of a lion.

It was a male lion with a scarred face.  It was not at all frightening but it was awe-inspiring.  The photo posted here is the closest thing I could find to what I saw.  My lion’s eyes were less distant and his face was wider.

I spent some time talking with a good friend yesterday about our personal spiritual beliefs, but mostly we talked about how challenging it is to have constructive conversation with our friends and associates about issues of faith and science.  My friend and I have what seem to be very different beliefs about some things, but honestly at the end of the day I still don’t think we are that far apart in what matters.

Case in point from our conversation:

Me:  I feel kind of bad about this, but I stand up all the time and say I believe in the virgin birth and I don’t really.

Friend: You don’t believe in miracles?

Me: I do.  Just not that one.

Friend:  Really.  Why not?

Me: I guess because everyone is so hung up on sex and it would get in the way of the story if there were a guy.  Who’s the guy?  Do we like that guy?  Was he her husband?  As a woman, I see and live a lot of social judgments that get in the way of what is really important.  I think the story of who Jesus was is told with a lot of myth, but that doesn’t make it untrue.  Myth for me actually tells more truth than science sometimes.

Friend:  I believe in Adam and Eve.

Me: You do?  Why?

Friend:  I just do.  I think there is a line of demarcation when God put his spirit into human beings and we became different creatures because of it.

I avoided any talk of apples and snakes.  But I’m kind of down with his point even though I would never say it the way he did exactly.  We are going to keep talking.

And I’m going to keep thinking about my lion.

Image credit: ODP

Fear of Losing Connection

Several years ago, a friend shared the experience of attending a one-woman show in which the performer created various expressions of her “self.”  The performer was known for her comedic edge, and the show did not disappoint when it came to laughs.

The performer appeared as a housewife, a burlesque dancer, a mother, a mother-in-law, a professional executive type, a teacher, a child, and on and on.  While there were serious elements to each self, each one also generated many laughs; those laughs seemed to come from each member of the audience having some moment of recognition of the character on stage.  It was fun to understand — via art — that we all have diverse elements of our “selves” and yet we are each a whole person because of those elements.

It was fun until the last incarnation appeared.

The last version of the “self” the woman portrayed was homeless.  She was what we called growing up (shamefully, I now realize) a “bag lady.”  She sat on stage in dirty and ragged clothing, surrounded essentially by bags of garbage, muttering to herself and occasionally trying to catch the eye of the imaginary people on stage with her.

The other selves had been alone on stage as well, but there was always a sense with those that the character existed to others.  This character, though also alone, presented the powerful experience of living in an existential vortex into which no one else could — or more accurately wanted to — reach.

It was as if no one in the theater could even breathe.  The show closed in silence.

I remember this story, because it demonstrates a common and rarely spoken or even internally acknowledged fear.  I wrote about it at the end of last year when a homeless man died in my community and his body was not discovered for days (click here for that post).  I think this fear goes beyond being hungry, or homeless, or struggling to find clean clothes or employment.

This fear is about losing something many of us take for granted: A connection to other people that serves as a safety net upon which we all rely.

Some people can articulate that they don’t like “being alone” and that it is even a fear-inducing state for them.  Me?  I love being alone.  Being alone is really the only time I feel inner peace.  My world is quiet and calm.  My energy is high.  Life is free of conflict and it’s easier to hear the voice of God as I understand it.

But being alone is not the same thing as being disconnected.  Disconnection is one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had, and I think I may have to mark it as a major fear in my heart.  I have never been fully disconnected from society or everyone I know, but I’ve had my toe in the water of what it’s like to start to disappear, and it’s terror-inducing.

The experience I’ll share was in a medical environment.  I’ve had others, but this is a good example.  It was also the first.

During a miscarriage many years ago, I was convinced my pregnancy could be saved with proper medical intervention.  It became clear to me very quickly that I was not a unique individual, nor was my fetus, in the OB-GYN practice where I was seen.  I was young enough that the docs weren’t worried that I could get pregnant again and have a successful outcome.  They had seen pregnancies like mine collapse before, and had a protocol for letting them go.  I felt like a Who from Horton Hears a Who……….. “We are here!  We are here!  We are here!”  But the faces around me said we don’t really care that you think you’re here; we don’t think you are.

Call us in a few weeks.  Here’s your paper work.  Next…..

With time I accepted what happened and why, but I will never forget that feeling.  It was the first time in my life that I remember not being able to convince someone I was special, that they should listen to me, that if we just worked together we could figure this thing out. It was an important lesson, humbling, and also a glimpse into something we all have to learn how to manage eventually.

It leads me back to the concept that a spiritual life and a relationship with God as we understand him/her to be is so important.  Sooner or later we look around and other people are not there for us as we’ve always thought they would be.  Doctors are not interested in pursuing treatment.  Spouses are not interested in continuing marriages.  Children grow up and move away.  The banker won’t give us a loan, the teacher won’t let us retake the test, there’s no room at the inn.

One of my biggest genuine fears is becoming someone no one is interested in being involved with or helping in any way.  It’ll just be me and God.

I have to run.  I’ve got some relationship building to do.

Images credits: Letting Go – Recovery in the Sunlight, Teik It Easy

ABC: When YOU Are the Product

You probably have considered the points covered in the following link before, but depending on what you do for a living you may not have considered it in as open and clear-cut a manner as you will after reading For Sale On the Web: You! : All Tech Considered : NPR.

Alec Baldwin's memorable speech in Glengarry Glen Ross

The writer, Dave Pell, is a San Francisco based, self-described “Web-addicted insider, investor and entrepreneur.”  He has been blogging for more than a decade.  The NPR post actually first appeared on his blog, Tweetage Wasteland.  DANGER, Will Robinson:  Unless you are so far geeked-up that it does not hurt your feelings even a little bit to be called geeked-up, be careful going over to Pell’s website.  He is on a level of techno-mania I have not heretofore encountered.  But that may be a good thing…..it’s up to you.

I digress.  (I’m sorry, I blame Pell’s website.)

Perhaps the best line in the NPR piece linked above – which is considerably good — is a comment at the end by a reader named Bruce Smithhammer:  “If you aren’t paying, you are the product.”

Let’s review:  If you aren’t paying, you are the product.

Social media is for all intents and purposes free; that is to say, it is without financial cost.  Many people I know regularly throw out the question to their connected universe, “Will you stay on Facebook if they start charging?”  The results I’ve observed are usually evenly split.

In July 2010 I wrote on this issue on Esse Diem (full post here):  “I worry that any language commoditizing human beings is destined for moral bankruptcy and ultimate failure.”

There is much to love about social media, blogging, and our brave new world; but never forget it is not free.  How do you find yourself responding to the dynamics of using the easy and free techo tools Pell describes?  No joke, a serious reflection on these issues may be the most important ethical and spiritual thing you’ve done for yourself in a long time.  The long-term effect of these incremental dynamics is staggering.

As Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society (see the previous post), “This is battle, a war gentlemen, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”

Just promise me you’ll think about it.

Image credit:  WebLink Blog

Campfires, Tattoos, and Blood Oaths: Rites of Passage in Adolescence

When I was living in North Carolina several years ago I attended a great training on helping youth navigate their transitions to adulthood by appreciating their need for ritual and rites of passage.  I may still have that material around here somewhere, but for now I “dig out” a lot of resources with Google.  Today I found this project that is very similar to the one I knew in Durham:  ROPE is Rite of Passage Experience.

Children and teens have a natural impulse to create or take part in rites of passage experiences to claim their place as adults. If this impulse is not acknowledged and channeled, it can result in them turning to destructive activities such as drinking, smoking, bullying, sex, delinquent acts, joining gangs, and the use of drugs to mark for themselves and their peer group their entry into adulthood.

I loved the training I attended, because it was open to exploring the opportunities around young people’s natural instincts.  It also helped me appreciate why I think the West Virginia 4-H Program at Jackson’s Mill had such a strong influence on so many adolescents in my community.  The program has taken some heat for borrowing too heavily and perhaps not always authentically from Native American traditions; that said, those traditions, campfires, chants, shared songs, peace pipes, tribal affiliations and spirit sticks grabbed hold of a tremendous amount of teen energy and kept it constructive, serious, and positive.

Adolescence is a time of growth, and change, and mystery.  It is a time of powerful transition and even spiritual evolution.  It fascinates me how primitive but important developmental “tasks” are fulfilled one way or another as kids grow up.  The picture I chose for this post is from the movie Dead Poets Society. Students of a particularly inspiring teacher take to secret meetings in the woods to read the works of dead poets, but also to bond with each other and explore amongst themselves thoughts, dreams, and goals they have never allowed themselves to consider before in the broad light of adult expectations and rules.  For those who are supported, it is freeing and resets their life course for the better.  For the one student whose new fire is abruptly extinguished by a disapproving parent, it is devastating.

Like adults, kids have a need to mark their dramatic transitions with ritual and rites of passage.  That process will happen one way or the other in the adolescent years.   Caring adults can help it happen with purpose and long-term benefits.

Image credit: The Students of Welton Academy

Wonderland: Radar Love

It is an honor for me to share via Esse Diem writing by my college friend Lucia, who often posts her sermons and thoughts on faith as Facebook notes.

Lucia’s meditations were inspired by a  parishioner’s tacking on the bulletin board an article about the novelist Anne Rice’s announcement that she remains “committed to Christ” but is “quitting Christianity.”  (Note: I’ve shortened the sermon considerably for this post.)

Radar Love

I really enjoyed Lucia’s angle on the idea that, deep down, many people act as if God can’t keep up with modern life.  Regardless of your spiritual background or perspective, if you believe in a higher power or a spiritual energy that influences our lives, it’s a good self-reflection to consider if you hold that intelligence at arm’s length.  For example, do you think God understands blogging?  Social media?  It can get pretty funny when we process the human limitations we place on the idea of God.

Don’t miss Lucia’s line on “the art of loving dangerously” towards the end.  It’s a small reference, but a very powerful idea.

Lucia Kendall Lloyd is the priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville, VA. She holds a B.A. in English from Davidson College, an M.A. in English from Middlebury College, an M.A.R. in Religion and Literature from Yale Divinity School, and an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. Prior to her ordination, she taught English at two girls’ boarding schools and a community college. She lives in Tappahannock VA with her husband and two daughters.

Luke 13:10-17

The group of students was asked to answer quickly, without reflection, the question:

“Do you think God understands radar?”

In nearly every case the reply was “No,” followed of course by a laugh, as the conscious mind realized the absurdity of the answer. But, simple as this test was, it was quite enough to show that AT THE BACK OF THEIR MINDS these youngsters held an idea of God quite inadequate for modern days.

This little experiment was conducted back in the 50’s, and it now seems almost quaint to think of times when the cutting edge of modern technology was…radar.  The author pursues the topic with the teenagers:

“Subsequent discussion showed plainly that while “they had not really thought much about it,” they had freely to admit that the idea of God, absorbed some years before, existed in quite a separate compartment from their modern experience, knowledge, and outlook.

There are probably many people today with a similar “split” in their mental conceptions. The “Grand Old Man” is treated with reverence and respect –look what a help He was to our forefathers! — but He can hardly be expected to cope with the complexities and problems of life today!  If the absurdity of this “split” makes us laugh, so much the better.

The person who conducted it was J.B. Phillips, who writes about it in a book with a wonderful title: “Your God Is Too Small.”

But what intrigues me most about this episode with J.B. Phillips and his conversation with the teenagers and radar is that it is exactly the attitude Jesus himself challenges in today’s gospel reading.  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  A crippled woman shows up.  Jesus takes the initiative, calls her over, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When Jesus lays his hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God.

But what is the response of the leader of the synagogue?  He is, Luke tells us, indignant.  He is indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, and he keeps saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The important point in this passage is that Jesus is ready to roll.  He sees that the woman needs to be healed, and he sets her free from her ailment immediately.  The leader of the synagogue wants to slow Jesus down.  He says everyone needs to come back later, on another day that’s not the Sabbath, and Jesus needs to wait until then to heal them.

The great irony here is that human beings think we’re the modern ones and that God is old-fashioned.  But scripture shows us the real Jesus, the Jesus who is ready to move into the future, to go ahead with acts of love to change this woman’s life forever, setting her free immediately.  Who’s the one who is stuck in the past?  It’s not Jesus; it’s the leader of the synagogue, who insists that Jesus should not do anything new, that Jesus ought to do things the way they’ve been done in the past.

When God moves into the future, people get indignant.  And how does Jesus deal with the indignant people?  Does he give in to them and say he won’t do anything controversial if they don’t like it?  Does he say he’ll wait until everyone agrees before he does anything new?  Does he tell the woman, “I know you’ve been suffering for eighteen years already, but you have to wait longer because some people will be indignant?”

Jesus instead turns to the indignant man and says, “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?”  Jesus says, “you give blessings to animals, how can you tell me to withhold blessings from people who have been putting up with so much suffering for so many years, and who now finally have the chance to be free of it?  How can you tell me to make them wait longer because you’re feeling indignant?  You hypocrites!”

Yeah, God understands radar all right.  And God understands quite a few other things that humanity needs to catch up on.  One of the things Jesus understands is the art of loving dangerously.  Jesus is willing to move ahead to perform an act of compassion for this woman even though he knows how vehemently indignant his opponents will be.  Well, if they’re going to be indignant, let them be indignant.  They’re not going to hold Jesus back.

As Luke tells us, “When Jesus said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

There are people who think that God can’t quite keep up with modern life, when in reality we’re the ones who have trouble keeping up with God.  But there are also people who are excited about following this Jesus who has the courage to love dangerously, despite the opposition from people who are indignant and want to slow him down.  There are people who respond to gifts from God not by criticizing, but by praising God.  There are people who join the crowd in rejoicing at all the wonderful things God is doing.

God is not just ready to roll, God is already rolling!  Let’s celebrate!