Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A New World

Four years ago this month, over a period of 4 weeks, I looked within, searching, listening, waiting for my greatest, deepest - below all else - heart's desire to surface and make itself apparent. I did that so I could ask God, my longtime Father, friend and lover for that desire. Finally one rainy night alone in my car traveling towards home on mostly empty streets I shouted/sobbed in an agony/ecstasy of desire, so forceful that speaking it left me utterly spent. "I want them to know You, God - I want them to experience You in your fullness."

The "them" I referred to was my husband and sons and new daughter-in-law. "Them" - though intensely focused on the four already in my family - included the as yet unknown woman who would, hopefully, eventually stand beside our second son as wife, and any children that might come from these unions.

Expressions of desire that powerful do not simply vanish. I knew, as surely as I knew my name, that in the utterance of that desire, I had opened a door to a new world for myself and these ones I loved with such passion. A world that would almost certainly involve more hardship and suffering than we had hitherto experienced. A world that called out "Goodness", "Love", and "Truth" from my stance outside the threshold, but once entered, would bear labels like "Loss", "Grief", and "Suffering" and would likely have me screaming for escape or respite for myself and my loved ones.

That much I could glimpse with my forward looking eyes through a Biblically grounded mindset where wanting to know God fully seems to require knowing Christ in the fellowship of sharing in his suffering - Philippians 3:10-12. Christianity does not have a monopoly on the "suffering required for fullness of life" theme, but the writings in the Bible do seem to highlight the possibility of a fuller relationship with this Supernatural Other in the midst of or as a result of suffering and pain. The New Testament writings, in particular, imply that increased pain and loss will come to those who choose to become Jesus' friends.

What I did not foresee, even in my wildest pre-prayer imaginings, was that, in my 50's I would struggle so mightily with "the existence of God" and "the meaning of life" questions. I did not foresee that I would come to a place where I felt I could trust neither the traditional Christianity played out in the churches I knew or my past interpretations of "hearing God's voice" in my Bible reading and prayer. I did not foresee that within a matter of months I would go from being a woman who rarely started a day without extensive Bible reading, prayer, and journaling to becoming a spiritual deaf/mute, who avoided picking up the Bible and struggled with unbelievable effort to frame and direct my honest questions to a God whose existence I seriously doubted.

I did not foresee that my inability to place the newly encountered suffering comfortably within my past theological/world view boxes would bring about a lengthy retreat, not only from regular church attendance and involvement, but also from my extensive community of friends - all of them evangelical Christians. I knew it would be way too threatening for most of them to see that Sandy, "the strong Christian, the prayer warrior", had moved into an agnostic stance - seriously doubting the existence of God.

I felt that most of my friends, upon hearing my struggle - assuming I could clearly articulate it - which I couldn't - would do what I would have done for so many years - answer quickly and try to "fix" me. Fix me with scripture passages or stock American Evangelical "box" answers that had become too shallow to impact my thinking. I reasoned that if the God I had known and loved for so many years did exist, then he had heard and was in the process of answering my deep heart desire, and if so, I didn't want to be fixxed. I wanted to find out what I could only find out by walking through the struggle. Even if that meant I came out the other side still broken.

I tested the water with one friend I thought had experienced enough suffering and loss to perhaps identify with the "restructuring of belief" in which I found myself immersed. Nope. Listening, really listening to my intellectual struggle was something she was not at all prepared to do. I also figured I might - at some point - move out of depression - if that's where I was - or resolve the questions and move back to a stance of firm belief in traditional Christianity. I had no desire to awaken faith struggles in others and feel responsible for their "loss of faith", so that too, has kept me largely silent and withdrawn. Since then, over these past three years, I have confined trying to speak about my intellectual and faith struggles only to my immediate family and 2 exceptional friends, one in her 20's and one in her 60's, each of whom has cared for me more than I deserved and has listened intently, with her entire being.

This morning I came across this quote I had copied into my journal just over 4 years ago, just two months before "the dangerous prayer". It's an apt description of part of my journey.

"Moving into another culture is often traumatic. In a brief moment, all that we know can be shattered into little pieces. A different landscape, language, values, and worldview leaves us uncomfortable, if not terrified. In response, we quickly erect barriers in an effort to stop, or at least buffer the onslaught of foreign realities.

How difficult it is to summon the courage for breaking through the fear of the unknown. For many people, engaging a new world is an experience of losing the self. When this happens, it is hard to believe that a new self or frame of reference will be found. Anthropologists use terms such as "freezing of boundaries" to describe defense mechanisms employed for battling the perceived enemy - the unknown.

In cross-cultural experiences, the typical stages of fear, denial, anger, and avoidance have been well documented. Some people are able to move through and beyond these stages, while others hang on to the familiar with persistence and passion."

George Beukema, Stories from Below the Poverty Line , pp 30-31

So now I find myself in a vastly different place from where I sat 4 years ago. It is not the place of angry existentialism or despairing agnosticism of 2 years ago. But it is still a place of questioning and waiting, still a place of reading, writing and thinking; still a place of listening more than talking, still a place of laboriously reconstructing, bit by bit, my foundation of belief.

It is still a place of a different kind of prayer.

The photo above was taken on Resurrection Bay, south of the Kenai peninsula, Alaska.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Olive Oil Dog

Thompson, the terrier, and I have been losing a battle for months against a pernicious staff infection. Thompson is old, his nurse hasn't been regular enough in administering either his twice weekly "leave the medicated shampoo on for 15 minutes" baths or his daily antibiotics, and he greatly aggravates the infection by all the licking, scratching and biting of himself which he does to try to relieve the itching. After a month or two of making Thompson wear a lampshade collar for most hours of the day, I was sick of the lack of progress and discouraged over his visible despondency. So I decided to try a remedy from my childhoood.

After another shorter-than-its-supposed-to-be bath, I slathered him with olive oil from head to toe and dressed him in baby clothes purchased at the thrift store for said purpose. Dressing a dog who doesn't want clothes is hard enough, but dressing an olive oil slick dog WITHOUT getting any oil on oneself is apparently, a feat I'm not capable of performing.

Thompson reminded me of Olivia, the pig, of children's book fame walking around the house with his black bell bottoms and skinny legs. I don't have any good face shots, because he refused to cooperate - every time he saw me coming with the camera he made a hasty retreat.

Even though he didn't cooperate for photos, it seemed like he had relief from itchy skin for the first time in a looooong time, So, the next day I decided to slather him once more, this time reeeaaally rubbing it in till all his nasty crusty scabs came off - pretty close to an hour massage. A clean thrift store outfit, some help from David to dress the reluctant, oily, fashion model, and a couple more circuits of the house with me chasing my photo op. Reminded me of Snowbell, the cat, talking to Stuart Little, the mouse "talk to the butt, talk to the butt".

Finally, to get away from the camera he traveled through our bedroom to the bathroom. He climbed into the shower, stuck his nose in the corner and refused, absolutely REFUSED to turn around until I left the bedroom. I don't know - maybe he was offended by the pink girly outfit. So now its been a couple days, he reeks again, and its time for another treatment. Sigh. Maybe David will do the honors this time....

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Worth the Time to Read

I'm a book person. There are currently over 2 dozen books (most non-fiction) stacked on, in and next to my nightstand - books I've been working through this past year or 2, but not done with enough to have made it to one of the bookshelves in another room - and another stack of a dozen new ones on the dresser waiting to move to the "reading" stack.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, I'm a word person. Without limits, I would devour magazines and newspapers to the point of exclusion of other activities so I have to limit my contact with them. I can be greatly affected by movies and dramatic productions and I am thrilled that e-mail and blogging has brought written language back into a place of prominence and power in people's lives. I love it when bloggers - family, friends, and strangers - invite me into their lives with their digital words and pictures. But when it comes to sorting through history, knowledge, and experiences to choose blocks to use in building life perspective there is something about a book that has a greater weight in my reasoning mind.

I give minimal time to daily news broadcasts of any variety, but I regularly read a couple news magazines to keep me out of the Neanderthal box on world events. But I really appreciate the research, fact-checking, editing and deepening of perspective that should come with the time, people and money that has traditionally gone into producing a book for market.

All that said, I've decided that sharing books of my life should be a part of my digital journal. Sometimes they will be recent reads, at other times books I view as having major impact in my thinking and living. Sometimes just a quote and a link, other times more. That is, as soon as I can find an easy way to attach a picture of the book to the link for said book (thereby making it a "button")....

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Looking for Joy in All the Right Places

Deliberate, daily thanksgiving has been a valuable life discipline for me. I have found over and over again that when I list the people, things and happenings for which I am grateful, I am choosing life, choosing happiness, choosing joy.

After many years, I still marvel how practicing thanksgiving helps me replace misery with contentment and move from despair to hope. During a couple seasons of my life I posted my thanksgiving lists on the walls of my home, but most of the time my lists are in my notebook or on my lips.

Looking for things in difficult people and circumstances and surroundings for which to give thanks opens my eyes to see goodness, beauty, and joy I would have otherwise missed. Deliberate gratitude grounds me in the reality of NOW and helps me to be present to those people I can too easily take for granted and shut out.

I have, perhaps, been a bit over-zealous at times in trying to pass along the inheritance of thanksgiving to our sons. I remember one canoe ride when a bad lightning storm rolled in with tons of rain less than an hour into our trip. Nothing to do but ride it out, either huddled in sopping piles in the forest or daring the lightning to strike us in the middle of the river. Both boys were pretty young, but Kyle was old enough to realize the harm that could come our way and he was SCARED. David and I made him say thank you for the rain and the lightning over and over again to try to help him combat his fear.

On another occasion we made him express gratitude for several months for the beat-up bike he owned before we would get him another.

Sam's first year of middle school was difficult for him - this kid who had been happy through all of elementary school, dreaded going out the door to school each day. He chose to fight back by keeping his internal eyes open throughout the day, looking for at least one thing to declare "Good" and feel joy about - a cool looking cloud formation, a good lunch time trade , a goal scored in PE.

For a while, "Look for the joy" were my goodbye words to him each morning, and "What joy did you find today?" was the evening question. I think it helped him get through a tough year, and perhaps helped form the foundation of an emotional resilience that has stood him in good stead through some really tough events and seasons.

Well, guys, I hope, that looking back, you would feel you have more benefit than scars from the many thanksgiving lists we made you compile and recite.

Giving Thanks - its good stuff. Happy New Year