23 March 2019

Get on my knees to…

The season of Lent is frequently seen a time of preparation, penitence, fasting, and sacrifice. In my experience as a young Episcopalian it was also a time of more kneeling. This may be, in part, because I was already eleven years old when the new prayer book came out, so I already had several years of experience of the church with the 1928 prayer book which had a more penitential tone, especially in Lent.

Since I was a child, I can remember I have struggled with kneeling in church. In part because I associated kneeling with being penitent when I didn't feel that I'd done anything wrong and then later as a teen because I had a bad back. I was thrilled when my home congregation slowly transitioned to less required kneeling and more of the optional stand or kneel instructions.

As an adult my thinking changed and expanded. For one thing, my back got better thanks to a clever physical therapist. For another, I spent a lot of time thinking about the order of service, what ritual story was being told, and how moving my body helped me feel the rhythm of the readings, prayers, and hymns of the service.  I still tended to resist kneeling. 

Some of my struggle with kneeling comes from my issues with having 'be humble' thrust upon me when people wanted me to perform humility in a certain way because I was young and female. In an age where women were learning to stand up for their rights as fully independent human beings the idea that girls were supposed to be meek and humble rubbed me the wrong way. One way I could resist that social force was by standing before my God.

I figured God knew if I was feeling humble or proud and I didn't need to bow (literally) to human social pressure and kneel. (I will say for all of my rebellious thoughts; I was never disruptive during worship. God was likely the only person who knew how much thought I was giving to the idea of when to kneel and when not to.) I didn't need to performfor God.

Recently I was out in the garden planting some ground cover in a new terraced area of our front yard. My daughter had arranged some very large rocks to level out a small area where we put a bench and I decided rather than letting grass take it over I would put in some native ground cover to make the new area more a part of the entire yard. I was on my knees digging holes, freeing pot bound roots and racing to get the plants in the ground before full dark, when I realized that there are some things that I do on my knees that give me great joy.

I garden, getting down on my knees to weed and plant. I play with young children, getting down on hands and knees to play their games. 

In short, I realized that I could also kneel in an attitude of playfulness and joy. The action of kneeling did not have to be solely one of penitence and sorrow, it could also be full an act of that deep joy and awe that can cause me to cry tears of happiness.

The first part of psalm 95 captures some of that spirit for me. It is full of a joyful exuberance, such that even when it calls for us to bow down it seems to do so in a spirit of joy.

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.
Psalm 95: 1-7

Sometimes it's important to kneel down in an attitude of humility, penitence, or petition; sometimes, however, I think it's helpful to kneel in an attitude of joy.

Bible citations are from Bible Gatewayusing the NRSV text.

16 March 2019

Shining Grief

Many years ago my housemate* badly broke her ankle. This was in the days before social media, so while folks might have had cell phones or email, there was no easy way to set up a central location to asynchronously share information on demand. 

On the day she went into surgery, my husband was the contact point at the hospital. He called me at home with updates so her family and friends could then call me to see how she was doing. It was a stressful and worrisome time.

I spend the day down in my workroom, with the landline phone close to hand, and ended up spending 8-10 hours sewing between phone calls. A few days later, with my housemate safely home and recovering from surgery, I realized that the furious energy I put into sewing on that day was an outlet for the stress and worry.

It was a powerful realization that I could take the fizzing, negative energy of worry, stress, and anxiety and turn it into something positive and useful (pants, in my case).

Throughout the years I have embraced this tendency and tried to harness such nervous, scattered energy to power positive actions that make my life better. Every time I've been able to consciously propel myself to do something rather than sit around and dwell on all of the things that couldgo wrong, I have had a more fruitful experience. Instead of fretting about things outside of my control, I take some of that energy and put it into a creative pursuit. In my case it's been activities like baking, sewing, beading, knitting, gardening, and most recently, metal work.

There are limits to this strategy. It only works for me if the thing I am doing is a physical activity that requires concentration and focus and is hands-on. Other projects that I like to do like writing, reading, and research don't absorb the negative, jittery, energy that comes from my stress and worry. Exercise alone also doesn't work; it leaves my brain too free to obsess about whatever is generating the stress and worry which only amplifies the problem.

This past year I have learned that this is also how I process grief. When my mom entered the final stage of her illness, I put all of my fear, grief, and loss into helping her and Dad. I was very lucky that they both let me stay and help once it became clear that Mom would likely die in the next month to six weeks. They gave me the gift of being able to serve, of being able to act instead of being 200 miles away worrying about them. I hope that my being there gave my brothers some peace of mind also. 

Everyone reacts to fear and worry and stress and, most powerfully, grief, differently. 

As we move further into Lent and see how the story of, not only Jesus, but all of his disciples play out, we see how they react to the call of Jesus, and ultimately to his death and resurrection. We see how Peter denies his relationship to Jesus in his grief and fear, we see how 
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary witness the crucifixion and, in their grief, try to ensure that Jesus has a proper burial. We see all of these witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection go through the process of loss, fear, and grief that is common to everyone. 

We all lose ones we love. We all experience the shock and loss of the death of people we know or people we never knew who died in horrific acts of violence. Sometimes death comes suddenly, with no warning; sometimes it comes slowly. There is no way for us to know how death will take us; just as there is no way to know how we will experience grief.

There is no wrong way to grieve. 

Like the disciples we are forever changed by the experience of having, and then losing, the loved ones in our lives.

Like the disciples we can take that love out into the world and let it shine.

* context: my housemate has lived with my husband and I for over 30 years, starting in college, through buying a house, helping to raise our daughter, and is much more a family member than justa housemate. Our daughter calls her Auntie.

09 March 2019

Ritual Danger

I have always had a fondness for the more quiet and contemplative services of the church year. I often manage to attend Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services. In part for the practical reason that they are in the evening and thus compatible with my own idiosyncratic schedule, but mostly because they are two liturgies that really speak to me. 

I was in church for this year's Ash Wednesday service and part of my time was spent just looking around and absorbing the atmosphere of the worship space as I settled in for the service.  Looking at the candles, stained-glass, and crosses covered in purple cloths, I was reminded of both the power and danger of using physical objects to understand the mysteries of God. 

I know some of the power of the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services comes from the ritual acts both contain that are only done once a year. The imposition of ashes and the washing of feet are actions that are rare and special and thus may contain even more power to move and mystify than the weekly prayers and communion.  

Ritual actions such as lighting candles, processing with the cross, bowing, kneeling, crossing oneself, receiving the ashes, and taking communion are all ways to make a physical connection with the deep and vast mysteries of God.

When I imbue everyday objects or actions with ritual meaning, I give those objects and actions power to help me deepen my understanding and relationship with God. However, being human, it can be easy to take it too far. I can forget that the candle* is not holy, that the candle is not my connection with God.  That any power it has comes from the place it holds in the ritual. The candle is not God, the leaping flame is a way to evoke the complicated mystery of God in a way that my small self can grasp. 

If I treat the candle itself as holy and start to worship the ritual of lighting and extinguishing it then God is no longer the focus at the heart of the ritual. When that happens, I drift toward magical thinking.  'If I light this candle X good thing will happen, or, I will be protected from Y bad thing."  

If I give into that temptation, I reduce God down to a vending machine or an accountant. This narrowing of God into something that can grant wishes or who balances the books after death is the dangerous side of the power of ritual. It is where ideas like the prosperity gospel come from (if you obey god and are a good person you will prosper, if you don't you will suffer and, more insidiously, if you suffer it is because you must be a bad person).  From there it is a short step to the idea of: 'everything happens for a reason'.

I know that some folks find the idea of everything happening for a reason to be helpful. I think of it as bad theology. Things, good and bad, do happen to us and we may or may not reflect on them an learn something. 

However, the universe is big beyond understanding. Putting myself at the center, letting my ego convince me that everything, good, bad or indifferent, that has ever happened to me was on purpose, and that I was the target of specific actions by God or the universe so I would 'learn' is stepping into the shoes of God.

I may never know why something happened to me. I may come up with a reason. I may even learn something from the bit of 'everything' that falls on me but that doesn't mean that I am the center of the universe. Just as the candle is not God, neither am I.  When I use the candle's flame to explore the vast mystery of God then the candle and I are both in the right place:  focusing our attention on the expansive mystery and overpowering wonder of a God who loves all of creation.

*or any other object or action used in ritual worship