Sunday, December 8, 2013

Favorite Words

I am relentlessly, hopelessly trinitarian.

It's a little bit too easy to pigeonhole varying strands or denominations in terms of the person of the Trinity that they (over)emphasize: evangelicals cling to Jesus; Pentecostals get swept up in the Holy Spirit; Catholics, perhaps, place primacy on God the Father as the all-perfect being.

No doubt faithful members of any of those groups would argue against my brutal oversimplification, and I would hardly blame them.  But I wonder, occasionally, if one of the gifts I have in being in The Episcopal Church (a so-called "mainline" American denomination) is to point always to the Trinity.

I love the Episcopal / Anglican liturgy.  I love starting off the service in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I love the Collect for Purity:
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

I love saying the creed every week.  I even have my particular favorite parts of the creed (light from light, will come again, spoken through the prophets), as well as phrases I find it easier to left unsaid (and the Son).  I love having a confession and absolution every week.  I love to receive eucharist every week.

I remarked to my supervisor a few weeks ago that I feel a glacial shift in my piety is nearing completion.  Growing up, I scarcely thought about the fact that we received communion maybe 3-4 times a year.  When Cyprian was born, I felt off having missed church.  It was weird, and I was so grateful to make it back to church the next Sunday.

But all that isn't even quite what I mean.  Studying the Trinity literally changed my life.  It changed the way I think about relationships with other people, about faith and doubt, about God.

When I get asked what my favorite word is, I usually say perichoresis.  It's a Greek word that means "interpenetration" or "intercommunion" or some such.  It means an ever living "dance" of the persons of the Godhead who know and are fully known by each other.  And not only fully known, but fully loved.

In Systematics class at Houghton, my professor asked the class a question once that struck like a bell in my soul and emptied my mind for the rest of lecture (I literally have no idea what happened the last 20 minutes of class): Can you imagine, do you really want someone to know you, completely, all the way, fully realizing every bit of you?  I was stunned.  I was pretty sure the answer was no, and yet...

Lately, my favorite word has maybe been sehnsucht.  A German word used by C.S. Lewis, sehnsucht I think is nicely phrased by two different song lyrics.  Andrew Peterson has a phrase in "The Voice of Jesus" that goes "And I want you to know / when the joy that you feel / leaves a terrible ache in your bones // It's the voice of Jesus / calling you back home."  The other is a song by Brook Frasier, and I believe it's quoting C.S. Lewis himself; at any rate, the song is called "The C.S. Lewis Song."  "If I discover in myself / desires / nothing in this world can satisfy / I can only conclude / that I, I was not made for here."

All this to say, I want to bear witness to the terrible longing I have to be one with God, to be made divine, to participate in the nature of God where I am known and fully known and fully loved by a God  I continue to learn to love.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Being vs. Presenting

My internship supervisor and I have spent the last three weeks talking about my difficulty being myself vs. presenting myself.  In some ways (and maybe I'll talk about the reasons for this later) I feel like I'm trying to perform, to present myself.  All questions of forcing something that should come organically, aside...

One way it came up (again) was as I finally figured out something about the question she asks me every week: "What's next?  What else do you want / need?  Where do you need to grow?"

They are really good, really important, necessary questions.  I'm glad she asks.  But I sat and started to realize that you can hear those questions in one of two ways.  The first way is to say that "you are a failure, there is something missing, you lack something, you're messed up somehow so how do you need to fix it now?"  The second is to hear "Yes, you are wonderful and beautiful but how are you still blossoming and becoming something even more beautiful?"

I was hearing the first set of questions.  It was grating on me to hear them every week.  I come back again to Mindset, making me think about how I've been trying to probe my identity over and over again and been really afraid of failure instead of taking each interaction as it is and using everything as a learning, growing experience.

Anyway, part of it is that I'm so cautious in social settings (in some ways!).  I try to figure out the spirit of a group before I let myself really show into it.  In seminary, issues of political correctness swirled around a few hot-button soapbox issues; I rarely, if ever, let my real feelings on those issues out into the open (if, indeed, I knew exactly what they were).  Similarly, when I was telling a friend in college I had gotten into Yale she was flabbergasted: "You got into Yale?!?!?!?!"  Maybe she was impressed, but it felt to me as though she clearly didn't believe that I was being honest, that I really had.

I'd be willing to bet that it surprises / surprised many people I was headed to seminary at all.  I don't know that, outside a few who pushed me towards it, people saw me / I acted like a person who was serious about going into ministry.  Other than playing roles in ministry settings, did I have the personality / habits of a minister?

I said to my supervisor that I keep the things that really excite me, my passions, under wraps most of the time.  If they don't happen to come up, I don't let them out.  If people don't ask me the right questions, I won't give my answers.  The grind of the daily keeps a lot of what I think and want to to and want to be from coming out into the open (probably I'm scared of being judged, dismissed, etc.).

Anyway, all that serves as context for what I want to say.  It starts with "I'm relentlessly, hopelessly Trinitarian..."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Independence, Parenting, God: Part 3

So I've been pondering questions like "Is independence a worthwhile goal to strive for (as an individual)" and "What kind of actions am I going to take to inculcate independence in my infant son?" At what point do I make choices to let him cry himself out, and what are the deeper ramifications of such decisions?  Why am I making those choices?  Will never allowing him to cry himself to sleep make me a helicopter parent who spoils my child?  Will doing it too early teach his infant brain that his tears and screams have no effect on me?  I certainly don't have answers to these questions.

Yet I keep thinking about them, and wondering if they say anything about my relationship with God.  I grew up in an evangelical church context where some of the most serious questions were about theodicy and suffering: How could a good, loving God allow _______ to happen (to me)?  I know people who had significant crises of faith wrestling with the tragedies in their lives and their image of God and all the ways the two just never fit together.  They couldn't imagine that the God of love they worshiped condoned or caused their suffering in any way.  Sadly, so sadly, some lost their faith in any God in the midst of these tragedies.  "How can love co-exist with my suffering?"

Shusaku Endo's novel Silence made quite an impression on me when I read it as a college sophomore.  I highly recommend it, both as literature and theology (my friend Kyle is figuratively screaming at me in my figurative ear THEY'RE THE SAME THING (often)).  Essentially the novel builds up to a climax where a character asks the question "Where is God in my suffering?"  The answer, which holds little weight out of context, is "I AM right here suffering with you."  It's a difficult answer, nearly incomprehensible, not least because some branches of theology can't abide the concept of a suffering God (even though, you know, the crucifixion).  I can feel the triteness of the answer "God is here, suffering with you" when spoken to a mourner in the midst of a tragedy.  In the context of the novel, I found it powerfully moving.  In a hypothetical pastoral context, I'm less sure.

I find it still less moving when I consider Cyprian crying at 1 or 2 in the morning.  What good does it do him if it "hurts me" to lay in bed and listen to him cry rather than go to him and try to soothe him?

What kind of identity do I want to have?  I remember speaking with a friend about a book my professor had written on the Song of Songs.  As I was reading the book (Eros and Allegory by Denys Turner) and the scriptures it referenced, I found myself meditating on the idea of security.  The image of a woman tending a garden behind a locked door, waiting for her spouse to come, deeply scared me.  Can I be that secure in the love of a spouse or of a God, that I can simply wait and prepare the garden around me, the physical space, knowing that any preparing I do on myself doesn't matter because of the strength of the love of the one who loves me?  Can I simply be myself, hidden behind a locked door, waiting for one who loves me totally, fiercely, no matter what?  

It frightens me because it leaves me no task to fulfill, no set of boxes to check off, no way to earn that love.  I just have to be me, and I find that very difficult.

It challenges my notions of independence, of self-worth, of identity.  I am who I create myself to be, I am the sum of all my actions / feelings / thoughts, I am my charisma and charm and humor and intelligence, I am my pride.  How can I be any of those things without showing them off in front of other people?  Without defining their worth in distinction to those around me (and often, admittedly, in superiority over them, in arrogance)?  Aren't I independent?  Can't I get along on my own, without them, carving out my own identity and solving my own problems, not needing the love or "helicoptering" of someone else to save me?  Should I, as it were, be able to cry myself to sleep and learn to get along on my own?  Is it the mark of how badly I've been spoiled to imagine anything else?

In a great little StarWars book I read in high school, an ancillary character repeats like a mantra "Why is always a question deeper than the answer."  I have many (stream of consciousness) questions but few answers.  

The short: I want to be a good parent!  I want my son to have a healthy emotional / psychological life (despite the fact that watching the movie Magnolia makes me severely doubt this as a possibility).  I want his identity to come from a place of security in our love for him.  I want my identity to come from a place of security in God's love for me.

And I think the notion of independence might get in the way of having the mindsets and taking the actions I need to do to be and do those things.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Independence, Parenting, God: Part 2

"Babies need security."  Clara's granny e-mailed us those words last week, in response to a thank-you note that also gave an update about how our first week was going.  Cyprian's first night was lovely: other than nurses coming in all the time to check on things (and poke him in the foot with a needle to run some blood work), he slept pretty well.  We didn't really think we were going to lose as much sleep as we had been warned we would!  Why did everyone keep telling us to sleep when he was sleeping?

The second night was AWFUL.  Basically, he tried to feed all night long.  At about 2 a.m. Clara asked me to hold him and I managed to coax him to sleep and hold him until about 4.  But then it was back to feeding again until 7 or so.  Clara was exhausted in every way possible when the pediatrician came in to check on Cyprian that morning.  She was lovely, and told us that everyone talks about labor and delivery so much but she felt like people need to know more how hard it is to have those first few nights.  So if you're reading this and you don't already know, this is your warning: Night #2 breastfeeding is tough.  Basically, your prolactin levels stimulate more milk production overnight than during the day, and baby is auto-conditioned to know about it.  And he (or she!) will want to feed ALL THE TIME.

So the nights continued.  Neither Clara or I are great nappers, and we still find it hard to "sleep when baby sleeps," even though we know we should.  I napped once this week during my last few days off before heading back to school on Friday.  Clara naps every other day, but it often takes her the entire time she has between feedings to settle down to be able to sleep, and she just has a hard time thinking it will be worth it to even try.  So we're gradually getting more and more tired, incrementally more irritable, and missing the bygone days of as much sleep as we want!

And I've been ruminating.  What kind of parents do we want to be?  Do we want to ignore the warnings to have Cyprian sleep with us so we can both get some semblance of sleep, in the name of developing Cyprian's infant independence?  Or do we want to figure out how to let him cry himself to sleep on his own?

"Babies need to feel secure."  Somewhere I saw something saying children need to know their parents take them seriously.  When Cyprian communicates his needs to us, all he can do now is cry.  But if I start to discount that crying, assuming now he just needs to "get it out of his system" and "learn to be by himself," what kind of habits am I building in myself for the future?  Perhaps more importantly - and much more worryingly - what kind of expectations am I creating for him?  That his crying doesn't matter (and how will that work as an issue of gender)?  That his problems don't matter to his parents?  That weakness or inability need to make him insecure because his parents can't or won't do anything about them?

Babies have a hard entrance into the world.  Warm, dark, safe and secure is the womb.  Cold, loud, boundless and uncertain is the world.  Babies are wrapped in their mother's protective embrace for their entire fetal development, and then (in this culture, apparently) encouraged to be alone and independent. Should Cyprian right now start to experience most of life on his back?  Or do I want to be a parent who rides closer to the risk of "spoiling" my child in the interest of taking all his problems seriously?  Is independence a worthwhile goal?

I don't want to get caught up between two opposite positions.  Yes, sometimes I suggest to Clara that maybe he doesn't want to feed, and we need to experiment with other ways of calming him down.  And sometimes I hesitate just a few moments longer than she would when he starts to fuss.  But I'm going to go over and pick him up and try to calm him down, to let him know that I am there and I'm concerned about whatever it is he's fussing about, even if it is "non-specific baby angst."  And I'll ride the line between always holding him and trying to control his future independence even at the stage when he is most vulnerable and needs me the most.

I'll try to find the middle way, the golden mean, the via media between independence and total dependence.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Independence, Parenting, God: Part 1

I've had a lot of time to ruminate in the last week and a half.  I've been surprised and pleased at having the time, but less enthused about when I get it: usually from 2-4 a.m. while I'm holding the baby so my wife can get some sleep.  Cyprian won't sleep anywhere there isn't a warm body right next to him.  It's adorable and precious yet frustrating, since we both feel, as one book on parenting put it, "slaves to a tiny relentless dictator.

In any case, Parenting has gotten me thinking a lot about independence.  Any search, no matter how short, will reveal a wide range of heated opinions on how to best encourage infant independence.  A lot of this ranges especially around what to do with a sleeping baby.  Articles on Co-Sleeping range from distressingly negative to gushingly positive.  Some parents say they don't know how baby will sleep any other way (which is largely our experience); others legitimately wrestle with the tragedy of SIDs and suffocations.  One article makes the claim that any SID that happens in the parents bed is automatically classified as caused by strangulation / suffocation, assuming and assigning fault and blame onto the parents for practicing something so "dangerous."  Other articles point out that the one-bed-per-family-member practice is both an extremely recent and a distinctly cultural phenomenon.  Many sometimes have entire families sleep together, and few can afford to have one bed and one room per individual sleeper.  Huffington Post has a great article on kids and milestones and the ways that our culture encourages and praises some milestones while other cultures focus on different ones.

With all this going on, though, the two reasons I hear most often to have baby in a separate bed are the danger of co-sleeping and the need for infant independence.  The combination of these two has the interesting effect of relegating any loss of independence do a legitimately dangerous level.

In the background of my ruminations I remember sitting in a circle in a professor's house listening to a PhD student from Romania get quite angry talking about the "american myth of independence."  At the time I took her words on a fairly superficial level, merely nodding in agreement.  Further study and reflection have increased my appreciation for her wisdom.  Reading several articles on the necessity of "social capital" for a class on "Jesus and the Disinherited" began to point out to me the drastic importance that the community from which you come has on your life.  Teach for America, the organization that got me into the teaching profession, uses a lot of statistics in its promotional material.  One of the most frequently cited is that for many children, the quality of their education is determined by little more than their zip code.  Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities details in distressing form the brutal realities of exactly that claim, looking at failing schools right next to wealthy districts in St. Louis, San Antonio, New York City and Newark.

So now I'm asking the following question(s): Is independence a worthwhile goal?  Is it a milestone by which I should gauge my infant's development or health?  Is it a category I should use to evaluate what is happening in my home or in my life?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Exploring Feet

So my feet are never very far from my thoughts.  Particularly in the number of formal or semi-formal or professional or semi-professional environments I find myself in, I'm always having to ask myself whether or not I should wear my shoes.  I prefer not to, of course.  But I was at a friend's wedding recently where I knew my shoeless feet would be far more distracting for others than it would be a matter of comfort for me, so I wore them.  When I was at a professional development session during a school day, I kept my shoes on for the duration of the event.  When I was there on a day after school was over, I slid in and out of them as I felt comfortable (most everyone there was significantly dressed down as well).

Today brought me several of opportunities to ponder my own beloved "barefootedness."  I visited the church where I'll be interning for the next six months as part of my diocesan discernment towards ordination for holy orders.  It was almost not a question at all; when I got out of the car to explore the church's campus, I left my shoes on the floor.  My first entrance into a space that will be, for all intents and purposes, my church home.  I wanted to encounter it barefoot, assuming the ground is holy.  I was delighted when I found my supervisor's office and she too was barefoot!  Granted, she was sitting at her desk and her shoes were right under her, but still.  Not every clergy person would go so far, and it helped us break the ice on our first meeting, which was good since I was showing up unannounced.  Or so it seemed.

Tonight I went to an ordination at the other Episcopal church in Oxford, St. Stephens.  I've attended there now three times, and always barefoot.  I can feel the vague disapproval of what I'm doing while I'm there, but have rarely had anyone comment on it.  My own church, St. Cyprian's, loves that I come barefoot and even "bragged" after a fashion on me to the bishop.  So whether he approves or not, he at least knows it's a settled part of who I am when I'm at church.

I got home after the ordination and had a voicemail from my supervisor.  I called her back and we chatted, mostly about how Clara and I met and our past so that she can include us on an e-mail that will go out to the parish later this week.  As we finished our conversation, she said "Probably, tomorrow, wear shoes (to staff meeting)."

Should I be frustrated?  Should I rebel?  Should I bring it up to her tomorrow when I meet with her afterwards?  How much should I press the issue?  I wore shoes faithfully (except during the physical act of preaching) at my internship parish during seminary.  Should I advocate for my own chosen expression of faith?  Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

Regardless of what path I walk tomorrow, I'm more convinced than ever that we process reality - at least in part - through our feet.  After all, as my wife will willingly tell you, a baby first explores its environment with its feet.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Crawling out from under Jugdment

I spend a lot of time and effort constructing judgments against myself.  When I drive down the highway I make excuses for my driving decisions in my head, already constructing the (blisteringly rhetorical) arguments I'll have with other drivers after we get out of our cars.  I agonize over my EC paperwork.  I come into some meetings with excuses prepared, explanations of things I should have done differently that probably won't even be addressed at all.  Fear of failure paralyzes me from creative action.  Fear of judgment prevents me from exploring creative actions and realms of thought.

Tonight while I was sitting outside and listening to The Wailin' Jenny's during dinner, I found myself wondering what my undergraduate advisor would think of the music I listen to.  No doubt I started thinking about it after seeing a playlist of his on facebook.  He's always into some crazy music, whether Euro-rock or reggae or deathmetal or who knows what, I would never be able to keep up with the range of his tastes.  My own spectrum is very small and I'm sure seems rather rigid (See?  I'm constructing judgment against myself right now!).  In the 8th grade I was fanatically convinced that I should never listen to anything but Christian music (which meant, of course, CCM).  Neither should anyone else!  A brutal run-in with one of Eminem's more violent songs hammered in the final nails to the coffin of my own self-righteousness.  For years and years I locked myself into a small stream of music.  I've only recently started to really swim in the other waters of folk / bluegrass.  Bands like The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, The Head and the Heart fill my summer cookout playlists, and I'd be happy to discuss some of the religious themes that underlie their music.

Mental gymnastics, all to preserve my own sense of self-righteousness.  Do I defend myself because I have to be right?  Or do I create judgments against myself because I'm so desperate for affirmation?  Do I actively hate myself, or do I simply lack the roots to trust that anyone (Divine) really loves me?

I think the passage of scripture I find most inwardly terrifying and disturbing is meant to be comforting. Jesus describes himself in John 10 as the Good Shepherd.  He says twice, "I know my own and my own know me (v.14)" and "the sheep follow him because they know his voice (v. 4)."  The word "because" terrifies me.  Do I know what the voice of Jesus is in my life?  No, not really.  Do I seek it out in wise counsel, in prayer, in scripture?  Sure, but not often enough.  Do I hope it will come to me in worship, in song, in Eucharist?  Absolutely.  Do I feel supported by it in the voice of my friends?  Without a doubt.  But do I know it?

Both in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and Through Painted Deserts Donald Miller speaks of the need to live in a good story.  When I'm frustrated with my job and the atmosphere there and my own inability and inexperience and the tensions of living in two cities and trying to hear and discern and follow a calling through a cloud of unknowing, I sometimes doubt the goodness of the story I'm living. Do I doubt the goodness of the author, or just the quality of the story?  Is there a way to separate the two frustrations, the two sources of doubt and pain?

I thought that my advisor would be terribly disappointed in my shallow exposure to the world of music.  One time on facebook, I mentioned finding out that one of my favorite artists had released an album I'd never known about (David Crowder's All I Can Say).  He asked what band I meant, and I, fearing judgment, never responded.  I was afraid of judgment, even though I'm well aware that David Crowder and Jon Foreman and Isaac Jorgensen & Mark Labriola II are three of the most significant theological voices in my life.  Maybe you could add Gungor.  Definitely add Andrew Peterson.  They have deep roots in my soul, perhaps watered by the (self-inflicted?) lack of other, older voices of wisdom in my life.  I was afraid one voice of wisdom in my life would find the others trite, shallow, theologically blase.  I hid.

Then in a flash I thought: who cares what he thinks?  I know the answer is still partly "I do!"  I also know the answer is "Nobody!"  These artists, these voices, these people are part of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds me, makes me who I am, strengthens and encourages me with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

For a moment, just a moment, I found myself crawling out from under judgment.  It is who I am, right now.  It just is.

And it is not for me to judge.