Saturday, April 25, 2020

Choosing life: creative, albeit ridiculous, worship

Here on the fifth floor of Friendsview, the retirement community where I live, we’ve decided to worship together at vespers every Sunday afternoon. We, like everyone else, are under “lock down” rules and can’t congregate.
So, human creativity to the rescue!
The first two weeks we all opened our apartment doors at 4:00 p.m. on the dot, then stood in our door ways, waving and shouting (some are hard of hearing) at each other. Then, music was played, songs were sung, the Lord’s Prayer loudly prayed—and worship concluded with more waves and shouted blessings.
It all passed quickly within the space of ten minutes, but it reaffirmed, not only our faith, but our sense of family up on the fifth floor.
So I wrote it all up in an article, shared it with the Friendsview administration, and sent our director into what he named as a “near panic.” Within a few days, a new restriction was put in place against “doorway meetings.” It seems singing and shouting expel moisture and germs with a force that might overcome the distance between our doors.
I admire and am grateful for the care our administration takes of us. We are, I am told, a vulnerable people. So we complied, of course, with the new regimen, but with a sense of loss.
Until, once again—human creativity to the rescue!
We’ve amended our vespers practice, but we still worship together at 4:00 p.m. Sunday afternoons (this time, with the administration’s approval).
Here’s the procedure: At 4:00 sharp, at the sound of Howard’s trumpet or Hal's French horn, we all open our doors to a two-foot gap, then sit down comfortably in the middle of our apartments. The trumpeter, alone, walks the hall, loudly tooting his horn. Then the Singer-in-Chief, Marie, takes her turn alone in the hall, her loud soprano voice helping us keep on the same verse of the two hymns whose words we hold in our hands. Although the near-deaf among us say they can’t hear a thing, the rest of us manage to make it through the music at roughly the same pace.
Then it’s Francie’s turn, and she stands by herself in the hall and yells the Lord’s Prayer, enabling most of us to follow out loud. Hal ends our worship by walking up and down the hall playing the Doxology on his harmonica.
I miss the waving and shouting that used to come at the end, but it’s still good to worship together—to remind ourselves that God is still sovereign and we, together, are God’s family.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Choosing life: conversing with wise writers

This time of restriction and isolation has certainly provided more time to read. The introverts among us (myself included) welcome this more than the extroverts do. At times I’m tempted to read for escape and so choose superficial mysteries, spy intrigues, or romances that encourage quick, easy reading. But I find that a week after I’ve finished such a book, I’ve forgotten the characters, the plot, or why I ever read it.
Other times I choose my reading well. Often that means re-reading an old favorite. Currently I’m re-reading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. I’m reading it very slowly.
The title itself reminds me of how much I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Peterson took his title from Hopkins’ poem, “When kingfishers catch fire.” The poem ends with the lines,
For Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features in men’s faces.
I’m reading the book slowly, heeding the word “conversation” in the subtitle. I frequently pause and in my imagination converse with Eugene Peterson. I ask him how he came up with this metaphor or what path he traveled to come to that insight. I offer my own thoughts. Actually, I develop my own thoughts through the means of this conversation. Often we just sit silently together.
(This shows one way an introvert interacts socially. I’ve always conversed with the authors of books that move and challenge me. In actual flesh-and-blood book discussions, I’m usually the quietest person in the room.)
Right now we’re considering the image of the Holy Spirit “hovering” over the emptiness and chaos at the beginning of creation. It comes in Genesis 1, right before God says, “Let there be light.” The eagle in Deuteronomy 32:11 also “hovers” (same Hebrew word) over the young in his nest. It’s an image of cherishing and hope for life to come. I’m finding (in consultation with Peterson) an image to guide me as I pray over this present darkness and chaos.
Actually, my imaginary conversations with Eugene Peterson have a basis in reality. About 20 years ago I visited my friend Miriam Adeney in Seattle. At the time she was teaching a class on book-writing in Regent University (Vancouver, British Colombia). I spent three days with her as observer and participant in the class.
Across the hall from Miriam’s faculty office at Regent, Eugene Peterson had his office. His book of reflections on the life of David, Leap over a Wall, had just been released. Knowing my admiration for Peterson, Miriam introduced us.
Eugene Peterson graciously invited me into his office for a conversation. Our visit was brief, probably about half-an-hour. I can’t even remember what we talked about. What I do remember is Peterson himself—his attitude of welcome, warmth, curiosity, and attentiveness. For that short visit, he was totally focused on me. His was a pastoral presence in every way. I sense that same presence as I read his books. I suppose it’s a type of gentle hovering.
This book, these conversations, are a way of choosing life today.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Choosing life: letters from prison

I need to begin with a confession. Choosing life is hard. It’s hard during normal times (whatever “normal” may mean). It’s certainly hard now in this time of pandemic. Everyday I struggle with lethargy, some inner resistance to reaching out to communicate, to being creative, to expressing gratitude, to simply being positive. At the end of each day as I take the time to look back and reflect, I have to confess my failures, as well as thank God for the small triumphs.
Even so, I choose to choose life. Part of it is this blog. I write to myself as well as to any readers out there in cyberspace. I write as a way of groping for courage, hoping to encourage others along the way.
So, on to another way of choosing life: through the Holy Scriptures. Paul calls them “the word of life” (Phi. 2:16). It occurs to me that Paul’s prison epistles (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians) might be good reading material for such a time as this. Talk about isolation and restriction! A Roman prison was probably worse than what I am facing. And Paul’s context, the persecution of the early Church, while different than ours, was every bit as fraught with danger.
I start with the book of Philippians and find that it focuses on joy. Paul rejoiced in the midst of his hardship. He exhorted the believers in the city of Philippi to rejoice at all times, even as they suffered for the cause of Christ. He repeats the words “joy” and “rejoice” at least 12 times in this short letter. He encourages us to follow his example. He tells us that this is not a grit-your-teeth-and-endure-it time. Even now, this is a time to trust and rejoice.
I’m going to need some help doing that. Apparently, that help is available.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Choosing life: poetry

Earlier this week, the BBC posted a series of poets reading different poems that spoke life to them during this time. One of the poems shared was the following, by John O’Donahue:

“This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.”

― John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Choosing life in a time of pandemic

As the children of Israel were approaching the promised land at the end of their 40-year trek in the wilderness, Moses delivers God’s words of warning and promise to the people. He tells them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Choose life. God speaks those words to us, now in this time of pandemic.
As I walked along Hess Creek yesterday, the clash of two realities became clear. The current crisis is real and choosing life doesn’t mean negating the danger or the darkness. But the other reality I met along the creek is the coming of spring. The green of new leaves, the sounds of running water and the occasional afternoon bird, the sense of hope this season bring—all sang, “This is my Father’s world.” Such a contrast. And both are real.
So I hold the two. I continue to walk by the creek and nourish myself with the beauty of the earth, even as I keep praying for the world, affirming that the darkness has never yet (and never will) overcome the Light.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Learning from Peter

When my youngest grandson, Peter, was two-months-old, his mother called one night in a panic. It seems he had stopped responding both to loud noises and bright lights. He had gone passive. It frightened Hal and me, too, and we went into a week’s period of intense prayer and fasting, not knowing what else to do. Within a week, young Peter began responding again as a normal infant to outside stimuli, especially sounds.
But our daughter, Kristin, while relieved, knew something was still not right. Then at four-months-old, we received the diagnosis. Peter was blind. We all accepted this news with sorrow and began learning braille.
Again, Peter surprised us as the months passed, reaching up to the bright mobile in his crib, and turning toward lights. As he learned to crawl, he managed to navigate around furniture without crashing into it. The first sentence he said to me, as I turned on the light in the bedroom, was “Light on.” Obviously, he could see something.  (We were later to learn that, while visually impaired, the sight he did have would allow him to live almost as well as a sighted person. That’s another story.)
But Peter continued to puzzle his parents. When he was two, Kristin followed her instincts and had him tested for autism. He tested positive. Again, we all struggled with this diagnosis and began our different ways of coping. Meanwhile, Peter kept developing and growing.
His speech was delayed, and we wondered if non-communication might be one of his autistic traits. Actually, on the inside he was absorbing language at an astonishing rate, and it began coming out in complete sentences during his second year.
I remember well the first “grown-up” sentence he said to me. I had just put him down for his afternoon nap, and as I closed the door, I said, “Night, night, Peter.” He raised his head, looked directly at me, and said, “See ya later, Honey.” (He must have heard Hal say that to me.)
Peter turned out to be a very communicative person. As corresponds with his autism, his communication style is frequent, sometimes loud, repetitive, and quirky. It requires great patience from the rest of the family.
One of the more interesting quirks is his inability to process metaphor. He takes things literally, which can have some funny results. One morning we were playing together on the living room floor. I got up, telling him I needed to go fix the lunch. “Grandma!” he protested. “You can’t fix the lunch. It’s not broken!”
As a member of the young-tykes T-Ball team, he loved batting since the ball was mounted close enough for him to see. But playing in the field was a problem, so the coach decided he could play third base. He could see the base and would be able to spot an approaching runner. The coach instructed him, “Peter, all you need to do is cover third base. Don’t bother about what’s going on around you. Just cover third base.”
And he did. As the first runner approached, with the crowd yelling, Peter energetically threw himself on top of third base, not letting the runner touch it. He effectively covered third base.
When Kristin accompanied him to the first day of first-grade, his kindergarten teacher from the previous year came up and exclaimed, “Peter, I can’t believe it! You grew another foot over the summer!”
Shock and anger combined in Peter’s face. He quickly looked down, pointed, and responded, “No, I didn’t! Look! There’s still just two!”
My collection of Peter-sayings is large, but these examples illustrate the challenge. He has since learned about metaphor, can recognize figures of speech, and has developed strategies of responding that make him seem normal. He knows people don’t always mean what they say. Peter is bright.
But Peter does more than make us laugh at his misinterpretations. We’re learning to listen for his unique perspectives. His brain obviously functions differently and his creative mind often comes up with insights that seem beyond his years.
I had the most interesting conversation with him when he was ten-years-old. He was staying with us for a week in our Friendsview apartment. One morning he began asking a series of questions on death and the nature of existence. The questions amazed us, and we quickly realized he was not expecting us to answer. He was expressing wonderment. So we just listened, encouraging him to continue. I took notes, which didn’t seem to bother him. I couldn’t catch it all, but here’s part of that series of questions and observations, quoted verbatim:

“What would you feel like if you were dead? Would you still feel like you were there? But how could you feel if you did not exist? It’s hard to explain….
“If you and Grandpa had not married, would I have been born to strangers? Or would I have been born at all? Would I exist?...
“If you’re dead, you’re gone. What would you feel if you were gone? Would you think or have feelings? It’s so hard to explain. I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to say, Grandma….
“If there was nothing when God didn’t yet create the world, how would you be there? If you weren’t born yet, how would you be there? Imagine not being there and not being able to think….
“I started to think about this since kindergarten. When I think really really big, my brain starts to hurt….
“I’ve got a huge suggestion for the Bible: they should make it easier to understand….
“The smallest word with the most complex meaning is God.”

Peter is now 12-years-old, learning to negotiate the world of middle school. His favorite classes are band (he plays the drums and loves repetitive rhythms) and computers, at which he is a whiz. He says he wants to write and illustrate books when he grows up. He already has a small stack of his creations. I hope he continues.
Among other things, Peter is teaching me to value the perspectives of people who are in some way different, strange, marginal, other. We have much to learn from them.