Archive for January, 2008

Down time

Thank you so much for all who have responded to my survey about church. I’m really thankful for all of your answers and the perspectives they give. Reading them, I feel like one of the blind men in the story of trying to comprehend an elephant without being able to see–each person’s perspective is a bit different and adds to the bigger picture. 

My blogging has been fairly slow for a while–once or twice a week, usually on the weekends. This week I had a bit of an emotional and physical crash and am battling to cope, so I’m slowing down even more for the moment while I catch myself back up, especially emotionally.

Grief and questions and work and financial uncertainty and being there for my kids and loss upon loss and sadness and recovering from burnout and questions and more questions sort of pile up periodically and whack me over the side of the head. I read once how many calories thinking burns up. It makes sense that thinking “too much” (as my friends like to say about me), then, is also using precious energy. Unfortunately, I can’t just turn my brain off and stop thinking. 

Usually, I can find rest in the middle of my brain going on and on, but when I’m worn down I’m not so good at it (the rest bit–maybe it takes some energy to be able to rest well.) Ironically, I made it through a few years of rather traumatic times and was graced with good rest for the duration, but, now that life itself has settled a bit, my sleep patterns are crazy and even when I’m sleeping, my brain seems to keep going chaotically. So for the past two weeks, I’m not even resting well when I’m sleeping.

The thing I am doing, then, is stopping trying to put words to my thoughts and feelings for a little while as that is an energy drain that I can control more easily than stopping the intensity of the thoughts and feelings. Maybe only a week, maybe longer. I don’t know. Blogging is an odd thing–when I’m able to find words for the stuff inside my head, it helps and gives me energy. But sometimes, that process is just too draining. 

I wanted to let you know I’ve not disappeared completely or stopped blogging. Aso, if you’ve written or write me an email and don’t get an answer from me for a while, it’s not because I’m ignoring you–I always have a response inside of me, but not always the energy to put it in a form that actually communicates back. Your emails and comments comfort and encourage me, even in the in between time when I’m not writing back.


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[If you’re going to run off without reading this post because it’s too long, I understand. I use lots of words to think, but know lots of people are frustrated by such excessiveness.  If that’s you, I would be really grateful if you’d skip over the wordy part of the post and consider answering the bolded questions at the end, before you leave. Thanks 🙂 ] 

I’ve been thinking a lot about church during the past year. Due to a set of unexpected circumstances, I found myself searching for a church to attend at a time when I wanted desperately to be settled. With a combination of grief, my introverted tendency to avoid new groups of people and a critical attitude, the process was pretty rough and lengthy. Right before Christmas, a lot of things came together. I felt like my grief came to the surface in a clearer way, and God began to touch and chip off the arrogant attitudes in such an amazing and tender way. It’s hard to describe how tangible that process was and what a relief it was to be able to let go of some of the attitudes I’d been holding onto, but not liking.

I’ve been learning a lot in the process, thanks in great part to many of you who read this blog and others whose blogs I read. (I’m not going to try to locate and link back to all the specific blogs, because there are too many over quite a period of time. I’m just linking to the home pages of many of the bloggers who have influenced my life as I work through my thinking on church. If you want to know more about a specific author or post I refer to, though, email me and I’ll send you the link(s).)

Codepoke’s posts on blooming where you are planted and getting involved in a church near ones house prompted me to visit a nearby church I had otherwise overlooked. That is the church I ended up deciding to settle into and be a part of.  Lingamish continues to keep me on my toes with regards to thinking about worship and challenging some of my expectations. The honest writings at Beyond Words have given me a model for critical thinking about church while maintaining  a heart of humility and life of servanthood.  John at Ancient Hebrew Poetry got me thinking with some of his posts as he has written about a wedding and a funeral he preached, has shared bits and pieces about the churches he and his wife pastor, as well as thoughts on his aunt’s active involvement in her church. Phil’s own thoughts at Pensees as well as a quote he shared by Kierkegaard have me grappling with the topic from another angle. And Thainamu has shared some about her church and the life group she is a part of, which helped me think about my own expectations. How they do things fit with a lot of my expectations, even though if you’d have asked me what the ideal small group looked like, I couldn’t have come up with a description very easily.

And then Scott Gray of A Lectionary Beyond Belief wrote and asked me some questions, which motivated me to try harder to articulate some of these vague thoughts and feelings.

Articulating stuff is hard for me. People don’t think it is, because I am so verbose. But the verboseness is part of the struggle to actually be able to narrow down and communicate what’s going on inside of me on a given topic. I suppose I unconsciously think that if I use enough words, I’ll eventually be able to accurately get out what is on my heart and mind. But I’m rarely satisfied with the end result, and I think sometimes I lose the point in all of the words. Anyway, Scott’s questions helped. As a brainstormer and networker, my thinking was all over the map, so to speak. But with specific questions, I was able, a little bit, to start to narrow down some of my thinking. Instead of sharing my partially formed answers here and now, though, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the topic.

I want to ask you one of Scott’s questions with a couple of my own. I’m thinking of this as a survey. For those of you who read blogs, but don’t comment because you don’t think you have anything to contribute to the conversation, actually you do on this post!  Everybody has a contribution to make to a survey. This is an open ended survey about what you do and why you do it. If you do it (go to church), you’ve got something to add (and if you don’t do it, your reasons for that would contribute a helpful perspective as well!)

I’m really curious about why people go to church and what they expect when they do. There are no right or wrong answers, and I’m not planning on responding to the comments in the thread itself.  My hope is that it truly will be a collection of responses that will paint a picture for me and help me sort out, clarify and articulate my own thoughts. I may further the discussion in another post, but here I’d like to collect your reasons without adding my 2 cents to them.

If you go to church, there are reasons you do, and there are expectations you have for that. I’m wanting to learn more about the scope and variety of those reasons and expectations.

Here’s the original question I was asked:

What do you think the purpose of church services is in ones spiritual and faith community life?

Here are two other questions to help you think through it. Feel free to respond to any or all of them.

What do you hope/expect to get out of going to church?

What do you hope/expect to contribute by going to church? (i.e. what part do you believe the individual believer has in the bigger purpose of church services?)

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My thinking on several topics that I’ve been hashing over and over in my mind came together a little bit tonight when I read this statement at Kruse Kronicle, quoting from an article at Zenit.

Once people no longer draw the meaning of their lives from religion, society’s highest value is now related to bodily existence.

The latter part is what really struck me–articulating the high value placed on bodily existence. It ties into things I’ve been thinking about, although I’m not sure the connection will be clear. Perhaps the best way to say it is that tonight I’m thinking back over some of the topics that have been wandering through my mind. But tonight I’m thinking about it through the grid of “bodily existence as supreme value”.

I’ve been thinking about REGRETS. I’m constructing another post on this topic. But the part that ties in here for me is that we have so many options for bettering our lives. More options than ever, really. But with those options comes the increased possibility/hope of “getting it right”, finding the perfect solution or the miracle fix. And when the end result isn’t what we hoped for, we look back and see so many options we could have taken, and we are left with regrets and endless second guessing. Should I have tried this? Should I have chosen the other route to perfect health?  Introspection till we can hardly see straight over what we could have or should have done to better our lives. Those thoughts, in their place, might be okay. But when we place supreme value on bodily existence, we also take on ourselves impossibilities responsibilities for preservation and survival, which leaves us with regret upon regret as we find ourselves not having done enough or not having done the right thing (because the “right thing” can only be measured by success in preserving and maintaining optimal bodily existence.)

And I’ve been thinking about FEARS. The seem to multiply and grow like snowballs rolling down a hill. Too Much Information doesn’t come with the ability to manage that information well and keep it in context. All that information about all the things that can go wrong and are going wrong around the world make us more aware of our frailty and maybe more determined to fight with all we’ve got to survive and to make life better. But the more we fight to survive and the more we focus on that, it seems like we feel more acutely how much more there is to be fearful of, how much there is that could do us in. And if I care more about preserving myself than I care about anything else, not only will I be obsessed with that preservation, but I will also be obsessed with and acutely aware of all the things that threaten the survival or well being of that bodily existence. Fear piled upon fear with no end in sight.

And I’ve been thinking about SUFFERING. How the more solutions we find to alleviate suffering, the more afraid we become of suffering and the less we seem able to bear, endure or thrive in the middle of suffering. In some ways we seem to have less suffering. But, like with fears, the more types of suffering we alleviate or at least relieve, the more we become acutely aware of. For every symptom, Google happily and quickly provides us with endless worse case scenarios about diseases, however rare, that still do people in, in spite of all the medical advances we’ve made.  In addition,  as a society, I think we’ve become worse at suffering well. We don’t deal with pain well when our focus is on keeping our bodies from having pain. Paul Brand’s book The Gift of Pain has been very influential in shaping my thinking in this area. He devoted his life to helping people’s bodies and making their lives better through medical treatment and procedures, many of which he pioneered in a remote hospital in India. He cared deeply about the body, and yet somehow as I think about his writings, bodily existence was not the supreme value to him.

And I’ve been thinking about HEALTH. I care a lot about my health. And I read and study a lot and am open to trying new things that might help certain health issues I face. But I get frustrated sometimes even listening to the options available for getting/keeping me healthy or the various philosophies that have figured out the root of all of America’s health problems. Talking to my mom tonight, I realized that for some people being healthy has become so important that it has turned into a demand. On themselves. And on society. I’m not arguing against caring about health (or health care). I do think health as a supreme value which requires that healthiness be a demand, however, is heading down the wrong track.

The people that I’ve met who seem to care the most and are most insistent on “being healthy” make it such a demand and are so consumed by it that THAT becomes their life. Sometimes it appears that they are so anxious to create a long and healthy life that they can’t do anything with their life now that doesn’t revolve around their particular way of focusing on being healthy. There life is all about being and living healthy and there is not much space left for living in any other realm. Every conversation comes back to their “health mission” or philosophy. Every struggle that a friend is facing is heard only as a platform for “the solution to all health problems” that they have discovered, whether drinking hydrogen peroxide, avoiding vaccines or trying out the latest combination of drugs to finetune my emotional state, my brain’s ability to focus or whatever. I’m not knocking treatments–either pharmaceutical prescribed by a doctor or homeopathic/natural. I’ve taken advantage of both. But I still find myself weary with the obsession with and promises from advocates of whatever treatment or approach.

I’m not recommending a lack of care about our lives.

Regrets have a place (although I doubt a very big one. I’m more prone to think that godly sorrow over mistakes is wildly different from introspective ongoing focus on regrets).

There is a place for fear. TV journalists who try to outdo each other reporting live as the hurricane increases in speed and roofs fly off around them could use a healthy dose of fear. There is a fear that leads to wisdom. And there is a fear that keeps me from being suicidal.

And pain relief and healthcare are good things, in their place. But the consequence of allowing them to become personal demands and rights at any cost are greater, I think, than we usually take into account.

As I’ve considered these things in recent months, I think I’ve mainly been focusing on the outward results–what ends up wrong by obsessing over healthcare and pain relief. How fears and regrets multiply the more we do to try to construct our lives in ways that eliminate regrets or fears. But I hadn’t really been able to think about what was driving some of these obsessions. While I don’t know if it is the only thing or even the most important,  I do think the excessively high value on “bodily existence” is a contributor to all of these areas–some directly and obviously, and others, perhaps less directly.

I care about my life. I value the gift that it is. But when I focus primarily on self-preservation (which, again, don’t read too much into this–I’m not saying wise concern about the care and preservation of our lives is bad. It’s not–it’s the obsessive focus on it that I think is misguided), I think it becomes hard to: trust God, to rest, to make space for peace or joy (how can I have peace when there is so much out there that threatens my health and existence).  And it becomes easy to need to control our circumstances, the things we are exposed to and the people around us.

When I write things like this, I’m never sure if (1) the connections I think I see are actually there and (2) if I’m making any sense as I try to communicate what it is I’m feeling as I think about them.

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It’s a privacy thing and not a secrecy thing. I really do like the privacy of blogging more or less anonymously.

My extraverted friends have a hard time understanding how intensely private I am, even though one-on-one in personal conversations, I can be very open and vulnerable. I like being able to share my heart personally and face-to-face. But that sort of limits the amount of feedback and dialogue that can happen. Blogging has been a nice way to find my voice in a way that allows me some privacy, but also lets me talk to more people and have my thinking challenged and interacted with in ways that are not threatening and don’t require as much ability to “think on my feet” as real-time, face to face conversations do.

Sometimes I process quite slowly, but it is hard in verbal conversations to recognize the need for space and time to process before answering. When I’m reading someone’s writing, though, I find I can back up and think about it for a few weeks and let it become a part of my internal dialogue before I respond (if I ever do). At the same time, if I have a response right away, I am free to do that as well.

Well all that is a preamble to saying, although I blog anonymously, I really don’t feel a need to hide everything about who I am in a secretive sort of way.

Yesterday I stumbled on the weather pixie, which is now in my sidebar. I like it because the picture sort of looks like me, except that I wear glasses, my nose is bigger and I’m a little shorter (actually, I’m quite tall, but since the pixie’s head is halfway up the moon, I can for once say, “I’m short, in comparison to her!”). So, if you’re the kind of person who needs a face to go with the person you’re talking to, I hope this picture helps 🙂

The one or two of you who have actually met me in person can feel free to disagree about the resemblance, but for now, I think it’s pretty good for a cartoon.

Just in case you wondered, the big number  on the weather pixie graphic is not altitude. There’s no place in Florida that high. Did you know that Florida has the lowest high point of any state in the US?  That number is pressure, measured in hPa, a measurement I’m not familiar with.

I also like that the weather pixie gives the temperature in Celsius. I’m trying to be more aware of stating measurements in metric alongside of the American default system. I’m getting a better feel for approximate temperate equivalents as I watch the degrees go up and down in Celsius (although I wish they’d start going back UP–we’re having another cold snap here).

The temperature readings seem to be updated every couple of hours and are taken from an airport relatively nearby (in the same county).

One final story in this totally random post. When I was in 3rd grade, I vividly recall the day (!) we spent studying metric. I remember a vague sense of fear (although I don’t remember the exact words the teacher said that instilled that fear) that the universal metric system was all part of some socialist communist plot to make us like all the other countries in the world. I also remember (not surprisingly, given the fear factor) that the metric system seemed horrifically complex, difficult to understand and almost impossible to actually figure out.

When I was 18 and traveling in PNG, all of a sudden it dawned on me on day how amazing simple the metric system really is. How could I have ever thought 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 5280 feet to a mile, 16 ounces to a pound, etc. was SIMPLE? In hindsight, if there is any conspiracy or plot, surely it has something to do with keeping people thinking that a system like that is somehow better? than one where everything is broken down into 10s, 100s, 1000s.

I wonder if this contestant on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader would have done any better if she knew and could have answered in metric? I’m not sure it would have helped.  My fifth grader was laughing so hard. Not that the fifth grader on the show got the answer right either, but at least she didn’t keep digging herself into a deeper hole like the adult contestant did!

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Every Friday, my children are picked up by their father, and I do not see them again until Monday morning when I pick them up to take them to school.

They spend great quantities of time on the weekend doing things which I am not comfortable with, but which are out of my control. They, of course, enjoy it. I, of course, not only miss them, but worry. Over time, though, I have been able to let go of some of this worry. I am still concerned. But instead of fighting what I don’t like, I try to be proactive in teaching them to be critical thinkers, to be discerning and to recognize the impact of things they watch on television and be aware of the dopamine “feel good” pull of playing computer games for long periods of time.

My children and I have had some interesting conversations about dopamine. They understand and can recognize the “feel good rush” as well as the “nothing else seems fun anymore in comparison to how good that felt” feeling they are left with after extended time on the computer. We’ve talked about that feeling in the context of addictions they ask about. We’ve discussed other things that feel so good in comparison to how hard life can be, that it is easy to crave more and more of whatever it is that feels so good.

We also talk some about the messages and worldviews being communicated (or even just assumed) in various advertisements and shows on TV. I’m delighted when my children can talk about an advertisement and see the assumptions that are made in the ad as well as the “quick ones” the advertisers pull to make you think you need something you otherwise wouldn’t have wanted. We analyze slogans (and sometimes make fun of them).

I am grateful when I hear them making decisions regarding shows they thought about and chose not to watch even though they could have, and even though I still feel concern about some of what they do watch.

My six year old said one Friday afternoon as he was picking up his room, “Pshew, only 3 more hours till we get a break and go to the fun house. This is the work house, and Dad’s is the fun house.” Ouch. Well, they do have school and homework and chores here. And they have to grapple with the concept of boredom and finding things to do to fill their time without the easy options of “play computer” or “watch TV”.

At the same time, though, this has opened up opportunities to talk about some of the attitudes behind a whiny “I’m bored” (such as ungratefulness and lack of contentment with the opportunities and resources at hand). We also talked a lot more about how the dopamine high that comes from playing computers raises the expectation for how baseline “normal” should feel, to rather unrealistic levels. I don’t know that my son got it all, but since we talked about it, he has seemed to settle down and be able to find and have fun in ordinary ways again. I affirmed that, indeed, after playing computer games, “normal” play wouldn’t always seem as fun, and that I understood it is hard to readjust to a different baseline of “normal fun” when computer and TV aren’t on the regular default list of “things to do”

Over time, it seems like the kids have accepted that Mom’s house is still fun; it’s just a different kind of fun. The big thrills here: eating pizza at the lake, playing with Littlest Pet Shop or legos, listening to books on tape (Oh, I mean CDs; my vocabulary is behind a generation or so!), going to the neighbors’ house to pick oranges, coloring and drawing, attacking fire ant piles, playing board games, swimming and the best fun of all: reading.  My easily bored six-year-old has just made the transition to independently literate, and it is a joy to watch him work his way through a book. I read aloud to the children together, but it is so much fun to watch them be able to read by themselves and enjoy it. I love books and delight in seeing my children enjoy them too. Together and individually, we learn so much from reading, and the stories we read often give us role models. The science we read leads us to worship. The history we read challenges us to think and consider our own hearts and attitudes and responsibilities and choices.

I’m grateful to God for his grace and for how I see my children coping, adjusting and doing okay in spite of a not so ideal situation, transitioning between two homes each week. I’m thankful that the church they attend each week is filled with people who love them and pastors who teach in ways that my children understand, learn and apply.

I suppose it is never easy for a parent to realize that no matter how much you try to protect your children, you are not able to do so perfectly or totally. The children of even very careful and protective parents get sick, are in accidents, have bad things happen to them, face losses. And although parents help their children find ways of processing the challenges that come their way, no parent can really control how each child will ultimately respond to those struggles–become more compassionate; turn hard and embittered; run from God; cling to God; turn obstacles into opportunities; be consumed or crushed by the struggles.

I don’t say these things to minimize being careful and protective, or to suggest that we have no impact on how our children persevere and grow through hard times. It’s just that I acutely and regularly feel how much of my children’s lives and choices are out of my control–partly because of what they do during the times they are away from me (wherever and whenever that is), partly because of their own attitudes and choices, even partly because of my inadequacies and weaknesses in how I parent them. And yet, it is in that context and with that reality that I care for them and protect them and teach them and love them the best I can with the time I have.

I started this post on Friday right after my children left for the weekend. But now, I’ve just finished reading Immaculee Ilibagiza’s account of “Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” in her book Left to Tell. The book left me encouraged and humbled at how her story is in many ways a tribute to her parent’s influence and teaching and love, even though, ultimately, they were unable to protect their children or control the suffering (and in the case of two of her brothers, death) that their children would face.

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…to have been born birds and have freedom–after all, look at what we humans are doing to ourselves.

–Immaculee Ilibagiza in her book, Left to Tell, about living through the Rwandan genocide.

These were her thoughts as she heard birds singing outside the window on her first morning in the 3 ft. by 4 ft. (.9 m by 1.2 m) bathroom which would be her home (refuge? hiding place? prison?–at different times, it felt like all of those) with five other women for 90 days.

The book has just about  left me speechless. At this point, I find it difficult to think about summarizing it or even selecting significant quotes. In a story full of life, death, hatred, forgiveness, unspeakable grief, incomprehensible destruction and sorrow upon sorrow, this little quote somehow stood out to me, even though it doesn’t really represent the book as a whole. 

Left to Tell  spoke to me on many levels and also added to my thinking and wrestling seriously with what I often experience as paradoxes in what it means to love like Jesus, care deeply about justice, forgive our enemies, weep with those who weep and care about those who are suffering.

So although the quote that opened this post is not representative of the bigger stories and themes in the book, any other quotes I might have chosen seem like they need to be read as part of the whole and not as a random paragraph read in isolation on the internet.

I’m glad I read this book, even though it is one which I think will (as it should) haunt me.

Anything else I try to say seems like it would take away from the author’s story.

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Fighting versus hating

It is very difficult, I think, to fight against what we believe is wrong and not have the passion that drives our persistence in persevering in that struggle turn into hatred of those who hold the position we are against.

I also, think, then, it is very easy to either run from the things that make us want to hate (because we know hating is wrong), or give into the hate and the energy it provides to keep us driven and focused.

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness in a wide variety of scenarios, and until I have time to articulate more of what I’m processing, this is the thought that stuck out to me today.

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