Am I Fit?

I have an amazing ability to push down my feelings, but as I get older, I am finding that keeping them down is much harder than it used to be. They keep popping up for air and intruding on whatever else it is I am doing. This morning, I wanted to simply enjoy the silky feel of after-storm air and the lightness of really having nothing to do with my day but read a good book. Worry, fear, anger, and dismay kept surfacing and for no obvious  reason, I found my mind full of clouds, my stomach a roiling, boiling mess of toil and trouble, and my breath caught high up in a chest clamped down prepared to hold its breath until I was past the worst of it.

I don’t know about you, but I keep coming across all these little aphorisms that say things like, “do not worry,” or “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” On days like today, those kinds of helpful phrases infuriate me. I am trying to take joy in the day, but worry won’t leave me alone, and I apparently haven’t been doing my willpower sit-ups so the iron-hard mental muscles needed to keep it at bay have gotten all soft and flabby. I end up feeling like a loser and failure as well as suffering from whatever it is that ails me.

Except, I know better. I know that these feelings (worry, fear, anger, dismay) I am trying to push down are actually gifts, guides, and helpers. They are not unwanted intruders. They are the black sheep of the family, and they are telling me that something important is going on inside that needs my attention. What’s more, they and I all know there is no good purpose served by flexing those will-power muscles to lock the door. Everybody in the family knows right where we hide the extra key.

So, instead of ignoring the feelings, I sat down and I journaled, and what started to come out was a lot of self-talk about how I need to “work harder,” “buckle down,” “suck it up,” and “accept facts.” Even though everything is very stable in my life right now, my household is preparing for significant change, and there are a lot of unknowns. Our baseline security is being upended, and that generates serious apprehensions.

One of the greatest of these is that I have real doubts about my ability to provide for us financially. My current job is barely adequate for meeting our standard of living. What’s more, it is not satisfying to me on so many levels. However, this job provides both health insurance and the assurance that mortgage payments will be met. And also, there is this piece of me that believes I am barely adequate. When I start to look for other work, that piece tells me things like, “So that’s why this particular job landed in your lap. This is the best you can do, which is why you need to stop whining, and make the best of it.”

This part of me believes life is a subsistence, survival-mode kind of thing. It believes that only the strong survive and that only the fittest deserve to be. I believe it developed to cope with some situation in my past. I think it got me through difficult challenges, but it is the part of me that killed my life in my mid-20’s, and it is built out of lies.

I am not the fittest in any kind of way, and were life the Jurassic Park fairytale I imagine, I would not be one of the people who makes it through. I’m the one in the diabetic coma you all are trying to carry while you run. I am the one who gets tragically left behind when hard decisions have to be made. If I am heroic, I take that choice on myself by disappearing into the jungle one night while the rest of you are sleeping so no one has to feel guilty about not staying with me until the end.

And while it is my nature to make light of this, I have spent an awful lot of creative energy trying to be worthy of life: to deserve to be; to have a right to exist; to pay the appropriate dues, and to provide the appropriate amount of work; to add equal value for all the resources I consume. To have a net-zero impact on this world.

Those lessons we learn first, they are so hard to leave behind. Yet, this lesson is one I leave behind and leave behind, and leave behind. It is a life-choking weed of a lesson-a soul-sucking parasite of a lesson. Whatever value it may have added has long since passed away.

Our lives are not won by strength, merit, accomplishment, or valor. They are not competitions, games, tournaments, sports, attainments, or inheritances, and despite every delusional power that tries to tell us otherwise, no single life being lived has earned its place.

Our lives- my life, your life-are inexplicable packages given to us to be opened for our own discovery, delight and pleasure. They are infinitely precious because nothing like them has ever been before and they will never happen again.

It is this lesson I want to lean on, because it is this lesson that led someone to search for a cure for diabetes and gave people like me additional years of life. It is this lesson, searching for the why behind leukemia, that discovered that the difference between life and death is something we carry in our bones. It is this lesson that means I live in a world that learned from Stephen Hawking, and it is this lesson that laughs at survival of the fittest as the best possible outcome for the human condition.

Human beings (and dogs and houseplants) are capable of surviving really tough conditions, horrible situations, and terrible cruelty. Sometimes, life asks us to step up, buckle down, and suck it up. Sometimes, all any of us can do is endure. Yet, human beings (and dogs and houseplants) truly thrive when we expect better than mere survival from ourselves and others: when we create environments of care for those whose health is failing; when we slow down and wait for everyone else to catch up; when we offer a shoulder to the weary, and carry each others’ burdens for a while.

When we–when I–remember the vulnerable, fragile, impossibility that is my life, it gives me courage to simply be. And to know. And in being, in knowing, I find I don’t need some iron-willed discipline to banish worry, fear and dismay. All I need do is breathe and remember. It may be it is the fittest, the worthiest, who survive, but it is us meek ones who truly inherit the earth.

A Confession

The United Methodist Church, which I have considered my church, succumbed to a ruthless and effective political strategy and to the meanness of human imagination. It fell because hearts failed, courage failed, and because too many of us cannot tell the difference between hate and love. It fell because we have relied too much on wealth, power and the prestige of our white American identity to sit at the heart of the church.

Living in faith community is always about living in the problem of hypocrisy and hope.

However, the United Methodist Church told me this week that I am no longer welcome at its tables, in its worship spaces, nor in its puffy cloud heaven. It said this hurtfully, harmfully and with the clear intent to destroy the souls of some within our gathered community.

Churches are very good at singling out people to group into unworthy villains that must be excluded even unto their death. In their history, the Methodists have been no different, as it was a Methodist minister who uttered the phrase “nits make lice” and blotted out the lives of ~148 people.

Since 1972, it has been pulling particular people out of its community and telling them to go stand in the corner. It put a name on a placard and placed that label around each person’s neck. It then started pointing its fingers and calling its names. The UMC aimed its hate, its fear, its aggression, its domination, and its control at those people-creating of them a targeted and vilified people group.

Some of us have held hope that this abuse and shame could be transformed and redressed in our lifetime and maybe even by our own hands. Repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption are all church-y words we like to throw around, and more than that, they are tenets of faith some live by.

An act of repentance from me is to recognize that I never really had claim on that hope, and it takes a certain kind of hubris to believe that it is up to me to set anyone free. I have participated in joy with United Methodist faith communities and been treated as beloved, significant, and worthy. Many people have not. I failed to see them-I have failed to see you. I did not move soon enough, fast enough or with enough conviction into the corner where you have been kept.

I offer this confession into your hands.

If this kind of declaration matters to you: I am not a United Methodist. You don’t have to fear me in that way. I am not always safe, and I often don’t get anything right. But I am committed to an ethic of love, and to an active resistance to evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, including when that form is what has been my church.

Letting Go

I started this post in 2017, and now I don’t remember why, but am come around again to it.

That place where you have finally decided to leave a bad relationship, but it isn’t officially over yet. All the streams and eddies of “I care for you” that you have to let flow past your feet. All the little deaths as you let go of strand after strand within the networks of relationship that you share. It can become hard to believe that what’s on the other side of this is so much better than simply staying in. After all, you’ve developed a mad set of skills for making allowances and compromises, of finding common ground and of tucking yourself away when those parts of who you are rub against the other in some negative way.

For the Dead

We used to
Ring bells
Sing songs together
Walk in a slow parade
Ululate
Clean & dress & bundle & wrap our arms in loving, losing circles
My mythic ancestors knew how to
Drink and swagger their way past the dead one propped up in a coffin in a corner across the room
I woke this morning
Drunk with anxiety, ready to swagger my way past the dead ones propped up in display cases across my screen
Shut out of the rooms where cleaning & dressing & bundling & wrapping in lost, loving circled arms meet
Shamed
Silent
Feeling it inappropriate
An unworthy desire to mourn
For a moment, I believed any of this has anything to do with me
The sun through maple branches spoke a secret to my soul:
Bells are ringing birds across the sky.
I have a trail to take and if I’m tender,
Can place my feet with somber care
To find a gathering of strangers
Who sing songs together.
Ceremony abounds
Rituals stalk the day
Your dead are in company.
I will join you in your mourning,
If I may.
-Written Sunday, October 28 2018

Boundary Waters Reflections

I am walking out of the Boundary Waters. The day has been windy and the heat level from the sun comes in just under blazing. Surprisingly, the BW Canoe Area  Wilderness is less humid than Iowa, so the heat isn’t too bad, especially as I pass into and out of little pockets of shade on the portage trail.

I am wearing a fancy walking sandal and the springy mud and springy sole of the shoe create a kind of soft carpet walk of the trail. It is very different from the hard clay and granite strewn mountain paths I grew up on. The only real footing decision I have to make is whether or not to plunge through sudden puddles or try to balance my way past on the marginally drier verge. The slow way wins out, and I settle into breathing and noticing.

The Boundary Waters is a good place for noticing. There are berries and flowers everywhere. Loons and tiny woodpeckers quietly slip in and out of sight, flickering past my awareness almost before I have a chance to see them there. A large turtle moseys into the canoe landing, just another rock until you notice that she is moving.

In terms of wilderness areas, this place seems more sympathetic to life than some.  Pillowy moss and gentle pools full of reeds meet tired feet, and most forms of life we encounter aren’t big on the poison, size, or pointy bits scale, mosquitos and biting flies being the exceptions. Even the spiders seem benign, and though I am sure that one encounters fierceness out here, on this occasion, we do a lot of floating, swimming, munching, and snoozing with just enough effort going into foraging wood and water to feel like we are roughing it.

I look down and see a cigarette butt on the ground. I feel a minor twinge of outrage and a deeper sense of sadness. I become guiltily aware of all the wrapped goodies I have packed in and wonder briefly whether any of them have slipped my mind. What will some crow make of the shiny insides of that granola bar wrapper I stuffed in a pocket while out fishing, and which a stray wind may have set loose when I wasn’t paying attention?

The sadness grows and swells: a bit of sorrow at the impact of my clunky feet on this fragile, beautiful place; a sense of loss at how far I live from gratitude and reliance, protected and sheltered as I am with all my electronic devices and the luxury of having packed in too much freeze-dried camp food.

I don’t know what I mean by this, but somewhere on the trail, about a third of the way across, I offer a promise out to the forest, to the ground beneath me, to the mosquitos and bees and wild strawberries: I will find a better balance. I will live into something that requires less resource, and I will ask less of my precious, fragile planet. I will be vigilant in my simplicity that it not become merely another expression of material wealth. I will choose life practices of celebration, reliance and sustenance over convenience and ease of use.

There is something else in my promise that I am not sure I understand. It is something about considering conservation of the wild by staying out of it. It is something about respecting the value of spaces like the Boundary Waters such that I question my right to exercise any kind of personal privilege in even visiting them; a sense of contrition at the burden my human preferences place on the world; the weight of conscience I feel for all the  plastic bags and fancy, lightweight gear that will never decompose that I brought in with me so I could complain about the food and lack of soft places to sleep.

As I am walking, I start to cry because I think of my friend Jeanne Robinson who died of cancer. She never walked here. She will never get to walk here. I am not sure why I am so blessed that I get to walk here, paddle here, contend with the wind, the rain, and the waves. I flashback on my experiment in fly fishing: the spotted sides of a great northern pike flaring up out of the dark water, a violent, vigorous thrash as it taste-tested my fly, only to decide not to commit, a descendent species in a genus that is 43 million years old.

I am stinky, damp, sunburned, and tired. I don’t want to go home.

*Featured Image By R27182818 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3069673

The Clear, Though Far Off Hymn

The Universe keeps singing to me.

I read my morning news and I listen to NPR and every conversation I have with friends seems to be about the state of the nation: how it is becoming ever more clearly a nation of the State. Women’s bodies and women’s lives are being neatly ranked and positioned by men in suits who probably rarely even share breakfast, much less conversation, with their wives. Large scale construction companies literally hire mercenaries to protect projects which have no comprehensible benefit beyond profit for the bosses, while city and state governments make free to poison their citizens’ water with no discernible consequence. If you are poor, sick, psychologically struggling or in domestic relationships which are not on the approved list, the institutions which govern your life are finally ready to tell you exactly what they think of you-which apparently, is not much. Racism is in such vogue, people are starting to develop their own faddish names for it while slyly suggesting it doesn’t exist.

But then,

I look outside and the sun is glinting off the black fur of our great big bear. It is gleaming in the dappled, camouflage coat of our anxious, eager little cattle dog. They are in such transports of joy watching a squirrel leap back and forth between the trees.

The kite we hung on the bannister is pulling at her bridle as white colts of cirrus frolic across the sky.

Tree buds have opened an unexpected raspberry color, and the contrast between flower and bark is every bit as spectacular as Snow White’s mother could have wished.

Dawn light and Spring birds shimmer against Iowa’s backdrop of Winter grey.

The air smells like dirt. The dogs come in and they smell like newness and rain. Despite all evidence of climate change and impending ecological doom, the Universe is pealing a concinnity of tones themed “Let there be life!”

And then I remember my friend whose cancer killed her right around this time last year. I recall how little there is to make of political drama when you are dying. How little even a parent’s approval can matter when set out against the unrelenting knowledge that for some things, there simply isn’t any cure.

It feels like holy work to pay attention to these sounds. Yet it feels like a sort of betrayal to turn a deaf ear to the human opera playing out around me. I have been guilty before of choosing a doorless tower to defend over the chancy foray into the mud of human relationships. I don’t want to make that same mistake of confusing retreat with victory; of imagining humanness as a war against the very mortal fragility that makes us everything we ever are.

I suppose it is that “either/or” thinking which gets me in trouble in the first place; that way of organizing perceptions that fails to synthesize body and Spirit as soul; that sees change and loss and death as enemies to hate; that imagines integrity as more rigid and unchanging than its ofttimes arbitrary lines in the sand.

Maybe it is that-a framework of choices that can only be “either/or”-that fails to understand what the Universe is offering: not a weapon for a battle to be fought or a warning for a loss to avoid, but a chord to which I can tune, and a motive I can sing. Perhaps that is why Its hymn is buffeting so strongly against my ears. It reminds me that in music dissonance is often necessary to harmony. The opposition of voice against voice is only important because of the way their movement is entwined. There are moments where the silence is louder than the sound.

Maybe, all the Universe wants is for me to resonate its theme, so that, even the midst of so much discordant clashing, the heart can hear the sound God first sang: “Let there be Life!”

Salvaged Worship

A friend of mine keeps a blog called Salvaged Faith.  At the top of the page, there is a definition of the word salvaged which reads: “to save discarded or damaged material for future use.” Are you a salvager? Do you use and reuse items? Have you ever turned broken plates  into a countertop mosaic or do you stockpile twisty ties and rubber bands?  

An issue facing many local churches is an inability to find singers for the choir, an organist for the organ or even a pianist to play hymns. I was recently asked by a church leader what a church can do to fix this problem. Despite the availability of hymns on cd, there is still a serious sense that energy, vitality, life, and worship falter when there are no musicians in the congregation.

Assuming that there are reasons why a congregation cannot simply go out and purchase the services of qualified musicians, (which is an option some churches employ), I suggest using a salvage approach. This is more than a “make-do” approach.  It is more than “waiting for Superman.” What I mean is to actively scavenge for used approaches that can be re-purposed, and to actively rescue discarded practices from the landfill of time.

Organs, pianos, and singers with a degree from Oberlin are not necessary for the people of God to worship God. I think we can get too much into a re-creation mode in worship and not enough into a creation mode in worship. Early American churches completely disdained the use of instruments in worship, relying solely on the singing of the gathered worshipers (congregational singing), and this amongst groups of  people who would not have been able to read words, much less musical notation.

Singing is a native activity. It makes use of bodies, our free gift from God. Just because many of us have forgotten how, almost all human beings are born with an innate sense of pitch and tone. We can learn melodies quite well, and the more we hear and use them, the easier they are. Check out Nadia Bolz-Weber’s article on congregational singing at Patheos.com: People Will Actually Sing If You Let Them 

Practically, I think this means that if you have a church which does not have strong music leadership, it may be time to get back into basic singing-focusing the entire community on learning 4 or 5 tunes really well and adapting lyrics to those tunes, rather than trying to cover 60% of the hymnal in a year.

And singing is not the only way people can make music to God. Poetry, sacred movement, tambourines and feet can all express music. This means truly reinventing worship to be a creative expression of praise to the Creator. If that involves a percussion ensemble improvising on home-made drums, walk away from a church organ. You can refurbish, redistribute, or relocate it to the Glory of God. I recently heard that someone was able to “part out” an old piano and made more money than they could have received by selling it outright.

How do people in the mountains of Guatemala worship?  How do people worship in churches without pews, walls, pulpits, and lecterns?  Because people do worship in  a number of ways.  They do worship on landfills, in open fields, at parishioners’ homes and through the grates between prison cells.  When resources are lacking, people come up with creative, innovative and startling solutions.

My advice, if your church is facing a lack of music leadership, is not to seek a pastor who can sing, or even necessarily to invite an organist from another town to pre-record hymns on your church organ.  Instead, reclaim the talents and skills of your own community to make something new out of the materials at hand.