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Archive for September, 2008

…is with the truth….Hope cannot take root in unreality or untruths.”

I am currently rereading After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith, by Denise Ackermann, a theologian from South Africa. Each chapter in the book is a letter to someone she loves. The chapter from which the above quote is taken is written to her best friend, Elfriede.

I appreciate deeply the grounded-in-reality approach she takes to understanding hope. In this post, I am going to quote various selections from this chapter, “On Locusts and Bodies”, particularly from pages 81 to 83.

First, here the author is quoting Calvin:

To us is given the promise of eternal life–but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us–meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous–and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness–but meantime we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst….But what would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope?

And some further thoughts:

To believe that Christ was raised from the dead is not just a consoling thought about how God has triumphed over humiliation, suffering, and death. It is in fact a contradiction of suffering and death, a divine protest against suffering. And it does not only deal with the future. Hope is sterile if it does not transform our thoughts and our actions here and now. Hope opens a future outlook that embraces all of life, everything we do and know, and that includes sickness and death.

This is a theme which I keep coming back to. Hope, if it is to be real, has got to be able to deal with and exist in the context of the realities that are. In one very real sense, hope is based in a belief that what we see is not all there is. But, in another sense, if hope cannot take into account the the realities and sorrows we actually see around us, today, then it is dishonest and unrealistic.

Hope has very little currency if it is just a ‘pie in the sky when we die by and by’, a trick masquerading as optimism covered with a religious veneer. True Christian hope is tougher, more realistic…

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Yes, that’s a bit long for a post title, but it was way better, I thought, than what I’d been planning on calling this post: “Entropy and Corporate Grieving.” I’m still thinking about David Ker’s post “Bon Jovi Gets It” and the dialogue in response, which includes this comment from Codepoke:

The problem, though, is that “church” is not a whole experience. The Sunday morning service cannot begin to handle a whole-truth song. There’s no way to make 100 people deeply join in with a whole-truth song. On Sunday morning, if you present a song that complains against God, even for one line, you’re going to fragment your audience.

This is the post I was trying to write, when I got distracted on “A Grief Rabbit Trail”. It is part of my ongoing thinking about why church songs (and ultimately, the churches, themselves) don’t make much room for sadness and grieving together.

As I’ve pondered this question, I keep coming back to an illustration from a Scientific American article: “Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?” Now, lest you think I’m smarter than I really am, I’m not. I didn’t actually understand the article. A friend was visiting me and we were doing one of the wonderful things that introverted friends can do together–sitting at the breakfast table, drinking homemade smoothies, reading. I was reading a graduation speech turned into a book. She was reading Scientific American. Periodically, one of us would speak up and share something interesting we’d just read, and then we’d both get quiet again. Personally, I think that is way more social than going to the movies together. But, I digress, don’t I?

In any case, I didn’t really understand much of the article. I kind of thought I followed the reasoning of the first paragraph:

The basic laws of physics work equally well forward or backward in time, yet we perceive time to move in one direction only—toward the future.

But, from there, I lost it (emphasis added).

The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

I am?!?!

I could work my way into a tension headache right now trying to figure out some deeper reason why ice cubes don’t unmelt than what I thought was the self-explanatory reason that it’s warmer outside the freezer than in it (at least here in Florida).

But, I digress. Again.  My point is that most of the article did not make sense, except for this one particular illustrated sidebar, where the author was explaining entropy with an analogy to eggs:

entropy

And now I’m back to thinking about corporate grieving. I wonder if we feel lonelier in our grieving, because it feels like there are so many more individual ways to be broken and hurting and grieving than there are to be doing fine.

I remember once, when I was going through a very difficult time, I was moaning to a friend how alone I felt in facing what I was. I remember his disagreeing and pointing out some of the other very close friends who were walking with me and supporting me, at great sacrifice to themselves, in so many practical ways.

I had to agree that I wasn’t as alone as I was feeling. But still, I told him, I felt alone in what I was experiencing. I compared it to having friends holding each of my hands as I walked to the guillotine. No amount of friends surrounding me was going to make anybody’s head but mine roll. In that moment and in that suffering, it felt like my experience of grief and sorrow was mine alone. Of all the myriad ways to be fully smashed, I was smashed this way and not that way, and I felt lonely in that.

I think this _____ (is it reality? is it a belief? is it a fact? is it a cultural perception?) contributes to how hard it is to grieve corporately or to find songs that can be sung, grieving, together. Songs which make space for how hard things can be for any given person at any given time.

It’s not all that hard, I’m thinking, to come up with songs that look at all the different angles and perspectives of the one way to be pristine–to praise the One who makes me happy, to celebrate being a sinner saved by grace, to “count your blessings”. While those things are also, in some ways, unique and personal, they (and the feelings that come with them) seem to be more easily shared and understood as common to all people.

I’d guess it’s quite a bit harder to write songs that can bring people together in the feelings that come from the several ways to be slightly cracked. I think there are some, though my mind is drawing a blank. Can you think of any?

But, when it comes to myriad ways to be fully smashed, how do you cross over into that being a corporate experience? I don’t really have any answers. I’m thinking out loud here, trying to come to terms with some of the roots behind why it is so hard.

Quite often in my thinking, I keep coming back to culture. I wonder what friends in Africa would make of my comparing the loneliness of suffering to a broken egg’s higher entropy?

The comparison to there being more ways for an egg to be pristine to be broken makes sense to me, and it makes sense that there are more ways to be lonely in brokenness than in wholeness. But, I wonder, does it make sense to me because it’s the way it is, or because it’s the way my independent culture has taught me to make sense of things?

Even as I ponder and try to put words to this by comparing entropy, broken eggs and suffering, I feel like I’m getting closer to some presuppositions that if I could put my finger on them, I’d be able to question rather than mindlessly operate out of.

Does this need to matter to the average person any more than the reasons why ice doesn’t unmelt? I think it does. Because if I care about being able to suffer-in-relationship (and I do), something’s going to have to change at the level of seeing suffering as insurmountably and ultimately isolating. Part of me keeps thinking (and feeling, to be honest) that it makes sense that suffering is unique and lonely. But another part of me thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. I keep thinking that there has to be a way to grieve corporately in the communities we are part of,  even if only one member of that community is suffering at a given time.

Here are a few more thoughts from the comment thread on the Bon Jovi post I referred to above:

Songs of grief require specifics. You can be happy for a general fact, like that Jesus loves you, because it’s easy to write the backstory for that in your mind. But you can only be sad for something specific. Grief is painful, so we subconsciously need a backstory, but we don’t write sad backstories as easily. So, bringing songs of grief to a large group makes the most sense in the context of someone’s specific grief.

But we’re not used to telling specific stories of grief in public. Sunday morning is not about that, so those songs end up sounding awkward when they’re introduced. Liturgical traditions do tell the stories of Christ’s grief, so the songs make sense.

Anyway, I agree there’s a problem, but it’s not with the songs. The songs fit the environment we’ve created. Change the environment.

How to do that? Is it inevitable to see suffering as isolating? Is it universally inevitable or culturally so? Do songs of grief really require more specifics than songs of praise and joy? Or do they require more specifics because of a specific understanding of the nature of grief in contrast to the nature of happiness?

In finding this explanation of entropy with the various possible states of an egg (pristine, cracked or smashed), I think I’ve found my way not into more answers, but rather into more questions. I am hopeful that that is a positive direction for my thinking to go in on this topic.

I want to be able to grieve corporately. I want to be able to connect with my local church body and not feel like an outsider because I show up at church with a heavy heart or suffering body.

I don’t wrestle with this just for my own sake, but am also thinking of what it means for many of my other friends who I don’t think would want to be relegated to a homogeneous Sunday school class for “people who are currently miserable” in order to feel connected with in their current realities, which include a great deal of suffering.

Somehow, some way, it has to be possible in a public gathering to make space for all the realities–the joys and the sufferings–that people bring with them into community gatherings, in this case, particularly the church.

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Escape from reality

Today brings a situation I’d rather run from than deal with. Deal with it, I will, one way or another. But if I could run from reality, I’d love to have this in my living room to run to:

bookshelf chair

The bookshelf chair, which I discovered via Cascades, comes with 16 feet of shelving and variable slot sizes, so that just about any book should fit one place or another.

Of course, I’d have to face reality again anyway when the £3,550 bill arrived.  So, I guess I’ll pass on this escape. But a girl can dream of being a literary-couch-potato-in-style, can’t she?

The Story of the Day that arrived from StoryPeople this morning was very fitting, I thought:

If I ran the world, he told me, I’d pretty much leave it alone & spend my time reading & I’d advise other people to do the same. Which is why I’ll probably never run the world, he said.

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Light Pollution

Too much of a good thing? I’d never thought of it before, with regards to light.

Light is good, of course. I live in Florida. I’m happy living in a place where the sun shines pretty much year round. I don’t want to live in a part of the country or even a house with too little light.

But, what about having too much light? I love the sunshine all day, most every day. I don’t, however, love the sunshine enough to want it all night.

I’d never really stopped to ponder that thought until today when I read a mini review of a book called: Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.

I love the light, but I have no interest in giving up the beauty of the night, either. The moon has been exceptionally brilliant in my night sky this week. I’ve enjoyed hanging out laundry or sitting on my porch looking at it.  But night here can never compare to places in Africa where I’ve lived, where the moon and stars did not have to compete with artificial light.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen was an eclipse in a town without electricity. To start out with a moon that was so bright you could see shadows, and then transition through smaller and smaller shadows until there was complete darkness, and then back again to the moon’s brightness. I remember it being a great way to spend a few hours.

Well, now I’m starting to wax nostalgic and wander from the point of this post.

The book I mention above is a collection of essays celebrating the gifts of night and darkness, mourning some of the losses that happen when night is artificially interrupted and drawing analogies to the rest of our lives from the importance of darkness.

I’ve not read the book. This quote, however, has given me something to ponder while I’m out running errands today:

Our desire for meaning keeps us reaching for greater clarity and luminosity. But we confound lucidity with kilowatts. We confuse artificial light with enlightenment. Therein lies a greater fear: that we humans might be so afraid of darkness that we, for a time, would destroy it, thus banishing the illumination that darkness brings.

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To Gild a Lily

I don’t recall having heard this phrase before this week. It appears to be a mix-up of a phrase from a Shakespeare play. But the verse it comes from has moved me all week.

Gilded lily

It’s so easy to want to try to change people. But, quite often, when we try to do that, I think we don’t count the cost or think about what it really would mean to do so.  Sometimes what is lost by the “improvement” is just too great.

I’m not totally against change. But it seems to me that many of the little annoyances we wish our friends or family would change are really so very consistent with what it means for them to be themselves that wishing a specific thing to be different or “better” is to wish lobbed off some of what makes that person who they are.

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This morning, I received an email from Afrigadget, a blog dedicated to showcasing how Africans solve everyday problems with incredible ingenuity.

This afternoon, I read a selection from “Why I Am Not a Pacificist” by C.S. Lewis. To me, the morning’s email and the afternoon’s reading felt very connected.

The email spotlighted an initiative which transformed a dump in a Nairobi, Kenya slum, into a community farm. Beyond such obvious obstacles as clearing the trash,

image

there were other less obvious difficulties such as what to do about the high levels of lead, copper, zinc and boron.

image

Part of the solution was to plant sunflowers, which leach the toxins out of the soil, in between the ordinary vegetables.  Check out this handy, made from recycled materials, planting tool:

image

It is made from a hollow pipe with a stick tied onto the bottom of it for digging the hole and a yogurt container attached to the top for dropping the seeds down into. No stooping, no bending, no hard work digging.

And here’s an earthworm farm/composting pile for fertilizer:

image

And the final product, three months after clearing the dump:

image

And then, this from C.S. Lewis:

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering.

I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.

I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

I have come to no great conclusions, based on either the photo essay or the writings of C.S. Lewis. Both, however, have left me with much to ponder. Both challenge me to consider and ask questions about my own life.

What do you think? Do you know people who are making a difference in these kinds of ways (feel free to add your stories here)? Where are you in your thinking and acting? How do you interact with suffering and misery in the world around you? Do you get to work? Grieve? Turn away because it seems too overwhelming? Feel guilty? Or something else?

What direction does the Lewis quote send your mind in? Do you agree? Or disagree? Or some of both?

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For more information about  Kibera slum in which this field was planted, BBC has a four part article about it. The link is to the last selection, because it contains links to the other three parts as well.

Photos come from “Farming Innovations in a Slum” at Afrigadget and from the website Green Dreams Organic Farming in East Africa. This website follows the development of the farm in great detail.

The C. S. Lewis quote is from A Year with C.S. Lewis, October 19]

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Why do we grieve so little, publicly? In particular, why is there such a paucity of grieving in the church?

David Ker thinks that it would help if our church music were a bit more Bon Jovi-ish.

Codepoke suggests, in response, that the problem is not so much with the music, but rather with the whole way we “do” church.

Others argue that it’s a much wider cultural issue, and the church’s lack of space for public grieving follows the cultural trends.

Bob Hyatt, in a post entitled, “Don’t Forget to Grieve” says this:

And we wonder why so many of us struggle with a persistent, low-level depression. Maybe just maybe, its because when we should, we refuse to grieve. We hold in the tears, when they should come out and find that the emotion we should give vent to in appropriate ways tends to leak out in other ways, at other times- some not nearly so appropriate or healthy.

I’m absolutely amazed when I see television coverage of third-world countries, particularly the coverage of disasters. When I see the keening, wailing women, the men tearing their clothes from their bodies and even the hair from their heads in anguish, I realize how emotionally impoverished we stoics in America are. I realize that the grief and mourning which the Bible actually speaks highly of, is completely missing from our vocabulary. We’ve lost the ability to grieve.

Without disagreeing with any of these perspectives, I’ve been thinking about yet another angle of the complicatedness of public, corporate grieving. My thinking on this came from an article a friend showed me recently in Scientific American. I’m working on the draft for that post, but it keeps spinning off into different rabbit trails. So, I’ve stopped writing it for a minute and am heading down one of those little side trails.

Have you seen those emotions charts, which are meant to help you put words to what you’re feeling? Have you ever noticed how they tend to be stilted towards negative emotions? The following chart from Dr. Phil’s website is pretty typical. Only about one in four of the emotions illustrated are positive. It makes me curious about why that is. What do you think?

feelings chart

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