What is my blog is all about:

Anything and everything good, true, beautiful, perplexing, mysterious, unfair, painful, funny. In short: the human condition

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Awful Day (based on a real life event)

The Great and Awful Day had finally arrived. Mike paused for a moment and surveyed the scene before him. As far as his eyes could see were people and yet, strangly, he didn't have the feeling that he was simply waiting around. Instead he sensed that his entire being was in a constant state of motion, a kind of transformation from one state to another. He grimaced as he thought of what he had been taught to expect; stern old men in long black robes prodding people along, two long lines, projector screens with everyone's sins splashed across them; maybe those were ahead, he thought uneasily.
As he moved slowly forward He reveiwed his life with some trepidation. His list of regrets were nothing unusual, but like all people with regrets, the knowledge that they were nearly universal didn't ease the weight of failure. Should have gone to church more, should have called my grandmother more often when she was alone, should have worked harder to salvage my marriage, should have been more patient with my son.....suddenly he was jerked out of his musings by a vaguly familiar voice.
"Mike? Mike Wilson? Never thought I'd run in to you again!" Before him stood a clean shaven man in a polo shirt, his hands shoved casually into his pockets. He appeared quite at ease compared to Mike's pensive mood. It was John something. An old classmate.
The two men shook hands warmly with the familiarity of shared youth and began to chat about the usual topics; Professions, relationships, children.
John had been a pastor of a "medium sized congregation, big on ministry" as he described it. "you know, we may have been on the small side in numbers, but we made up for it in zeal", he stated becoming suddenly animated. "You remember Senator Johnson? He declared his candidacy at a prayer breakfast we organized. They say he won because of the church members' support. Had a kid in our church that wasn't allowed to pray during his valedictorian speech and we decided then and there to fight against all the secualarism in public schools. We also fought to get the nativity scene kept in front of the court house. You could say we were a 'politically active' church for sure. Of course you can't win them all. We also pushed for a marriage amendment to the state constitution, but with the secular humanists shoving their agendas on everyone what can you do?". Suddenly, as if noticing the awkward silence on Mike's part for the first time, John quickly changed the subject. "So, what did you do for a living?"
"I was a bar tender", Mike laughed. "It's a little like pastoring really. Lots of time to listen to peoples' problems, give them a sympathetic conversation partner"
John gave a perfunctery laugh then asked "Don't suppose you saw any of my people in there did you?" with mock seriousness laced with, well, seriousness.
"I did know a church member or two in need of a drink on occasion" was Mike's reply. "Most people just needed the companionship, honestly"
"Oh well" said John, "a drink or two never hurt anyone I suppose", and he began to glance around and shift his weight from foot to foot. Throughout the conversation both men had noticed a strange heat that seemed to strenghten by the minute. For Mike the sensation was not completely pleasant nor unpleasant. He felt at once as if something deep inside him was burning, but that that something was somehow breaking away and dissolving into nothingness. In front of him was a blinding light that he wanted to both run toward and hide from.
Beside him John appeared to not even notice the source of the heat radiating at a distance. Throughtout the conversation it seemed he had become more and more uncomfortable, tugging at his shirt collar and mopping his sweating brow. Finally he exclaimed "where is this heat coming from? That's it. I've got to find a more comfortable place to wait" and he turned a half cirlce. He fixed his gaze on a distant group of people that, indeed, were congregating well outside the reach of the light's radiance. They appeared to be wandering aimlessly about, occasionally bumping into one and another or stumbling over the rocky ground. John moved toward them and Mike impulsively grabbed his arm to stop him saying, "I'm not sure, but I kind of think we should stay in the circle from the light..." Before he could finish, John swung around, the contempt in his face catching Mike by surprise. "I think I know my way around this place better than someone like you would", he sneered. And with that, he stumbled toward the knot of wanderers.
Mike watched him for a moment and then turned back toward the light ahead of him. At first he could hardly walk toward it, it's heat was so intense. But with each labored step, the light became less blinding. While it's intensity did not abate, it began to feel like a strong current of energy and warmth instead of a seering pain.
To Mike's surprise, at the nexus of the light was a person. The light was not a shapeless energy but a dazzling, white robed surprisingly ordinary man. He smiled at Mike as if he had been expecting him.
For a moment Mike stood breathless, taking in the being before him. The man appeared at once both very old and very young. Mike had the strange sensation that he has seen the man before, perhaps many times although he couldn't say where or when.
After a moment of quiet Mike spoke. "So, I suppose this is where we talk about what I did wrong, pull out the projector screen to review my life. See if my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds...."
Suddenly the man threw His head back and a laugh burst forth from somewhere deep inside the man. Not a derisive, malicious laugh but a laugh so filled with joy and life that Mike was sure this man must have to laugh often to let out some of that happiness. When he had finished laughing the man said "Oh, I assure you that scale would be very unpopular."
Nervously, Mike shifted his weight and spoke again. "So there aren't any scales?"
"Oh, there are scales, friend. And there are scenes of your life to remember." And with that, the shining man placed His arm around Mike's shoulder. Mike wondered if the man could sense his discomfort. As he stood beside the translucent being, he was only too aware of his own colorlessness and he somehow felt this had to do with his recently passed life.
The man began to talk in a low earnest voice. "you have chosen many many paths in your journey to this place. Every day on earth is a series of choices that could be called steps to the eternal. Some steps that seemed significant to you." He shrugged "were really of little consequence. But others you may not ever recall made all of the difference. As He spoke He turned and looked earnestly into Mike's face. "Do you remember a woman you once met when you worked at The Brave New Workshop? She and her husband were very young and you chatted about politics and European beers. She didn't say much and at the end of the conversation you told her that her coke was on you. You even encouraged her to get a refill."
Mike thought for a moment "Yes, I do remember that couple. There was something so sad about them even when they laughed. I remember when I asked them how they were doing they glanced at one another and for a split second the woman had a look of the deepest pain I think I've ever seen. It was such a little thing to give her a free coke. But, you know, bar tenders are sometimes a little strapped for cash. It was all I could think to do for her".
The Man smiled gently at Mike. "They had just been to the grave of their little girl who had recently died. It was their 5th anniversary and minutes before they had been sobbing over her grave. I was beside her that night though you couldn't see me. And when you gave her a drink you gave me a drink too. Come with me and you will find food and drink you never knew existed. Let me repay you for your kindness, friend"
Mike stood still "But wait. Umm, in the interest of full disclosure I think we should talk about other things I've done. I'm no saint.....
Again the deafening laughter from the dazzling being. "I am well aware of that"
"But a drink seems like such a small price to buy entrance to your kingdom."
"You will find I calculate my pay scale differently than any employer you've had"
"But what about those that worked so hard for you? I mean, my cousin. She was a real Christian. She was always helping out someone who needed it. Won't she feel a little cheated?"
"My son, Those who really love me never bother themselves with how I choose to pay those I employ."
"But Christ...." and the tears began to flow from somewhere deep within Mike. "There are so many regrets, so many ways I hurt those I loved. Have you met my ex-wife? My son? So many nights I've thought about them."
Christ's eyes became sober, the light deepening to a rich red pool. "Your sins are deep and many and those that cannot face their wrongs have a very different experience of me than you are having." And then His voice rose to a mighty roar "But my kingdom is one of great undoing as well as doing. Come with me. We have an eternity to mend that which once appeared shattered." And arm in arm they entered that place of endless light.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Broken

Tomorrow, July 12, is Chloe's third birthday. Three years have passed since the first moment I saw her face. An eternity of grief has passed since the last time I saw it. For all the graces that I have been given (and they are many), I feel the deep brokenness of the universe. A brokenness that seems irreparable.
The Fountain Of Tears
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy
If you go over desert and mountain,
Far into the country of Sorrow,
To-day and to-night and to-morrow,
And maybe for months and for years;
You shall come with a heart that is bursting
For trouble and toiling and thirsting,
You shall certainly come to the fountain
At length,—to the Fountain of Tears.

Very peaceful the place is, and solely
For piteous lamenting and sighing,
And those who come living or dying
Alike from their hopes and their fears;
Full of cypress-like shadows the place is,
And statues that cover their faces:
But out of the gloom springs the holy
And beautiful Fountain of Tears.

And it flows and it flows with a motion
So gentle and lovely and listless,
And murmurs a tune so resistless
To him who hath suffer’d and hears—
You shall surely—without a word spoken,
Kneel down there and know your heart broken,
And yield to the long-curb’d emotion
That day by the Fountain of Tears.

For it grows and it grows, as though leaping
Up higher the more one is thinking;
And ever its tunes go on sinking
More poignantly into the ears:
Yea, so bless├Ęd and good seems that fountain,
Reach’d after dry desert and mountain,
You shall fall down at length in your weeping
And bathe your sad face in the tears.

Then alas! while you lie there a season
And sob between living and dying,
And give up the land you were trying
To find ’mid your hopes and your fears;
—O the world shall come up and pass o’er you,
Strong men shall not stay to care for you,
Nor wonder indeed for what reason
Your way should seem harder than theirs.

But perhaps, while you lie, never lifting
Your cheek from the wet leaves it presses,
Nor caring to raise your wet tresses
And look how the cold world appears—
O perhaps the mere silences round you—
All things in that place Grief hath found you—
Yea, e’en to the clouds o’er you drifting,
May soothe you somewhat through your tears.

You may feel, when a falling leaf brushes
Your face, as though some one had kiss’d you,
Or think at least some one who miss’d you
Had sent you a thought,—if that cheers;
Or a bird’s little song, faint and broken,
May pass for a tender word spoken:
—Enough, while around you there rushes
That life-drowning torrent of tears.

And the tears shall flow faster and faster,
Brim over and baffle resistance,
And roll down blear’d roads to each distance
Of past desolation and years;
Till they cover the place of each sorrow,
And leave you no past and no morrow:
For what man is able to master
And stem the great Fountain of Tears?

But the floods and the tears meet and gather;
The sound of them all grows like thunder:
—O into what bosom, I wonder,
Is pour’d the whole sorrow of years?
For Eternity only seems keeping
Account of the great human weeping:
May God, then, the Maker and Father—
May He find a place for the tears!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Composting and the Resurrection

Philip and I recently began gardening as well as composting. I have to admit, the whole process took me completely by surprise in terms of the spiritual significance I have learned from it.

Parallel to gardening and composting, Chloe's tombstone was placed at Lakewood cemetary and I have made a couple of trips there. As I struggle to live fully in this world and be honest with "reality" (whatever that is) as well as define myself as a person of faith, I found myself thinking "how? How is it that I can accept the fact that my daughter is rotting under the ground and simultaneously embrace the belief that she will raise whole and alive some day?" And the old nagging thought that maybe, just maybe an operational definition of faith is "making things up to be able to cope with horrible reality" is appropriate. Then I took a look at my composte pile and my sprouting seeds......

More and more I am coming to believe that all spiritual truths have some sort of physical correlate. The Orthodox Church puts a great emphasis on the belief that Christ's spiritual kingdom is also a physical one and that these worlds are not completely divided even now. This physical world that God pronounced "good" at creation continues to be good and that has major implications for how a Christian relates to it. I think part of that blurred line is the fact that sometimes we can learn a truth from creation.

Right before he shut the lid to her coffin, Father Paul poured dirt in the sign of the cross over Chloe's little body. He told me "she is a seed, Erica, that we are planting for eternal life". And as I knelt by my tiny plants in my herb garden a few weeks ago those words came allive. I had this thought. A plant seed could sit around the house for years dormant. It would look dead, not grow an inch. In fact, a seed is kind of a dead part of a plant. But put it in the soil and soon it will be transformed into a new, living organism. And even the refuse that I throw in to my compost heap is transformed into riches for the plants. If that little seed can go from a tiny, dormant seed to a beautiful verdant plant surely my child can too someday.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hurt

I've been thinking alot about hurt lately. Not the surface cut on your finger kind but the walk across a sun seared dessert strewn with shards of glass and no shoes on your feet kind. The kind that even Johnny Cash's song "Hurt" can't quite express. The hurt is almost worse when you see someone else's pain because at the end of the day there isn't much you can do. You can't forgive the perpetrators for them. You can't bring the loved one back for them. You can't undo the humiliations they have had to suffer for things society can't tolerate.
I watched a documentary on the Beslan school massacre. If any of you can bear to recall, that was the place where hundreds of little pigtailed and best suited school children were held hostage and slaughtered. On the BBC documentary a little boy who survived recalled asking his father "dad, who is stronger the terrorists or God?" I sat on the couch thinking "what in the world could this father possibly be able to say to a child who has witnessed such unspeakable acts of inhumanity?" and the boy said the father told him "God is. Because God is kind". So I will try to honor all of you who are hurting by attempting to extend kindness to anyone who wrongs me. And in that way we can tell those that have hurt us that there is something stronger than their evil. It's all I know how to do right now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

American Civil War and the Kingdom

As its 150th anniversary is underway, Philip and I watched Ken Burns's documentary on the American Civil War. In the final episode Ken Burns recounts the first reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg following the Civil War. The soldiers met for a meal and then gathered for a reinacting of the famous and bloody Picket's charge. The old war veterans lined up on either side and ran toward each other just as they had done so many years before. But this time when they met they did not fall on each other in combat intent on killing each other but instead embraced, tears streaming down their faces. It is a beautiful picture of forgiveness and redemption.
And it made me think. Maybe one of the activites of the kingdom will be similar to the reunion. Maybe the Kingdom will be a place of great "undoing". Maybe those moments that I would give anything to redo (that hurtful word I said, that friendship I didn't take seriously enough, that hungry homeless guy I didn't feed) will be brought back and reinacted for all to see to the glory of God and the good of humanity. Maybe all the pain and inhumanity we have wreaked on each other will actually display God's glory as He shows us a better way and gives us the chance to do it again the right way, the way a patient father models good behaviour for an erring child. Maybe part of the healing of the nations will be in each of us viewing with unveiled faces the example of Christ and fixing the wounds of those we have wronged.
Maybe at the "moment of eternal harmony" love really does win in the end.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Waves

I remember going to the beach as a little girl and drawing pictures in the sand with a stick. The best sand to draw on was the sand that was washed smooth by the waves. It was really the only sand that anything would show up on. But it was also the sand that would inevitably be swept clean by a wave. No matter how carefully and beautifully I would draw, nothing of the image would remain after 2 or three waves. The sand drawing was, by its nature, impermanent. That is how Chloe's short life is starting to feel. Time and the sheer magnitude of the universe feel like a mighty ocean that is incessantly sweeping over Chloe's memory and I'm the little girl with the stick frantically writing and writing, trying to keep something on the sand that reminds the world that once upon a time there was a beautiful girl named Chloe.
I often wonder at the strange juxtaposition of how irreplaceable she is to me against how "commonplace" her life was in relation to all of humanity. There is nothing that really differentiates her life and death from the millions of others that have come and gone. And it makes the mind of God that much more inscrutable to me. Of how much consequence was this little girl to One who sees billions and billions of lives written on the sands of time and washed away? How many mothers sat on a rock in Japan and wailed in anguish over the baby that they lost in the tsunami? And will He return to us mothers who have lost our dear little ones all those moments that are gone? How will he, in the Kingdom, replace the nights of rocking and singing lullabies to my baby? Does He really bother with such trivialities as giving me back moments to brush Chloe's curls, kiss the crook in her nose, just hold her and feel her little heart beat? Does He know how much of a loss it is to me that I will never again smell her sweet smell? All I can do is hope and believe that the One who appears so beautiful and true in worship and is all justice and mercy is keeping record of all the wrongs done to His children and can do nothing but make it right. I go back to the now tattered quote I hung above Chloe's hospital bed:

"I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened."
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

flags and crosses (my continued journey to Orthodoxy)

It is extraordinary to me to think that at one time in my life my patriotism was more liturgical than my worship of the crucified and risen Christ. I had (and still have) very strong opinions about how one should conduct one's self in the presence of the American flag when the national anthem was playing. The drunken men that would laugh and talk during the anthem or the kid that would leave his baseball cap on caused me deep indignation. There is a collective tradition that we as a country have established as a way to convey our respect for our shared heritage. It consists of standing, putting our hand over our hearts, and remaining respectfully silent as the flag is displayed. Most of us have probably done it a million times in school or at a sporting event. It is perhaps most moving to observe an Olympic athlete, after years of hard work and tears streaming down his or her face, saluting the flag. Watch it a million times and you will shed a million tears.
I also remember when President Ronald Reagan passed away. The days of pagentry and (dare I say it?) liturgy to honor our great president lent a spirit of solemnity and gravity to his passing and allowed us all to unify as Americans. I don't think I would have been too comfortable had any of the honor guard soldiers decided that he didn't think the uniform really represented how he would like to express his personal love for Reagan and showed up in khakis and a polo. The fact is, at that particular time that soldier's personal feelings didn't really matter. He was a soldier for the United States military performing a collective act of respect on behalf of an entire nation. And there are simply rules. And the set ceremony enacted for every US president through the centuries does not become "dead ritual" with use. Instead, it deepens in it's ability to draw us together as a nation and give us a collective voice.
Additionally, the rich symbols and pagentry of President Reagan's funeral gave an outlet to the sensual aspect of grief that a speech never could. For example, who can forget the image of a riderless horse slowly making his way down Constitution Avenue, empty boots backwards in the stirrups? Or the 21 gun salute over his grave? That imagery materialized a truth that a eulogy, no matter how carefully crafted, never could.
Similarly, the liturgy of the Church serves a very real and indespensible purpose. Far from mindless forms and deadening routine, the Divine liturgy of the Church calls us all to lay aside our personal individuality and draws us into the body of Christ. Worship is a corporate act at its center. The head, hands, arms, feet, of Christ coming together as a body to lift Herself up and offer Herself to God. Those that recite the Creed, make the sign of the cross, partake in Holy Communion mindlessly and without thoughtful reverence do so to their own condemnation.
By contrast, those who eagerly enter the Divine Liturgy in order to join with all saints living and dead, beside them and around the world, and to experience the presence of Christ with all their senses (through the incense, arrangement of the church building itself, icons) as well as their intellect (the recitation and preaching of the Holy Scriptures) receive unparalelled blessing.
But still I struggled with life long objections. Isn't being a Christian having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"? It is. But it is also having a relationship the the body of Christ. Just because the soldier participating in the funeral procession undoubtedly had deep devotion and love for his President, that did not mean that he was free to express it individualistically at all times and places. Something very vital for the nation would be lost if his individuality were allowed to trump his duty to give the American people a collective voice. And so I have found it with the Christian life. Being a Christian means entering into a relationship with Christ on the most intimate and personal level. This is why we pray. This is why we read Scripture. But becoming a Christian also means entering into relationship with Christ's body the Church and this relationship, by its very nature, is corporate. When I gather with God's people on Sunday morning (or any other holy day) we are not just the sum of our parts. We are coming to mystically join together as a body. Liturgy helps take us to that place.
There is another aspect to religious imagery that is vital to a believer. As I mentioned above, imagery and symbols speak to the sensual aspect of our nature that cannot be gotten at through arguementation. In a word, it reaches that affective part of us that is separate from our intellect. I had to smile the other day when I attended a concert at a fundamentalist Baptist church. True to their heritage, they had stripped the alter of all religious symbol, including a cross (although there was prominently displayed a huge Bible that I'm sure was not used practically-as much a symbol as a crucifix since its purpose was simply to convey the centrality of preaching to their worship. But I digress). However, there to the side of the pulpit was an American flag. It is just deep within us to use imagery to convey realities. I found this to be particularly poignant the night Chloe died. We have on our wall the Resurrection icon. For those of you who have never seen it, it depicts Christ with Adam on His right hand and Eve on His left as He is pulling them from the grave. Under His feet death lies bound. As Chloe's heart slowly stopped beating and she died I raised my eyes to the icon. It's power flooded over me as it seemed to come alive. At that moment of deep grief, the mind's ability to reason its way to truth is completely gone. But the ability of images to lift our hearts to God is somehow intensified. So the sensual part of worship is just as vital as the rationa and true worship should encompass us in the entirety of our being.