Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A thousand lunatics waving

This week at my work everyone in the agency was asked to help out with a new business pitch by going on a little excursion. We received an email telling us to meet in the lobby of our building and that more would be revealed. So we all gathered and then at 3 pm the surge of people went outside. There were probably about a thousand of us, and we all started walking, just following the people walking in front of us. If there were clear instructions given at some point, I missed them. And frankly I'm not sure there were. All I knew is that we were walking toward Ontario street and that was it. I found someone I knew in line and we walked together, mostly just chatting, catching up, occasionally wondering and questioning those around us on what they knew, if they knew more than us, if they had any idea what we were doing. When we arrived at our destination--and the only way I knew it was our destination was because everyone stopped, we stood there for a long time, waiting, not knowing what we were waiting for. Waiting for further instructions, I guess. After about 20 minutes, at some sign that I wasn't privy to, those around me started waving and cheering, looking up toward the sky, toward the windows of this office building we were standing near, just waving and cheering. I joined in, all the while trying to figure out why, and who we might be waving at or cheering for. I never did--and ultimately I ended up just having to trust that I was doing the right thing at the right time, and there was someone out there somewhere watching, someone who cared that we were standing on a street corner, a thousand lunatics waving.

After a minute or two of this waving and cheering, at some other signal I missed, we stopped, and some people across the street held up signs that said, "Thanks and have a beer on us." and gave the address of a nearby bar.

This whole silly event seemed to me a perfect representation of the life of faith.

We follow some obscure instructions and follow other people following those same obscure instructions, hoping against hope that we're going in the right direction. Not totally clear on our purpose, our destination. Asking others along the way what they know, what they've seen and heard. Looking for reassurance in their presence. We are stared at by strangers. We are at times annoying to passersby, sometimes amusing, intriguing, sometimes even slightly inviting. We try to enjoy the journey by chatting with people we're walking with. And then we stop sometimes and perform strange rituals, waving wildly toward the heavens, hoping that an unseen face at the window sees us and what we're doing means something to them, matters in some way.

That's how it's been for me, at least. I heard some obscure instructions one day a long long time ago. And I've been walking ever since, walking among this great cloud of witnesses, trying at times to keep up, sometimes veering off on my own, sometimes happily following along, thinking it's all a great, crazy, ridiculous, funny adventure, and sometimes totally pissed off about the lack of concrete information, about what a foolish waste of time it all seems to be. I heard a voice and I started following, and I shade my eyes and look up to the sky for a sign that I'm in the right place, that my being here makes a difference, that my actions are communicating something to Someone, and that at some point all will be revealed. In the meantime, I am one of a thousand lunatics waving. Like Abraham and Sarah. Like David. Like Ruth and Rahab. Peter and Paul. Looking up and praying and hoping and believing we're all on the right road and as stupid as it feels and looks and as strange and absurd as it may be, this is what we were made for, this is why we were put here, this is what will ultimately make all the difference in the world.

Oh yeah and afterwards...whenever afterwards is...Free Beer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Required reading

I give my affirmation group homework each month, which usually involves reading a chapter from The Velvet Elvis and then sometimes there’s some short supplementary reading and a worksheet I make up—a few thought questions to answer. When we meet together as a group once a month, we discuss the chapter from the book and perhaps some of the other readings. And I ask them to turn in the worksheets.

I heard through the grapevine last week about one of the Affirmands telling another that she hadn't been reading the book. The advice she got back was: don't worry...just find something you can relate to in the discussion time and start talking about that and no one will be able to tell. "That's what I do," the advice-giver said. "And no one knows the difference."

Now, keep in mind, I'm not keeping score in Affirmation; no one is getting graded on a 4 point scale. It's not even Pass/Fail. It's just Pass and Pass. And whatever. So why the need to fake it? To pretend to do the reading? To act like the perfect student when you really aren't? To try to give the impression you're really into it, when you're really not?

There's a TV show on these days called "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and though I've only watched an episode or two, my kids watch it some. There's a lot going on in these TV American Teenagers' lives. Mostly involving sex it seems. (Surprise, surprise.) Who's kissing someone they shouldn't? Who's sleeping with who? Who's pregnant? Is the pregnant girl's boyfriend going to come through for her, etc. etc. Of course when I was growing up it was "sex, drugs and rock n roll." The holy trinity of our disaffection and teenage rebellion. But, the point is, teenagers always rebel. Experiment. Push the boundaries. Test the limits. That's what it means to be a teenager, after all. It's a time for separation from parents and authority figures. A time to thumb your nose and see just how much you can get away with. And if you're not doing all the wild things, you're watching others do them, live and in person, or on stupid TV shows.

So in the major scheme of things, not doing the reading for Affirmation, seems like pretty small potatoes. And if that's the way some of the kids in this program want to rebel (versus staying out all night and smoking crack) hallelujah, bring it on.

On the other hand...I did feel a little sad when I heard about the deception -- the "pretend to do the reading, fake everyone out, seem like we're 'good' when we really aren't" thing going on in the group. Not sure why exactly. Maybe because I think that's what church can become for people for all their lives, not just as teenagers. The place we go with our "my life is all together" disguises on. It can become the place where no one is telling the truth, everyone is pretending to be happy and healthy or at least working on things that need fixing. It isn't often a place where people go and say, I don't want to love my neighbor, I'm no good at loving myself, I think God is a major SOB for saddling me with this or that, and expecting me to thank Him for it. I feel selfish and angry and unhappy and not at all "Christlike" thank you very much and I'm not sure I want to feel anything different. And NO I didn't do the required reading.

During Lent my family and I decided to give up sweets--sugary desserts, candy, ice cream, that sort of thing. And I'm not doing well with it. As soon as we decided this, I started craving sugary stuff more than ever. What I've said to people about it is that I wanted to give up sugar because I know I use sugar to medicate my feelings and help me feel like I can take care of things on my own. Being without sugar I thought would take me to this vulnerable place where I would be more aware of my needs and fears and sadness and loneliness and without my sugar crutch, I would turn to God, become closer to God.

What's happened though is that I've gotten into my secret American teenager life. I've started having sugar when my family isn't around, when no one is looking. I've been pretending to be good, and feeling bad because I'm not. I've been faking it, pretending to go along with the family, while at the same time plotting my next opportunity to sneak a Snickers bar or a Pop Tart. And why am I doing this--what do I get out of this? It's definitely a way to express anger. It's a secret way to express anger and disappointment with my life and with God. And the secretiveness of it seems to be a part of its charm. The thrill of it, I guess. We don't just lie, I suspect, because we are afraid of what would happen if we told the truth. Because frankly, not that much would happen to me if I told the truth to my family about the sugar. And nothing would happen if the kids in my Affirmation group who aren't doing the reading came out and said, I'm not doing the required reading. (It might actually be a good thing if they said that.) But we don't tell the truth I think because lying is exciting. Lying is fun. Lying gets our adrenaline rushing, and our heart racing and it gives us a secret smile, some sweet thing to hold onto that separates us and makes us feel special. Or maybe even more alive.

Are the secrets short lived jolts of "aliveness"? Sure. They are sugar highs. Only good for a little while, then you need another one. But sometimes the alternative, real honesty, feels too hard, too exhausting, too time-consuming and like too much work.

I've been thinking about writing a note to my Affirmand group this week. Just to tell them once again that the required reading in our program isn't really that required. To tell them again that this program is just for them, for their growth, to give them a time and space and a forum to talk about the big questions. A time to separate their faith from their parents' faith, to decide who they want to be in relationship to God, to see what they believe if no one is telling them what to believe. I don't know if it will matter, if anyone will open up and tell the truth about the fact that they aren't doing all the reading so we could talk openly about that.

I've also been thinking about what I'm learning this Lent is that I love to keep secrets. I thrive on secret rebellion. On looking good, on keeping the surface shiny and polished, while hiding what's just underneath that surface. And that maybe that's something I need to confess to my lovely little sugar-deprived family.

I might need to eat a Hershey bar first, though.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Remind me...why do we go to church, again?

Why do you go to church? I asked the Affirmands and their mentors that question on Sunday. Of course I told the Affirmands that I know many of them may feel like they don't have much of a choice in the matter because their parents bring them, so I suggested they answer as if they did feel like they had a choice...as if they could imagine having a choice.

It turned into one of those sacred moments as we went around the table, one of those times in which the air feels electric with Presence, when people are reaching inside themselves and bringing out something raw and tender that they don't often expose to the light of day. It was a godly moment, as my 14 year old Hannah might say. "Godly" is one of her new favorite words. It's one of her "bits," she uses. ("Bits" being her word for her ongoing schticks.) For example, we have a table in our house that is covered with crosses we've collected from travels in Mexico. There's one Zoe brought back from Ecuador too. And Hannah calls this our "godly table." It sounds funny the way she says it, as it's meant to. I know on some level she loves this table of crosses. And on another she is embarrassed to love it, embarrassed to be a person who goes to church, who has a mother who collects crosses. She loves our family and at the same time feels weird and different from her friends to be a part of a family that believes in God and prays and sings songs about Jesus and goes to church regularly. All of that is encapsulated in the way she calls this our "godly" table.

So we had one of Hannah's "Godly" moments on Sunday. Beautiful and truthful and spirit-filled, and also slightly awkward and embarrassing. Stripping away our cool facades for a moment or two to say what we are hungry for at God's feast.

The community. The music. To be reminded of God's values. To pray with other people. To participate in an alternate reality. To get a little taste of heaven. For beauty. For love. Out of longing. These are the reasons we show up on a Sunday morning. It almost hurt to say it out loud...to admit to ourselves and each other the deep need that brings us together, the need and the love and the hope.

As I was planning for our Affirmation meeting this past week I thought perhaps we'd do a recipe poem about church with the group. The discussion went long so we never got to it, but on Saturday night, as I was preparing I wrote a recipe poem about church, just to see where it might take us. I liked what it brought out of me. It's kind of a godly poem, I think.

Recipe for Church

Take two or more people stirred by something.
Or Someone.
Mix them together with a pinch of mystery.
Ladle in their stories, their particular sorrows,
Their thinly sliced joy,
And sweet sprinkles of hope.
Fold their hands in prayer.
Then bring their hands together, layer them gently.
Cut through the false pretenses, all the lies they tell themselves and each other, all the ways they pretend to have it together, peel away the layers they use to keep each other at bay.
Add heat.
Don’t be afraid to burn this.
It’s not your job to control this.
When it’s done…

Wait, how will you tell when it’s done?

Things will rise.
The aroma will fill the room.
You may suddenly hear the dusting of music, music so beautiful it makes you want to crylaughcry.
Go with it.
You may also notice angels, swirling, cresting like meringue.

When it’s done, place in the bowl of heaven.
Serve immediately to the world.
They’re waiting for a taste of this.