“Hide & Seek: 5-10-15-20-Reach (out)”

My current health challenges and life stressors bring me again to the Root and roots of my faith and baby steps of progress toward improved health and more strength and energy as I continue to hope, pray, and believe that being pain-free again can be a reality. My regular doctor is a constant source of gratitude, while it will be impossible to not write about her at some point, there aren’t really words enough to say how incredible her skills AND heart are and how my life is better because of Miriam. But a couple of days ago I saw a different doctor other than my own and didn’t get what I needed. Why is it so confounding for some folks when you’re clear about what you need? Anyway, on the train home I came up with this, maybe it could be helpful for someone else when “baby steps” are again needed or maybe one or two a y’all might wanna join with me for the next 21 days. If you’re up to some baby steps with this 2 Great Commandment Preschooler, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences as we stumble along, and try to remember what immense pleasure it brings our Father, as it would any loving father, to see us learning to walk:

My own Rx:

5 – Five minutes of Affirmative Breathing
Full inhalations & exhalations. On the exhale mentally affirm what you need affirmed. This could be a literal affirmation i.e. “I’m.
safe, loved, home, forgiven, etc. Could be a portion of a Scripture. I’m fond of “blue and green”, shorthand for the still blue waters.
and green pastures of 23rd Psalm I learned from a character in a work of fiction by John D. Base. One need not be a Christian to find.
the image calming. The affirmation on the exhale is key, as without the already disciplined mind that we lack yet, silence alone can
be an entry point for negative voices and thoughts.

10 – Ten full minutes (as only a minimum, but at least 10) of singing Out Loud.
Obviously, something positive would be ideal, but with this one, the songs selected are not as important as simply doing it. If you’re
feeling low, like a motherless child, then sing that, but sing it Out Loud, don’t just feel it in silence. I’m convinced this is the other
reason God made showers. You can do it. It’s not public, not a performance.

15 – Write for a full fifteen minutes.
If you find yourself resistant or staring out the window for more than a minute, begin your time again. As with the singing aloud,
what you write is not even your concern, it could be anything from why you’re grateful to why you’re pretty certain that the world/
God/your spouse/ ex/ or mother is out to get you. “I’m feeling _______” is often a good entry point.

20 – Ideally, simply walk for a full twenty minutes.
This is the goal: walking. When weather makes this impossible, a Very distant next best would be on the floor or mat gentle.
stretching i.e. slow neck rolls, shoulder lifts & drops, gentle twisting from the waist while seated, etc.

Reach (out) – As a routine, and at a minimum, make the phone call.
Yes, even this Everyday. For those of us more comfortable and with time, the “Reach” could be sharing coffee or a meal
or much more like some form of community/church/social involvement, but again the key is that daily, so making that phone call
is basic, if not easy. Serving at the shelter or attending a meeting, etc. do fill the ask but these are rarely everyday. Bottom line:
you really will need to use the phone. No requirement on content or time, only you need to connect Live, even if only briefly. No,
leaving a voice mail isn’t enough or rather leave the voice mail, then dial again till the Live connection happens.

These are challenging for many of us, but also do-able for all of us.

What’s the goal? What do we win, earn, or accomplish? I’d suggest that those are ego-based questions, so the only answer I’d suggest is that we’ll find out, the old “more will be revealed”. Then why would we do something, anything without a goal? Ya’ gotta love our ego’s persistence (or not). The only answer is that where we are isn’t working for us so well and maybe, since it takes (depending on your phone time) only about an hour, maybe we could commit to trying a different way, this routine for 21 days and just see what happens.

Prayer? (Shhhhh, don’t let it get out, but these are all forms of prayer. Add as much and as many kinds of prayers, as often as you’d like)

PreetamDas Kirtana
3/5/15

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Just a thought: stars

I lay in bed amazed that when I focus on the darkness and not the faintly lit lines of the walls,
that the darkness hiding the walls and ceiling merge seamlessly with the darkness
just outside the windows on either side and there appear to be no walls or ceiling or structure at all,
only stars in the darkness that indiscriminately shine remanents of ancient hope
on present war-weary hearts and joyous family gatherings with the same faint, but incessant refrain:
you are small, but you’re not alone. the sky is adorned with the goodness of the Artist.
even when you’re weary, there is wonder… and sometimes in a triumphant moment of silence
we might hear more clearly, something like a distant confidence,
if the stars can shine in their confidence of being held in utter darkness and constant motion,
even though they don’t know the joy of welcome or the warmth of embrace,
maybe we can have that confidence one day.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 2/20/15photo-16

Did I Tell You the One About…?

Did I Tell You the One About…

Since my head injury from our car accident nearly a year ago I’ve sought whatever treatment might provide some relief from the frequently debilitating pressure and pain in the vertebrae in my neck. Enough pain will make you experimental. Nothing that has promised even a little blessed relief has been ruled out. I’ve tried prayer and prescriptions, ice packs and heating pads. I’ve tried rubs, balms, and bathing in a plant called “buffalo gourds” by locals. I try to remember to breathe from my belly to encourage even a little relaxation and blood flow in my traumatized muscles. I’ve had ongoing physical therapy treatments that were for awhile interspersed with acupuncture treatments. I know. I couldn’t believe it either. I laid there the first time, with a dozen tiny needles inserted all over my body, stifling laughter after thinking to myself, “Dear God, I look like a gay voodoo doll.” I didn’t care anymore. If it stood any chance of relieving this chronic pain, if I thought it would actually help, I’d watch the Christian Broadcasting Network IN a sports bar WHILE accordion music played on a loop, even if I ground my teeth right down to dust as a result. I’d try it. Really. I mean it. At some point, it’s really only about relief.

Today I had another massage therapy appointment. As I took off my shirt and shoes I shared with the therapist how much better I was feeling than last week; not off medication and not without any pressure, but better, and even a little “better” means e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. She made some notes and I laid down on the massage table. She began massaging the painful muscles that had robbed me of so much of my regular little life this past year. Then, as I was asking her how her holidays had been, she put her finger on it. I stopped speaking mid-sentence, caught my breath, and as my eyes filled welled up with tears I said, “Dear God! Don’t move. What is that? Where are you? Show me what you’re doing” I asked and offered her my own hand so she could show me exactly where she was at so that I could hope to replicate this myself. Just the right amount of pressure that she was applying to just the right spot gave unspeakable, breathtaking relief to the pressure that, even on a “good” day has become a fact of my everyday life. It made me at once sad and hopeful. It made me sad that I had grown so accustomed to nearly constant discomfort and, at the same time, it made me hopeful that it could be different, that I still could heal and relax back into what I had almost forgotten.

It was then that I thought again about what Tom had said yesterday. Tom is straight, late sixty-something I’d guess, a retired Teamster truck driver, a vet prone to faintly off-color jokes, and who, by his own admission, started coming to church at all to bring his wife. I adore him. Unlikely kindreds perhaps, but kindreds never find each other by sight alone. Without fail, when I see Tom, I can count on his very next words after “Hey there partner,” being “Hey, did I tell you the one about…?” And Tom will be off again with three more nuns at the pearly gates or after a grand build up, deliver the punch line explaining that PMS is in the Bible. Walking away from Tom one day after playing the “straight man” to his jokes one day last month I decided that if I have to be old, I wanna be like Tom . . . Tom or Wendell Berry. Yesterday, after our regular Sunday service a workshop was being held around how we can be more welcoming, more inclusive, and more aware of the subtle ways that we might exclude others. The facilitator enthusiastically explained what the hour was all about and then said those dreaded words: “Now,” she chirped, “if you’ll all break into groups of three…”

I hate breaking into groups of three.

“How rude can I be without being called rude?” I wondered as I considered just leaving the room of only maybe fifteen people as quickly as I could. “Whoa! Look at the time!” “My grandma just died.” “I’m sorry, I just had an accident. If you’ll excuse me.” As every lame excuse ever tried by every fifth grader ever went through my mind, we broke into groups of three. I’m not sure why I’m so resistant to small group stuff. I think, aside from obviously not being in control, that I’m always worried that I’ll drop emotional trou and No one else will or someone else will drop emotional trou – someone I don’t even like! Then what? Well, then I’m left both, kind of heartbroken over what the person shared and feeling guilty because I hadn’t previously been able to bring myself to even think kindly of them. Typically, if the menu only offers: breaking into small groups or eating liver smothered in yellow mustard, I’d typically go for the disgusting organ meat and vile condiment.

My group of three included Tom and Ben, another longtime member of our congregation. The facilitator announced questions that each of us were to take a couple of minutes and answer. As the hour grew to a close the facilitator announced the last question.

“Alright now,” she said, “now share with each other about a time when you felt excluded.”

Ben went first, sharing his answer in our confidence. I mentioned one incident, unsure of how to pick one out of a lifetime of examples. Finally, it was Tom’s turn to share and this small group thing would finally be over. Tom thought for a moment, started to say something, stopped, then began again.

“You know, course folks look at me kinda funny or don’t really believe me, I think, when I say this, butcha’ know, I don’t think I ever really felt excluded,” Tom said. Then, just as I was wondering how that could really be true, Tom put his finger on it as he continued. “I never doubted God loved me,” he said and I just kind of froze, staring saucer-eyed at Tom when I realized I was fighting tears. I was was shocked and tearing up because “I never doubted that God loved me,” is the single most outrageous thing I’ve heard someone say in real life that I believed. I’m sure I probably looked nearly comically dismayed. I certainly felt stunned, like seeing color or light for the first time or seeing someone who recognizes you after so long of being a foreigner, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” post-Clarence the angel, “Mary! Do you know me, Mary?!” And this time, she does know him. I’m not sure that all our trying to find words for the simple, glorious recognition by someone who is in the dream we once dreamt isn’t why poems and music and all our God-seeking and possibility exist at all in the first place.

“Tom,” I said in a hushed tone, “I know the two of us are just s’pose to listen right now, but you just said, that you’ve never doubted that God loved you, which to me is Outrageous, so if you’ll forgive me for infringing on your time, but how? How is that true that you never doubted God’s love? really? How?”, I whispered urgently. I’m guessing that Tom was probably prepared to meet disbelief. I would also guess that he probably hadn’t planned on his words having such an impact on me. I’d guess he wasn’t trying to be a “witness”, but I can assure that he was. I can hardly imagine trying to come up with an answer if eager eyes were fixed in anticipation on my own, as I know my eyes were on Tom’s waiting, impatient that our time might run out before he had time to share this incredible secret to the commanding confidence that he was, is, and always will be loved by God. In true Tom-style, his answer to my Big Question was plain, no nonsense, just matter-of-fact.

“Well,” Tom began, “I grew up around some religious folks, Evangelicals and what-not, but, you know, I just decided pretty early on that they were just dumb asses and didn’t really have anything to do with them.”

Tom did reference his good health and the beauty of nature, but that was it really. He had simply denied anyone or anything else the right to have any say or impact on this fact that he took for granted. I was amazed by all of this. I’m amazed by all of us who have been “churched”, we who have gone straight from womb to Sunday school and who struggle with that. I’m amazed by all of us who have ever been exposed to those commissioned to love and have come away instead deeply doubting that God loves us. I imagine holding and protecting that Good News that God loves us like most of us hold and protect our core belief that that couldn’t be true, not in any meaningful way, not for real. I imagine what being able to take God’s love as a given must be like and I’m reminded that, of course, it is just that, “a given”.

After the workshop was over I approached Tom and thanked him for what he had shared, for how with just the right amount of pressure to just the right spot he had given unspeakable, breathtaking relief to the pressure, that even on a “good” day had become a fact of my everyday life, the fact of not living in the absolute certainty of God’s love. It made me sad and hopeful at the same time. I was sad that so many of us never really inhabit and live from just knowing that God loves us and, at the same time, hopeful that it could still be different, that I can and we can still heal and relax back into what we’ve almost forgotten sometimes. If this could be true for Tom, it can be true for me and you!

I shook Tom’s hand again, saying goodbye. He assured me again of what he never doubted. “You’re a fine young man. You ain’t got a reason to ever think for a minute that God doesn’t love you just as much as He ever did love anybody.”

I smiled sheepishly, tried to absorb what he was saying and tried not to cry again.

“You’re a successful man,” Tom said.

“Successful?, I rolled my eyes, dismissing his unfounded appraisal.

“Well,” I said, “I’m pretty sure no one, including me, expected me to still be here, so I reckon that means Somebody loves me.”

“Yessir,” Tom said, “Listen, did I ever tell you the one about . . .”

“Tom,” I said grinning, interrupting him and hating needing to leave, “tell me this one Sunday. Next Sunday. Tom, I’ll see you then.”

No punchline, even delivered by Tom, could top him telling me the one about how we can be confident that God loves us; no doubt, no joke.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 1/16/15

Cradle Song

 

I wake early and make the hour long train trip to a doctor’s appointment. We finally arrive at the train depot in the transportation center and I step out of the train with the sleepy-eyed ¬†commuting workers and texting students and make my way to the bus terminal. I feel wide-eyed in the city this morning; like I’ve never been here before, even though my physical therapy appointments mean I’m here at least once a week, sometimes twice. Today, though, the steel gray of the normally sunny skies, somehow seems to emphasize, rather than cover, other shadows: the streets are dirtier, the hungry are hungrier; hope seems to always slip in the pavement cracks or slide around buried rebel roots just before I can step in it. I aim, step forward, and hope evaporates. I’m puddle jumping in a hope mirage. The violence of racism, the inhumanity of police-state brutality, and injustice across this country continues to grow, continues to break my heart and then, when I’m weak and tired, invite me to despair. I haven’t felt more like giving Christmas a complete pass than I do this year in a long time. Just meet it at the door at Twelve midnight, December 24, explain, “No, just not this year. I’m sorry, not this year,” and go back to bed, or prayer, or the streets. At the transportation center, the connecting hub for the regional train, the Amtrak, and the city buses, I look around and I can’t help but think of lyrics from Les Miserables:

“At the end of the day

You’re another day older,

that’s all you can say

for the life of the poor.

It’s a struggle, it’s a war,

and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving

One more day, standing about, what is it for?

One day less to be living.”

The Broadway lyrics in my head are interrupted by the Christmas carols playing over the speakers amid the morning rush and exhaust:

“Come, they told me, ” the song began and they seemed to. I look around and see them shuffling. The crew cut blonde guy with defeat in his eyes older than he is shuffles right into my personal space and behind me, studying every crevice and corner for a cigarette butt. He looks up just enough and just often enough as a safety precaution. He is maybe twenty-three. Stooped, leveled, solidly defeated at twenty-three.

“Our finest gifts we bring…pa rump a bum bum,” the story of the drummer boy continues while a few feet away a half a dozen others are shuffling. One man is rummaging through a trash can. Another shuffles left, then right, but never shuffling too far away to protect his two thirteen-gallon kitchen trash bags full of aluminum cans for recycling. I wonder what desperation is making this necessary: his own hunger, his family, needing medication, or a fix for an addiction, but no matter what the reason, they all grow despair, they each rob our spirit and leech our humanity.

“I am a poor boy, too…pa rump a bum bum,” the steady, solemn carol continues and I think that there, in that one unassuming word of the carol, seemes to be the key: “too,” “I am a poor boy, too,” a poor boy, also; a poor boy like you: a King on the inside but poor on the out. One of the half dozen homeless men is moving in start and stop, herky jerky, wide circular motions, his hands in the waist of his layers of pants. The others continue, intense as a forensics team, scouring the area for change or cigarette butts. And this, this is their long day and their hungry night; every night, their every day; everyday for what the Les Miserables lyricist called “the wretched of the earth.” For me, this is a few minutes of my day on my way to my physical therapy appointment. These are lean times. I have nothing extra to share today. My spouse and I live simply; more faith than funds, but I’m assured of at least my next meal and sometimes I remember my song.

Of all that I don’t remember from my childhood, I remember that someone sang over me when I was a baby. I had a cradle song and it seemed only logical that if you’ve got a cradle song then you know for sure what your Homecoming song will be. I wonder, did Christ at Calvary hear even an echo in His Mother’s weeping of His cradle song, of Mary’s Magnificat. I wonder if it welcomed Him home. I wonder if these shuffling, searching men had a cradle song, if they had someone to sing over them. I wonder if it would matter at all now, if they did have one, but they didn’t even know it. “Probably not,” I think, “except maybe, maybe some grace could let a humble and very late cradle song still be their Homecoming song; at least as a back up. If there’s a Book of Life, there’s bound to be an even Bigger Book of Commentary, Corrections, and Back up Homecoming Songs. Everyone has to have a welcome song, especially when the world has been so cold, so brutal; when our waiting, our Advent, has been so long. We should have a Homecoming song. So I grabbed the bus schedule and around its paramenter I wrote:

“This cradle song’s for the brokenhearted,

Hope is born for wounded souls;

Calling all to come as children:

The scared, the least, the left behind.

Lay down your cares,

Let Me dry all your tears,

Trade your songs of sorrow now

For the Savior’s lullaby:

“I rest in Jesus

as Jesus rests in me.

I’m never afraid

Nestled in the Prince of Peace,

I’m never afraid, nestled in the Prince of Peace.”

I look up from the bus schedule as the aluminum can man boards a city bus followed by a few of his friends, leaving the others to scatter.

We all scatter, all of us, all of our cradle songs half-remembered, our stories untold, and Homecoming songs unsung.

We all scatter, brothers unclaimed.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 12/8/14

Cocoon

Cocoon

When I was a kid, I not only imagined that my bedroom was its’ own world, I also worked to make sure that it was. Surviving the red-velvet clutter and “Chuck Wagon Gang” gospel music that assaulted you at the front door and making it to my bedroom was, in my mind, akin to surviving Mordor on your return to the Shire, or making it through the rest of *Texas to get to Austin. Even at a young age I was deeply embarrassed by my simple, unrefined parents and, much to their frustration, I took every opportunity to accentuate our differences. In fact, I thought we were so different from each other that we couldn’t really be related at all. I was filled with new hope as an adolescent at the idea that I must have been adopted. My determination culminated in an exhaustive, but futile secret search through my parent’s boxes and drawers, looking for papers that would prove my adoption. Years later, at my high school graduation, I would take great satisfaction when adult friends would comment to me that they couldn’t believe Mom and Dad were my parents. Now, other people; adults, suggested that perhaps I was adopted and I couldn’t have felt more . . . proud. In a room full of people, a stranger wouldn’t connect me with my parents; not by looks, or speech, or demeanor. My determination to be as different from them as I could be, had paid off.

Of course, my adult perspective of my parents is more seasoned; they’re not complete scapegoats to be sure. While I don’t remember an exact moment of such a decision, I think that maybe, at some point early on, I made up my mind even as a child, that I didn’t want a relationship with them. Some of my embarrassment was certainly typical of most all of us growing up: floundering for independence and embarrassed by our dependence. Like every child and adolescent, like every teen, like every human, I wanted to be and to belong. But there were other factors that grew the need in me to retreat to my imagination; to cocoon in my room. When my refuge was ruined, when my retreat was destroyed, I would eventually rebel. But, before there were clearly drawn enemy lines, before I defected, it’s true, I fought for the cause.

If Mom and Dad had a “cause”, or purpose, or a life at all it was the country church we drove forty-some miles to attend. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday night; every Wednesday night, and at frequent week long revivals, the piano and tambourines were banged, people “spoke in tongues”, desperate altar calls were given, and “sinner’s prayers” were repeated. Best of all, my Sunday school teacher, Sister Opal, would routinely amuse and frighten me by “shouting” the vast number of bobby pins out of her carefully constructed, pinned, and sprayed hair. If the old joke about Pentecostals, “the higher the hair, the closer to God”, is true, Sister Opal surely must have touched the nail prints in His hands. At home, Dad didn’t allow a television in the house for years. No secular music was allowed in the house at all, none; not jazz, not country; only gospel. This was, for the first part of my life, the only world I knew. I knew nothing else, so I emulated what I knew, certain that it would please Mom and Dad; and ‘pleasing Mom and Dad’ if nothing else, had to hurt less.

An aunt of mine is still fond of recalling how at five-years-old, I would take my little wooden chair and stool that Dad had varnished and painted with my name, “Jimmy” and turn that little chair into a pulpit for some of the fieriest sermons stuffed animals never heard.

"You MUST be born again! Huh!," I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister's harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews. I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was  determined  that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire.  Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things:  a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water,  and a handkerchief, or a "hanky" where we were from."
“You MUST be born again! Huh!,” I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister’s harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews.
I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was determined that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire. Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things: a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water, and a handkerchief, or a “hanky” where we were from.”
The “prayer hanky” came from my favorite family friend at church, Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was round and happy and chocolate brown and had the very best laugh and I loved her. I reckon I believe that if anybody ever did know anything at all for certain (and most of us don’t), Mrs. Williams knew something for certain and from the very first time that I had special permission to sit with her in church, I just wanted to be like Mrs. Williams. So it was only natural that I had to have a prayer hanky in my belt, just like Mrs. Williams kept in the belt of her dresses to dab her eyes or mop her brow, but it wasn’t the female accessories, it wasn’t the belt or the hankies that was alluring. “Pentecostal drag” is frequently gender-neutral: soaked hanky, dry hanky, Bible, and lotsa perspiration. What I wanted to be near; what was magnetic, what I wanted to be like was what folks like Mrs. Williams were like. I wanted what they had, or what “had them”, to know what they knew that made ’em move like they did -real sure and real humble; to know why Mrs. Williams always did seem like a calm sky and a solid place, no matter what, when everybody else felt like hard rain.

Deepest the deepest convictions of my pre-Evangelist trail-five-year-old-self, I was still only five, so even I eventually grew impatient and restless in church services. As a result of my talking and squirming, I became so accustomed to being taken out of church and into the Ladies Room to get switched, that one Sunday on the way into the church I simply looked up at Mom and said, “We might as well go in now and get it over with before church starts.” Now, I imagine the resignation that must have been in my little boy voice, knowing that this, violence, was just a fact of my day, and it makes me sad for a moment, to know that at five, I felt beaten. I felt so beaten in fact, that I soon gave up the continually prophesied big calling on my little life to be a preacher. Soon, I hardly spoke at all. Ever. People began to inquire aloud as to if I was mute. “Can’t your little boy speak?”, people would ask my Mom, their voices offering pity even before she could answer.

Now, I was born in 1966 and unfortunately for me, any changing with the times my parents might have done stopped a decade before my arrival. Looking like an extra from “Peggy Sue Got Married” surprised by the 1970’s, even Mom’s best Sunday dresses were worn with the ever-present white bobby socks. Our modest home felt like a time warp. Mom alternated between secret shopping trips and illness. Dad always stank of the burning rubber he molded into tires at Cooper Tire and Rubber. When he wasn’t breaking his back at work, Dad would sometimes sit and read his Bible and write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. Sometimes he would lose himself in the garage, which was so full of stuff, that getting lost was actually possible. And sometimes to break up that routine up, he’d beat the daylights out of me. As I grew older I became more ashamed of my parent’s simple, poor, country folk ways and “old time religion” fervor. In a world in which I increasingly felt I didn’t belong, these two characters were apparently sent the long trip down Walton’s mountain to be certain that I never would. In our family’s defense, it should be noted, that there was not a velvet oil painting of Elvis over our couch. Appropriately enough, the velvet oil painting over our couch was of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a kind of a morbid marquee:

“Now Playing, In It’s Record Breaking Twelfth Year: “SUFFERING.”

In the picture, Christ is kneeling at an altar of rock, arms outstretched, hands clasped together in prayer, His face pained and pleading, as He and I ask that this bitter cup pass from us.

My bitter cup, as I saw it, was to survive, not only my father’s welts and blows, but also the crushing embarrassment of my Mom’s elastic-waisted polyester pants and incessantly cheery habit of answering the phone, “Hello! God loves you!” I imagine myself as Carrie White in the Brian De Palma directed movie and Stephen King story, “Carrie”. I can see the scene now; although, unlike Carrie, returning home from gym class where she was terrorized by her first period and tormented by the other girls, I am returning home from a church youth group gathering where the very people that I saw in church each Sunday played records that, to my serious horror, were not (gulp), gospel!

Imagine, me, twelve and Piper Laurie as my mother:

“I can see your dirty little Top 40 music, Carrie.”

“It’s not dirty, Mama. It’s just pop music. It’s just Anne Murray. Even the folks at church like her, Mama.”

“Heathens and Hypocrites. First sin was secular music. Say it.”

“No, Mama. Why didn’t you tell me? They all laughed at me ’cause I was so surprised they weren’t afraid of going to hell for listening to “Daydream Believer”. You shoulda told me Mama.”

“First sin was secular music. Say it child!”

“No, Mama!”

“Go to your closet!”

And so, I did go to my closet. I could be found, but it bought me time. Sometimes just a few minutes could give mom enough time to calm Dad down a little. So, in the cramped, smothering hiding place in my bedroom closet I continued to learn the value of retreat; the safety of invisibility. If my bedroom was going to be my safe haven to retreat to it must be guarded and insulate me from all that was frightening, painful, and tacky just across the its’ threshold. However things might be outside the four walls of my bedroom, they would be as opposite of that as I could make them within.

Since the rest of the house was unkempt and cluttered, my room would be immaculate: no clutter, no dust, no wrinkles in my bedspread. In my room I countered the harsh light the living room picture window cast on my reality by creating indirect lighting with night lights and desk lamps hidden behind the removable speakers of my 8-track stereo. Since the only music in the rest of the house was country gospel, there would be classical music in my bedroom. I won the battle to play classical music as an exception by emphasizing its’ lack of lyrics and syncopated beats. Just by being thought about in my room, the lowly fiddle became a violin. There was a cork board that hung over my desk that I decorated to celebrate each season and holiday. My “desk” was actually a carpenter’s workbench. Of course, I had stored away all of the ridiculous carpenters’ tools and now imagined it to be a roll top desk.

Perhaps the most stark cultural contrast between the world inside my room and the “outside world” of the rest of the house was during the Christmas holiday. One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the annual Christmas conflict over whether or not we could have a Christmas tree. Dad saw it as an unwieldy arm of evil meant to replace Christ with commercialism. Mind you, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him, it was just confusing and embarrassing when he threw the Christmas tree into the front yard. If there would be no Christmas or only Christmas conflict outside my room, then it would be a Christmas-effin’ wonderland in my room. It began at Thanksgiving with a huge roll of colored paper from school on which I would create a Christmas mural. By the time the holiday arrived I would have a wall-size chalk depiction of the nativity. Garland and evergreen lined my dresser, bookshelf, and windowsill. Scented candles burned while Christmas carols played softly on an 8-track loop. From the ceiling I painstakingly hung hundreds of individual icicles, for what I saw as a tremendous effect. By just the streetlight from my bedroom window, when the furnace kicked on blowing warm air through the floor vent, all I saw were dancing flashes of silver light; stars in the low-slung heavens of my very own room. Here, it was a little easier to believe that I was somewhere else. Here, maybe I could find that hope again, that hope I use to have when I was sure I must have been adopted. Here, maybe I’ll find hope while I ponder the question posed by the quietly playing carol, “What Child is This?” What child is This, indeed.

In the end, I retreated to my room so frequently that my dad, the enemy, began to infiltrate my camp, even in the daylight. It became a rule that my bedroom door had to be left, not only unlocked, but open all the time. I broke no rule more consistently. As a result, my bedroom door was unhinged and removed by my Dad, as I would be very soon. It was sort of a cocoon C-section, and yet there would be wings; tattered and atrophied, but still, wings – wings that I could flex and extend, strengthen and bend – wings that could heal and mend and, for now, wings that would keep me warm while I learned to walk.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 2004/20014

*sorry, Texans, but well, you’re in Texas, you’d better have a sense of humor.

**a slightly different version of this story first appeared in the chapbook, “Growing Up Jimmy: Tales of Bible Belt Survival on the Yellow Brick Road”, at http://www.sematikon.com, and in “Dayton City Paper”.

“Moving from Job to Jesus (The Importance of Lament in Our Suffering)” Sunday morning message 7/20/14

‚Äč”The Importance of Lament in our Suffering
(Moving from Job to Jesus)
7/20/14

As we conclude our study of lament this morning, I found that I could not have the privilige of sharing with you without addressing what I find to be perhaps one of the most damaging
misunderstandings that we have internalized. For just a moment I’d like us to go back to those first few words that God speaks to Adam in Genesis 3:11. I continue to find this verse an invaluable barometor in my own life for discernment. At this point in the story of the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have turned their attention from God and listened to the serpent, they’ve made themselves an audience for the Accuser, and, as is always the case when we listen to the Accuser, they found themselves ashamed. Adam is hiding in his shame and God’s first question to Adam hiding in his nakedness, which, of course, he always was, in Genesis 3:11 is “Who told you that…?” It is an valuable question. Who told you that you should be ashamed? Who told you that you were not God’s beloved? Who told you that you didn’t belong at God’s table? Who told you that you couldn’t because you just don’t have the education, because you’re too young, too old, because you are a woman, because you were divorced, because you are gay, because you’re theology is just not right? As you can see, contemplating this question and it’s implications can be another message in itself, but what we can be sure of is that “who ever told you that”, it was not God. And I think it can again be a valid way of addressing this tragic misunderstanding of scripture that has so permeated our consciousness and culture that folks who have never steped foot inside a church and who have never cracked open a Bible can frequently quote and find themselves believing Job 1:21:

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

And we ask the question that God presented Adam in Genesis 3:11, “Who told us that?” Who is speaking here in Job 1:21? ___, that’s right, Job. These are not the words, message, or truth of God. This is Job speaking. I’d suggest that this is Job speaking at his worst, from his worst, Not his faith. I know that, like most of us, when we’re really honest about it, that when I’ve been depressed, oppressed, traumatized by loss, and grief, and illness, that I have said some things about how I felt about my trials and life in general, and even some choice words for God, that I don’t even want remembered or repeated, let alone taken as Truth, because I, like Job in this verse, was speaking from my experience. I was not speaking the Truth of God or about God. This is where Job is at. This is where Job was speaking from. Yet this Untruth about God has saturated our hearts, minds, and culture at large. I’ve found in my studies that this Untruth about God has been propagated by some of the greatest, though fallible, theological minds of our time, including R.C. Sproul and yet I’m suggesting that no matter how deeply it has become ingrained in us and in our world that remains Untrue.

The Lord does Not take away.

When we deeply internalize this misunderstanding of Scripture, it leads us to refusing to take our rightful place as heirs of God’s Kingdom, because with this belief, you just never know what God is going to do. I mean how many times would you continue to trust me to pull out a chair for you to sit in if I routinely pull it away as you sit and you end up on the floor? This belief turns us into the consistently fooled and foiled Charlie Brown and turns God into the consistently pranking Lucy who routinely pulls away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it! When we believe this lie, we mistake the lies of the Accuser for a Truth about God. When our subconscious default is to blame God for our suffering, we end up, like Charlie Brown, flat on our backs, finally looking up, and feeling like a blockhead, which, of course was always the plan of the Accuser. One of just a few things that I want most for us to leave here with today is this: we do Not serve a “Gotcha!-God”.

God is certainly mysterious. I’d suggest that God is mysterious mostly because of Her unyielding and offensive grace, because most of us, in our humanity remain so deeply rooted in the idea of retribution rather than reconciliation. The foundation our God offers us of lives of unconditional love and radical forgiveness is inviting and compelling and completely mysterious and offensive because, as we’re reminded repeatedly in the Scriptures that this love, forgiveness, and grace includes absolutely EVERY and All parts of ourselves And absolutely EVERYONE and ALL of those around us in our world – which is, of course, Outrageous and why we’re all here at all.

So, yes, of course, God is mysterious, for as the Scriptures say, “His ways are not our ways”, and yet God is also predictable and knowable. When we want to know what God is like, we look, Not to Job, but to Jesus, the Only begotten Son of God, in the flesh. The Scriptures and God evidenced in our own lives give us clear descriptions, examples, mandates, and promises for just what God is like and what God will do.

I believe it was a character in the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that was out a few years ago whose go-to, lean-on truth was, “If it’s not a happy ending, it can’t be the end of the story.” Isn’t that great? In the same way, you and I can be sure that if it’s not good, it’s Not God. We can pull out our Genesis 3:11 tool of discernment and ask, “Who told us that?” Let’s look quickly at just a few verses out of the countless verses that we could look at describing God’s character and interactions with us. The book of James, chapter 1, verse 5 describes our “God, who gives generously without finding fault…” James 1:13 tells us that “When tempted no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, NOR does God tempt anyone.” And in James 1:17 we are assured that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights who does Not change like shifting shadows.” The Message Bible’s version says simply, “He is not fickle.” We will never have peace, let alone victory if we believe that God is behind our suffering. If we think God is robbing us we won’t even resist. Again, this is why we look to Jesus whom Job forshadows prophetically, but we do not look to Job, a drowning man for our Lifeline.

If I can get even just a couple “Amens”, I’ll consider it permission to move on. Thank you. Thank God.

We find in our Scriptures a rich history full of examples and complete permission and role modeling of lament. Jesus wept. Job wept. Jeremiah wept. And the least of what David did was weep. The “imprecatory psalms” or curses of David are riddled with anger and rage and had they been spoken in today’s vocabulary, I’m convinced that they would have been dotted with expletives that would offend the ears of some of us and have us showing David the door. And David was, “a man after God’s own heart.” The very same mouth that spoke, “The Lord is my shepherd…” also spat out curses like, “Break their teeth! Make their wives widows! Make their children beggars on the street!” Here is a man after God’s own heart Not because of the sweetness of his poetry, but because he voiced absolutely everything to God – the fear, the grief, the doubt, the anger, and fury, and rage. (And yes, when we see David stumble and fall in such grand fashion, it is always preceded by not having done this.)

Eugene Peterson, the man who gave us versions of the Scriptures in The Message Bible, that many of us are fond of, says this: “At least one reason why people are uncomfortable with tears and the sight of suffering is that it is a blasphamous assault on our precariously maintained American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness. It is a lot easier to keep the American faith if we don’t have to look into the face of suffering, if we don’t have to listen to laments, if we don’t have to deal with tears. They, and most often we, want to avoid evidence that things are not right with the world as it is – without Jesus, without love, without faith, without sacrifice.” We’ll note Peterson’s distinction here: “the American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness.” As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of Jesus, we are not called to happiness, but to joy. We are not called to success, but to victory. We are not called to ” 5 easy spiritual steps to prosperity”, but to faithfulness even through our suffering. This is, of course, the very antithesis of empire, the American empire or any other, that depends on our silence, depends on our withholding our lament for the empire to survive at all.

People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that our prayers of complaint, and protest, and sorrow, and doubt ARE prayers of faith! These prayers represent the last refusal to let go of God. This being true, Voicing our lament expresses one of the most intimate moments of faith, NOT a lack of it or a denial of it. Only lament uncovers this kind of faith.

In Job 7:11, Job boldly says, “I will Not keep silent. I will Not speak with restraint. I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. I will give VOICE to the anguish of my soul.” And this, too, is worship, it is WORTH-Ship, because in speaking our lament before God, we affirm that God is Worthy enough, Big enough for everything we could ever bring.

I’d suggest that the most important reason to Voice our lament is because without lament, you and I are robbed of our true identity before God. Our best hope of finding our way back to true worship is through lament. Theologian Walter Bruggeman explains, “that nothing is out of bounds, nothing is precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God.”

Everything belongs, everything brought to speech, everything addressed to God.

When we understand and practice this, it brings us into a deeper presence of Christ that we can discover no other way. Job’s already close relationship with God is stretched and becomes even deeper and more personal through the process of wrestling with God through his lament. In fact, it seems, in the lament born of Job’s suffering, things get more personal than they’ve been since the garden of Eden. One of the many resources and authors I’ve studied in preparing this message, Michael Card, made what I thought was an absolutely outrageous statement. He said, “In the desperate intimacy that can only be articulated through lament, Job addresses God by an incredible New name, “You”. Now, if you’re like me or I’m guessing maybe Glenn (a congregation member), those kind of nuggets are just really exciting. I couldn’t believe it just because this wonderful songwriter and author said it of course, so I pulled out my old Strong’s Concordance. I consulted another concordance online and yes, I went through every single line of the Old Testament prior to Job with the word “you” in it and you know what? The man is right! Not Moses or Abraham or Elijah, no one until Job gets So personal with the Almighty God to dane to use a simple very personal pronoun like “You”. So through our voicing lament it gets personal like no other time. It brings us to a deeper intimacy with God. In contrast, to deny our lament is to isolate ourselves and deny that intimacy with God.

Lament keeps the door open.

Secondly, expressing and giving voice to our lament in our suffering is vital because it brings us together as the community and the body of Christ that we are called to be. When we fail to voice our lament we cut ourselves off from each other. If you and I are to know each other in a deep way, we must not only share our hurts, anger, and disappointments with each other, we must also lament them TOGETHER BEFORE OUR GOD who is moved by our tears. *ONLY then does our sharing become truly Redemptive in character.

The degree to which we are willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the level of our commitment and love for them. If we are not interested in another person’s hurts, we’re not really interested in them, and we’re not willing to suffer to know them or to be known by them.

As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we care deeply about our calling to care for the least and last, but our failure to lament also hampers us in being able to fully know and reach out to the poor, whom Jesus told us were to be our central concern. After all, how did Jesus come to know us except by entering into the poverty of our world as a “Man of Sorrows”?

How can we speak to the suffering and the poor if we do not learn the language of lament? Until we learn to honestly embrace our hopelessness and theirs, * there will be no true gospel to be heard. **Until we learn to lament, we really have nothing to say to most of the world. If we are to authentically connect with our own heart and soul; if we are to connect with each other, and to know true intimacy with God, we Must come to understand that our worship is Not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If that were true, then according to our modern American understanding of worship, the poor have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While we see Jesus consistently pronouncing blessings on the poor and those who mourn, we far too often pronounce the curse of making our own lament and the lament of others unwelcome. Those who “labor and are heavy laden” too often can find no place in our too comfortable, too programed church services to lay their burdens down.

But Job clings desperatly to God, who encourages us to offer Him everything, to give voice to every joy and sorrow, every protest, doubt and complaint.

All our broken hearts; all our contrite spirits.

I think that maybe we’ve confused lament with despair. I’d suggest that lament and despair are polar opposites.

*Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of our belief in God.

*Despair is the ultimate and total denial that God can even help, that God even exists.

Lament is our means of crossing over from sorrow and the anger of retributive justice to the mercy of God’s loving-kindness. If we are Ever to move away from hating our enemies toward eventually loving them, as Jesus commands, we Must cross this bridge. We must submit to this process until God is finished with the process of perfecting our hearts. Until then, it’s useless to stand in God’s Presence and each other’s company and mouth pretended words of forgiveness and love.

In essence, voicing lament is crucial in our suffering because it allows and grows in us authentic intimacy in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with each other.

In every example of lament in the Scriptures, in the laments of Job, David, Jeremiah, and even in Jesus, we witness a transition from despair to hope, from complaint to praise. Somewhere, somehow an invisible line is crossed and the focus of the lament is turned from self to God. In the course of the lament, frequently in our exhausting ourselves against God, something shifts, our memory is jogged and we call to mind, as did Job and David and Jesus, the faithfulness of God and we cross the line from sorrowful self-centered “I”, “me”, and “mine” to praise.

This morning we’d like to create together the space and opportunity to share this process. As Tony and the musicians come forward, I invite you to bring to mind whatEver sorrows, doubts, grief, complaint, and even anger that may be on your heart this morning. After Tony shares a song with us and the musicians continue to play quietly, we will have an opportunity to voice with a sound (sometimes all I can say is “mmm,mmmm,mmmm” or maybe “my God”) or only a word or two naming the laments that we want to bring before the Lord, and not take back home with us, that way we may have arrived here with this morning. And then, following that biblical example of crossing the line from sorrowful self-centered lament to remembering the faithfulness of our God, Tony will repeat some of our laments back to us and as a congregation bound together by our common experience of suffering and our common hope found in Jesus, we will affirm that God IS faithful, that God IS still our answer as we sing back, after each lament, the old “Amen” chorus that I think many of grew up with. Do y’all remember that? Just 5 enthusiastic “A-mens” in a row. “A-men, A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men”. Lemme give us an example just so we’re real clear before we move into this time. So, if during our time of voicing our lament, one of our members offers up, “Israel and Palestine conflict”. During our time of affirmation and praise, Tony will offer back, “Israel and Palestine conflict” and we, the congregation will affirm in enthusiastic song together, “A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men, a-men” and we’ll continue in that fashion till we get a little bit clearer, a little bit lighter, a bit more assured that God remains faithful, despite what we see with our physical eyes.

Tony…..

(**This message and my life are deeply indebted to the heart, wisdom,
and teaching of Sue Boykin, Charlette Franklin, Rebecca Trotter (you should totally check out her blog at “The Upside Down World”),
Brennan Manning, and especially Michael Card’s excellent writing on the subject.**)

*Just a note to readers of the blog, I’ve posted this as a few have requested me to; but typically, especially with classes beginning in just a matter of weeks and my own experience as a blog reader sometimes feeling overwhelmed by voluminous posts, I will only be posting once weekly, probably on Mondays. As always thanks by stopping by. I so appreciate it.