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Posts Tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

This weekend I heard a sermon about mercy.  Apparently, Pope JP II was almost fatally shot, and ended up visiting the perpetrator in prison and forgiving him.  My immediate and uncharitable thought was, the people that I am not showing mercy to did much worse things than almost killing me.  It’s probably easier to forgive someone for shooting you – that’s only physical pain.

I usually pray in the morning that God would give me the energy to do what I need to do today, but that more than that I would be his hands and his feet and the words that he speaks today.  I’m trying to say, “Please help me with my to-do list.  But if I’ve only got time for a few things today, I’d rather help with your to-do list.”  When people come to my office and they need to cry about relationship drama or the dog dying, I make time for that even if something on my agenda doesn’t get done, or if I have to stay late, because I think I’m being given a chance to help comfort someone today and that’s a privilege.

I’m all about helping by listening, or smiling at someone and complimenting them, or noticing when someone needs a boost.  I’m happy to show God’s comfort here on earth, but not on board for showing his mercy and grace to other people.  That’s a lot hard for me, and I feel like I should be doing something about it, but how do you forgive someone when you just don’t feel like it?  That’s an honest question.

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This week’s postings are heavy, so here’s a poem I like from October of 2005, because we just don’t get to use the phrase “flaming braziers” nearly often enough in everyday conversation:

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The Chinese burnt offerings to their ancestors; the Jews burnt them for Yahweh.

Some people cast their money at your altar, while the wretched fling themselves whole

Begging for your cleansing fire to burn away their sins, their regrets.

Today, Father, if I stood like Isaiah before the flaming braziers at your throne

Like every “good Christian” I would gladly offer all of me.

But if I stood on earth with flickering shadows on my face

Contemplating a solitary bonfire in some primordial forest

And I dedicated that pagan blaze to you, I would incinerate my agenda

And humbly ask to borrow yours.

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I think the trickiest part of the verse I’m studying (Proverbs 3:5-6) is the section that discusses “in all your ways acknowledging [the Lord].”  What does “acknowledging” even mean in this context?  I like what Chuck Swindoll said about recognizing that God is “sovereign.”

I picture entering the audience chamber of some liege lord where his people can bring their problems to him for judgment.  I imagine the relief at saying, “I can’t pay off my debts,” and him listening carefully and then saying, “I’ll take care of it.”  What would it be like to know someone so powerful that he really could just take care of it – someone who ruled the entire realm so thoroughly that he could pay your debts or make a deal with your debtor with just a word to some lackey?  Obviously feudalism wasn’t romantic like that, but I’m fantasizing about that notion of absolute power.

This week I have been practicing being mindful of the idea that God is sovereign over my problems.  That word – sovereign – is exactly the word I needed.  I’m running late…but it’s okay, because God is sovereign over this traffic.  He will clear it up, or he won’t, but whether I arrive on time or late, he owns this land and this car and this problem and he is powerful.  Maybe this sounds like echos of Nectar in a Sieve.  Maybe you’re thinking it smacks of defeatism and I should care more about my own agency.  If that’s what you’re thinking, I’m pretty sure you don’t have the kind of anxiety they’ll give you the good drugs for.

My life feels like it’s spinning wildly out of control all the time.  I don’t trust other people to do things the way they should be done – it’s probably easier if I just do it myself.  I’m not arrogant – I’m afraid.  The concept that this chaotic world is in someone’s control, and it’s not in my control, helps me slow my racing heart and unclench my fists.  It’s a trust like falling.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “just” recently.  When we use this word, we’re often using it as a marker that minimizes whatever phrase comes after it.  For instance, if someone offers you a bag of candy and you say, “I just need one,” you’re telling this person, “I [this request is really trifling] need one.”  The way that this word is used by clients, by women at work, and by evangelicals while they pray is fascinating.

Client requests:

Nothing pisses me off more than when my clients say, “Can you just [insert crazy request here].”  It’s almost as though they think that by adding the word “just” they are somehow making their request last absurd and labor intensive.

If I had to gloss the way they are using the word “just” here, it would be something like, “Can you [this idea isn’t insane – it’s something you should be able to do quickly and easily] send me a new dataset in the next 10 minutes?”  I’d like to forbid them from using this word because it’s insulting to those of us who are going to have to fulfill their requests.

Women in professional missives:

I often find that when I draft emails, I insert “just” liberally in places to soften the impact of what I’m requesting.  However, when I re-read my emails before sending I invariably delete out 3 or 4 “justs” because I think it makes me sound less authoritative.  There’s a whole argument here relating to whether women sounding authoritative really means women speaking like men (who traditionally dominated the work place), and the double bind of women who speak like women being weak but women who speak like men being pushy.

That topic is a post for another day, but in the meantime I can’t seem to break myself of the habit of starting an email, “I just wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”   In this context, I mean “I [please don’t be offended by what I’m about to say because I don’t think it’s that serious] wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”

Evangelicals in prayer:

I find that young evangelicals are often contemptuous of formulaic prayers.  They have a personal relationship with Jesus and they don’t need anyone to intercede for them.  They value speaking from their heart and think there’s nothing rehearsed about their style when they pray out loud.  I listen to a lot of prayer like that, and they actually all sound very similar.

“Father God, I just want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I just pray that you would grow us as disciples. ”  Here, the repetitive (almost every sentence) “just” is marking how great we think God is and how small we are in comparison.  “Father God, I [the only thing I can offer is amazement and praise] want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I [I’m asking for something that’s easy for you since you’re almighty and the only thing I can do is request your help] pray that you would grow us as disciples.”  And yes, “grow” is a transitive verb when you’re evangelical.

I think it’s fascinating that we’re all using this word, but that it doesn’t  have a lot of intrinsic meaning.  It’s more of a flag that says – pay attention to what comes next, and know that I’m minimizing it somehow.  Maybe I’m asking for something I think is easy, or trying not to offend you by downplaying the gravity of your oversight, or what I’m about to say comes from a humble place of recognizing your power.  It’s amazing that this one word can mark so much depending on who is using it.

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The next insight I had this week regarding stress concerns the amount that I can accomplish each day.  I like to pray in the morning for my husband and for me the same things as I walk to work:

That we would have the energy, efficiency, attention and optimism to accomplish what we need to accomplish today, but that most of all we would be your hands and your feet and the words that you speak.

I’ve prayed this prayer for about 2 years faithfully, but I had a flash of insight this week reading that packet by Chuck Swindoll.  He noted that Jesus’s ministry on earth ended when there were still lepers wandering around.  People were hurting and needed to be healed.  There was suffering that he could have relieved, but when he died, he said, “It’s finished.”  How can this be?  There was more to accomplish.  It seems that it wasn’t his task to heal every leper in the whole world before he died.  He had that whole dying for our sins gig going on and when God asked him to, he didn’t argue.  He just came home because his work was done.

It occurred to me that I may think I need to accomplish x, y, and z today, but maybe God only needs x from me today.  If I get x done, then I have lived successfully today, regardless of how much I have crossed off on my to-do list.

I stay late at work and my husband calls me to see when I’m coming home.  So often the answer is that I need just another half hour, just another hour, and then I’ll be home.  How do I decide that these things are so urgent?  I mean, I’m not even healing lepers.  If I didn’t finish it all today, maybe I finished all that I was supposed to, and that notion gives me peace.

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I have been worried lately about a medical diagnosis that looms over my head.  I’ve been tired for years without an explanation, and the doctors I’m seeing are slowly crossing out the (treatable) diseases I would rather have had.  I have never drowned before, but I feel the way I think it would imagine to be in a sinking ship with the water rising above your head.  I’m gasping for air, and sometimes I get a lungful of stinging salt water instead, and sometimes a bit of precious oxygen.

I see the dreams that I had slipping away and I’m only 25.  My hopes for finding a fulfilling job and being a mom and traveling the world.  I feel frustrated with myself that I can’t even work full-time and keep up with the basics in my life, liking making dinner, cleaning a small apartment, going to church, seeing my friends, buying groceries.

I feel angry that I have been given so many gifts, and then this major limitation.  I am so focused and motivated and when I decide that I am going to do something, I have an amazing ability to make that goal happen.  I’m smart and I want to help people, and yet some days I cry when I wake up in the morning because I am so tired.  Why would God give someone intelligence and ambition, and then make them weak?  Doesn’t God know that if he gave me energy, I would accomplish so much?  That if I can make myself get into a good college and finish my master’s degree early and get a job immediately and pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and fight the biggest battle of my life to get my husband permanent residency – if I can do all of these things with crippling exhaustion, what things could I do if I felt strong?

I don’t understand.  I don’t understand why I pray each morning, why I have prayed each morning for so long, to be healed, and I am not.   I think of Paul and the thorn in his flesh that he prayed that God would remove.  I think of God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Really, God?

The only thing I know today is how grateful I am for my friends and family.  For people who went out immediately and bought me panda snow hats with ears, because I’ve always wanted one of those.  For people who left the library to talk me through those first hours of despair.  For my husband, who told me that no, he was not about to accept my offer of a divorce and find someone healthier.  For my friend, who told me that I am not a statistic, that I am not my genetics.  For the people who didn’t even know, and yet showed their love anyway.  “The world moves for love.  It kneels before it in awe.”  I am loved and upheld by so many people.  In their hands, I see God reaching out to me.

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Okay, Catholics.  I know you’re out there.  I want to know why you think the Virgin Mary died a virgin.  After all, she was…married!

*

I studied theology at a Catholic seminary that trained monks and nuns for one semester.  I was the only non-priest, non-monk, non-nun in this class, which in theory was supposed to be about the history of the modern in church.  In practice, the coursework reached the Reformation during the first week and never advanced beyond it for the entire semester.  Periodically, my professor would beseechingly ask me questions about why I was a protestant heretic.

My favorite such encounter was when he stopped mid-sentence during one lecture and said to me, “FierceLinguist, why don’t you love the Virgin Mary?  Your church is motherless!” *cue much gasping from the nuns and monks in the audience*  I offered a halting explanation in Spanish at to why Protestants think the Virgin Mary is a Very Nice Lady and yet not someone who can help you with prayers.

I’m actually a big fan of the Virgin Mary, but I’m really not sure why it’s so abhorrent for people to think that she eventually had sex with her husband.  My husband has requested that I not  ask our priest about this at mass this weekend.  I’m pretty sure he’d just start talking about Tradition with a capital “t” anyway.  Or say it’s a “mystery” of the church, which means, “Bless your heart, it’s rude to ask about the sex lives of saints.  This is why you’re one of the separated brethren.”

*http://blasphemes.blogspot.com/2009_11_01_archive.html

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