A little over a week ago, I signed up and attended a writing workshop called "No Experience Necessary." It was billed for very beginning writers, advertised as getting a very very brief look a a lot of genres, including short fiction and essays. I thought for a moment whether this was the right class for me: after all, I've been writing, in one form or another, ever since I started reading. I started out with my own Dick and Jane stories, except I thought my children had more interesting names than "Dick and Jane."
Should I instead have taken a more advanced and specialized class instead, one that focused on essays or on syndicating your own column, or on spiritual writing?
I decided to go for the beginner's workshop after all, because I wanted to recapture something, I think. I wrote my last short story when I was about 23 years old. I haven't written any fiction since. I think I'm better at the craft of writing, shaping sentences, putting metaphors out on paper than I used to be. But for some reason I've become timid about "making it up."
Our workshop for beginners included some "prime the pump" writing exercises, including one where we wrote about a painful episode from our past for about twenty minutes. Write straight prose, he told us. Do not talk about how you felt. Just describe, as accurately as you can remember it. (He also cautioned us not to use a memory which is too painful to share with the class.) He read a few of our memories out loud; I was really impressed with what he found in our rough ideas -- even mine. Perhaps I'll post it later.
But that wasn't the best part of the morning. The best part of the morning was the story we wrote, as a class. We started out with two characters, and two names: and voted on every aspect of the story as it went along. Would the first character by male or female? Female, most of us voted. We voted on their names and on their ages (Liv and Marty, 63 and 45). We voted on the era they inhabited and the setting of the story (a cemetery? a bus stop? a ship crossing the Atlantic ocean?) We voted on their relationship (neighbors?, mother and son? doctor and patient?). I caught myself, for the first time in a long time, getting caught up in possibilities as I have not in a long time. I was on the edge of my seat, leaning forward, as Marty and Liv meet at a cemetery, both grieving losses, at least one of them harboring a secret. (Is anyone else interested in this story now?)
Every once in awhile our teacher would interject a comment about doing these workshops with children. When asked to brainstorm character's ages, for example, they would often shout out possibilities that we adults would never think of: 20,000!, someone would say -- or minus -12. They would imagine robots and babies and monsters as possible characters for their stories. I remembered those days when I imagined more possibilities, real and fictional, for my life, when I did not judge my own ideas so harshly that I stopped having them.
I miss those times. I think that last Saturday, I saw those possibilities again, for the first time.
While we're up north this week, up in the Lake Country with Scout, I think I will try some creative writing. Only, maybe I won't try to be so serious. Maybe I'll try to write poetry and little stories about small things, funny things, and make it up as I go.
The sad news of Michael Jackson's untimely death has me thinking about music and its effects on us - individually, as cultures, as generations. Let's think about the soundtracks of our lives...
1) What sort of music did you listen to as a child - this would likely have been determined or influenced by your parents? Or perhaps your family wasn't musical...was the news the background? the radio? Singing around the piano? My family is very musical, in an amateur sort of way. My uncle played classical music by ear, my dad had a natural "Bing Crosby" type voice, and my mom liked to play "standards" on the piano. We listened to a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on the phonograph (this was my mom's favorite music to clean by), and they liked to sing and play together songs like: "Tennesee Waltz," "Sentimental Journey," and "Always."
2) Going ahead to teenage years, is there a song that says "high school" (or whatever it might've been called where you lived") to you? I'm going to go with my knee-jerk first response and say Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." 3) What is your favorite music for a lift on a down day? (hint: go to www.pandora.com and type in a performer/composer...see what you come up with!)
4) Who is your favorite performer of all time? James Taylor. I like Bing Crosby too, but that's more from my upbringing. 5) What is your favorite style of music for worship? Bonus if you include a video of any of the above! I'm eclectic and like all sorts of styles, from folk songs and contemporary to high-church hymns. I just don't get some of the worship wars, particularly the people who like praise choruses but not old hymns. Right now, I just can't stop listening to "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." But I also enjoy singing "The Summons", and Marty Haugen's "All Are Welcome," and "Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service."
I'll leave you with the last verse of "Love Divine"
Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee! Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.
It's been a not-so-quiet couple of weeks this mid-June at our congregation. We've had 70-odd children or so roaming the classrooms, the hallways, and the outside lawn for our annual Vacation Bible School Program. I got to spend a little time in the pre-school classroom last week, helping with crafts and doing a little singing.
But this has not been my biggest challenge so far.
My biggest challenge has been my daily cameo appearance in the "opening skit", where the theme of the day is introduced. I have a costume to semi-disguise myself, which includes a straw hat, a pair of odd shoes, jeans and a flannel shirt, and funny glasses. I carry with me some different crazy props every day, including gummy worms and "skunk spray", for example. I play a pretty clueless and mildly funny character named "Skeeter". So every day has included a costume change back and forth from my official work garb, to my "Skeeter" outfit, and back again.
Today was the most challenging day so far. I had an early morning Matins service, and later a committal service at a local cemetery. I came in early in the morning, dressed in my clerics, presided over the service, and changed into the "Skeeter" costume shortly afterward. Then, shortly after my cameo performance of the day, I changed back into my clerics to get ready for the funeral service. The near-ninety-degree weather also contributed to the fun.
I felt a little like a quick-change artist.
Later on I ended up at the hospital, meeting the one-day-old daughter of our youth director and his wife. A little later I was organizing a booth for our church's carnival tomorrow night. And a little after that I was meeting with two parish members and two members of our local school board, talking about our racially and culturally diverse district, and how to serve its children faithfully.
I didn't change clothes, but I still felt a little like a quick-change artist.
It's both the challenge and the blessing of my work: to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, to laugh with those who laugh -- and sometimes all on the same day.
I have the privilege of holding the hand of a dying woman, and letting a new-born baby grab my hand, to hear the laughter and insights of children, the fears and doubts of parents, the questions of teenagers.
I bet that in those lists that they give potential pastors, the ones with words like "leader", "shepherd", "social change agent" on them, they never have the words "quick change artist". It's too bad, because sometimes I think it's a more apt description for what we do.
I'm a quick-change artist, and here's the artistry, I hope: in the quickly changing winds of the days that come to me, and in the lives that intersect with mine, to discern the Voice of God -- and to speak the Word as well.
Jennifer recommended this book, which I got because I always value Jennifer's reading suggestions. The author of Life is a Verb, Patti Digh worked her book around these topics concerning life as a verb:
Say yes. Be generous. Speak up. Love more. Trust yourself. Slow down.
As I read and pondered about living more intentionally, I also have wondered what this Friday Five should be. This book has been the jumping off point for this Friday.
1. What awakens you to the present moment?
Little kids. I've been spending some time in the pre-school Vacation Bible School class this week. Yesterday one of the younger three-year-old did not feel well, so he laid his head on a pillow on the floor. For a minute, I just laid down next to him. That was the present moment, just then.
2. What are 5 things you see out your window right now?
Neighbors working on their roof (I actually hear the pounding, but just see feet and something unfolding, the huge trees that line our block, blue sky, geraniums, grass laden with heavy dew. Also, I can hear the birds singing. But I can't see them.
3. Which verbs describe your experience of God?
Live, Give, Stoop, Open,
4. From the book on p. 197:Who were you when you were 13? Where did that kid go?
I was shy, painfully insecure, and was writing terrible, introspective poetry. I thought I was fat, and ugly, and that no boy would ever like me. Other kids in my school also seemed to have more money than we did for store-bought clothes and vacations.
The kid has gained some self-confidence, is not quite so shy, but still has insecurities far in the background. She still writes, but hasn't written poetry (bad or otherwise) for a long time.
5. From the book on p. 88: If your work were the answer to a question, what would the question be?
For a variety of reasons, including early-summer insane busy-ness, I haven't been posting much lately. But I have been reading! And I hope to get back to regular posting soon.
In the meantime, here are my latest offerings to share:
#19. Out of the Deep I Cry. I'm almost done with all of the Julia Spencer-Fleming books. Since I read them out of order, I'm thinking about going back and re-reading the final two after I finish the next one.
#20. Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is one of her older books. I got it a few years ago when I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I just wanted to buy a book that she could sign. A couple of weeks ago it sort of fell off my shelf, and I thought it would be a good time to read it. Since she wrote it in 2000, I'm not sure if she stands by her thoughts and opinions now; I found it quite thought-provoking. I like the way she ends the last chapter, called "Righteousness redeemed."
One of the Hebrew words for a righteous person suggests "one whose aim is true." Set beside the word that defines sin as "missing a mark", this gives me an image of righteousness as target practice.....Since I sew more than I shoot arrows, I cannot help but extend the image. It is a needle I am wielding on my way through the word, with a sturdy brown thread looped through the silver eye. By the grace of God, I am being mended too, and God has called me to be a mender too. Since many threads are stronger than one, God has put me on a sewing team. Day by day, our job is to hunt the places where the world is ripped and bend over the damage to do what we can......We made plenty of the rips ourselves, and some of the worst ones show evidence of having been mended many times before, but that does not seem to discourage anyone. Mending is how we continue to be mended, and we would not trade the work for anything. (pp. 101-102
#21. My Name is Child of God.... not Those People, by Julia Dinsmore. It's an unusual book by a woman who has lived with poverty, both as a child and as an adult. It's not really a memoir, but a collection of poems, thoughts, memories and observations. Julia is a mother, a writer, a singer, a storyteller, and a prophet. The last page of her book offers these observations....
I call myself... Storyteller, artist, social change maker of twenty-five years, Working to end poverty and homelessness, Singer, songwriter, learning to practice Christianity, Becoming a servant kingdom builder Generosity, and begger in the land of plenty.
Early this morning, I had an appointment with a doctor in the orthodopedic department of the hospital. This was the follow-up to the urgent care visit one month ago when I discovered that I had broken my arm. (No, I was not really hang-gliding. I just tripped over a very hard, inanimate object.)
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I was technically supposed to have this follow-up about a week after the first appointment. So, I was about 3 weeks late, which did account for a few raised eyebrows. Since the first doctor seemed very strict about me not using my left arm at all, I suspected that I might meet with some disapproval about my less than strict observance of this rule. (I did not totally give up typing, as I was supposed to, for example.)
The second set of X-rays was much less painful than the first. I can't quite straighten my arm yet, and opening jars is difficult/impossible still. But I'm making progress. While waiting for the doctor, I studied his posters, and learned exactly what my "radial head" looks like.
The doctor came in with the current X-rays and good news. It does take six weeks for a broken bone to heal fully, but he felt that I was on target and healing nicely. He asked me what I did for a living, and sympathized with my difficulty in abstaining from left-hand use. ("Who would you get to type your sermons?") He told me that this was a very common injury; it had nothing to do with age; in fact, his twenty-year-old daughter had done the same thing recently. He also told me that he saw no indication of arthritis on my X-rays. He seemed to be able to anticipate the things that I would be concerned about before I even had a chance to voice them. I suppose he has seen a lot of people like me.
He showed me my X-rays, the fluid build-up which was part of diagnosing the initial break, and the place on the second X-ray where he could see both the break and the new bone being formed. "My body is making new bone?" I asked. "Does it ever stop?" I considered the amazing-ness of the human body. He showed me the little crack that was the broken bone. I didn't see it, and I told him so.
"Well, you can see a lot of things that I can't see," he answered.
As I left, he told me that he was impressed by the range of movement I already had achieved. He said that by beginning to use my arm moderately, I was doing the right thing.
"Have fun gardening," he said.
I'm hoping to get in the garden soon (better late than never), but I've been doing a different kind of gardening today. I've been training my eye on the new creation, searching the scriptures and my life for both the cracks and the new bones growing, so that I can speak words of hope and confidence into broken lives.
There is there now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. -- Romans 8:1
Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn't deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nautre, could never have done that.
The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn't deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.
I'm not quite ready yet to risk my own voice, but I would like to share one of Rachel Remen's stories:
"As a young pediatrician, I had as a patient a twelve-year-old girl with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lympht nodes, who had come from New York City for radiation treatment at the Stanford linear accelerator. Her father, an Orthodox rabbi, was deeply traditional and obeyed all of the many rituals and laws of this ancient religion. For the Orthodox, the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for sins committed. On this day, among other things, money is not handled, the skins of animals and even leather shoes are not worn, and one does not ride in cars of use electricity for any purpose. Shosana's eighth treatment fell on Yom Kippur. the accelerator was too far for this ill young girl to reach by walking and her father came to see me to discuss this. He explained the importance of the meticulous obervance of Yom Kippur. He proposed skipping the treatment.
"'No,' I said, 'The timing of these treatments is critical to Shoshana's recovery.' Angrily he said that she was not to go. God's laws superseded any human law. I was horrified. 'Are you telling me that God's law is more important that your child's treatment? What sort of a God would ask this?' Offended, he quoted the story of Abraham and Isaac to me. I remained unconvinced. He left the office saying that he would refer the matter to a higher authority, the rabbi in New York City who headed his sect of Orthodox Judaism. My heart sank.
"But on the morning of Yom Kippur, Shosana was sitting in her usual place in the waiting room, on time. With her were her mother and her father. 'I am surprised to see you here, Rabbi,' I said. 'What did the rabbi in New York say?' Subdued, he told me that he had written to describe the situation and his Rabbi, the Great Teacher himself, had called him. He had told him to order a taxi to come to his home on the morning of Yom Kippur. When the taxi arrived, Shosana was to ride to her treatment and he was to accompany her.
"When he protested riding in a car on Yom Kippur, his Rabbi had insisted he accompany his daughter. 'Why is this?' I asked. In a soft voice he said that his Rabbi, the Great Teacher, had insisted that he accompany his daughter so that she would know that even the most pious and upright man in her life, her father, may ride on the holiest of days for the purpose of preserving life. He said that is was important that Shoshana not feel separated from God by this breaking of the law. Such a feeling might interfere with her healing."
Someone I greatly respect and like in the blogging world recently asked me if I would ever write about Why I am a Lutheran. I have been thinking about it this for awhile, but haven't succombed yet because of my elbow, and also, because, well, it's complicated.
In the meantime, in view of what happened in Wichita last week, and in view of the fact that it happened in a Lutheran church (albeit ELCA: people on both sides would be anxious for me to make the distinction), I have been thinking about being Lutheran and about abortion.
The church where I serve contains people who are passionately pro-choice and passionately pro-life. We sing together about Jesus and his love, and we mean it. We attend the same Bible studies, we serve at the homeless shelter together, and we get involved in issues of social justice. Some of us are passionate about health care and others about equality in public education, and others about eliminating domestic violence. Although I am working on it, I don't know all that the people of my parish are passionate about.
I also want to clarify: I don't even think that there are just two, distinct positions are my church: pro-life and pro-choice. I think there are many positions as people struggle with their understandings of sin, or brokenness, or grief, with their understandings of God's grace and love and forgiveness, and how it is appropriate to express our faith in our civil life.
Other church bodies will say that there is a lot of "lukewarmness" (to use a word from my old charismatic days) in the ELCA. They may be right, although I'm hesitant to assign the "lukewarmness" to one position or another. In fact, my mother, who has become a more and more passionate and outspoken Christian these past few years, is also quite adamantly pro-choice.
There are churches where there does not appear to be such a diversity of opinion on this or other issues. For me, I can't help thinking that our diversity could be a strength, if only we could figure out a way talk to each other without hurting each other by lack of understanding, false assumptions, even theology.
On Pentecost Sunday, at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, Dr. George Tiller was murdered as he was handing out bulletins for the 10:00 service.
Before Sunday, I didn't know who Dr. George Tiller was. I didn't know that he is famous (or infamous, to some) as one of the very few late-term abortion providers in the country. I also didn't know that he was an ELCA Lutheran, just as I am. (For your information, ELCA stands for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)
I've always been ambivalent about abortion. I have desperately wanted to be a mother, but never had children. I would like to describe myself as "pro-life," but I can't get over the complexities of the stories that I have heard in my life from women who have had abortions. I abhor the idea of abortion as birth control, and I do think we live in a "throw-away" culture, where there is very little reverence for anything any more. But I also have a hard time understanding how people can be "pro life" but not "pro health care", as it seems to me that a lack of financial (as well as emotional) resources is one of the contributing causes that drive women to have an abortion.
I have been looking at different blogs and websites off and on the last few days. I've heard vitriol from some who say that Dr. Tiller was "just like Hitler", the scum of the earth. I've heard graphic details about late-term abortions; I've heard my own denomination described as apostate. (Our Church's social statement on abortion describes it as "always tragic, but perhaps sometimes necessary"; it also goes on to deplore abortion as a means of birth control and to advocate for health care reform.) I've also heard stories from women who knew Dr. Teller and describe him as kind and compassionate. They described doomed pregnancies where babies (and sometimes they) had little or no hope of survival.
I know this is anecdotal, but one woman I knew said to me (on the side) that she knew someone who had gone to him, and "according to that family, he was a saint."
I read a story here about Dr. Tiller. Among other things, the article talks about his shock when he discovered his father, also a physician, had done illegal abortions.
Some people will argue with me because I do think that abortion is a sin. (One website proclaimed that "abortion is a gift"; I can't go along with that.) Others will argue with my belief that even so, abortion might be the best, even the only option in certain situations. It is because we are human beings, living in a fallen world, that we find ourselves in these tragic situations.
I mourn the loss of Dr. Tiller. I didn't know him, so I don't know if he was a "saint", as some women said. If he took seriously the faith he professed, then he was a saint and a sinner, someone who knew that he was captive to sin and yet redeemed by Jesus.
And as a Lutheran, I also believe about myself that I am captive to sin and yet set free by Jesus, that I am capable of heroic goodness and unimaginable evil, and that, in spite of everything, I am deeply beloved by God.
After reading another book by Laurie Anderson, (Chains), I saw this one advertised on the back and wanted to read it too. It is young adult fiction, and it's about a young woman named Melinda who stops talking after a horrible incident toward the end of the summer of her 8th grade year. It's a book about personal injustice; it's a book about what it means to be empowered; in a way, it's a book about finding your voice, but not in a nice-nice psychological way: in a life or death way.
Melinda doesn't think she has any friends. But she does. There's a young man she admires named David Petrakis who stands up for her in a class when a teacher tries to force her to give her report (about the suffragettes) orally. But later, he tells her:
"But you got it wrong. The suffragettes were all about speaking up, screaming for their rights. You can't speak up for your right to be silent. That's letting the bad guys win. If the suffragettes did that, women would be able to vote yet...... don't expect to make a difference unless you speak up for yourself."
speak. In many contexts, still the lesson we need to learn.