Friday, May 6, 2016

The Hero's Journey

Every single day is drudgery.  There is comfort in the routine of it all, but little else.  I get up with the alarm.  I eat breakfast with David – scrambled eggs with ham and cheese.  On really exciting days, we use goat cheese and add fresh chives and sautéed mushrooms.  I clean up our breakfast dishes.  I shower.  I put on clothes.  At 8:00 every weekday morning I walk into my office, turn on my computer, load my programs, and spend the next eight and a half hours answering the phone.

During my morning break, I lift weights.  At lunch, David and I sit at the dining room table and eat our turkey sandwich.  We hold hands.  This is the highlight of my workday.  On my afternoon break, I holler to Harriet, “There’s lappage available!” listening to the thud as she lands on the bedroom floor and the sound of heavy paws making their way across the dining room to my chair.  I read my book while she settles in. 

At 4:30, I shut off my computer, leave my office, and read into the evening until either David or I get hungry enough to make dinner.  After dinner, I clean the kitchen and we settle in on the couch to watch Netflix.  Some days I think I might die from the boredom of it all.  I wonder if other people cry in the shower because they hate their working life so much.  I feel guilty because, after all, I have a job, a home, a partner who loves me but isn’t sure he wants to spend the rest of his life with me.

On Saturdays I bake bread.  I do laundry.  I clean bathrooms.  I hand wash the floors.  I fantasize about taking up drinking as a pastime.  I am much too responsible for that.  On Sundays I use the egg yolks leftover from baking bread to make Hollandaise sauce and I serve Eggs Benedict for breakfast.  I clean the kitchen.  I go to church.  I spend my Sunday afternoons reading and sometimes crying because I hate the thought of going into my office at 8:00 Monday morning.

*****

“You should apply to CPE again,” David said to me one day.  I had refused over and over and over again when he’d brought it up before.  “You’d make an excellent chaplain.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked him.

“You ask better questions than anyone I’ve ever met,” he tells me as he holds my hand.

I can’t do it.  I have failed twice before.

*****

I go to work every single day and while I love David and while I recognize how extraordinary it is that I have even survived this long and come this far, I hate my life.

“You should apply to CPE again,” David said to me again one day.  “I know you said the UIHC isn’t doing a summer program, but you could apply to GMC.  That’s a doable drive.”

“Why don’t you want to spend your life with someone who does service work?” I ask him.  “I don’t care what the answer is.  Anything is acceptable.  Your reasons are your reasons and whatever they are, they’re okay.  But I want to understand.  Are you ashamed of my work?  Are you afraid your colleagues will judge you?  Does the idea of introducing your girlfriend who works in a call center to other college professors embarrass you?”

David takes my hand.  He has a habit of doing so when we talk about heavy stuff.  “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life waking up next to someone who is wasting their potential.  I can’t live with that.”

“What if I fail?” I ask him.

“It’s okay to fail.  It’s not okay to not try,” he replies.

“I’ve tried twice,” I remind him.  “I failed both times.  First when Tim died and then last summer, in Tennessee.  Maybe I’m just not cut out for it.”

“This time will be different.”

I applied for CPE.

*****

“Hey, babe!” I yelled from my office.

“Yeah?” David answered.

“I got an interview.  March 18th.  10:00AM.”

“That’s fantastic!  How do you want to celebrate?” he asks with incredible enthusiasm.

I do not want to celebrate.  I want to throw up.  We go out for burgers.

*****

“I wish the interview was sooner,” David says to me one morning.

“Why?” I ask him, thinking how much I’d prefer it were farther away.

“Because I want to know,” he enthuses.  The week trudges on.

*****

I take the day off from work.  I drive sixty miles to the east.  I feel ambivalent.  I want my life to move forward.  I do not want to do this. 

I am early.  The cafeteria is open and I buy bad coffee and sit at a small table working on a crossword puzzle.  I have set the timer on my phone.  When it’s 9:55, I get up, pack my bag and make my way to the Spiritual Care office.  I introduce myself to the department secretary.  She announces my arrival.  I am interviewed.

‘Breathe,’ I say to myself over and over.  ‘This is anxiety.  It’s okay.  You can clarify the question if you’re not sure what he’s asking.’  I breathe.  Over and over and over again.  I breathe.  I ask clarifying questions when necessary.  I am in no hurry to answer the questions.  I search inside of myself for what is true.  I speak with intention and care, not rushing to get through it but pausing to explore what I am feeling.

“Do you have any questions for me?” the supervisor asks toward the end of the interview.

“This might be inappropriate to ask, and you can certainly tell me it’s none of my business, I’ll understand.  But what was it like,” my voice breaks.  I begin to tear up.  I clear my throat.  “What was it like to work at Columbia Presbyterian that year?”  The supervisor answers my question.  I know I am in the right place.  I want to finish CPE.  I want to be this supervisor’s student.

*****

When I get my acceptance letter, I tell David.  We rejoice.  I am afraid, but I am convinced that this was providentially ordained.  It will not be easy, but I will not fail.  I send my response and my tuition deposit.  I pee in a cup and have blood drawn.  I quit my job and have no regrets.  I do not miss the paycheck.

At the same time, I wonder how I will make it through.  The companions I thought I would have will not be there.  My pastor just quit the church and I’ve been asked to serve as the interim.  It is scary and very alone behind the pulpit.  David will be gone for two of the ten weeks. 

I will be alone with the cats and my fears.  

My mornings are more harried while he is out of the state, while he is out of the country.  By the third day of his absence, I come to realize that I cannot do it all.  With the addition of cat cares in the morning before I leave the house, I can only have two of the following three things:  breakfast, coffee, a shower.  More often than not, I have coffee and a shower.  I am thankful for the hardboiled eggs two days a week.

*****

My summer is fraught with fears and frustrations.  I do not know how to be angry.  I am filled with terror of one of my colleagues.  There are anxieties and defensiveness all around.  No one but me seems to want to be here.  I am the only one who isn’t required by an institution of higher learning or an ordination board to take CPE.  I can walk away at anytime and find something else to do with my life. 

This is worthwhile.  This is important.  This is transformative.  I pursue it doggedly and feel very alone in doing so.  This summer is all about saying goodbye to Tim.  It’s all about moving forward with my life.  It’s about completing what was left undone – not just CPE, but grieving.  I cry every single day.  I love my life.  I begin to learn to recognize and manage my anxiety.

*****

Two weeks before the internship is over, I am in the backseat of a car, one of my fellows is in the front passenger’s seat, a resident is driving.  Someone cuts us off and a string of profanities bursts forth from my lips.  Everyone in the car indicates they feel some degree of road rage.  Mine has topped them all.  I’m not usually this angry.  My heart keeps racing.  I want to run away.  I can’t do it.  I can’t finish it.  It’s too much.

I’m driving home from my clinical site a week later.  I am going to finish the unit at the end of the week.  Suddenly I understand the anger and the fear.  I am going to finish my first unit of CPE on Friday.  And the people I started this journey with are not going to be there.  The people who are supposed to be there finished their CPE journeys eight years before.  Or, in the case of Tim, died.

When I get home, I sit on the floor of the shower, the hot water running over me.  I cry and I cry and I cry.  Death.  I have seen much of it over the course of the summer.  I feel like some part of me is dying, too.  Going forward isn’t all rainbows and daisies.  There are unforeseen costs.  I have to feel the pain of Tim’s death again and hope it doesn’t swallow me whole again or leave me staring at a wall for six months straight.

*****

Graduation comes.  My parents come to the ceremony.  David cannot be there.  He is at a job conference in Chicago, looking for a position at a university that is within driving distance of a CPE center that offers supervisory training.  This limits his options.  He is willing to sacrifice various possibilities to make this happen.  Now that I know what I am doing with my life, David wants me to keep me in his.

*****

After I complete my first full unit of CPE, I say goodbye to my cohort.  I tell my mentor and supervisor I will see them again.  I walk my parents to their car.  I go home.  The next day, I join David in Chicago for the rest of his conference and a few days more.  We enjoy the respite.  We dally in the calmness of these final summer days.  Life will be busy again soon enough.

*****

The following week, I start my first CPE Residency.  A new cohort.  A new assignment.  Still more to learn.  I find myself more completely.  Somewhere deep inside, I find a kernel of truth that allows me to separate myself from the whole.  I discover my observing ego.  I find stillness in the center of my being. 

I know who I am.  I know what I believe.

*****

Creation is the juncture where love and imagination intersect.

I am fortunate to love and be loved by a man who allows me to encourage him in the creation of his own life, who encourages me as I create my life, and who has invited me on the adventure of creating our life together.

I am imagining great things.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Self-Reflective Advocacy

Of late, I find myself engaging in the practice of self-reflective advocacy.  It started a week ago when I wrote a letter to an advisory group at my place of employment advocating for educational programming and a specific educator.  Though there was some degree of anxiety in sharing this self-reflective plea with a group of strangers, the positive response I received from them was deeply heartening.

Then, this week, I was leading chapel service.  I had intended to write my homily yesterday, but I got home from work and accidentally drank too much tequila to allow for quality homily writing.  Instead, I headed to work this morning and spent an hour pulling together my thoughts.  A little after noon today, I produced a very simple worship service - opening prayer, homily, benediction and passing of the peace (which always gives me the willies, but expectations....  Damn it!).

Self-reflective advocacy from behind the pulpit proved to be as enjoyable and richly rewarding as anonymous letter-writing advocacy had been last week.  Hurray!

*****

God who created the
     mighty and meek,
     strong and fragile,
     powerful and weak,
Who calls us to care for the
     widowed,
     orphaned,
     poor
Who instructs us to welcome the
     stranger
     alien
     foreigner,
be with us now.  In our meekness, be mighty; in our fragility, be strong; in our weakness, be powerful.  Show us that in caring for the widow, orphan, and poor, we care for you.  Help us to see your face in the face of the stranger, the alien, the foreigner.  We welcome all who enter our midst just as we extend extravagant welcome to you this day.  Amen.

*****

I think rather often these days of the literature I read in the eighth grade.  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Some of the lessons to be found in these works of literature seem more salient in this phase of life for me - in this line of work.

As the cold of winter melts to the temperamental, and times long and bright, days of Spring, the muck of rain showers brings forth flowers from the early bulbs and buds on the trees.  This time of year also evokes within me the hope of occasionally spying a great blue heron.  Though common, with a conservation status of "Least Concern," and found in the Midwest year round, I seem only to see their awkward looking bodies move with infinite grace during the late spring and summer months.

One thing I did not inherit from my parents was their mutual love of bird watching.  Though my mother can identify an oriole from 100 yards, I can scarcely  remember the differences between a European starling and a common grackle.  The great blue heron, however, has held a place in my imagination as a thing of wonder and rare beauty since I first read the short story The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst.

The description of the scarlet ibis as having long legs, a precarious perch, and a long, graceful neck curved into an "S" with a long beak delighted my imagination.  Having never seen in life, I found myself comparing it to the great blue heron whose awkward body, long legs, seemingly precarious perch, long graceful neck, and long beak left me imagining them with bright red plumage instead of the dishwater gray and blue of their species.

The Scarlet Ibis opens with a  description of summer's end and the "rotting brown magnolia petals" and the "purple phlox."  It is the story of a boy and his brother.  Though narrated in the first person, every person in the story is named or designated except for the narrator.  It is a beautiful and terrible story, the anonymity of its narration allowing one to easily slip within the skin of the man reminiscing about his own beautiful and terrible childhood follies.

At the age of six, the narrator becomes the older brother of a  boy who "was, from the outset, a disappointment.  [Who] seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's."  It wasn't until he was three months old that this tiny baby was named, "William Armstrong, which was like tying a big tail on a small kite.  Such a name sounds good only on tombstone."  The narrator states, "I wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across the fields and swamps you could see the sea."

The narrator got none of these things in his young brother, William Armstrong, who was "a burden in many ways."  As their relationship developed and the narrator resigned himself to the fact that his brother was "going to cling to me forever ... so I dragged him across the burning cotton field to share with the only beauty I knew, Old Woman Swamp."  The also re-christened his brother, telling the reader, "Renaming my brother was perhaps the kindest thing I ever did for him, because nobody expects much from someone called Doodle."

The story The Scarlet Ibis reminds us of that "knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love" that is within us.  As the age of eleven, when Doodle is only five, the narrator "embarrassed at having a brother of that age who could not walk" sets out to teach his brother.  "....all of us must have something or someone to be proud of, and Doodle had become mine.  I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death."  And so the narrator, over the course of several months, pushes and pushes and pushes Doodle to conform to the image of what he wants in a brother - "Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother."

Can you see yourself in this nameless, faceless, unidentified narrator?  I can.  Are there times in our life when you press others to succeed for your benefit rather than theirs?  I know I fall prey to this temptation.  Like the narrator, there are times when "I [begin] to believe in my own infallibility and I prepare[d] a terrific development plan" others, rooted in pride and the desire to see my own grand schemes come to fruition.

A year after Doodle begins to walk and several months into his brother's ill-fated scheme to make him run, swim, climb trees, and fight, a scarlet ibis is down into their front yard by a summer storm and it falls form their bleeding tree, dead.  "Even death could not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its exotic beauty."

The narrator takes Doodle out to the swamp once more to continue the pursuit of their goals.  But "Doodle was both tired and frightened.... he smiled at me ashamedly.  He had failed and we both knew it....  The knowledge that Doodle's and my plans had come to naught was bitter, and that streak of cruelty within me awakened.  I ran as fast as I could, leaving him far behind....  So I could hear his voice no more."

How often does the shame of both our failures and our motives cause us to flee from the things we once pursued?  How often do we seek to separate ourselves from others when they no longer live up to our expectations of who they should be?  When they no longer serve our needs?

The narrator tells us, "I hadn't run too far before I became tired, and the flood of childish spite evanesced as well....  I went back and found him huddled beneath a red nightshade bush....  Bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red....  I began to weep, and the tear-blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar.  'Doodle!' I screamed above the pounding storm and threw my body to the earth above his.  For a long long time, it seemed like forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my scarlet ibis from the heresy of the rain."

Only in facing the death of his brother did the narrator come to realize the love he had for Doodle, the need to protect and care for those who cannot protect and care for themselves.  The narrator finally comes to know intimately the twin vines brought forth from he seek of pride - life and death.

I believe we all have our own scarlet ibis - the thing we find pride in and which, we not carefully tended could be the seeds of our destruction.  To care well for others, to love them, to encourage them in the pursuit of their dreams for their sake can be a wonderfully enriching experience.  When we seek instead to mold others into our vision of who they should be, when we see relationships as being primarily about fulfilling our needs and objectifying others, accepting them only so far as they are what we want them to be, real and lasting harm can be done.

Today I invite you to consider who in your life is a little different, a little unknown, who you feel is a disappointment, who doesn't fit then ill of what you thought you were getting when you met them.  How might those relationships move forward with mutual respect and caring, with consideration and acceptance?  How can we remove the streak of cruelty from our hearts today and begin appreciating the gifts of otherness?

The commands of the God of the Christian Old Testament are summed up by Jesus quite simply:  Love God; love others.  In giving us these commands, God sets before us life and death and exhorts us to choose life.  How are we choosing to live today?

*****

Go forth to find God in all whom you meet today, that you might also find life.  Go in peace.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Imagine Something New

A chapel service, exploring my theology of hope, for my residency program.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

On Being Bad at Christianity

People are often surprised by how little reverence I pay to the church. Especially when they learn I am a religious professional. How much reverence might I be expected to show? Honestly, at this point, any would be of note.

Doing so might help me appear a bit "more normal," to quote one of my colleagues who accused me of heresy for daring to suggest that physical cosmology just might be a thing. I could probably start by refraining from cracking frequent jokes about and openly mocking my own religious heritage. My unchurched, unaffiliated, areligious, not otherwise specified, "spiritual but not religious" friends seem to find me equally abnormal. In their case, however, my breaking with the traditional attitudes of a pastor makes me their favorite religious professional.

The thing is, it's really hard to revere the thing that promised to show me the way to salvation and nearly killed me instead. At this point, I imagine if I had a Jewish mother, I would hear her voice in my head, "Always so melodramatic!" I do not have a Jewish mother. My mother is less churched, less religious, less agnostic, and more prayerful than I am, to judge by her Facebook wall posts.

I make jokes and mock my religious heritage because I am deeply uncomfortable with my relationship to my religious heritage. Most especially the Evangelical part of it.

And I'm really not kidding when I tell you it almost killed me.  

I got involved with the Evangelicals when I went away to college. They seemed like rock stars to me. Too beautiful for words and so in touch with the appeal that sin holds while simultaneously being able to bear up under temptation and walk around, heads held high with all the moralistic superiority any 18-22 year old virgin who's never so much as looked at mind altering substances let alone actually seriously considered tasting even a drop of alcohol or tried a drag from a cigarette can muster.

The whole endeavor was filled with worship services and student meetings, conferences and retreats, where the coolest guy in the group led a band playing the latest Christian music, prayers that the Second Coming would happen NOW, and speakers who promised that the reward for all our hard work, sincere worship, and abstinence was that God would absolutely give us the desires of our hearts. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. (Saved! resonates with so many people for a reason).

For a fat, socially awkward, depressed girl who came from poverty and abuse of all kinds, this seemed like the deliverance I needed. Of course I wanted to be a part of that crowd! It didn't matter that I was never going to fit in with them. If I worked really hard and did everything right and stayed on the narrow path and refrained from sinning, I would finally be deemed good enough, worthy, valued.

The key was to be the perfect Christian. The only way to be a good person was to be a good Christian. If you weren't a good Christian, not only were you not good person, you ceased to be a person at all. Instead, you were a moveable object, a living mission field, a soul to be saved!

I swallowed it all and began treating myself, my friends, my family accordingly. I preached the Gospel and prayed fervently, and tried very hard to be very good. And while I never believed myself to be self-righteous, I was certainly one of the righteous. I didn't judge anyone! I mourned for them, that they hadn't yet met Jesus, started that all important relationship, and had their lives transformed.

I lived like this for almost 10 years. And in that time I punished myself brutally for every mistake or perceived sin. "I just thought that man was attractive! I'm lusting! I must confess my sins and pray that Jesus takes this thorn of lust from my side and heals me of the wickedness in my heart! God forgive me! I cannot do it on my own!" And I would weep for the repugnant thing I was.

I continued to hold out hope that I might one day become perfect and earn my place among the "good Christians" who were the only people who were subjects rather than objects.

Then I ended up at the most liberal seminary in the United States and things started to change. Suddenly, I was surrounded by honest, loving, good, faithful, and unbelievably kind Christians and people of other faiths who were doing all kinds of "sinful" things. While I was pretty sure they weren't going to hell, no matter how much pot they were smoking or sex they were having, I still wasn't sure I could do any of those things and escape the wrath of God.

So, I held on, desperately, to this faith that promised I would be given my heart's desire as a reward for my faithfulness.

Except it didn't happen that way. Midway through my studies, heartbroken, alone, and disappointed, at the age of 26, I had sex for the first time.

I fell immediately into a suicidal depression. If I was no longer a virgin, I was no longer a good Christian. If I was no longer a good Christian, I wasn't...anybody. I lost my entire identity along with my virginity.

And I couldn't deal with it. I spent two weeks on the psychiatric unit of one of the top ten hospitals in the nation while the doctors tried to get a "therapeutic" level of anti-depressants in my system and the psychiatric medical resident told me my only real problem was that I was too hard on myself.

When I got out, I immediately returned to my Evangelical church.

It was a source of constant reassurance that I would never be enough. Lest I dare forget, my sins were ever before me and held up on Sunday mornings as proof of my depravity and utter need for their Jesus. I was not a virgin. I love LGBTQ identified individuals and believe they are human and have as much right to access God and the government as anyone else. I feel and believe the same things about women and dare to imagine I just might have value outside of my reproductive capacities.

When I left the Evangelical church 6 years ago, I was fleeing for my life! I was desperate to get out and build a new life and a new faith for myself. And I did. I began living in accordance with my values rather than theirs. And I am happy.

But I still look back on my time among Evangelicals with longing. I mourn something of the faith I rejected. While life was awesome and terrible as an Evangelical, it was also simple. Everything was black and white; good or bad. No shades of gray; no ambiguities. I was a good person because I followed the rules. I prayed for your soul because you didn't follow the rules, you couldn't be a good person.

I am ashamed that I miss anything from that tradition. I feel like a victim of domestic violence who looks back on her relationship wistfully because every once in a while, he was so sweet and I hoped that moment would last forever; I knew that moment would last forever if I were just good enough.

I still want to be (maybe not perfect, so much but surely) a good person. Figuring out what that means, now, is much harder and far more personal. There is a greater chance of messing it up.

Recently, in a moment of needing to connect again with some of the brainier Christians I knew from that time, I attended a bible study. The leader shared with us her frustration as a mother with a "problematic" teenage daughter, though she didn't clarify what problems they were having. "I did everything right," she declared. "We were virgins when we got married, we attend church every week, we tithe!"

I had had sex with my boyfriend, with whom I live, just that morning. I know I have done nothing sinful in loving this man, but the judgment was there.

I am bad at being a Christian. I spent a decade of my life apologizing to Jesus for being so bad.

In many ways, I am not what a religious professional "should" be. But I no longer apologize to Jesus and I no longer confess my sins and seek a word of forgiveness from other Evangelicals.

Instead, I find myself apologizing to the unchurched, the agnostic, the "spiritual not religious." I find myself apologizing for taking them by surprise, for defying their expectations, for not being a better Christian. I find myself offering ironic apologies for not trying to bring them to God while never considering that I might be a bigger impediment on their life's journey - wherever it may take them - than their "sin" ever was or ever could be.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Ode to Church Mothers

Where have the old church mothers gone?
I remember them from my childhood.
They were quietly watchful and forcefully present.
They ruled the church.

Where have the old church mothers gone?
The one's from my Sunday School days
Played the piano and taught me church school songs
and all the old hymns.

Where have the old church mothers gone?
They had salt and pepper hair in their young mother days.
I remember the silver, turned white, turned nearly yellow with age.

The old church mothers were
the ones who did the work of the church.
You might know them as the "Women's Fellowship,"
A mysterious group to young women who were never invited to join.

Where have the old church mothers gone?
They used to serve the funeral luncheon.
They are the ones who catered the funeral luncheon.
They used to hang the banners on the front wall of the church.
They are the ones who used felt to make those banners.
They used to set the altar each week.
They are the ones who sewed the altar cloths.
By hand.

Where have the old church mothers gone?
The ones who were my mother's mother's age?

Mine will never be an old church mother.
She left the church two decades ago.
She is still my mother.

Where will she go
as she grows closer to becoming an old mother?

Where have the old church mothers gone?
When and where will I become an old church mother?
Where will I go
when I am no longer?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Suffering

Though placed later in the Old Testament, the book of Job is widely considered to be the oldest book in the bible.  The purpose of the book of Job is to attempt to explain human suffering.

In Job, God and Satan make a bet. God asks Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”  When Satan responds that Job only shuns evil because God has blessed him and further provokes God by stating that Job would surely curse God were God to strike everything Job has, God puts everything Job has into the hands of Satan, with strict orders not to harm Job himself.

When Satan has destroyed all of Job’s wealth and taken all of Job’s children in a catastrophic accident, Job falls to the ground in worship.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).

Not to be thwarted, Satan insists that if Job were to be afflicted in his own body, sure then he would curse God.  And so, God gave Job’s body into the hands of Satan, stipulating only that Job’s life must be spared.  Covered in painful sores “from the soles of his feet to the top of his head,” his wife says to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  But Job replies, “You are talking like a foolish woman.  Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”  In all of this, Job did not sin (Job 2:7-10).

After this, three of Job’s friends come to him.  They each tear their clothes and sprinkle themselves with ashes.  The sit in silence with Job for a week.  After a week, these friends of Job rebuked him.  And it is here that we see a change in Job.

In the earliest parts of the book of Job, we see Job lose his fortune, his family, and his health.  In all of these losses, Job praises God.  It is when Job is rebuked by his friends who insist he must have sinned to have earned the wrath of God that Job begins to suffer.  At this point, Job curses his own existence.

Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave?  Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?  (Job 3:20-23)

Job goes on to answer to his friends who rebuke him, but there is a significant shift in his focus.  No longer does Job defend God; rather, now Job goes on to defend himself.  Job’s suffering comes from the isolation of being with others who move from a posture of joining with Job in his suffering to attempting to explain and fix the root cause of Job’s condition.

When the question, “Why ?” is asked and attempts are made to answer the question rather than join the questioner, suffering ensues.  Vulnerability.  Isolation.

Upon learning of his diagnosis of terminal cancer, Dr. Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist, wrote an Op-Ed essay for the New York Times.  In My Own Life Sacks wrote:

"There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever.  When people die, they cannot be replaced.  They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death."

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart,” declared Job.  The famous actor, writer and director Orson Welles put it like this, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.  Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”

Religion is humankind’s first attempt to explain how the world works – what the mechanisms are that are at work in our experiences.  As the earliest book in the bible, Job attempts to explain the how thusly:  God and Satan making a bet.

But if religion is humankind’s first attempt to answer the question how?, then divinity or God is, at its most basic, the process by which we answer the question why?  God is the means by which we attempt to transform trials into triumphs.

Job is also the earliest Hebraic attempt to make meaning out of those experiences.  “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

It is “the genetic and neural fate – of every human being being to be a unique individual,” to be utterly, beautifully, gloriously alone in this world.  To be alone does not meant to be lonely.  Suffering happens when we experience our alone-ness as isolation.

We have the ability to reach out to and connect with others.  After all, we all come from the same place; we are all made up of the same stuff – star dust.  Astrophysics tells us that everything in the known universe is made up of the elements of the first exploding star in The Big Bang when the universe began.  We live because the first star died.

The bible explains it this way:  From dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19b).

Though each is born alone, makes the journey through life alone, and dies alone, we can through love and friendship be present for and with another.  This is no illusion.

When we seek to answer the question why with something more than our presence however, when we attempt to define the cause, when we seek to fix the problem by fixating on the notion that things must be different, when we grow attached to a specific outcome and fail or simply forget to be present in the current moment, this is when we or those with whom we sojourn suffer.

Who or what is God in the midst of suffering?  If religion informs us of the how, God informs us of the why.

Though I do believe in divinity, though I believe God exists, I do not believe that God is some being or entity out there somewhere, working here and now for God’s own purposes.  God is not a capricious puppet-master giving control of our fates to an adversary simply to settle a bet.

When faced with the most basic and complex question that can be asked, “Why do we suffer?” I can only answer one way:  Life gives.  And life takes away.  Life is still a blessed endeavor.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Lois - The GNF Cat

This is Lois.



Lois is the single greatest cat on the planet in my not at all biased opinion.

Lois's personality is basically the same as mine. Perhaps that is why I'm so partial to her. Perhaps that is why I bonded to her.

Lois is the bomb-diggety of catdom. She owns her catness.

Lois knows herself and she's okay with herself. And if you don't like Lois, that's okay. Lois does not care. She knows she doesn't exist to make you like her. Lois exists to be Lois - in all of her glorious catness with a whole lot of cattitude.

Lois looks like a cat. If you were to look up generic pictograms of cats, they would all look like Lois. This isn't to say that Lois is in any way generic. Rather, that Lois simply looks like the quintessential cat.

Lois is not only in form quintessentially a cat; in her catness, she is quintessentially herself.

Lois lives life on her own terms. She is deeply intuitive and has vast storehouses of compassion. She will use either to love well those who have earned a place in her kitty life.

Lois, however, is not your typical lap cat. Lois does not want laps nor does Lois feel a need for laps to exist.

Lois is a proximal cat. She wants to be near her people, but she does not want to touch or be touched by them. In fact, if a human touches Lois too much, she gives them "the paw." That is, Lois will use her front paw, loop it over the wrist of the person touching her, press their hand to the surface on which she sits and then apply gentle pressure to their hand. Once she's confident that she won't be touched again, she'll remove her paw. If a person does touch her again, she immediately gives them the paw again.

Lois has boundaries and she makes no bones about making them known.

If Lois loves a person, she is willing to grace that person with her presence and loud purring. That's what she does. That's how she tells a person, "Okay, you're in. You're one of my people." She sits on the arm of the chair you're in, or she climbs over your head in the middle of the night to sit on the edge of the bed, or she sits on the nightstand and she just stares and purrs at you.

Lois is a cat who never sits in laps. Except for this one time....







....when Lois sat in my lap.

I'm sure it's only because the new chair had very narrow arms, it was a rocker, and she wasn't sure of balancing on it. My sock monkey pajama clad lap seemed like a safer bet. Still, I felt like I'd been blessed by the cat-gods themselves to have received such a gift.

Lois is a cat who hates being picked up and will go spread-eagle-claws-out-murder-in-her-eyes angry if you try to pick her up. And I get it. Lois is just a cat who expects to be respected for her catness. And given her space.

And she lets me pick her up. She doesn't love it, but she tolerates it; she lets me provide full support to her body and she curls up and purrs for a few moments until she's had enough. The moment she begins to squirm, I set her down. And she still purrs at me.

Lois is a cat who isn't terribly concerned about her people (so long as there is food in the dish, clean litter, and fresh water available). Except for this one time....


....when I was having a hard day and Lois loved me. 

Lois is a cat who, rumor has it, used to love cheeseburgers and sour cream. Until her first humans had to give her medicine and human food became a delivery vehicle for those wretched pills. Now Lois is a cat who continues to love Tillamook yellow medium cheddar cheese, goat cheese, sour cream, and even crème brûlée. But she'll only eat it when I offer it to her.

Lois is kind and lovely and honest. She is a gentle and genuine creature. Lois is a cat who is utterly herself and utterly happy to be herself and she gives no fucks whether you like that or not.

I didn't know I had a quintessentially cat-shaped hole in my emotional life until I met Lois. But there she resides; and she will continue to reside there long after she stops staring at me in the middle of the night, long after she stops purring at me, long after she stops giving me the paw, long after she stops going nose-to-nose to me just to make sure I'm okay on those really hard days when I see nothing but loss and pain and death and can only curl up in a ball at the end of the day and cry for a bit before I remember why I do the work I do.

And until Lois stops doing all of those things, I'm going to continue loving Lois. On her terms. Just the way she is.