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This book is not the proper medium in which to set forth evolutionary theories of birdsong, but I must emphatically say that the bird sings first for love of music, and second for love of a lady. I put the lady second, for, if he did not love music first he would not have sung to her, and birds, like the rest of us, are a trifle selfish. What we like most we think others will like as well, hence, in a moment of unselfishness we share the object of our selfishness!”

I’m still trying to decide what I think of this quote.

Lately I’ve been enjoying reading about animals. Which is funny, because I’m no animal lover. But still, this book, The Music of Wild Birds, and another, Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, fascinate me.

Although I’m not particularly a bird watcher, I do appreciate the background music of birds out my window as I write this. This book on birds’ music caught my eye first because of the beautiful artwork on the cover. The lovely drawings throughout are a delight, whether or not one reads or understands any of the text. And then the book kept my attention because of the musical transcriptions and dialogue about each bird and its music. I was fascinated by the thought of someone taking the time to transcribe what they heard, and then make connections between bird songs and music of human composers.

Originally written in 1904 by F. Schuyler Mathews, this edition is illustrated and adapted by Judy Pelikan. Here are some of Mr. Mathews interesting observations and connections [The text is highly interspersed with musical transcriptions, which I cannot copy here, but will indicate with an [*]:

The charm, too, of the Chickadee’s singing lies in the fact that he knows the value of a well-sustained half note, another point which should be scored in the little musician’s favor. Truly, in this regard he is far ahead of the Canary, for the latter wastes his energy splitting into hemidemisemiquavers every tone within the compass of an octave….

[*] I may be overestimating the value of a melody so meager as that of the Chickadee, but if so it becomes difficult to account for the charm that underlies the music of all great composers, for constructively considered their melodies are mere elaborations of absolutely simple themes. (pgs. 56, 57)

Concerning a bird who, day after day, sang the same melody, but at times switched it from a major key to a minor one:

[*]The Song Sparrow has the ability to render a motive in both the major and minor keys, just exactly as Verdi has done in the ninth and eleventh bars of the “Di Provenza”. ( p. 138 )

It is not a stretch to imagine that the author is reading too much “psychology” into a particular bird’s musical expression, but I, for one, found his speculation quite fun:

In the summer of 1903 I heard in Nantucket a bird which sang with charming accuracy the following first two bars from Alfredo’s song in La Traviata [*]…But this was sung in the same pathetic way in which Violetta sings it a little later in the same act, when she finds she must give up Alfredo. There is an unmistakable pathos in the bird’s song.

It is not always the case, however, that the music is pathetic. One afternoon, while crossing the downs of Nantucket, I heard a bit which was decidedly reminiscent of the song and dance with castanets in which Carmen attempts, in the opera of her name, to lure Jose away from his duty: [*]

This, it must be admitted, was not sung in quite the lively way the libretto would demand, but the melody was correct: [*]

A moment later, however, another bird spoiled the whole effect by finishing the song the wrong way, thus: [*]…Meadowlarks, and birds in general, for that matter, are prone to take unwarranted liberties with operatic scores. ( pgs. 168-170 )

I think I find the birds being discussed, and the author himself, equally fascinating. I read something like this, and am fascinated with a person who not only notices bird’s songs, but writes them down, makes intuitive connections with human music, and feels powerfully, in connection with both. As someone who thinks with feeling, it is not completely foreign to me to understand how a bird’s song could connect with such specific feelings.

[The Yellow-throated Vireo] is never in a hurry, and after singing three or four clusters of slurred notes, thus, [*] he gives you plenty of time to think the matter over before he makes another remark. At the time of the Boer War I imagined this bird was telling me all about it [* with this text:  ‘Mafeking. Modder river. Buluway. Molappo. Boer war!’] Certainly one finds the word Buluwayo fits a particular group of notes remarkably well. ( pg. 119 )

Though I’m not so good at analyzing or even always noticing birds’ music, I’d have enjoyed knowing and watching Mr. Mathews be himself. What a fascinating, interesting man he must have been to notice, in such detail and with such passion and enjoyment, the music of birds. Many thanks to Ms. Pelikan for making this book available today, and enhancing it so gorgeously with her drawings.

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Streams of mercy never ceasing.

I love to listen to the CD, Deep Still Christmas, (you can hear samples here) at various times throughout the year. Last Easter I posted some thoughts that were stirred, listening to this CD on the way to my community sunrise service. The Christmas songs are mixed in with others, which are not explicitly seasonal, and I am often surprised by the things that touch my heart from that combination.

Yesterday, it was this one line from the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Streams of mercy never ceasing.

It goes on to say that the unceasing streams of mercy “…call for songs of loudest praise.” Of course, as an introvert, my response to the way mercies flow into my life is less often to break into songs of loud praise. Maybe songs of quiet praise. Or perhaps a gentle crying. Mainly, my heart just feels like it is flowing over with gratitude for the tender ways that the Lord has been and is faithful through so many painful and confusing and uncertain things I have had to face.

Last night, I was listening to a piano arrangement of the hymn, “Be Still, My Soul” as I fell asleep. It stirred feelings in my heart, in the exact place and way as the picture I have when I ponder the words “streams of mercy never ceasing”.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in every change, he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

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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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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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I’ve just taken a fancy to write a relatively pointless and highly uninformed post. Meaning, I read a ponderable, I decided I wanted to ponder it, and I decided I wanted to have an opinion on the matter, even though I’m highly unqualified to do so. It’s Saturday, a day for relaxing, and as an introverted feeler, thinking about things that make me feel good is, well, relaxing and makes me feel good. I also like to think in details and it is fun just to think of a thing from different angles, considering a variety of possibly relevant details. It makes me happy to think about things I know nothing about and think of questions that might be relevant to learning about the topic, if I so decided, or, If It Tickled My Fancy, which leads me to the point of the post.

Chuck Grantham, in talking about something that didn’t tickle his fancy, wondered out loud “where the fancy is located on the human body”.

Hmmm, good question. I have a very emotional memory, so I started thinking about it from different angles, based on a variety of things I felt when I considered the issue (just in case you wondered and are thoroughly confused now about why a feeler is talking so much about thinking–Feelers Think. We really do. It’s just that thoughts that don’t somehow either stir up feelings or aren’t driven by or at least connected to a feeling don’t go anywhere and don’t make any sense. So, every time I say I’m thinking about something, I’m also (and primarily) feeling it. And now the thinkers in my audience–are there any?–are cringing, I’m sure, as I return to the questions that the original ponderable let me to ponder):

1. What is the opposite of a fancy being tickled? Of not taking a fancy to do something?

2. What part of my body feels what when something tickles my fancy and I want to do it (which made me think about the connection between ones fancy being tickled and motivation. How are the two similar, how are they different? Is a fancy being tickled a subset of the bigger issue of motivation.

3. Is there a difference, perhaps, in the fancy-tickler location between thinkers and feelers? Or is the possibility of doing something because it tickles ones fancy absurd to thinkers, say, as opposed to feelers (I ask that, because I know some thinkers who cringe at the possibility that I would do much of anything based solely on it tickling my fancy. Yet, we all, I must believe, do that, in different ways and to different degrees.

4. What is the difference between a decision we make because it tickles our fancy and because we reason out that we need to or want to do something (which ties into my previous number–is doing something because it tickles our fancy more of an emotional thing, tied into emotional centers of the brain vs. reasoning centers? or is “the Fancy” something that is somehow related to both sides of the brain, and can both (a) be tickled by either emotions or reasoning and (b) motivate emotional or reasoned activity.

5. Hmmm, the majority of these ponderings are focusing on the brain rather than the rest of the body for locating the fancy. I suppose it could be someplace else (which is why I was thinking about where I FEEL whatever it is I feel in my body, when my fancy is tickled. So, is the fancy someplace in the body that can be tickled or tripped by some brain activity in a particular region or regions? Or is it actually a place in the brain.

The answer, I have no idea. But it tickled my fancy to think about it, and I enjoyed looking up brain maps as I pondered the question. I couldn’t even make much sense of most of the brain maps. I found these particular images, with words I actually understood, but I’m still a bit confused about what does what where in the brain, because parts of the two images overlap, and because for every thing I think I understand, I have more questions (which shouldn’t be hard to imagine, if Chuck’s simple comment, in just a few minutes drug me relentlessly through all those questions above).

Still, given as I’m just speculating here, I’m going to take a tentative guess and say whatever that part of the brain is that they’ve labeled, “Imagination, Creativity, Yes”, is where the fancy might be found. If it’s the part of the brain where I’m thinking perhaps possibility meets creativity meets motivation meets decision making and everything lines up so that I go, “Oh, yes, I think I’d like to do/try that”, then that seems pretty close to me to what I picture the fancy being.

brain right

brain left

I just love the brain! I don’t come close to understanding much of anything that goes on in there, but it sure is one fascinating array of beautiful complexity!

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I checked out a book from the library that I’ve not really been able to get into reading. But it was not a complete waste (checking out a book seldom is, even if I don’t actually read it), because I found this quote at the beginning, which reminded me of some thoughts I was trying to develop several months ago:

History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret. So that hard on the heels of the Why comes the sly and wistful word If. If it hand not been for… If only… Were it not… Those useless Ifs of history. And, constantly impeding, deflecting, distracting the backward searchings of the question why, exists this other form of retrogression: If only we could have it back. A New Beginning. If only we could return…

To get the technicalities out of the way, the quote is from Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan, and she is quoting Graham Swift in Waterland.

I don’t think I’ve completely sorted out all the complexities of that quote, which is no surprise, because I often enjoy reading things that I only understand 15 to 25 percent of. It stretches my brain, it makes me think, it makes me think outside my own natural box and ponder things from different perspectives, and sometimes it makes me think of things that weren’t exactly the point of the quote.

In this case, the quote served as a trigger to my previous thoughts on regret. My life has taken some pretty rough turns and gone down paths that I’d rather not have gone down. But I end up a bit baffled sometimes because it seems like people expect me to have more regrets than I do.

I find that often there is a tendency for people to want to analyze every single decision and find “the thing” that they (or I) did wrong which could have prevented the outcome that happened. There is a sense in which the regret that comes from that seems to be therapeutic. If I can find something to regret, I can place guilt (or perhaps shame) someplace/anyplace and make some sense of what happened, and maybe over assure myself that I won’t let THAT happen again. I don’t know for sure. I think those are a couple of the functions and benefits of regret. Perhaps you can think of some more?

As a disclaimer before I get where I’m going with this, when I talk about not really giving much space to regret, I’m not against looking at cause and effect and making connections. We learn that way. We run by the pool, slip on the slippery surface and back up in our minds and come to the conclusion that we could have likely avoided that skinned knee by being a bit more careful on a slippery surface. A lot of wisdom is gained by looking carefully and reflecting on the past, and then learning from it.

But, if we make regret carry more certainty that it should, I believe we make a grave error.

I was thinking that regret is often to the past what fantasy is to the future. A big picture imagining that becomes realer than real.

The problem about regret is not what it does know–I did this and this happened–but the confident assumptions and assertions of what it doesn’t know–if I’d have done this other thing, things would have been much better.

But regret, unlike what really did happen, (and like fantasy) is created in an ideal, imagined world. The alternative possibility(ies) that make up regret, were they lived out, though, would have been lived out, not in that ideal imagined world, but in just as complicated, complex and often messed up world as the original action/choice.

I’m not against being sad about choices made and actions done which caused pain. I’m just against letting the fantasy reality of regrets fuel the sadness and grief into some sort of absolutely certain, “Things would have been better if I had done this other thing.”

That kind of thinking feels very similar to the fantastic thinking of fantasies: Things would be absolutely wonderful and certainly infinitely better than they are now, if only THIS were true.

It’s just not realistic. And neither, I’m thinking are regrets the way I mostly hear them used. Give me grief and sadness and when I really see that I have certainly blown something, repentance. Regret, though, does not feel productive, in that it purports to know with certainty what can’t be known and longs for the changing of a past in ways that can’t be changed. Regret doesn’t even seem to honestly accept or reflect reality.

“The useless Ifs of history…” I’m all for learning from my past. I’m not for trying to reinvent it. I’d rather allow the past to be what it is. Remembering the past accurately is important to me. It is what it is. It’s what has made me who and what I am today–all of me the good, the bad, the traumatized, the confident, the strengths, the weaknesses. To try to imagine, with the help of regret, how things could have been different, immediately begins a hugely impossible task. There are too many variables too complexly intertwined with each other to say with certainty “If I had done this differently” or “If so and so had done that differently” X would have happened. I am not even convinced we can say with certainty, “If…. then Y would NOT have happened.” All we can say with certainty is X happened. And grieve it or rejoice in it, or, usually, some difficult combination.

What I know is, This is what happened. This is Who I am. There is a lot of happiness and there is a lot of grief in the past. It most certainly continues to affect me and shape who I am, but I cannot live in the past, trying to make it more palatable or rework it like a video game where I get a second chance to make it work out differently. I can live in the present, remembering and making space for the past–the good, the bad, the ugly. But I cannot live in the past, and usually I think that is what Regret does.

What are your thoughts? As definitive as I sound, I’m still thinking through these things and open to the possibility that I’m making more of the semantics of “regret” than is really there.

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Every weekend I say good-bye to my children, as they leave to spend the next couple of days with their father.

Before they leave, I say a blessing over each of them:

You are my child, my joy and my treasure,
And in my heart, I’ll hold you forever.
In every word spoken, in every deed done,
Remember my love and the love of God’s Son.

and then, together, we sing these words:

God be with you till we meet again;
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again.

God be with you till we meet again;
‘Neath His wings protecting, hide you,
Daily manna still provide you;
God be with you till we meet again.
(words by Jeremiah E. Rankin; music by William G. Tomer)

It has become a ritual that the kids are very protective about making sure we fit in before they leave. The first few times, we talked in detail about what the words meant. I seriously doubt they consciously pay attention to the actual words anymore or focus on the meaning while we sing. This is, I suppose, why some people do not like ritual or tradition. Repetition can become mindless and the assumption is that mindless equals meaningless.

For me, however, whether or not my children clue into what is being said on any given day, it is very important that they have heard these words each week. The words are there, and by sheer repetition, I believe they have become a part of my children’s lives and minds and hearts.

There are many things which happen in shared life which are not rituals or traditions which, hopefully, fill out and support the heart behind these words. There are many things, I also know, which seem to argue against the words (I have a 13 year old son. At this point and time, even my expecting him to help with the dishes is interpreted by him as contradictory to my loving him.)

Words of blessing and a song of prayer are emptiness if they are all there is to a relationship. When there is more to a relationship, though, I think ritual can be a beautiful thing. But, even when love is present and shown in more ways, I believe that there will be times that my children will not be able to see or remember or notice all the rest of the things that are there, announcing my love to and for them.

And in that time and place, I hope that these words will come back to my children in good ways as some kind of assurance or affirmation. If they can’t cling to these words as absolutely true in the face of things which make them question my love, perhaps the relentlessness of rituals that can’t be forgotten will at least add an element of doubt to the questions which seem to scream with certainty at them of the untrustworthiness of their Mom’s love.

And in any case, whether or not my children are able to take or hold on to anything specific from these rituals, the song itself gives me words each week to express a cry and prayer from my heart. There are so many details and specifics which weigh on me and grieve me and cause me concern. This song beautifully and concisely brings together my heart’s cry and puts words to my deep prayer. That they are the same words each week does not make them less meaningful to me. It feels like these words are able to hold all the nuances of meaning, however different the actual situation may be each time I pray and sing them.

At the moments when it is hardest for me to find my own words of prayer, I am grateful for this song which expresses so much of my longing, hopes and trust in the Lord for my children, in such simple words.

My children have left early this week, and my heart is extra heavy for them for a variety of reasons. May God be with them till we meet again.

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rock and a hard place

This was the best visual I could find for expressing where I’m at emotionally today. Quitting is too costly. Keeping on going seems, well, pretty near impossible.

I thank God for the perspective of a friend who listened to me wail about being stuck today. Having a friend around when you’re stuck doesn’t necessarily mean you can or will get unstuck. It doesn’t automatically make the impossible seem possible. But a friend can bring perspective to the situation, even if it is just by stating the obvious so obviously that (1) I realize I really do have good reason to despair (i.e. I’m not crazy to be feeling overwhelmed) and (2) I can actually even laugh a little about it (I find it nearly impossible to laugh, alone, when I’m stuck. I have many good and funny friends, though, and I appreciate every little laugh they can eke out of me when I’m down).

It’s amazing how being able to lament with someone else about how hard things are can infuse a desperate situation with a ray of hope. A friend’s very presence reminds me that I’m not alone. One friend can be a tangible reminder of the many other people still in my life. And although I cannot defend or explain exactly how it works, a friend’s listening to my cries (and sometimes crying them with me) gives me courage to keep crying out to God and trusting Him, even in between a rock and a hard place.

Don’t ever underestimate the strength and courage you can give to someone who is stuck, by sitting with them, sharing in their grief and lamenting with them. You may or may not be able to help them see another solution to getting through or even out of their problems. But you honor their suffering by listening. You pass on courage and strength by grieving with them.

Okay, that’s enough philosophizing about pain and suffering and feeling stuck and wanting to quit and the importance of friends being there with you even if they can’t do any better than you can at getting yourself unstuck.

All that’s well and good, and I’m really grateful it’s true.

But,

(more…)

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Or What’s the Use of Crying Over Spilt Milk?

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(Has anybody else read this book? It’s a fun one which I enjoyed reading with my kids. It has nothing to do with this post, except that whenever I think about spilt milk, this is the picture that comes to mind.) I will warn you ahead of time that my thoughts in this post may be as disconnected as this book is from the title. My thoughts are not well developed or formed as much as they are forming and percolating. The writing them out is part of the process for me as I try to figure out what contentment is all about.

A Declaration:

I will not let my longing for what isn’t, what should have been, what could have been or even what could be destroy the gifts, goodness and delight of what is.

I will not accomplish that by pretending that what isn’t, what should have been, what could have been or even what could be (1) is wrong to long for or (2) doesn’t really matter to me.

I will not make contentment easier (or, in reality, make it something fake) by denying my longings or just caring less.

Those are some decisions that I think are implied in choosing contentment. But, saying them in that way–as declared choices–misses the important point that contentment is not something I can achieve by willpower. It is not something I grit my teeth and determine I am going to make happen–whether I like it or not.

In many ways, contentment is a byproduct of things like acceptance and trust. It is a sort of side effect. (Since becoming a medical transcriptionist, I find myself thinking in quasi-medical terms about everything. So, drugs have side effects, well so do acceptance and trust.)

In another way, though, contentment is an attitude which needs certain things to be able to grow and flourish. Plants need good soil, sunlight and water to flourish.

I deeply believe that, among other things, contentment needs grief in order to be able to thrive.

And so, I say that as part of choosing contentment, I will let myself cry over spilt milk. Indeed, I believe I need to be able to cry over spilt milk–to really grieve–in order to truly be fully content in my present circumstances.

Yesterday, Psalm 42 was brought to my attention, here and here.

And this morning as I continued to reflect on that Psalm, connected to circumstances in my own life, and also things I am grieving for others I care about, it dawned on me that David, in a sense, was crying over spilt milk.

David was crying over spilt milk.

  • Over what was not: “I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and stand before him?” (Regardless of how you may argue that this is not a “was not”, i.e. that David still WAS in the presence of God, the bottom line is that David, in asking, “When?” was expressing grief over what he was not at that moment tangibly experiencing.)
  • Over what should not have been, “Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?”
  • Over what was no more, “My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be; I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks…”
  • Over what was maddeningly confusing and unclear, ” ‘O God my rock,’ I cry, ‘Why have you forsaken me? Why must I wander in darkness, oppressed by my enemies?’ ” (I have chosen you as my rock. I trust you, but I wonder why you have responded by forsaking me. Even my choice to trust God sometimes feels like so much “spilt milk”. It’s one thing to grieve enemies taunting me asking where God is. It’s another thing all together–and I daresay even more painful–to be crying out TO God, still in in trust, and asking “Why have you forsaken me?”)

I’m not trying to stretch this Psalm to make it fit with a sermon on contentment. What I am saying is that as I walked through yesterday, facing many situations which seem to defy the possibility of contentment, I found great comfort in David’s expression of deep and anguished grief, intertwined with his hope in God, his continual trust in God, and the hope that he would yet again praise his Savior and his God.

Which comes first–the commitment to trust in God as rock? the questions and grief? the acceptance? the contentment? The affirmation of intent to hope and praise? I. Don’t. Know. I really, really don’t. It’s not that neat or formulized to me.

What I do know, though, is that the grief, the crying like David cried, is for me an essential part of making space for contentment to be a real possibility in my life.

When we equate acceptance of “what is” with bucking up, moving on and getting over it, we strip acceptance and make it more or less meaningless (what’s the big deal with accepting something that is no big deal, after all?). And if the acceptance is pretty much a “doesn’t matter anyway” kind of thing, then what we call contentment is pretty much apathy. (Thanks, Terri, for adding that word to the equation and to my thinking).

When I cry over spilt milk, I’m counting the cost of contentment, and I’m choosing that cost.

In addition, crying over spilt milk, to me, feels like affirming the value of the longings and also the value of the things that should have been or could have been or even could be, but are not yet.

If I’m mourning the loss of a friend, in very real ways I am also affirming and celebrating (albeit with a heavy heart) the wonderful delights that that friendship brought me.

If I’m truly committed to choosing contentment while living in a dry and dusty place, while my heart continues to grieve the life I knew, let’s say, in the lush rain-filled forests of Oregon, my grief over what isn’t here affirms in real ways, the beauty of what was there. I believe that it is only by facing that kind of grief head on, crying over the spilt milk of what cannot be in this place, that I am freed to begin to content with what is here, and not just in a “Sigh, I’ll just have to make the best of it” way. Crying over the spilt milk of what cannot be in this place lets me be content in ways so that I can be surprised by beauty and life and even the ability to thrive in a less than ideal place or situation.

If I’m in a difficult church situation (or even a less than perfect one, and what one isn’t?), and grieving what I deeply believe should and could be, my grief in some ways affirms the great value of what should and could be. Sure, contentment makes space for me to work within the realities that are, but the grief not only makes the contentment richer, I believe it also makes space for the longings to be and reflect the important hopes that are also real and very good.

I’m I’m mourning the loss of a dream, or even the end of a dream, which has now been shown to be not possible for one of my children, I honor the child by choosing contentment and acceptance about what is, but I also honor the reality of my longings and desires by grieving the things I had hoped for, which were right and good, even if they will never come to fruition now, in the realities of living in a broken and fallen world. Out of that grief, which flows in both directions, I believe contentment can flourish–a contentment which makes room for surprises and delights and joys which otherwise could not have been.

I do not think we can or should short circuit that process by trying to willpower the contentment to happen without walking through the grief–the crying over spilt milk. Not if we want the contentment to be real contentment (as opposed to pasted on). Not if want that contentment to be deep and beautiful and thriving.

It is not so much that the crying over spilled milk lets me get over the pain and move on with contentment as it is that I think the contentment about what is flourishes the most when it is lived in the context of honestly grieving what isn’t.

Crying over spilt milk is, I believe, one of the conditions to real, good, organic and beautiful contentment growing and freeing us up for receiving the good that is there for us in the reality that is.

Crying over spilt milk is a key part of how I find my way through to contentment with what is and the freedom to delight in the goodness and gifts that are, while continuing to hold to the longings which keep hope alive in my heart.

[Hmmmm…I’m rethinking that last sentence. I don’t think it’s exactly that the longings serve to keep hope alive. But I do think, somehow, that part of being settled into contentment includes making space for the ongoingness of longings, and that somehow those longings interplay with hope in important ways. So I’ll leave the sentence, admit it kind of falls short, and keep thinking about what it is I’m trying to get at there.]

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Have you ever heard that statement? I don’t really disagree, even though I don’t exactly agree either (e.g. it operates on a false assumption pointed out on a great post at Beyond Words that worship = music.) It’s a good post and I’m still thinking through all of it, but, for the moment, let me focus less on the metaphor itself or the semantics of “worship”, but more on the underlying assumption that being a “spectator” in worship (as in “corporately worshipping with music”) is bad. Which leads me to ask this question:

Who defines “spectator”?

I have at times felt very awkward because, when that statement was announced from the pulpit, it seemed like the admonishing one (usually a worship leader) was looking straight at me.

I have recently been realizing that, as an introvert in church, I look most like a spectator when I’m actually most fully engaged in worship.

This is not only true of me with regards to musically connected worship. The more engaged I am in any activity, the more serious I look. The more totally enraptured I am with someone or something in a given moment, the more still and silent I become.

I really like attending churches that leave space for emotions, for emotional expressions and for my emotions to be spoken to and delighted by the Holy Spirit. It is in those same churches, however, that I have sometimes felt the most awkward and the most stared at because of how silent and still I can be in worship. In those places, I may very well be the only one not clapping.

I may not, heaven forbid, even be smiling. Because another thing about me is that, sometimes when I’m very happy, I look very serious. (I just found this quote from one of the first blog posts I ever wrote: “But in some of my happiest, most contented moments, I have also been awed into facial blankness.” The post, incidentally, was called, “Being Happy and Not Smiling”. )

I was recently thinking that perhaps I’m a Quiet Charismatic. I have been called a Quiet Renegade before, but that’s a little bit different 🙂 .

In any case, as a quiet charismatic, it’s not so much that I need a quiet church as it is that I long for a place where a quiet expression of emotions is not looked down on or judged as “falling short”.

I have been in quiet churches, where it felt like there was no breathing space for emotions, or for me as an emotional person. I have also been in more lively churches where “emotional expression” was so loaded with expectations of how that is supposed to look, that I also felt like it was hard to breathe.

This is not about trying to create a fantasy ideal church–the ME church that works, first and foremost for me. (Click “preview” to see a miniature version of the complete video)

It has been helpful, though, to think about how to begin to be comfortable with being myself and with making myself at home wherever I worship and with whomever I’m worshipping.

Just admitting that some of these things are hard for me helps me feel less on edge when I’m in a situation that is not totally comfortable or where I feel conspicuous because my silence or stillness seems to be rather loudly drawing attention to me. And perhaps even causing me to look unspiritual or unmoved by the Spirit, at the times when I am most moved or touched by the Holy Spirit. I’m learning to be okay with that being between me and the Holy Spirit, and not concern myself so much with what other people may see or think they see. (I’ve got a long way to go, still, though 🙂 )

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