Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Cultivating Wonder

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. [Psalm 19:1]

An anole, bright green, presses himself against the  stem of my plumeria, hiding in plain sight. It's been there all summer, my plumeria pal. It knows, now, that I see it and doesn't immediately skitter away each time, but lets me take a picture. It's not exactly a pet, but a companion to greet me many days this summer. I smile when I see it.

Sunsets are both extraordinary and common----they happen daily but still offer something new each time. Just last night, I saw a sunset with layers of clouds, lower ones dark, illuminated from the other side, higher ones glowing like coals in a dying fire. One of these, elongated and parallel to the horizon, had a shadow across the middle of it, a dark stripe in the glow. Farther off was a more vertical cloud, I saw, throwing a shadow across the the horizontal one. Surely this happens now and then, and yet I'd not noticed anything like it before. There's always something new to notice. 

One evening, I was walking to my apartment after dark and noticed something moving on the sidewalk, a bug. I squatted down to get a closer look. I didn't immediately recognize it but took some pictures of it. It was covered with dirt, as if it had just crawled out of the ground. Taking a better look at it once I was inside, and getting confirmation from Facebook friends, I realized that this was a cicada, on its way to climb a tree and shed its exoskeleton, to stretch it's new wings and buzz off into the night. Like any number of children who grow up in cicada country, I've found hundreds, maybe thousands of the abandoned exoskeletons on tree trunks and I've been fascinated by the delicate remains of metamorphosis. This was the first time in my life, as best as I can recall, that I saw one still in that shell, moving toward it's transformation. It seems odd that it should happen after five decades, but I'm delighted to have seen it.

I take a lot of pictures. I don't fancy myself a photographer, exactly---I know a few and I know they go about it with a different mindset, a different attitude and certainly with much better tools than I have or aspire to have. I'm also clumsy especially with my new phone. These touch screens find me tapping unintentionally. Every once in a while, I find I've taken a picture accidentally. Most of them are you average up-nostril or blurry shoe shots, but occasionally something happens wherein I have no idea what it is and it has the appearance an abstract expressionist vision. I sometimes post these to Facebook with a line like, "Please enjoy this photograph. I don't know what it is." Creativity often follows, as some friends will interpret with wild fancy and invention.  

These are some ways that I cultivate wonder. Awe. Given as I am to melancholy, given as I am to despair over news stories of endless brutality around the world, I find I have to do this. It is a choice. Wonder comes more easily to some than to others and perhaps it comes easier to me than to some, and yet I find I have to purposefully look out for the extraordinary in the world or else the horrors of the world crush me. The cultivation of awe is not an escape from the work of speaking against the horror. It is the sustenance that allows for yet another difficult conversation about racism, classism, brutality, and the need for compassion. 

I'd say I cultivate wonder to feed and strengthen compassion.

What strikes me as wonderful and awesome may not be what sustains you and feeds your compassion. What I do know is that we need more compassion in the world, more empathy, more willingness to live with others who are different from ourselves. The world can be a terrifying place, indeed, there are some terrifying people in it. But our tradition tells us that love casts out fear. 

And like wonder, we have to practice love. It may have to begin with a lizard or a bug, but they are practices.

I'm writing to remind myself. I have to practice these things. I forget sometimes. Often. 

But the grace inherent in any small discovery can be enough to sustain us. There are wonders all around us, even in my concrete environment of Houston. I believe these are signs of God's grace breaking through, reminding me that the heavens tell of God's glory. So does a muddy bug, crawling on it's way toward release and flight. 

God's grace and glory---I have to turn my head and heart---repent---to see it some days. Other days it pops up in front of me, unexpected. Such are my main sources for hope that the world can be saved. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Here and There

Some years ago, when I last owned a car, I recall driving home after work and listening to All Things Considered on the radio and some horrific event was occurring on the other side of the world. I don't remember what it was exactly, probably something to do with our invasion of Iraq and the chaos that followed. It was horror that was ongoing, with no immediate end in sight. Death and destruction.

And I was in Houston, stuck in traffic, but in an orderly fashion, no fear for my immediate surroundings, the likelihood of anything blowing up around me quite small. Safe.

How can the world be so large to have my safety and that danger going on all at once?

This thought hits me now and then. How I walk home from the bus stop the few blocks down a dark but busy street, how I try to be aware of my surroundings but also not very scared while elsewhere people don't dare do  such things, some within the same city, some far away. Some don't walk in safety in daylight.

Or I'm sitting in a theater, watching dance or a play, aware that someone, somewhere is grieving. Or I'm in worship, singing praises while someone, somewhere is being crushed. It happens. I know it does.

How can the world big big enough to hold all this?

As usual, I only have the questions, no answers.

And still, I know the world is this small: In all these circumstances, people remain creative. Sometimes the creativity is a survival mechanism, sometimes an expression of the grief joy fear thanksgiving anger relief hurt healing. In all these circumstances, people still know songs and sing them. In all these circumstances people still fall in love and create new life, whether in procreation or the abundant life of community.

Lately, I've been thinking about places, populations, peoples where oppression is a given, defeat is likely, grief is expected. They exist in this city, this state, this nation as well as around the world. Given to melancholy as I can be, I've begun looking to them as teachers. They continue to have celebrations, ceremonies, song, dance, and color in their lives. They make these things happen anyway.

I've been thinking that's the abundant life of Jesus, who did not have a peaceful life and did not have an easy death, but he still spoke of abundant life.

It's crazy talk and the world needs it. If you pay attention, it's often the people who are most often crushed who believe it. They are, after all, who Jesus was talking to. The poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned.

We who are more affluent and free have things to learn about the Gospel. Our teachers are all around us, if we allow the world to get small enough. May we have ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to open.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

More than Soul, More than Body

Here's a fascinating article, which may give some people the willies. It's the story of scientists who believe they're close to the world first head transplant.

Discussing it on Facebook, I said more than once that the fallacy here, as I understood it, was the assumption that all our identity is in our brain, even that all our memories are in our head. I've long said that we hold memories throughout our bodies. The assumption that all this tissue and bone are just parts that are interchangeable, given some matches (blood type and such), is . . . it's just a fallacy. I think.

Mind you, organ transplants are an amazing gift. There are endless stories of lives saved via these miracles of modern medicine. I'm not speaking against them.

I've also heard anecdotes of people who received a new organ and then having new food cravings, only to learn the donor favored such foods.  (Is there research on this? Probably. Someone point me to it.)

To transplant a head is to do more than just replace an organ, it's to replace whole systems. With a single organ, it makes sense that one person would remain dominant. With a complete transplant of the nervous system, gastro-intestinal system, skin---well, I'm left speechless.

The article does speculate that, if successful, what may emerge is a new person, neither of the previous people---the head or the body---fully surviving. That makes complete sense to me.

Another article, posted last night to Facebook by a friend, is speaking to the idea that we store memories, particularly of pain, at the cellular level. Chronic pain might be sites in our bodies remembering trauma.

This also makes sense to me. What are my aching feet but memories of years working in retail, on my feet all day, on concrete floors?

There is so much that remains mysterious about who we are, how our identity emerges, develops. I can't help but think about this in spiritual terms. The Christian teaching that our identities are in our bodies, that our bodies are not inconsequential, but that we await a resurrection (one full of scars!) and, yes, transformation, but still fully who we are.

What this means to someone with a disabled body, I can only guess, and not mine to speculate on. I have sympathy for the man in the first article, the one with a withering and dying body, who is willing to grab at this chance for life in a healthy body. 

We have, to some extent, interchangeable parts and yet we are not simply cogs that have to match Ford to Ford, Honda to Honda. Perhaps one day science will unlock the secrets of the brain and how the systems throughout our unique bodies creates individual personalities, but I suspect that we will always find something inexplicable. Perhaps if these scientists succeed in their attempt with a head transplant, we'll learn a lot more.

In the meantime, all I have to say is: be gentle with your body and the bodies around you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Contradictions and Guidance

It is said of Abba Agathon that he spent a long time building a cell with his disciples. At last when it was finished, they came to live there. Seeing something during the first week which seemed to him harmful, he said to his disciples, "Get up, let us leave this place." But they were dismayed and replied, "If you had already decided to move, why have we taken up so much trouble building the cell? People will be scandalized at us, and will say: 'Look at them, moving again; what unstable people!'" He saw they were held back by timidity and so he said to them, "If some are scandalized, others, on the contrary, will be much edified and say, 'How blessed are they who go away for God’s sake, having no other care.' However, let him who wants to come, come; as for me, I am going." Then they prostrated themselves to the ground and besought him to allow them to go with him.

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In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. The old man said, "Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything."

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The second of the sayings  from the Desert Fathers has been one that has guided me for some time. In my late thirties, I realized that I had often moved away from things just because they were unpleasant, jumping to something else just because it was different. I had decided that I would stay in the "cell" I was in at the time and I would move to something next. That seemed right at the time, and as you may find in the Fathers stories and saying, I was "much edified." 

The top saying seems to contradict the second. One calls for stability, the second calls for going away "for God's sake," even if you've only stayed somewhere briefly. 

This is the beauty of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They understood that not everyone had the same calling.  If some one came to them and wanted to be their disciple, they would teach them the discipline they kept, but neither did they demand that everyone live their life. 

This is freedom. 

We tend to want a lesson, a directive, and have it be true and correct for all time. Some are, I suppose. But I also recall a pastor saying, some years ago, something about how we tend to agonize, crying out in prayer, "Oh God, what should I do?" And God, with a shrug, answers, "I don't know. What do you want to do?" 

This is not license. 

A lot of times, we know what isn't good for us but we can't seem to leave it behind. Other times, we are so afraid of the good that is right in front of us that we can't sit still to accept it. 

This all takes a lot of discernment and discernment isn't simple. My desert heroes spent many years in prayer and contemplation to be able to make a decision like Abba Agathon. A novice certainly shouldn't look at his example and think that snap decisions are the leading of the Spirit. 

I'm somewhere in all of this, of course. I'm neither able to claim brand new novice status, neither can I boast of being Abba Agathon's equal. I don't feel free to speak openly of all that spurred this week's post. 

Suffice to say, I'm writing to myself, "thinking out loud," if the light clicks of this keyboard count as "out loud." What is my discipline and where is my freedom? 

The questions seem worthy of sharing publicly, however private the answers may turn out to be.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Restoring Joy

On my way to worship, I came across this praise.
It's no secret that I'm given to some melancholy now and again. Maybe more now than again. Eeyore.

Oh, bother.

So, joy is not my natural state. I do have, however, moments in a week, little cracks in my Eeyore-ness that keep me going.

One such thing is the number of flowers I come across regularly as I walk about Houston. This past Sunday, as I walked the few blocks from bus stop to church, I came across some beautiful flowers, which I've since learned are called duranta. Deeply purple, they seemed to sing out with their color. I took a picture of it with my phone and posted it to my Facebook wall with the words, "On my way to worship, I came across this praise."

They were, indeed, a botanical alleluia.

There are terrible and scary things in the world. Terror, brutality, political maneuvering, war, disease. The list of more specific things that trouble me just this moment is impossible to complete and so I won't start it.

And still I believe in joy. Praise. Love. Despite all the ways I fail in them and yet I believe in them.

Which brings my ping-pongy mind to Psalm 51, particularly this petition of the psalmist:

Restore to me the joy of your salvation . . . 

It's a penitential psalm, full of confession and remorse, but the psalmist knows joy is possible and it may be found in God's salvation, in the deliverance and restoration God brings.

Which is full of words that need unpacking, but not just this moment.

What I think I want to get at here is this: Praise, joy, alleluias---these are practices as much as feelings. There is always much work to be done in the world and it will wear you down like a drip on sandstone. There is time for worry, particularly if it moves us to action, but we needn't be washed completely away by it.

In all things, we are to give thanks, St Paul told us. We always forget.

Occasionally, there's some deep purple duranta to remind us.