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Posts Tagged ‘Church’

She bounded past the ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, rounding up the walkway, vaguely hearing a fountain gurgling in the courtyard beyond. Like a rebellious child arriving late to school, she came tripping past the heavy doors which stood open facing the busy avenue. The doors were, as she was taught in preschool, purposely shaped like hands clasped together, praying and pointing Heavenward. They were also ominously dark; she was grateful they were welcomingly wide open. Had they been closed, she might have turned away.

She sat in the very back of the cathedral, the very last pew. For once she wasn’t late, but nonetheless was still the last to arrive and did not wish to be conspicuous. Everyone occupied the rear pews…no one sat in the first several pews. In fact, those in the “front” were still halfway to the back of the vast, echoey sanctuary. She was in good company; no one wanted to appear overly zealous to be repentant today, Ash Wednesday.

Making the sign of the cross as she genuflected, she quietly pulled the kneeler closer and obediently dropped down for brief prayer. As she caught her breath, she never got around to praying because the bell tower loudly proclaimed it was 12:00 noon. This proclamation took longer than she had time for prayer, and as soon as the twelfth bell bonged, the officiant appeared from nowhere and everyone abruptly stood. Rats, inadvertent noncompliance again. She quickly rose with the masses.

She noticed that the graceful trusses several stories high overhead sported a design of the Star of David. The stained glass at the front and around the sides looked ashy like the day outside, gloomy and humid. Warm, but dismal. Her eye was not drawn to the detailed pictures on the stained glass, but rather to the things that had nothing to do with why she was there: the creaky old hardwood floors, the sad reality that not enough bulletins had been printed for today because they didn’t expect as many as might should attend, and the discrepant accents of the officiants (one was notably Yankee with nasal tendencies in reciting the NeeCeene Creeeeed, the other drawled through the service with perfect Southern dialect, complete with a multisyllabic AH-may-yen).

They exhorted her to put away her thoughts and memories of days now behind.

They can make the entire float rock when they rock together in rhythm with the music...

It was a freak cold that night, but the next day was in the 70s. They keep the Christmas lights on the trees downtown through Mardi Gras.

Parades rolled night and day for the past month.

Dig the beer can on this dolphin's nose...

And don't forget the TaTas...

Secrets to catching the good stuff include holding an upside-down umbrella or hat, standing 2-3 deep (the maskers always tend to be looking into the crowd, not directly below in the front row of people), and having a handicapped child in tow.

Mardi Gras Booty (from ONE parade)

It was a drive-by service, to be sure – in and out in 25 minutes flat. There was even a monk-like sung Psalm – she at first thought it was piped in while they strode forth to the altar to receive a cross-shaped smudge of ash on their foreheads. But after she had been dutifully ashed and turned the corner to make her orderly way down the outer aisle to return to her pew, she saw it was an actual dude in a black robe up in the balcony holding the Book of Common Prayer, singing Psalm 51, just like the Psalms were meant to have been sung. Cool!

The hypocrisy did not evade her: she was painfully aware that the slap-quick service included, as is customary, an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading…which included the verses about Jesus teaching that we are not to appear as though we are openly fasting or suffering or giving alms or whatever it is we should do in secret to the Father…and the irony of receiving an ashen cross on the forehead, being sent forth for the rest of the day to bear this mark in public. LOOK AT ME! I WENT TO CHURCH MID-WEEK AND ENGAGED IN A HOLY ACTIVITY! DID YOU?! And yet, she has seen each denomination do some of the same thing in different ways, and each denomination find scorn in the other (smug one-upmanship). Or find comfort in the one that challenges them least, then they get stuck but think they are secure.

She thought, too, about how some denominations pooh-pooh the ritual in some churches, and likewise, how the ritualized churches pooh-pooh the loosely-structured, more casual worship of non-denominational churches. But they all do the same thing…basically. One cannot say that a ritual like, say, communion, is more meaningful when it is done less often, or that those who take communion each week have fallen into a meaningless routine. Meaningless routine can sneak upon us like a thief in the night, in whatever way we (WE!) think is best to worship Him.

She then thought of her spiritual journey which brought her from this very church at birth, to other denominations and churches through various phases of her life, and remembered that He hasn’t changed, His word remains as is. Man can create their variations of worship, but it all boils down to our relationship with God, from our hearts, and man is not to judge. There is no way he possibly can. God gives us His Word to go by…and in that we can know what He expects – and it is okay to worship this way or that way – it is our heart He sees, our intent. An ages-old ritual can be tired or fresh, depending on the participant…just as can the more modern, less-structured formats can incite zealous fire yielding to years of unhealthy comfort.

To her, it was old ritual seen anew, with refreshed meaning in the act of repentance…an exercise in evaluation the journey past, the current state of the heart, and the intentions for the future. The message was the same whether coming from an evangelical bent or a formalized, old-church ritual.

What’s old is new. And vice versa.

Man is naturally a hypocrite (Paul summed it up nicely in his exposition of doing what he willed not to do and not doing what he willed to do). As long as men and women worship Him in any fashion, there will be hypocrisy. It is the curse of human nature…unavoidable, and certainly no excuse to avoid Him.

She knew God was looking at her heart, though, and there was nowhere to hide. She had to take inventory of the ways she had erred to excess in worldliness, in sin, in indulgence, in thoughts and feelings and actions…and it was high time to turn the steering wheel back over to Him, to apologize and sacrifice. Those who don’t believe in God, surely find themselves in positions to do the same with those whom they’ve disappointed. It is only human to humble ourselves when we reach a point of over-indulgence in folly, and folly is never known until hindsight. It is how we little children grow and develop, and is quite natural, and good. He rejoices in our growth process.  It is how we draw nearer to Him. It is how even our stumblings are occasion to celebrate.

So what did she give up for Lent?

That shall remain between her and Him!

What she wants to know is, what in blazes (no pun intended) was burned to create the sticky ashes glued to her forehead?!

All she knows is it is Her privilege to sacrifice so little for what He sacrificed so greatly, for us all.

Are you stuck? Change! Move! Vamoose! You may move, but He won’t, so don’t be afraid.

He will be wherever you land, waiting for you, as always.

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Hey, y’all…

Although yesterday’s beach sand (see yesterday’s post) tracked throughout and through-in has by now been relocated, the spiritual grit, albeit smoothed and soothed, remains lodged in the shoes of my soul. Today, it’s back to the piles of laundry and dishes…there they sit, here I blog. 🙂

Several encounters recently have caused me to reexamine various facets of the nature of faith as it relates to human behavior. Certainly, cramming for an upcoming exam is contributing to these ponderings; two notions in particular. One of these is the fact that those who are financially comfortable have more time to devote to introspection and tend to focus more on self, while those who are financially challenged are focused outside themselves, primarily due to the need for basic survival and possibly more of a personalized reality of what it means to give and receive. Like the widow giving two mites, perhaps it is easier to give and receive when less means more, than when more means less.

The second is the idea of cognitive dissonance and balance theories and research, which indicate that we are naturally drawn toward achieving a state of balance in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors: when one area is incongruent with the others, we find ways to support our choices in any of these three areas by justifying or finding facts to support our choices. The classic example is the owner of a new Ford, who selectively focuses on anything he can find which supports Ford ownership and which points out the pitfalls of owning a Chevy, finding reasons to reject any information which may support the opposite decision.

We like to think we have logical, external backing for our internal processes. It lent itself to sanity, yes, and gives us a wiggle-exit if we later find we thought/felt/did wrong…we can then conveniently externalize the responsibility. You know you’ve done this! It is the ballroom dance between our internal and external loci of control. It is how we drive our mental car. “I chose to do/think/feel this way because my understanding of the life as I know it, gives me both reason and responsibility to do so.” This is how we seek comfort in all senses of the word. It is how our world becomes right, and how we find things to be right with the world. Paradoxically, it is also how we justify wrongdoing. The Ford owner forms his beliefs and stands by his choice, the same way the Holocaust happened. No offense to Ford owners, but sin…is sin…is sin.

The problem comes when such notions driving our choices fly in the face of common sense, basic human responsibility, scriptural or moral obligations, etc. Here I tread carefully, aware that merely philosophizing about this renders one in hypocrite territory. Thus, I will be the first to admit, as human, I have also sinned, have introspected as wealthy and have survived as poor; I have selectively arranged the world around me in my head to accommodate my mental, emotional and physical processes. I have criticized others’ choices while justifying my own. I have harbored thoughts both of evil and wellbeing, understandings and misunderstandings, uncovered “facts” as frauds when more information was obtained, and have altered my perceptions when afforded a different perspective. Even though I have (at least in theory) traded in my judgment goggles for an understanding that I am terribly limited in what I know and experience, somehow my wretched tendency to make sense of the world by selective opinion formation persists.

Rats.

Like yesterday’s fine, white sand causing chafing and annoyance until washed away, the experience of spiritual grit ultimately yields smooth and refined surfaces. Here are a few little grains of grit from my recent days which are (if I don’t let them spiritually flatten me further) – and I chafe to admit – ultimately lending themselves to refinement, if permitted:

1.) “I feel really led by God to….(fill in the blank with one’s personal desire). Here we have the classic ticket in or out of whatever it is we want to do. Typically, people don’t stretch this one too far, since they are implying that it is something virtuous it is that they wish to do. The key word is “feel:” we all know we can’t always trust our feelings. So why trust them when it’s convenient? Just what does it look like, broken down into steps, when God leads somebody to do something? What about His having given us freewill? Most blokes in the Bible usually hid or ran the other direction when actually being led or called by God.

It doesn’t really jibe with the predetermination camp of thinking, either. I mean, how exactly does one experience the feeling of being led by the Almighty? Do common everyday experiences suddenly become “signs,” or are our subconscious psychological drives leading us to believe faith-based movement is at hand? I can feel led to lead a Bible study about as easily as I can feel led to blow off the laundry and sit on my ass and blog. I can just as easily find any number of scripture to back up either choice. Sorry, I’m not buying this one just now. I saw someone use this two weeks ago to weasel out of something that would have been a more charitable, goodwill activity, to go sit in church instead of helping those in need. I’ve done this myself, hurting others in my wake. I recognize baloney when I see it. And for better or worse, I was trained to spot it a mile away. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we were honest? In the end, people appreciate truth, so goes the proverb. And for God’s sake (literally, not taking His name in vain), don’t invoke the image of His powers, if you’re basing it on your human feelings/beliefs. It would be more accurate to say, “I want/need/believe I should….”

2.) “(fill in the blank with an event) must be/isn’t God’s will.” Okay, this one gets old. This one has been pegged as the worst possible thing you can say to someone grieving. But what about the rest of the time? When was the last time you knew, really knew God’s will, before He made His intentions manifest? You didn’t, did you (rhetorical, please)? Last time I checked, the whole thing was a work in progress, with a beginning and an end, and we’re not at either end of the spectrum. At least not yet, if you’re reading this. Most the times I’ve thought I knew what His will was, I wound up being so far off-base, it wasn’t even funny. When things work out the way they do, is it because He willed it? Or allowed it, given our choices and beliefs? Or did He predetermine it before we saw it coming? Or did we screw it up in our foiblous state, and He’s going to make the best of it despite us?

Moses had to go before Pharaoh many times before rocks started to roll in the direction of God’s will. But there was a lot of anguish and suffering along the way. How presumptuous for us to assume we can know His will in the moment, when our perceptions and experiences are so miniscule on the spectrum of His timeline. I agree that praying His will is the prayer that is always answered…but from what I can tell in my limited understanding, it is not always answered directly in front of us. Sometimes things unfold over eons. And sometimes they’re a done deal. Either way, how can we possibly comprehend and perceive, from among the leaves and debris on the forest floor, the bigger picture that lies beyond the top of the forest canopy?

3.) “Satan/God really must….(fill in the blank with a convenient anthropomorphism).” How amused the entities must be when we impose our suppositions on that which we cannot tangibly perceive! Yes, I see the hypocrisy of my assertion, so I’ll leave well enough alone on this one.

4.) Denominational elitism: As if we are competing in some type of Spiritual Superbowl, people like to back up their decision to attend their chosen place of worship because they find it to be superior to others. Well, that’s what it is, isn’t it? We have to tell ourselves that this is the best place to go because of this or that. Who in their right mind would hang out at a place they believe is inferior? No, we are driven to settle in the place we find most comfortable. Comfort is achieved when we experience cognitive balance. It aligns with OUR beliefs, perceptions, understanding, hopes, etc. Have you ever forced yourself to hang out in a place that went against your core beliefs? (Ford guy driving a Chevy?) What happened?

It will either drive you to discomfort and negative emotions as you struggle with the dissonance and eventually leave in an existential huff, or you will find ways to accommodate the differences into your current mental schema. You will find ways to justify and support your decision to stay. I believe this is, at a systems-level, how good places of worship go bad. One thing I have found in my spiritual travels, is that there really is not a whole lot of difference between denominations’ goals. Style and interpretation may differ, but peoples’ ultimate quest is pretty much the same. We must make mental exceptions to brush off the aspects we don’t agree with, in order to settle on one place or the other. Unfortunately, it is the aspects we brush off that sometimes ought to be paid more attention.

In any case, it is easy to be complicit with being off-target, and again, we justify our choice to be where we are worshiping, because it “feels” best to our way of thinking and our expectations. In upholding our choice, we unavoidably diss the choices of others. Those spiritually inclined ought to move themselves out of their comfort zones more often and engage in a moveable feast of experiencing others’ experiences. Rarely did God keep His guys in one spot forever…the good ones, the ones He used most, were always on the move. Mobility spawns wisdom and perspective. “Settling” spawns tunnel vision and ignorance (in the dictionary sense of the term, e.g. lack of awareness). When God spoke, it was always “Go.” It was never, “Pray about it and get back to me if you’re game.”

Unleash thyself, thou pigeonholed! Dare to expand yourself in Him.

5.) “Let me pray about that…” (used in the context of an impending decision to be made). As referenced above, what kind of clarity does God give us with our limited perspectives? and our limited wills? When you think about it, we’re probably more unwilling to do what He’d like us to do, than we realize. How pompous of us to imply, much less to others, that by praying about something, we will be among the privileged few to receive a clear answer. What really happens when we pray? How does “the” answer come to us? Is it some divine lightning bolt that bears God’s stamp of approval on it? And what exactly does that look like?

That being said, we must pray. And in my understanding, we have a direct line to God. I talk to Him as a friend, as you know from other posts. He is there with me. At least I feel/will/think/believe Him to be. But the process of prayer is not like some privy consultation going on that elevates us and diminishes others’ same right. No, it is I as a humble servant who cannot possibly know the magnitude of His will. I trust I will only see slivers of it. I believe day to day decisions we make are based upon our knowledge, thoughts, feelings and experience. Part of that may be scriptural, but ultimately, shouldn’t we take responsibility for our choices? What can go wrong if we screw up? We’re already sinners, that’s already been well established. We mean well in some ways, and we don’t in others, because we are naturally selfish creatures. We want what we want, simultaneously while wanting to be perceived by others and ourselves as virtuous. Sometimes the best we can do is acknowledge our wretchedness and learn from our mistakes. Some of us are doomed to repeat them, but that shouldn’t stop us from striving to be better.

When asked what drives people away from God and worship, most research shows people are disillusioned with what they perceive to be hypocrisy. These five points were salient to me because they got stuck in the shoe of my walk. Thanks for pausing with me while I slide off my shoes and dump the sand out, dear friend.  I know my weary feet are all the smoother and prettier out of the deal, on this long walk of life. And thanks for walking this beach with me.

Heh, life’s a beach!

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“God’s gonna hate you for missing the opening prayer, y’know,” the spiteful cyclist spat after me as I turned away from him to go into church this morning.

Hey, God…I know You hate some things; You say so in the Bible…but I have trouble believing that my being late because I stopped to let the man yell at me, could make me the target of Your hate. Besides, there was no opening prayer. In hindsight, I should have invited him to come in with me, and we could be late together, and let You sort it all out. Maybe there were more reasons than met the eye that he chased me all that way up that hill on his bike. That was a big hill, too. I thought he and his cyclist partner finally got over to the right side of the road so I could pass, but they evidently were not happy with me passing at all, even though I went slowly and tried to give them extra room. I’ve chased other people to church before for various reasons, but I’ve never been chased before. He really needed to get a few things off his chest, I guess. Glad I didn’t say much. Sorry if I missed a golden opportunity, though.

But there I was, absorbed in a religious experience with the Rolling Stones, as I set out this morning to meet You. “Pride and joy and greed and sex…and look at me, I’m in tatters.” I was thinking, you know, we’re not too far off from that, our human condition…all the things that get in our way of focusing on You, of acquiring a better command of self-control, that we might know You better.

There was no hiding being late from the Nice People, no sneaking in quietly and hiding in the back pew, nosirree Bob. The early service was held in the chapel instead of the main sanctuary, and, typical to arriving 5 minutes late anywhere, there was little left save the front pew and a tiny spot halfway up between three Nice People who looked like they’d gone there all their lives. I was horrified to discover before I hit the door, a Greeter Gorilla who came out to fetch me. “I was going to bring you in…we’re in the chapel this morning,” he gently said. Sheesh, he probably witnessed the Chase, and wondered how it turned out. I was grateful for an escort, still trying to analyze the previous experience. I picked the cozy spot sandwiched between the Nice People. It was more comforting than the empty front pew.

So then You spoke to me again, showing me that it didn’t really matter where I go or how I got to You, the important thing was coming before You. Granted it was a stretch for me, after the Chase, to clear my head and clean house before communion; I did my best under the circumstances. Isn’t that all You ask? I did not feel like one of the Nice People. I did not have Nice Thoughts in my head, nor was I able to focus well on the chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter…”I’m in tatters.” Uh huh. She-doo-be.

Refreshments were not on my post-churchey agenda today. I did what any self-respecting person in tatters would do, and I proceeded directly to the store and took it as a sign from You that my favorite ice cream, Chocolate Trinity (hmmm…another sign), was on sale. Anything but holy today, I was quite certain that a double dip of church and Chocolate Trinity ought to do the trick and restore my soul.

Wanting to redeem myself in advance of premeditated culinary sin, I went for a long run when I got home. I thought this, too, might shake off the post-haunting of the Chase, but no. The humidity was wonderfully oppressive, the mercury was well into the 90s, and the only thing I was able to shake off, besides a few calories, was the residual headache from the Mocker I met the night before. I hadn’t expected to come face to face with another one on my way into church.

Now in physical tatters, dripping in sweat and adrenaline but still feeling slightly rattled, there was only one way to seize control altogether. It was time to conquer the toaster. There are few other household cleaning jobs more satisfying than purging one’s toaster of the crumbs which seem to multiply like sins and remain nicely unseen for extended periods. And, like sin, the toaster contains them neatly, with a few here or there falling out underneath that a quick swipe of the counter each day keeps in check, with no one knowing or seeing.

Some of the crumbs are teeny-tiny, some are blackened to a crisp and unrecognizable, and some come in big chunks that make you wonder how you’ve been able to make toast without causing a major conflagration. And I like the handy little tray that tries, usually unsuccessfully, to contain the crumbs. Kind of like my head. If I keep ’em in check, I can hang on to them, throw them out at will, maybe just get the big chunks if that’s all I have time for or will to manage at that time. Then there are the derelict crumbs which get caught in the toaster itself, which requires derelict measures to extract it, such as operating with a knife. I wasn’t the kid cited in Kindergarten for running with scissors, I was the kid sticking a knife in the toaster. That monster crumb just had to go. At least my mother’s admonition to make sure it was unplugged, safely carried me into adulthood.

I went to town on this thing, dumping the crumb-catcher, shaking the toaster upside down, peering into the openings with my menacing knife. Big crumbs, little crumbs, stuck crumbs, burnt crumbs, they all came tumbling out, and eventually I achieved Law and Order of the Toaster. Only then did I feel resolved about things, and was ready to enjoy my gleaming toaster for a short period before I sully it again by making more crumbs.

God, I can’t help but make crumbs. Such is human existence, I suppose. The toast must be made, but in doing so, so are the crumbs. No wonder You ask us to clean out our toasters from time to time. It is the only way to prevent a disaster in the kitchen You have provided for us.

And if You tell me where I might find that angry man, maybe I can commune with him over a half-gallon of Chocolate Trinity. Heck, maybe I’ll just bring two spoons and we can eat directly out of the carton and clean out our toasters, together in harmony.

She-doo-be.

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Hey, God…

That a child brought me to You this morning was humbling. He had asked with such hope, as best as his broken speech could muster, to go to church. The squeaky creaks of the kneelers echoed in the old nineteenth century chapel. Departing from our usual place of attendance, he did not know what to do with the kneeler until he saw the rest of us kneel and pray. He eventually decided the long padded rail at our feet made for a far better place to sit down than in the pew, as this afforded him a more advantageous perspective of the stained glass windows and of the sensible shoes of the elderly lady kneeling in the pew in front of ours.

He did not mind that he could not take communion because he cannot digest solids; he was grateful to receive a special blessing at the railing instead. He was not disappointed to miss out on the regulation tea and crumpets later in the reception hall; he rather basked in the attention of the new people we met. It was always I who had to be the one to manage my sympathetic disappointments felt on his behalf, and in the end I realized that they were entirely mine, not his – he did not know disappointment of any sort very well. Once disappointments were properly attributed, owned and subsequently discarded on my behalf, it became so much easier to join him in his joy.

I remember the first time I felt the two, distinct and simultaneously contradicting anguishes, felt as a mother of a child with Down syndrome. He was only four days old, but already society by me was damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.

If people offered awkward pity, the urge was to blurt out, “Can’t you see we are the proud, happy parents of a healthy baby? He’s no different…he eats, sleeps and poops right on schedule with the rest of them! Why can’t you congratulate us and be joyful with us?”

If people offered standard congratulations and completely avoided acknowledging his diagnosis, the temptation was to say, “Do you have any idea what we’re going through? Our child is different! Why can’t you offer condolences and join us in our grief?”

It would be years later that I realized people were dealing with it in the various ways they knew best. And so was I, as I began to digest what it meant to be raising a child with special needs.

So it was through life, times when we tried in vain to squeeze the square peg into the round hole…it just never quite fit. And yet it was well worth trying, because we all learned things along the way, and it enriched him in ways he would not have experienced, had we not tried.

There were heartaches and joys in trying, but it was the trying that sharpened us all. There are no baseball pants that quite work for his build, but we got creative and he played…for part of a season, until he decided the outfield was meant for chasing his teammates to steal their ball caps to try to get them to chase him. I wept when we had to make the decision to bench him because he just didn’t get it.

The basketball hoop was a bit too high and he had to play on his little brother’s team with second graders, but the week before the end of the season, he sank his first hoop, unassisted. And I wept when the entire crowd erupted into cheers and gave him a standing ovation.

But the look of joy in his eyes was exactly the same whether he was bench-warming or ovation-bowing. He was happy just to be included, even though he knew he was different and couldn’t quite master it like his peers did. He took joy in the process, not in the outcome. Perhaps it is us who, at times, just don’t get it.

He knows how to smell the roses along the way. Those joyful eyes see things differently.

So when society wonders if a challenged person should be treated differently or the same, the answer is, some of each…the same, as much as they are capable of; differently, to accommodate and adapt as much as needed to allow them to experience at least part of the process. It doesn’t take much to make them happy, and they understand more than we think. They have learned to be flexible and patient with others, out of necessity.

What kind of world would this be if we all saw life through those joyful eyes?

God, why do they say that 90% of all babies who test positive for Down syndrome in that new, first blood test, are aborted?

Let us not fear the salty tears of anguish which lead to the sweetest tears of joy!

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