Thursday, November 8, 2012

Where am I?

I noticed it was a bright, sunny day as I drove up to the auditorium.  Volunteers greeted us in the parking lot, directing us on where to park and where to go once we got inside.  More volunteers shook our hands and welcomed us as we entered and gave us a flyer advertising more events we might be interested in attending.  We found our seat in the auditorium, a large space populated with cushioned chairs, wide aisles and a large stage at the front.  Above the stage was a stylized stick-figure drawing of a family, indicating that today our topic would probably center on family.  The ten-person band came out and led in singing and dancing as the lights were lowered on the audience and words were projected on the screens so we could follow along.  After twenty minutes of music, an assistant came out and introduced the topic of the day:  friends and family.  Then, the leader walked on stage with the friend he brought for the day—a body builder from the Power Team.  His friend proceeded to tear a phone book, break a bat in half, and bend a metal rod with his teeth, all to advertise the programs he and the rest of the Power Team would be bringing to the auditorium at the end of the month.  Then, the leader told us to fill out cards on the back of our chairs, indicating we had been there that morning.  To encourage us to do this, he reminded us that first-time attenders would receive a special gift at the end of the service, and in honor of this special day, second-time attenders would receive a Starbucks gift card.  Further, to celebrate the presence of friends and family at that morning’s program, everyone who filled out a card, regardless of their attendance status, would be entered into a drawing for a flatscreen TV which would occur at the end of the morning’s program. 

                As people filled out the cards, the leader told an inspirational story about a regular attendee whose family was behind on rent for that month, but had incredibly been provided for at the last minute.  This was to encourage others to donate to the cause of the program.  Then, while the cards and donations were collected, members of the band came out and sang a rousing rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”  Following an inspirational video illustrating the positive effects of friendship, the leader came up to deliver an inspirational message on the power of friendship as seen in the relationship of Jackie Robinson and PeeWee Reese, Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton, the recovery of Johnny Cash, and even to men named Paul and Barnabas.  A couple beautiful proverbs on friendship were read, as well as a small narrative on the nature of Paul and Barnabas’ friendship.  The leader then mentioned a man named Jesus, who he said could be your best friend.  It was obvious this Jesus had impacted the pastor, but Jesus’ importance wasn’t explained until we were told that Jesus takes care of eternal life.  If we want eternal life, then we need Jesus to be our friend.  After that, there was a little more singing, followed by the drawing for the TV and some heartfelt parting words from the leader.  Then, we went out into the sunny day, got back in our car, and drove to lunch.

The above is a description of an experience Justin and I had at a local non-denominational church of approximately 1000-1500+ members last weekend.  The particular service we attended had about 200-250 people in attendance and it is one of the less-attended of the four weekend services offered by the church. The whole time we were there, all I could ask is:
Where am I?
I found this service highly disturbing.  I want to make clear, though, that the style of the service is not the issue.  Though I am not as comfortable with contemporary, Hillsong-style worship music, I found the music at this service to be well-executed and fairly sound theologically.  What bothered me about the music itself was how loud it was.  Between the darkened lights and in-your-face volume of the music, I couldn’t hear myself singing, much less the people around me.  This makes worship a lonely experience, and it does nothing to encourage congregational participation in the act of singing to and about our God.  However, all of this said, the ability to worship well in the service was not lost for me because of the music. 

Between the drawing for the flat screen TV, the lack of a proper use of Scripture in the sermon, and almost no talk of Jesus, I found myself shutting down.  I was angry.  Scripture of any kind was not mentioned or read until 50 minutes into the service.  Never in a sermon on friendship was the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ mentioned.  There was an altar call based on whether or not you would go to heaven if you died that day—not based on the saving power of Christ here and now to redeem us from our sin and free us from constricting loneliness.  In a list of freedoms that the church desired to bring to people, spiritual freedom was last on the list behind physical freedom and financial freedom, and spiritual freedom certainly was not last because of its importance.  As the wife of a disabled man, I found that people were kind to us, but nothing in the service was accessible to someone unable to walk.  Thus, when physical freedom was at the top of the list, immediate walls went up in both of us, because words like that indicate an unwelcoming attitude to the inclusion of the disabled.

Overall, I left the worship service disheartened and tired.  The spectacle, the lack of real theology, and the inability of the service to properly include the congregation in worship was quite demoralizing.  Yet, in some ways I am glad to have had the experience.  It is good to know how bad worship can be. In that service, I discovered what compromising your values and purposes for worship can become.  I left that place vowing to never allow myself to lead a service that did not preach Christ as Messiah, display the kingdom of God as here and now as well as not yet, and offer hope to the oppressed and real freedom to all, no matter their physical, financial or emotional circumstance.  I would rather be silent than commit an assault on the Good News of Christ with clashing cymbals, flashing lights, and empty words.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ascent in Lament

This week in Spiritual Formation, we were assigned to test out a different form of prayer than what is our normal practice.  I chose to engage in paraphrasing/re-writing a psalm. The day that I sat down to do this was full of a heaviness of spirit.  Terrible news from a friend who was hurting, difficulties with caring for Justin, and an unshakeable spiritual weight pervaded the entire day.  So, when I sat down, I turned to Psalm 130.  Psalm 130 is a very familiar text to me.  There have been multiple musical settings both in hymn and anthem form of this psalm.  Yet, the one that seems to stick with me and come to mind every time I consider this psalm is "Out of the Deep" from John Rutter's Requiem.  This second movement begins with a low, mournful cello solo.  Though the movement climaxes to a moment of powerful hope, it comes back down again, repeating the opening phrase "Out of the deep, I come to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice," with the voices fading in to the cello's soft closing statement.  Because of my experience performing this movement, I most often associate Psalm 130 with lamenting and pleading before God.  Yet, I am reminded every time I open to Psalm 130 in my Bible that this is a Psalm of Ascent, meaning it is a psalm that was most likely sung by the people climbing the hill in Jerusalem when they came to worship at the Temple.  It's movement music, meant to be climactic and set the stage for the worship that would take place in the place where God's name dwells.  (Wouldn't it be interesting to see what happened if we began preparing for worship while we're in the car driving to church?) 

Below is my re-written version of Psalm 130.  I won't tell you how I reconciled with this psalm as a lament and an ascent.  I'd rather just put this out there and pray that God would speak as God will speak.  Amen.
From places deep within,
     deeper than I can fathom,
I call.  Can You hear me?
I plead.  Are you listening?
I know my inmost brokenness and sin, the chaos that
      uncreates the Creator’s order would overwhelm
if You leave me untouched.
Yet, I praise the Most High,
     for in active forgiveness,
God restores me.

For a little while, I wait.
Though I am impatient,
     I remain hunkered down,
because to wait for God is to wait for the One
who is more necessary than breath.
All people—Hope!
Proclaim with a shout and whisper with awe:
God is true in love and vast in redeeming;
God is the Forgiver.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Disabled Dating: Spills and Bruises

Every Friday night, Justin and I try to go out to dinner, and every Saturday morning, we go to breakfast at Einstein's Bagels.  Fridays are about trying to be out and doing something together, usually the cheaper, the better.  Saturday morning is about getting to talk to each other.  These 18 hours are usually some of the best of our week.  Between school and work, the last half of the week doesn't allow much conversation besides the usual pleasantries and "would you stop stealing the covers!?"  This week was no different, so I was thoroughly looking forward to our dates together. 

Now, if you didn't know just how much I love my husband, you might wonder why I keep him around. We were getting ready to leave on our Friday night date, and as I leaned in for a kiss, my purse hit the joystick on Justin's chair.  For a brief moment, it looked like everything was going to remain stationary.  But, no!  After a split second of relief, the chair started moving forward with neither of us knowing how to react, until the chair slammed into the wall and me simultaneously, and continued to fruitlessly spin its wheels while we stared at each other in shock and pain.  Did it occur to us to ever just turn the chair off?  Nope.  The chair probably spun out for 30+ seconds before we formed coherent enough thoughts to reach over and hit the off button.  And notice Justin's toes crunched against the wall.  Oh, and my leg pinned between the wall and a footrest.  Thankfully, no bones were broken and the wall is probably worse off than my leg.  Some people like to start off a date night with a drink or small talk on the way to the restaurant.  For us, it's just not a date if someone isn't bruised by the main course.

This theme carried into our Saturday morning bagel date.  We at our usual Einstein's, partaking of our usual bagel and drinking the same cup of coffee we have every Saturday morning.  When we walk/roll in, they know us by name and practically have our order queued up for us.  Some of the employees even stop by our table to talk about weather, football or the other usual things.  As we're starting in on our bagels and conversation, my husband, being the highly intelligent man he is and not liking to keep a lid on his coffee, leaned over his coffee and simultaneously decided to inhale.  Coffee may smell good, but it can be rather shocking travelling up the nose.  Between the burn and his sensitive startle reflex, Justin didn't have a chance--and neither did my sweater.  As 16 oz of hot coffee flowed across the table, all I could comprehend was Justin's pained expression and the protection of my bagel, because a soggy bagel is a pitiful thing.  Justin and my bagel managed to recover nicely, but my sweater, jeans, and shoe (yes, shoe!) did not meet with such a favorable fate. 

I had a conversation with a classmate Friday morning, in which I was very honest (because I was asked) about a few of the practical difficulties of having a husband in a wheelchair without full time employment.  This classmate did not seem to know what to do with us, and said, "Well, this must be very difficult."  As much as I tried to reassure this person that we are joyful and trust in God's provision even when we do not understand, they said three or four times, "But, this must be difficult for you." You know, it is difficult, but that's not an attitude in which I am allowed to dwell.  This weekend's date experiences were not particularly easy, but they weren't irrecoverable either.  We ended up having a good time and great conversation after both mishaps and were even able to reflect on how these situations have the ability to shape our empathy and active compassion for others if we will allow God to use our circumstances in that way. 

This is just diabled dating.  I may end up with spills and bruises, but God has a way of taking pains and stains, and redeeming them into something more beautiful.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Performing in Church

Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of being a church musician is making mistakes.  I mean, preachers make mistakes all the time, as do lay people.  And, though they may feel uneasy about the mistakes, it's kind of come to be expected that that's going to happen.  You just have to hope that the mistake you make isn't about the name of the church's largest giver or calling God "She" (oh wait, is that really a mistake!?).

But, being a musician in church, at least for me, is difficult because I feel like there's an expectation that we shouldn't make mistakes--we're performers, after all!  Never mind that the making of a CD or a movie is full of mistakes that no one ever gets to see.  When I'm at the organ during a church service, I don't have the luxury of saying, "Oh man, that D# gets me every time!" or "Please have grace for me, I've had the worst week."  No, the mistakes happen without any opportunity to laugh at it or explain it.  So, whether this is really how people in the pew think or not, I can start to feel like I'm judged by what happens in that 3 minute hymn--like my entire worth as a church musician is wrapped up in that one moment.  And, if I manage to make it satisfactorily through that hymn, then there will be another one in a minute that throws up the gauntlet once again. 

Seems pretty backwards and futile, doesn't it?  Who of us isn't going to make mistakes?  Sometimes there will be blatant ones (like when I missed the 2nd ending on a hymn today), and other times it will be little things that only I and a handful of other people know about.  But, as I'm discovering, surviving this road has very little to do with more or less practice.  It has a lot more to do with grace.  Nobody else can give me the grace I need to give myself.  And thankfully, when I can't give myself grace, God reminds me that the giving and not-giving of grace is not my choice--it's God's. 

So, when I don't get showered with flowers after playing a hymn particularly well, and no one seems to notice this or that I practiced so hard on my prelude, it's OK.  Performing in church is not like performing on stage.  Performing in church is a constant conversation of grace between God and God's people, and my mistakes are less important to God than my willingness to participate. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

I Am Woman, Hear Me Quietly Affirm

This blog post has been fermenting in my head for quite a while now, but I've found it difficult to put what I want to express into a framework that makes it understandable.  It started out as a testimony to the great diversity of interests and drives God is developing in me, then it moved to a more social statement on not putting women in a box.  But then, I experienced a situation a couple days ago that threw everything into a different relief.

I was speaking with some fellow students on the steps of the library, when the conversation turned to a (female) professor I had my first semester who informed one of my classmates (to paraphrase), "In the academic world, a woman is only as worthy and respected as her highest degree.  Do not give up an academic career for a husband and family."  Needless to say, I highly disagree with this statement, and I expected my listeners to have a similar reaction.  However, one of my friends replied simply, "Well, yes, a woman does have to make that choice [between academia and having a family]."  I was taken aback by her statement and decided to steer the conversation a different direction, not knowing what my response would be if we continued down that train of thought.  I found myself filled with frustration, agitation, dejection, outrage.

In examining these emotions, I had to ask myself, why?  Why would her opinion produce such emotions inside me?  Why do I get up in arms when such attitudes are put forth?

The easy answer is that I believe I can do anything, even be both an academic and a wife/mother.  But that's a terribly wrong answer.  If I put that down on God's midterm exam of life, the Great Teacher would probably flunk me.  Truth be told, the easy answer is entirely selfish and wholly impossible.  If it's a situation of "I can be anything I put my mind to," then I need to seriously re-examine my life decisions, because right now, my mental acuity comes desperately short of holding life together, and we don't even have kids.  On my own merits, life falls apart. 

Thankfully, the hard answer--the correct answer--is also the grace-full answer:  I can be an academic, a wife, a mother, a musician, a liturgist, a "canner," a chef, and a theologian because God has called me.  God has called me to be myself, and as the Creator, God has created and continues to create in me a complexity of desires and gifts and talents.  In listening to the call and diving head first into God's plan, I am given the freedom and the strength and the joy of making the only choice that matters: to follow. 

As much as I may want to roar when my moderate-feminist sensibilities are affronted, the security of resting my identity in the pinions of the Most High urges a different reaction--quiet affirmation.  We live in a world--in secular and sacred venues--where women are shoved into boxes.  An academic woman is only as good as her highest degree.  A stay at home mom gives up the opportunity to develop her mind.  To be "this" means you can't be "that."  And everyone on either side of the argument employs themselves in judging the opposite contingency.  In all the noise of fighting and in-fighting to figure out a woman's place in the world, we forget the power of a gentle touch, a whispered encouragement, a welcoming embrace.  Even the Psalmist, in the middle of his descriptions of God as a rock and a Helper in battle remembers, "You have also given me the shield of Your salvation, and Your right hand upholds me; and Your gentleness makes me great. You enlarge my steps under me, and my feet have not slipped." [Psalm 18:35-36] 

Rather than add a voice to the throng, I choose to gently listen and quietly affirm:

Women, you can be all God calls you to be.  Listen and go!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Black Coffee Memories

I've been searching for a topic to write on for a few days now.  I hate having the itchy feeling of wanting to write without a clear idea of what to write.  I assure you, when school starts in 10 days, this problem will be long forgotten.  This morning before work, I went to the Starbucks close to campus and ordered what is becoming my summer staple--iced black coffee, no sweetener, no milk.  A few days ago, I went to the Starbucks by our house where they are less familiar with my ordering tendencies and ordered the exact same thing, but instead of being met with a smile and my receipt, the cashier looked at me and said, "Really?!"  Her reaction sparked a memory, a very fond memory, from about 8 years ago.

I didn't like coffee until my junior year of high school.  That year, I went out for the Academic Decathlon team at MHS.  I'd heard about AcaDec since junior high and would've tried for the team in 10th grade if it had been allowed.  The summer before 11th grade I showed up for a preliminary meeting, my inner nerd bursting at the seams, ready to think, learn and prove myself as the academic I knew I could be.  Of course, at the beginning I didn't really understand that that's why I was there.  I just thought it would be a good extracurricular, look good on my college applications, open some doors for scholarships.  But trust me, if those were the only reasons I did AcaDec, I wouldn't have lasted long and its influence in my life wouldn't be what it is. 

Our coaches, Fort and Hill for short, pushed us hard.  Learning ten subjects in-depth while taking on a full class schedule of AP courses is not easy, but I found in myself this motivation to learn and compete that had been lurking beneath the surface and was only being discovered to its fullest.  I wanted to be on the team more than I had ever wanted anything before.  I'm not an athletically competitive person.  I played tennis for three years in junior high, and while I liked the mental aspects of it and enjoyed playing, I lacked the drive to compete.  But as I should have guessed, my slightly competitive tendencies in the classroom erupted in AcaDec.  By the time the 3 people from each division were chosen based on our scores in practice meets and in-house tests, I was almost 1000 points ahead of the next closest person in my division.  In the AcaDec scoring system, a couple hundred points is negotiable, 1000 points is an entire event's worth of points.  It would be like making a perfect score on one of the tests and everyone else making 0.   I don't say this to brag, but to show how incredibly driven I was to make the team and excel.  (And no, at the time, I did not think a 1000 point lead was good enough.)

That year, our team struggled through Regionals, but we made it into the State competition as the 39th team out of 40.  Flying out of Lbk, I sat on one of the Emergency Exit rows, facing Fort and Hill. As I'm pulling out my botany materials (I remember studying macro- and micro-nutrients during that particular plane ride), the flight attendant walks up to me, and says, "You know you need to be 15 to ride on the Exit row?" To which I promptly reply, "Yes, I'm 17."  Fort and Hill got a kick out of that one.  A few minutes later, the flight attendant who didn't think I was 15 comes by with coffee and orange juice.  All the adults around me order OJ, and when it gets to me, I promptly ask for coffee, black.  The flight attendant's look expresses a resounding, "Really?!"  I'll never forget Fort smiling at me and Hill saying, "That's a dedicated student."

Some things never change, including my love for black coffee.  In a small way, my coffee order is a talisman for all the things I've carried with me from my two years on the MHS AcaDec team.  Yes, I made the team a 2nd year, though not quite by 1000 points.  (I know, I was such a slacker...)  I have reminisced a great deal lately on all that AcaDec did and continues to do for me.  When I went to college, I thought the maximum benefits I gained were from the added knowledge I had gained and learning good studying skills.  Though the knowledge and ability to study have served me well, I'm coming to believe the greatest benefits are less obvious.  As I contemplate my future--PhD work, family, ministry goals, etc.--I know that who I am today started with AcaDec.  I am astounded at the lack of self-confidence I showed  in high school, and eternally grateful for my coaches who had confidence in me anyway.  I am bowled over by the friends I made at that time in my life, who walked through the tears and the trials and the stress.  I am amazed that we came together in the way we did, and though I don't seem them much any more, they all hold a place in my heart.  We fought together, we learned together, we laughed together, and somehow the molding that took place in the midst of that carries far greater value than all the facts we ever took in.

Fort always read us a quote from Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the year and throughout difficult points in the season, and it still stirs something deeply spiritual within me, despite it's lack of overt reference to the things of God:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Life is full of moments when we make a choice to do or not to do, to bravely step out or to cautiously wait at the shore.  Our culture is plagued with a fear of failure that spurns us to do nothing unless success is guaranteed.  But this is not the way of God.  God dares us to step out, even if we do not know where our foot will land.  God calls to us, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)  It is in the stepping out that blessings beyond what we can comprehend come, sometimes in the form of success but more often in the surprising results of our "failure." 

A couple years ago, Fort went home to Jesus.  I miss him terribly, especially in the moments when it hits me how deeply AcaDec shaped me.  But, he left a legacy with his students, his family, and his friends that honors him and the work the Lord gave him to do.  For me, that legacy is apparent every time I look up from my reading and in the joy of learning hear him say, "Isn't it so great to know stuff!?" 

Yes, Fort, it is a blessing to learn and a blessing to share from what we've learned with others. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

No Apology Necessary

Working at a library is like storm watching in West Texas.  You wait and wait and wait for things to happen, and suddenly a thunderstorm pops up out of nowhere and you go from relaxed to "go mode" in a split second.  Well, that's exactly what happened last Friday.  And, at the center of my mini-thunderstorm was my husband.

It had been a deceptively quiet day, a few patrons in and out checking out books, but nothing of great consequence.  A fellow student came in to discuss planning for the Justice in Action committee. No big deal, seeing as we had no more than 5 patrons in the entire building.  Then, in walks the Dean of Perkins with a group of 40 scholars and visitors on campus for some very important Dean-related event.  In the midst of the Dean's tour, the buzzer goes off at the north door and there sits my husband, waiting for us to unlock the door.  As I sit at the computer buzzing him in, I watch in the camera as Justin goes to open the door, an action he does for himself almost every day.  But this time, Justin has an ill-timed palsy moment that, instead of leading his chair through the door, sends him crashing into the corner of a brick wall.  Panicked, I run from the front desk, throw open the north door, and in the process trip the alarm.  At this point, nothing can be done but hold open the door and help Justin get inside.  As I help Justin get to the front desk, here's the Dean's group dealing with the blaring of the alarm, Justin holding one side of his face and me trying to navigate us through the confused crowd of 40 visitors. 

Seeing as one of my goals growing up was to be very quiet and put as little attention on myself as possible, you can imagine that even at the ripe old age of 25, I was incredibly embarassed by this sudden commotion centered on none other than me and my husband.  I've come a long way, but blaring alarms, bruised faces and staring from 40+ people is more than my introverted self could bear.  And you know what my instinctual response was?  To apologize.  To apologize for myself and for my husband.  But, thanks be to God, before I could grovel at the feet of my supervisor for creating such a racket, something stopped me. 

You see, there was a time when I would have apologized for sneezing too loud because I saw myself as a disruption to other people.  As I grew more into myself and a realization of my identity in God, I came to understand (very slowly, I might add) that this gives no credit to the worth that God places in me as a child of the King.  Yet, this need to apologize whenever I might even slightly disturb someone else returned when Justin and I started dating, and fully blossomed after our wedding.  Because, let's face it, a man in an electric wheelchair dating, much less marrying, an able-bodied woman disturbs a lot of people's sensibilities.  Thus, the many questions I would get concerning whether I was Justin's sister/nurse/physical therapist.  So, any time Justin got in someone's way or made people push in their chairs to let him get by or knocked over a display in a store (and trust me, he never runs into displays with soft, fluffy things), I would feel this need to apologize effusively.  Never mind that the person was talking on a cell phone and ran into Justin because he wasn't paying attention; or that restaurants stuff so many tables in a room without every giving a thought to someone needing mobility assistance; or that middle of the walkway displays leave very little room for a wheelchair to get by.  There was a feeling that because we were the different ones, our presence--much less the commotion it caused--needed to be explained and excused. 

As I study disability theology and speak with others with disabilities, I have gained the courage to stop this excessive need to apologize.  Justin has a palsy; things are going to happen.  I will apologize and help when those mishaps make someone else work harder, but I will not apologize for Justin's physical condition.  I will not apologize for being different.  So, even though I wanted to melt into the floor as we passed the Dean and his visitors, I did not apologize for my husband's presence.  These are the little mishaps I live with every day, and if Justin and the life we have together are ever going to be seen as anything but an anomaly, then it's time to stop apologizing for the disability.  Justin is who he is in the fullness of who God created him to be, disability and all.  For that, there is no apology necessary. 

DISCLAIMER:  There were no husbands seriously hurt in this story, only slight bruises to the face and to the ego. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Blood Hymns, Part II

As promised, Part II of the debacle on blood hymns.  I don't assume that my thoughts cover everything that might be said on the subject, but perhaps they will feed further thought and discussion in this and other areas.  Let me begin with a story:

Once upon a time, really only a few hundred years ago, there was a man in England who suffered from a weak constitution and deep emotional pain.  Having lost his mother at the age of 9, this man felt his grief keenly and, driven by his bodily weakness, remained even more removed from society.  However, he had a quick mind and studied the law, eventually being offered a post as Clerk of the Journal to the House of Lords.  Unfortunately, before he could take the job, he was required to sit for a public examination.  The stress of a public examination proved to be too much for this man, and he suffered a mental breakdown disastrous enough to send him to an asylum.  In the midst of his break, the man attempted suicide multiple times, each time being royally unsuccessful.  After this first mental break, the man went to live with a clergyman and his wife, who removed with him to Olney, a small town in Buckinghamshire.  Here, this man, William Cowper, met a man who would become his lifelong friend and confidant, John Newton, curate of Olney and former slave trader.   Cowper struggled his whole life with his fear of God's damnation for his attempts to take his own life, a fear only compounded by his continued mental illness.  Cowper also produced some of the most famous and beautiful poetry of his day, and put his skills to use in helping Newton compile a hymn book published in 1779 called Olney Hymns

After his recovery from his first mental break, Cowper wrote the following hymn:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave, lies silent in the grave;
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.

Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood-bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
’Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears no other name but Thine.

In these verses, we see numerous attributions and descriptions of the Blood of Christ:
  • a fountain (indicating abundance) under which sinners are plunged (not a tiptoe or a smattering, but fully enveloped) and are cleansed of all sins
  • power through which the Church is won and claimed by God and under which the Church is called to sin no more
  • a constant stream, a living reminder of the redeeming love that beats in the hearts and accompanies every breath of the saved sinner
  • a payment, a ransom bringing full eternal communion with God, enabling and empowering God's people in unending praise
The Blood is infinitely more than all of these descriptors, and yet is simple enough to be summed up in the evidence of the life of William Cowper: the Blood of Christ is a means of grace, painfully spilt and freely offered for all eternity.

So, why would we not sing about the Blood?

At this point, I could go into a whole other blog on modern humanity's lack of attention to the frailty of the human condition, our negligence of the poor and disabled, our unwillingness to identify with the suffering of Christ because we fear suffering for ourselves.  But, I won't, though those would all be pretty decent arguments.  I'll let you think about those things, struggle over them, ask questions. 

What stands out to me as a basic problem at this moment is this: the lack of brave honesty to hold together the suffering of Christ and His Blood freely given, to feel the guilt of human brokenness and sin along with the deep joy of true and abundant forgiveness and reconciliation. To focus on suffering alone is depressing and overwhelming, but to focus solely on grace and joy leads to a thin theology that does not hold up to the difficulties of human existence.  As a foundation of our faith, the blood Christ shed and the theology we sing into people's hearts (thank you, Charles Wesley!), then the hymns we sing should reflect the [painful and paradoxical] complexity of the content of our faith. 

So, sing of the Blood, of the joy,of the sorrow, of the grace!  And don't stop, because love calls us to comfort and sharpen one another in the faith with eyes fixed on the Almighty God who longs for deeper and fuller communion with the Church ransomed by the Suffering Servant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Blood Hymns, Part I

Blood hymns are a touchy subject.  Whether a church culture approves of their use or not, if a church musician tries singing a "blood hymn" on any given Sunday morning, you'll know by Monday morning the popular opinion on the subject.  If you perform a search of the word "blood" at, 2648 results appear, so obviously it has been a subject of great worth in the history of hymnody.  Some of the more well-known blood hymns include "Nothing But the Blood," "There Is Power in the Blood," and "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood." 

Whether it was my church experience as a child or my Grandmother's endless supply of hymns that accompanied her daily actions, I'm not sure.  But, by my teenage years, blood hymns were very familiar musical companions (at least the ones found in the Baptist and Methodist hymnals).  So, it was a bit of a surprise upon entering my first church pianist position when the singing of blood hymns was met with opposition by several parishioners.  In this particular church context, I came in contact with the polarizing, and even devisive, effect blood hymns can have.  On the one hand, there were people who are disgusted by the thought of blood, much less gruesome depictions of Christ's crucifixion.  Whether the hymn specifically speaks of the crucifixion or not, discussion of Christ's blood raises such images in this camp's head(s), images that do not seem conducive to the worship situation because of their shocking quality (more on that particular opinion later).  Interestingly, the other side of the argument seemed to support the singing of blood hymns on the basis of tradition.  We've sung about it before, why not sing about it again?  There's nothing wrong with singing about blood, though it probably wouldn't be good to do it all the time; we don't want to get so obsessed with the blood that we forget about Jesus.

If we rewind the story of Christian history a few hundred years, the controversy (yes, I say controversy, because there are churches out there where whole worship committee meetings are spent discussing this very issue) surrounding the mention of Christ's blood in worship is virtually non-existent.  In the Medieval Church, the devout longed for visions of Christ's Passion.  They believed if they could in some way look upon or participate in Christ's pain, suffering, and crucifixion, they would gain a deeper faith and closer union with God.  The Revelations, a seminal text from the 14th century written by the anchorite Julian of Norwich, recounts Julian's own such spiritual encounters, or showings as she calls them, of the Passion of Christ and the understandings of God and God's relation to humanity which come out of the visions.  Julian spends several chapters describing her visions of the "dearworthy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as truly as it it is most precious, so truly it is most plentiful."   For Julian, at least as I read her, the power of the blood of Christ stems from its sure connection to the Incarnation--Christ fully God and fully man, the Divine Being who bleeds and dies in the manner that all men would, but with a purpose far beyond what any human could imagine. 

The imagery Julian applies to the fulfillment of this purpose is magnificent:

The precious abundance of His dearworthy Blood descended down into hell, and burst their bonds and delivered all that were there who belonged to the court of heaven.  The precious abundance of His dearworthy Blood flows over all earth and is quick to wash all creatures from sin who are of good will, have been, and shall be.  The precious abundance of His dearworthy Blood ascended up into heaven to the blessed Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, and there it is within Him, bleeding and praying for us to the Father.  --The Revelations, chapter 12

As beautiful as Julian's description of the Blood is, it is the understanding given to her by God that solidifies the real and true purpose of the Blood.  In reference to her visions of the Passion, God "formed in [her] soul these words: 'With this the Fiend is overcome.'" (Chapter 13)  The Blood of Christ is a healing agent, a cleansing fountain, a lifegiving element through the death and resurrection.  But most of all, it is a weapon of grace which shatters the Fiend's (devil's) hold and frees the captives to a fuller, more abundant life in worship, service, and companionship with the Most High God. 

Therefore, why would we not sing about the Blood of Christ?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Silent Answers

I'm not the kind of person who does those cheesy, overdone blog posts like: 30 Things I Learned Before I Turned 30 or 10 Ways I Improved My Life in 10 Days.  That's just not my style.  Yet, as I sit in a very quiet library during a very long, low-traffic period behind the circulation desk, my mind has begun to wander into realms of contemplation I rarely have time to explore, much less put into words. 

What have I learned in the last 5, 10, 20 years of my life?

Why am I where I am right now, in this very place and time and season?

What am I to do with the amount of silence I currently seem to experience, both in reality and spiritually, and why does this silence no longer scare me?

And in the midst of these thoughts, one question which has been a constant companion from the first time I ever heard until now remains:

Oh Lord, our Sovereign...when I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?

Such questions as these are insulted by shallow platitudes or answers full of their own morality.  Instead, these queries deserve to be chewed on, experienced, appreciated from all angles, and given the two-fold power to attest to change and enact change on and in the inquisitor.   

In allowing this process to occur, no matter how joyful or painful, tense or relaxed it may be, I come to an answer (not the but an) for a very small portion of my questioning thoughts: why does silence no longer scare me? 

As a child, silence was a fertile ground in which fear grew.  I would wake up in the middle of the night when the house was dark and everyone else was asleep and be overwhelmed with the vastness of the absence of light and sound.  I look back at that 7-year-old hiding under the blankets, starting at every little noise, and long to take her into my arms and tell her that the thing that brings her fear is, in the end, a place of comfort and rest before God.  What my young mind and spirit could not grasp in those moments of fear is that silence and darkness are frightening places to be, because they strip us of every distraction and separation and place us vulnerable before the Most High God, the all-powerful, all-loving Sovereign Lord.  Silence draws out the question: Who am I that You are mindful of me? 

The answer to this question is not so important as the genuine asking of it.  To ask is to open oneself to wonder, to inquire, to search deeper for what God's response might be.  And in God's goodness, the answer is an ever-deepening richness of relationship with the Triune God. 

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


A wonderful friend of mine made an interesting comment to me this week that I have been mulling over in my head.  Disheartened at not seeing her as often as is usual but understanding that sometimes life just gets in our way, I decided to step out and question the status of our relationship, really just wanting to make sure it was life "intruding" and not something else.  She assured me all was well, and admitted that sometimes she could be quite self-sufficient, which could put forth an unintended vibe.  This got me to thinking, what is the the value of self-sufficiency?

(Before I delve into this, whatever the outcome of my argument may be, it is in no way a personal reflection or judgment on a friend who means a great deal to me.  This is intended as an unraveling of my own thoughts and feelings as to how this topic has been presented to me in the past, and what place it has in my life now and in the future.)

I must honestly and sincerely confess to being envious of my friend.  Self-sufficiency is a thing which I think I have and still long for in greater measure.  Various factors throughout my life have led me to believe that an independent nature--being able to take care of myself--is the ultimate sign of adulthood, the epitome of what it means to be a grown-up, respected human being.  Indeed, the idea that self-sufficiency means I rely on no one but myself and my immediate family (i.e. Justin) seems to cater to my introverted personality.  And let's face it, independence/self-sufficiency is a driving force behind the "American Identity."  You don't see us celebrating Dependence Day, do you?  I grew up believing if I could achieve self-sufficiency, I would unlock the door to the future I wanted: financial stability, congenial relationships, etc. 

But, look at me now...

My marriage is both a testament to my independent nature and the depth of my necessary dependence on others.  Where my independence is concerned, I think I would rather call it self-strength (although even this does not wholly express what I wish).  Life with Justin has brought forth in me a strength I didn't know I had.  The "me" who once feared talking to strangers and making waves now has no problem taking charge of social situations to see to Justin's comfort.  The "me" who never could have dreamed I could carry the emotional and physical weight of being a caregiver, now performs those duties every day.  But even in this, I do not do it alone.  We have an attendant who comes and helps Justin in the mornings, we have family who help us meet needs when we are unable, we depend on government programs to help provide proper medical care for Justin.  And still, in the lonely moments when there is no one else and it is all on my shoulders--I am still not alone.  God is with me. 

But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Difficult as it is to admit, my longing for self-sufficiency in the way I have understood it in the past is nothing less than a slap in the face to what God has done, is doing, and will do in my life and the life of all God's children.  The way I was brought up to view self-sufficiency leaves no room for the in-breaking of God's grace or God's call to community.  It is a scary and trepidatious thing to be vulnerable before God and our neighbor, but vulnerability is a necessary element to loving both of them, which is the summary of the Law given by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.  Vulnerability admits weakness, revealing the cracks the plaster of my self-sufficiency and independence covers up only poorly.  I was raised to believe the strength of independence would make me happy, successful, and wise.  Oh, how easy it is to forget that the better way is weakness, the wiser path is vulnerability, the strongest way is dependence. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fairy Tales and Faith

The other day on NPR, I heard an interview with an author who recently published a book discussing people's perception of themselves.  The author's conclusion was that most people hold an unrealistically high view of self.  The author explained that most people will describe themselves as average or above average in categories such as appearance, intelligence, interpersonal skills, etc.  But realistically, only 49% of the population can be above average, meaning there is a 51% out there that are average or below average in any one of these areas.  Yet, the majority of people look in the mirror, see their faults and their strengths, and think, "Well, at least I'm still above average."  Interestingly, the author shed light on the fact that those who see themselves most realistically are inevitably prone to clinical depression.  Thus, there is something mentally healthy about seeing ourselves in this slightly (or not so slightly) skewed and irrational manner.

With this information swirling in my head, I started reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy again, and became entranced with the chapter entitled "The Ethics of Elfland."  In this section, Chesterton upholds the fairy tale as a formative force in his life, explaining that to him, the language of the fairy tale is the most rational and agnostic.  Through fairy tales, Chesterton gained two convictions:
1. "that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful"
2. "that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness."

Let us look at an apple tree as a point of reference for understanding Chesterton's thought.  On the first statement, the very existence of a tree of any kind is a wondrous thing.  It matters not how the tree got there.  In fairy tales, the existence of the tree is both wonderful and full of potential.  It could very well be that this tree could grow glass slippers or gold coins because all existent things in fairy tales have the opportunity to surprise and startle.  Thus, an apple tree could very well produce something else, but it doesn't.  It produces delightful apples.  As Chesterton says, in fairy tales there are no scientific laws, only "the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions."  Thus, though a result may be repeated, one is left open to the wonder of something new and unexpected at every turn.  On the second point, let's turn to the apples produced by this tree.  What if you were told to only eat one apple a day or else the tree would die, but if you only ate one apple a day, the tree would go on forever giving you sustenance and delightful satisfaction?  Even if the fruit were so delicious and your craving so intense, would it not make sense to allow the tree to go on forever producing its wonders rather than gorge yourself one day to only be deprived of the delight for the rest of your life?  In fairy tales, rules, however strange they might seem, are meant to keep human fallacy in check.  Would Cinderella have really been sure of her prince's love if he had not been made to search high and low for her?  Would the fairy godmother's gift have been so precious if there was not a moment when it was removed in order for a more lasting joy to take its place?  Is there not some grace that the glass slippers did not disappear, the most brittle and fragile part of the ensemble, the precious carrier of a more precious person? 

The last few days, Chesterton's fairy tales and the NPR interviewee's rationalism have been swirling in my head, and I think I'm finally ready to write down my thoughts on these two authors' interactions.  The human  mind can only handle so much reality before it starts, in some ways, lying to itself in order to maintain mental health. Boiling down our lives to scientific laws denies the real wonder of existence.  If faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, then faith is the foundation on which the wondrous repetition of a tree producing apples is all the more wonderful because it might have produced glass slippers.  Faith is the foundation on which a King sends his Heir, the Prince, to the lost at a terrible cost, in order that the lost might indeed be fitted with their own glass slippers and brought into their own inheritance as the precious beloved of the King.  So, maybe we're not lying to ourselves at all.  Perhaps faith gives substance to the ethereal ethic of the fairy tale which says that all of us are above average because all are startlingly and wondrously drawn into the embrace of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Beauty and the Beast: Love and Disability

While marking books and finishing the preparations for writing my final paper for Intro to Theology--Prolegomena to a Caregiver Theology: Current Works on Disability Theology in Dialogue--I decided to drown out the baseball game in the other room with one of my old favorites, Beauty and the Beast.  (Note: the title for my paper is still in progress.  If you have any suggestions, please let me know!)  From a very young age, I found that I worked better with a movie that I knew very well in the background.  On the list of study movies is You've Got Mail, Beauty and the Beast, Sound of Music, Pride and Prejudice (A&E version, the Keira Knightley rendition makes me too mad), Amazing Grace, The Little Mermaid, 10 Things I Hate About You and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.  I know it's a bit of an eclectic list, but all of these movies share one critical feature: I know them so well, I can be reading intense discourse on subjects such as "God is the pure possibility of being" and still be able to anticipate the next line, song, or action of the movie without ever looking at what's on the screen or being distracted from the topic at hand.  All this said, it's no surprise that I would choose to put Beauty and the Beast on while I did my work this evening.  But, as God is apt to do, even this small, mundane choice served a divine purpose that I am still unpacking.

I had a brief thought as I got started on my work this evening that started a whole train reflections.  To begin with, I think I'm a lot like Belle.  I may not be perfectly proportioned or walk around with my nose in a book without ever running into something or hurting myself, but Belle and I, I like to think, share an independent streak.  I'll admit, when I was in high school, I wished for an independent streak without every realizing I already had it.  In fact, it probably wasn't until I started dating Justin that I really identified with my own sense of self-strength and independence.  (As a side note, I find it enlightening and refreshing that I connected with this part of myself in a deeper way the more vulnerable I became with Justin--isn't it wonderful that this is even more true with God?!)  I see this in Belle in a remarkable sense: she longs for an existence outside "the normal," she sacrifices her own freedom for her father's--which is, significantly, in a different mode than the "normal" female sacrifice of identity for the sake of her male authority figure--and she dares to see something lovable and dear about a man in a different shape than the "norm." (Are we noticing the abundance of "normal" talk here?)  All of these steps requires a strong sense of identity and an independent spirit.  All of these are steps I, in some for or fashion, have taken in my life. 

Yet, in this identification with Belle, I noticed something troubling:  the potential for long-term issues between Belle and the Beast goes away, all because she says "I love you."  Now, don't get me wrong, I think this story has a very important lesson to teach young girls.  But, like most Disney fairy tales, it also neglects a very important aspect of life: love only makes thing more complicated, not less.  And, the more "different" the object of your love, the more complicated life can become.  I love my differently-shaped, disabled, and dear-hearted husband, and our love is complicated.  Sometimes it is complicated by us, sometimes it feels complicated by the world in which we interact.  Either way, the wheelchair that has scratched up my walls, run over my toes, and "broken in" many of my shoes did not disappear the moment I proclaimed my love for Justin or even when we said our wedding vows. At the end of the fairy tale, Belle and the Beast--now a tall, strong and capable man---look "normal" together, dressed in their finest and dancing with all the grace a beast can't quite manage.  But, I wonder about Belle's sense of self. The ending of the movie can be read as "Look, girls, have a sense of identity and independence.  Choose to love the unlovable, and you will be rewarded!  All will turn out right in the end, and the man of your dreams will appear to protect and love you properly so you won't need to be independent any more."

I know this is a rather cynical reading of what might be an innocent fairy tale, but for once, I'd like the Beast to remain as he was.  To discover and grow in love in the midst of and through the "beastly" is the reality of my existence and that of many others.  I wouldn't change it.  I think Belle was on the right track when she said, "I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere...and for once, it might be grand to have someone understand, I want so much more than they've got planned."  Oh to be brave enough to embrace our grand adventure as it comes with all its twists and turns, its wheelchairs and impairments--how could it be a grand adventure without them?!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Disabled Living

What an interesting semester it has been!  With all the craziness of running between the seminary and the music school, sometimes I feel dizzy with the multiple fields of study I have to hold in my head at the same time: organ performance, service playing, organ literature, academic theology, liturgy and liturgical theology, much less taking care of my husband and our home..."overwhelmed" often feels too soft of a word for the daily realities of life.

One significant development this semester is my choice to embrace disability and caregiver theology as a life work.  My final project in Intro to Theology is a paper outlining current work in disability theology, which I will use as a launching off point later on in my studies to develop a whole theology of caregiving in relationship to disability theology.  I find this work incredibly fulfilling and meaningful, and taking in the information and processing is a joy.  However, on days like today, the caregiving catches up to me and I encounter one of my own disabilities: a lack of courage to speak.

In Intro to Theology, we are currently reading Places of Redemption by Mary McClintock Fulkerson.  One of the central issues Fulkerson's text raises is how bodies in a church function based on the expectations of "normalcy" between different races and bodily abilities (able-bodied/disabled).  Portions of this text speak profoundly to me as she discusses a church that commits to minister to local group homes and "special needs" individuals.  Justin decided to come to class with me yesterday morning because he knew this was a topic we would be discussing and he was interested to hear what the professor had to say and give his own unique point of view.

I loved what Justin had to say during class, and I think it brought to the foreground issues that churches do not always think about unless those with disabilities are a constant voice of criticism, such as "This is a very poor place to put someone in a wheelchair because every time people stand up, I'm cut off from the actions of worship."  However, I caught myself wanting to temper what Justin said several times because I felt like people would listen better to him if he was more gracious with the able-bodied approach.  But then, when I thought that way, the part of me that realizes the need for the disabled to have a voice would fight back and say, "No! Let them deal with the honesty Justin is offering--the honesty he expresses is your daily reality, and you trying to protect them from your reality does no one any good!"

But, being honest with people in a class about the real-ness of life with a disabled man is an overwhelming and draining experience.  When the sucking sound of stress and busyness is already close at hand, trying to explain and justify my life experience is a disabling experience.  My classmates get to leave class and walk away from how the church should respond to the disabled and come back to it another time.  I don't.  How church and society respond to the disabled shapes how my husband and I function to such an extent that on the best days I have intense energy to bring change and on the worst days, despair seeps in through the seams of my exterior able-bodied armor.

I am disabled--I lack courage at times when courage is most necessary, and my words are crippled when I most need them.

Praise to the abundant God who injects life in our weakest places!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mystic Theology and No-Makeup Days

I told a friend this blog would be a theological treatise on what I've spent the morning reading, but I'm afraid I may need to repent of this self-imposed expectation.  Not that what follows is not of some theological substance, but that this is not your normal "theological treatise."  In the last few weeks, I have come to more fully embrace what I think I've known for a very long--if I am anything, I am a mystical theologian.  I know for many the use of the word "mystical" is off-putting, because in our day and age such terminology usually conjures up images of witchcraft and other untoward spiritual practices.  Yet, in classic Christian theology mystic theology is associated with the exploration of God's ultimate mystery.  I find the following definition from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church rather helpful:

Language connected with ‘mystery’ was widely used in the early Church, often in a fairly routine way; the use of such language depends on the conviction that Christian doctrine and liturgy involve matters known only by revelation, which are incomprehensible to, or which need to be shielded from profanation by, outsiders and those insufficiently purified by faith and moral conversion. The sacred words of Scripture and the deeds of God recorded in Scripture and enacted in the Eucharist (Lord's Supper, Communion in modern Protestant contexts) contain a ‘mystic’ significance, into which believers can be progressively initiated by Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit. The mystery of God remains mysterious even in its revelation, so that we need to ‘hear the quietness’ of Jesus as well as receiving His word." (Ignatius)

For the sake of this post, I make the point about leaning toward mystic theology to indicate the direction from which I am approaching the reading I did this morning from Pope Benedict XVI's The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God (referred to from now on as GJC).  The way I take in and chew on Benedict's words is not the same as how others may choose, and that is perfectly acceptable.  I merely prepare you, reader whom I value, for the experience and limitations of my own interpretation.  

One of the most precious points in Benedict's treatment of Jesus, God the Son, is his examination of the childhood of Jesus.  Rather than examine the meager writings in the Gospels attesting to events in the childhood of Jesus, Benedict discusses what it means to be a child and how Jesus' treatment of children later in life is indicative of the value He places on children.  What stands out to me is Benedict's discussion of what Jesus inherited from His mother Mary, not only flesh and blood but also "the inheritance of his ancestors," meaning "he accepted in himself the whole winding path that leads back fro Mary to Abraham and ultimately back to Adam." By bearing "within himself the burden of this history, he transformed it by his own life and suffering." (GJC 50)  As a modern-day Protestant, I find it refreshing to hear how Jesus redeemed the past, as well as the present in which He lived and future generations.  We have a tendency to discuss salvation from a Jesus-onward mindset, but by taking the form of a child who was raised within a certain culture with certain rituals and traditions and ways of thinking developed over hundreds and thousands of years, Jesus shed light on that which was good and condemned that which was sinful in His culture of origin.  If He had come as a fully grown man, Jesus would not have experienced what it is to grow up and internalize the ethnic elements of Jewish society, so He could not have intimately known and therefore brought redemption to the history of God's people.  

Later in His life, after the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus brings visibility to the idea of being a child in his elevation/blessings of the poor.  Benedict makes the point that "this is no romantic exaltation of poverty...rather, what is concerned here is the very depth of what it is to be human. 'Being poor' lets us see something of what 'being a child' means: a child possesses nothing of his own." (GJC 52)  The intent here is not to admonish those who have possessions, but to drive home the point that to enter into the Kingdom of God, possessions must not control one's being.  Being a child, maintaining poverty of spirit, means continual dependence on a God Who holds the world in the palm of His hands.  The human tendency towards independence of God for the sake of wealth is not valued in God's economy.  

I feel like the topic of God's economy is often expounded in our churches, which then turn around and appeal for money from pulpit.  (Now, who is it that needs to let go of dependence on wealth?) With such an example set for us, how is it that we are supposed to be like children when even our churches are hurting for money and seem to be dependent on riches in order to do God's work?  Honestly, this is where my inner mystic rejoices at Benedict's words:

     "the astonishment in man must not wither away, this capacity for astonishment and for listening that does not merely inquire into the usefulness of things, but hears the harmony of the spheres and rejoices precisely at that which does not serve the practical purposes of man." (GJC 53)

Astonishment.  What astonishes you?  What strikes the very heart of your being?  What has no worldly value but feeds your very soul in an inexplicable but wondrous manner?  Whatever it is, that is the beginning of "being a child."  

A couple years ago when my niece was 3 years old or so, I was over at my mother-in-law's house while she was keeping my niece.  I think it must have been a Sunday because I was dressed up more than normal and my hair wasn't in a ponytail. But, even so, I had made no special efforts at putting on make-up or really dressing up, and at the time I was longing to put on some jeans and get dressed down again.  As my niece, my mother-in-law and I were hanging out in the kitchen, my niece turned and with a smile said, "Noni, doesn't Aunt Lisa look beautiful today?"  I don't know what it was about how I looked that day, but I knew, to me, I didn't look like anything special.  But, my wonderful child-like niece saw something wonderful and called it by name.  How I looked didn't have any usefulness to her nor did she really care that I didn't have any eyeliner on and my eyes probably had bags underneath them.  She was astonished and took great pleasure in sharing her astonishment with others.  

May child-like astonishment fill your day, and may it be a gateway into the mystery of God, so that through the mundane, the beautiful may be found.  Amen and Amen!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Late Night Adventures in the Land of Leprechauns, Unicorns, and Handicap Vans

When Justin and I started dating, Justin had this phrase he would use anytime the wheelchair made things awkward in "able-bodied" situations, "Handicapped people are like leprechauns, the tooth fairy or unicorns--people don't think we really exist."  And you know, it's amazing how true that phrase is in certain situations.  One of my favorites is when we're walking through a crowded hallway in a mall and people practically trip over Justin's chair because they weren't watching where they were going and then give him/us accusatory glances, as if to say, "How could you get in my way, person that I didn't think really existed or I wouldn't have run into your big metal chair!!??"

Well, last night we had one of those adventures that can only happen in the "fictional" world of the handicapped.  It started out like any other Tuesday evening in the life of the Hancocks.  After being at school a full day and working at church for several hours, it was finally 9:00 p.m. and time to go home.  Justin is attending a class on C.S. Lewis at a church close to campus, so he joined me at school for the afternoon and evening.  When his class let out, the first sign of trouble arose.  The wires connected to the automated door on our "pimped out" handicap van jumped the track, so to speak, and made it necessary to manually encourage the door to open so that the ramp could extend.  Now, though a sign of potential hazard, this was not overly worrisome because we have an appointment with the Handicap Van Mechanics (wonderful people!) on Friday, so we just need the door to continue opening and closing, somehow, until then.  So, we go on our merry way, with the only real complaint on our minds being the feeling of hunger developing in our stomachs since dinner was at least 3 hours ago.  With thoughts of popcorn and coffee filling our heads, we park at the apartment, I get out to further encourage the door to open, and I come face-to-face with a highly unfortunate circumstance--the wires have become so tangled the door will only open halfway, blocking the ramp from extending at all, and Justin is summarily stuck in the van.  One of the greatest travails found in the Land of Leprechauns, Unicorns, and Handicapped People--the failure of one piece of technology equals a major hurtle to the continuation of "normal life."  So, here we are at 9:30, sitting in the parking lot feet from our apartment with it's nice pantry, refrigerator and bed, and my husband is unable to get out of the van, at all!

Thankfully, having faced similar situations in the past, we had an ever-so-slight hope that the local handicap van shop has an emergency phone line for times such as these, and Praise Jesus! We were correct!  The downside--the handicap van shop is in Mesquite, Tx, 30 minutes from our apartment, and the mechanic on call who was willing to come out to us lives at least an hour from our apartment.  Wonderful people that they are, though, we finally arranged to meet the office administrator and her husband, who was going to cut out the nasty wires according to directions given to him over the phone by the head mechanic.  Granted, we had no idea how successful this venture would be or what state it would leave the van door/ramp mechanism in, but if it meant we could get Justin out of the car without asking him to attempt Rodney Dangerfield-like jumps out of the van with his wheelchair, we were willing to give it a shot.  Since it is not after 10 p.m., I filled the gas tank up, bought some peanut butter M&Ms for the road (because yes, we were still hungry!), and off to Mesquite we went.

Let me just say, you will never meet nicer people than the people of Advanced Mobility in Mesquite, Tx.  These are people who work day in and day out performing a very specialized service for a very distinct group of people.  They could charge whatever they want and treat us however they want because they are one of the only shops in East Texas that sells and provides maintenance for wheelchair accessible vans.  But, to their good credit, they treat us with dignity, respect, and kindness that is difficult to find in a world that doesn't often act like the disabled exist.  The two people who met us were concerned about Justin being trapped in the van and about whether I would be able to handle the van if I needed to pull out the ramp manually.  And you know, everything worked okay.  The only part we have to do manually with the wires cut out is help the door close.  Otherwise, everything works as well as it ever has.

I know that every person has moments of crisis and problems to deal with, but the unique nature of the kinds of problems that come with life in the disabled context are not only difficult to understand, but are also nearly impossible to foresee without firsthand experience and/or a large dose of empathy.  As I look back at last night, I have to laugh at the way God provided for us.  It may not seem like God was in the experience at all, seeing as Justin seemed to be hopelessly stuck in the for who knows how long.  But, to look deeper, He provided in extraordinary ways by enabling me to finish my homework earlier in the day so I had not pressing homework to do last night, by making the temporary fix so easy compared to past experiences with the breakdown of the ramp, and by providing Justin and I some unexpected time together in which we discussed all sorts of normal conversation topics, like Nietzsche's madman, Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Man.  (Maybe not typical for some couples, but the best kinds of conversation by our standards.)  You know, life on this side of the divide is pretty much the same as in the "real world"; you laugh, you cry, and the leprechauns really don't live at the end of the rainbow, because they're too busy guarding the Tooth Fairy's rose garden from the unicorns, of course.

Seriously, though, at the end of the day when the wheelchair is turned off and everything is still, it is comforting to know that we can say with all the saints who have gone before and come after, with all their varying abilities and disabilities: God is good, all the time and all the time, God is good.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rest in the Mystery

When I think of how I might describe the past weekend at the Hancock abode, the best word I can come up with is "interesting."  Along with the typical weekend activities, like grocery shopping, picking up vegetables from the co-op, and preparing food for the week, I also had the onerous task of writing my first paper for Intro to Theology, this one dealing with the mystery of God as explored in Tomas Halik's Patience with God

Writing anything down on paper about the mystery of God is a daunting task, at best.  Let's face it, the Bible doesn't describe God's impenetrable light for nothing. Halik even asserts that "God is mystery" should be the "beginning and the end" of every theology.  Logically, if a statement is sandwiched by mystery, then the middle can only attempt to unravel the threads of understanding that allow the acceptance of mystery, not the solution of the mystery.  If God is not a thing among things or a being among beings, as my theology professor likes to say, then God's mystery is not a thing to be solved but a state of existence to accept.  And even then, I, as a human, can accept the fact and the truth that God is mystery without ever hoping to fully fathoming the depths of His mystery. 

The beautiful yet frustrating thing about writing in the field of theology is that it took me 2 days this weekend to mentally filter all of Halik's material on God's mystery to even begin to develop the words to write the above paragraph.  Thankfully, after mentally chewing on all of these thoughts, I am happy to report that the rough draft of the paper was finished this morning, 3 days before it is due!  All that's left is hearing back from my proofreader and applying all the proper formatting, and paper #1 for Intro will be complete.  I always worry about the first paper of the semester in any class.  It always feels like a testing ground between the students and professor.  How does my writing compare to the professor's standards?  How does my writing compare to that of my fellow students?  Does that matter in the grading process of the professor? And so the questions pile up.  My only comfort is that the professor probably has similar trepidations in anticipation of the first batch of papers she has to grade, so at least we're all on one side or the other of the same boat. 

After having so much on my mind this weekend, as well as a full day of work on Sunday, it occurred to me last night that I didn't do a very good job of resting and taking care of myself in the process of the weekend.  Ok, if I'm honest, it was Justin who informed me I wasn't doing a good job taking care of myself.  So, as we head into the heart of the school and work week, may we remember that:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
   will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
   my God, in whom I trust.”
 3 Surely he will save you
   from the fowler’s snare
   and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers,
   and under his wings you will find refuge;
   his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night,
   nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
   nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
   ten thousand at your right hand,
   but it will not come near you.
8 You will only observe with your eyes
   and see the punishment of the wicked.
 9 If you say, “The LORD is my refuge,”
   and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
   no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
   so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
   you will trample the great lion and the serpent. 

Psalm 91:1-13

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jehovah-Jireh, Jehovah-Rapha, Jehovah...Gourmet Chef?

In the Old Testament, God's followers would create and/or refer to God using a compound name in response to the particular revelation of His character they experienced.  For instance, in Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, but before Abraham can complete the sacrifice an angel of the Lord stops him and God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of Isaac.  In the face of such provision, Abraham names the place "The Lord provides," referring to God with the compound name Jehovah-Jireh.  Another instance occurs in Exodus 15 when God promises not to bring the diseases He brought on the Egyptians on the Israelites if they obey His commands.  In this instance, God calls Himself Jehovah-Rapha, or the God who heals.  One can find many other names and descriptors of God in the Bible, but these two always stick out to me as distinctive reminders of the power, might and mercy of God exceedingly above anything this world could offer.

This morning, I had my own particular revelation of God.  Honestly, it wasn't a mind-blowing event like Abraham's encounter with the angel of the Lord, but it was a divinely mundane moment full of the taste of heaven.  I was sitting on my first bus of the morning (my commute involves 2 buses, a train ride, and a shuttle bus) eating my oatmeal, and I was suddenly struck by the delightfulness of what I was eating. Oatmeal is a new addition to my diet, but my wonderful cookbook had a recipe for a homemade oatmeal mix with dried cranberries, dried apples, a little bit of brown sugar, and cinnamon.  So, this week I decided to do the mature thing and give it a try.  Since Monday, I have found myself actually looking forward to eating my oatmeal, but this morning was a unique experience.  As I took refuge in the bus, a typically depressing place to be even on a good day, from the cold rain outside, I opened up the cup of oatmeal I had just warmed at home, sank my spoon into the creamy goodness, and experienced a new sensation as it hit my tongue--surprise, utterly delightful surprise!  The dried apples and cranberries had plumped up just right, the oatmeal had reached the ideal state of earthy creaminess and the cinnamon was like comfort food wrapped up in a smell.  In that moment, I felt a unique closeness to God. 

I recently had to read Genesis 1 for a class, and after creating man and woman (in the Genesis 1 creation account) God says, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food." (NIV Genesis 1:29)  As a descendant of Adam and Eve and a creature in God's wonderfully made creation, I believe that I experienced this morning a glimpse of the holy act it is to participate in the gift God gave Creation from the very beginning in the form of food.  I mean, have you ever thought about that God didn't have to give us food?  He could have created us to gain our energy and sustenance by standing in the sun 20 minutes every day.  But He didn't!  He created beautiful, wonderful food and the creative minds that take pleasure in finding delicious ways to prepare it.  And above all that, the necessity of stopping to prepare and eat food has built in time for us to socialize and feed our souls off of time spent with family and friends over a meal.

These days food has gotten a bad reputation in our society.  There are diets telling you what you should and should not eat, restaurants offering quick and filling (though often not healthy) food options for the person on the go, and television shows advocating all manner of eating habits.  But let us not forget, food is a part of God's divine creation, given to human to sustain life.  Instead of viewing the consumption of food as a God-ordained right of humanity, may I take this as a divinely-given responsibility, not only to feed my family well, but also to use the fruits of the earth responsibly, to the glory of God the Creator and Maker of good foods. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oh, Saturday!

What a week it has been!  The Spring 2012 semester is fully underway, complete with extra homework because one professor neglected to let us know we had readings for the first day of class until we were actually in class, creating double the reading for this weekend.  Needless to say, after practicing my Sunday service music early this morning, a good portion of the day was spent reading.  I'm so glad I like to read!  A bright note of the day, however, was the breakfast Justin and I had at La Madeleine's this morning.  I've decided my next culinary achievement needs to be learning to make Romanoff sauce.   My favorite breakfast item at La Madeleine's is their Crepes Romanoff with strawberries, and considering the crepes seem to be whole wheat and served with lots of strawberries, there are definitely worse things in the world one could eat for breakfast!  Plus, the French roast coffee is stiff enough you could stand a spoon up in it, which is just the way I like it. 

In other culinary news, our vegetable co-op bag we pick up every Saturday had fresh beets in it today!  I've been incredibly curious about fresh beets lately after hearing a good friend rave about them, but haven't been brave enough to give them a try, one because they're a bit expensive at the grocery story, and two because I'm not a fan of pickled beets AT ALL.  But, in the spirit of adventure, I wrapped those beets up in aluminum foil and roasted them for an hour.  After peeling, cubing, and salting the roasted beets I took my first bite of my newest food-affair.  It was sweet, savory, earthy, salty goodness.  It was like eating a jewel mined from the soil.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled at the fact there's enough to go in my lunch all week this week!

I have several thoughts of a theological nature swirling in my head at the moment but very little time or energy with which to expound on them.  So, in anticipation for Sunday worship, let me sign off for now with one of my favorite psalms:

I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.  
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The LORD will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.
Psalm 121