Archive for March, 2009

In the chapter I’m reading for my American Theological Liberalism class right now, I’ve discovered a theologian from the 1930s (and forward), Bernard Meland. He wrote a book in 1939, called Write Your Own Ten Commandments.


Several things fascinate me about this.  First, reading through his commandments, they seem very right-now.  It’s hard to imagine that they were written in 1939. That is, they seem like sessions at a contemporary, slightly boring, professional development with giant post-it notes and group dynamics.


I can’t tell if Meland meant for these to “replace” the Biblical Ten, or if these were merely offerings to help modern people be more moral and less confused.  I quote from the Gary Dorrien book that I’m reading: “Meland’s ten commandments for modern people were

(1) Keep a growing edge;

(2) cultivate an inquiring spirit;

(3) participate fully in life;

(4) retain the play spirit;

(5) work with a heart;

(6) see facts clearly;

(7) cultivate mutuality;

(8) develop a healthy sex love;

(9) develop capacity for loyalty; and

(10) commit yourself to the Supreme Reality.”


Well, actually: reading through them, it wouldn’t necessarily be a “slightly boring” professional development; I take that part back.  And I’ll admit that these are caring, pastoral, thoughtful things that we need to cultivate in each other.


But still, the orthodox streak in me wants a tiny bit more dogma, a lot more tradition, and less emphasis on the development of the individual.  For me, the spiritual path is often about not focusing on myself, and on seeing myself as part of my community, and the communion of saints– and recognizing that the needs of _us_ might be more valuable to explore than my personal needs.  I think one of contemporary society’s ills is that we’ve had too much “self help” and it’s diluted, and too individualistic.


I suppose I could use shorthand and say, this is too liberal, and too Protestant for me.  But– Meland goes on to talk in a bit of detail about his tenth commandment, and I like what he says.


“Concerning the last commandment, he advised, ‘Don’t force it.  But don’t neglect it.’ If God does not seem real, he counseled, the problem may be an unreal idea of God.  Whatever else God may be, God is most real when viewed as the ‘Silent Process’ by which flowers grow, trees turn green, children learn to use language, and people give themselves in love to each other, ‘all evidencing the high peak to which this planetary process has evolved’.”


Again: 1939!  I think that perspective, on not forcing God, is pastoral, realistic, and kind.  I’d like to recommend it to all missionaries everywhere.


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It’s not just me

A few weeks ago, I had some drama here at school.  I’m a co-chair of our student senate (like student body president, but there are two of us).  Another member of student leadership was in disagreement with the rest of us, and it got more and more difficult to work together.  After a great deal of stress, and trying to get along, and failing, I had an encounter with this classmate… I basically felt bullied at the end of it.

Part of the reason it was stressful was because I had liked and trusted this person, even while disagreeing.  And what I came to perceive as threats were couched in a very “friendly” conversation.  But when I pulled apart what had been said, and how, and how I was made to feel, I was able to realize what was happening.  (Of course, my first reaction was absolutely that I had done something wrong.)

One of the things I was told in this encounter was that people really doubted why I was even in this [leadership] position.  A while later, I was told that there was talk of having a “vote of no confidence” against me and my peers.  I couldn’t imagine such a thing!  And I, for a while, really believed that my classmates were doubting me, wondering how I ever came to be in the roles I have here.

It was terrible.  I did something that I wouldn’t usually do– I reached out for help.  And I realized, in the course of talking and being affirmed by others, that one can only be bullied if one is first made to be alone.  In the midst of my cohorts in senate leadership, I started to feel capable again.

A few Wednesdays ago, it came to a head in the morning before our normal monthly meeting. The person who had been disagreeing suddenly resigned. We were still worried that there would be unrest at the meeting.  We prayed before our planning session, prepared for the worst, and went ahead with our day.

At the meeting, I did notice that the room filled up with extra visitors, classmates from the student body, not normally in attendance, women.  I asked a former floormate to begin the meeting with prayer, and it was perfect. The dissenting person was not in attendance, and we cautiously carried on.  We sang happy birthday to someone, and the room broke into spontaneous four-part harmony.  We went through our agenda items, and I kept noticing that the room really was filled with visitors–warm, strong, confident women–just at the meeting to observe.

We finished early, and it was actually the best meeting I’ve ever led.  There was no oppositional energy in the room.  We were able to relax.  There were a few jokes, laughter.  I felt like we were doing a good job.  There was warmth, and smiles, and relief afterwards.

So I was wrong to believe the bully.  And there’s more– yesterday, talking to another classmate, I heard that some of the women on campus had heard what had happened to me, and had been happening to my co-chair as well.  They decided to attend the meeting if they could, and pray about it if they couldn’t.  And so, on that day (stressful and filled with anxious planning and worrying for me) some of the women gathered to pray, and the rest of them trickled into our meeting, to be quiet observers, to lend their energy, and perhaps to be protective extra voices if the dissent should rear its head publicly.

It was such an amazing feeling, to know that a part of my community was looking out for me the whole time.  And to know, that even as I _perceived the difference_  in the room, the prayers and energy of others were very consciously and very specifically lifting us up– amazing.

I’ve been thinking since yesterday of the idea of _presence_.  How we can be with one another, and how a perceivable difference is made.  Two other ideas come to my mind.  They are much bigger examples than this (relatively) minor example in my recent life.

In the community of Dominicans into which I am associated, there is a Sister who has a law degree, although she is retired now.  In the town where she lives, there was a dirty judge.  He was frequently unfair, and didn’t like immigrants, for example.  This Sister began going to sit in his courtroom, day in and day out.  She didn’t say anything; she never needed to say anything.  But the judge knew what she knew, and knew that she was bearing witness.  I believe he would have liked to throw her out, she made him so angry, but it’s an open court, and she was merely sitting and listening.  It became more and more difficult for him to do the wrong thing.  She never had to say a word, but she was always there.  It is powerful.

In the orphanage where I’ve worked in Haiti, there is a boy named Junior who spent the first five years of his life alone in the woods.  He was what early psychological texts would have called a “wild child.”  His growth was stunted, his stomach distended, and he had lasting digestive problems from eating grasses and roots in his time alone.  Of course, he also completely missed the window for language development; he cannot speak, and spent most of his time after coming to the orphanage banging his head.  I had the the opportunity to hold him a few times– he responds well to being held tightly; he calms and relaxes a bit.  We are the same age, but his body is smaller than mine, and I can hold him like a large child.  Junior brought questions to many of us, that first time I went to Haiti. What is God?  What is prayer? Does holding Junior really do anything for him?  

The second time I went to Haiti, Junior actually had made huge improvements– he was up walking around.  I almost didn’t recognize him because I had never seen him upright.  Still no “language” (or, the language that many of us use).  But I thought the first time, and again the second, that surely…  

I mean, it’s difficult to articulate, but with the God I believe in, one doesn’t need language acumen to be known, felt, or loved.  Or influential, or to feel one’s way, somehow, in the world.  We’re so finite!  Even if I add up everything I’ve ever known or read, it would mean nothing in attempting to explain _presence_, God, Grace, or how we fit together.

I am grateful for the presence of others.

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And some tangerines.

There’s a very fancy grocery store near where I work.  In Missouri, the regular grocery stores usually have a section, near the produce but before you get to the cheese, that has fancy foods, the kind of food you grab if you’re giving a dinner party and want to pick up one or two extra things.  Beautiful cheese, posh crackers, red olives, tiny pickles, Polish fruit breads.  Well, this entire grocery store is like that one fancy section.

If I have enough money, it’s fun to buy fancy juice there, or a treat candy.  Or olives, and maybe fresh pasta on the way home.  Also, the best thing about this market is that they have a One Dollar Bread Basket.  Right inside the door, they have a little wicker basket on the floor, and it has all the day-old breads, bagged up.  And each bag is $1.  This is very exciting– I have gotten many delicious breads there, and always feel thrifty and pleased with myself.

Today, I wanted to get some olives to snack on while making dinner, so I crossed to the same side of the street as the market on my way out of work.  It has lots of fruits piled up attractively outside.

As I got near to the market, I saw a man grab one pineapple, a bag of tangerines, and dart away, all sideways-like.

Now, he was not scruffy or hungry-looking.  (I know, who am I to judge? But I have someone ask me if I can spare any money or food about eight times a day, and this man–about my age–didn’t look like any of those people who ask me daily.)  He was wearing a nice fleece jacket, and a clean little cap, and hip boots.

When my eyes spied him, he had the tangerine bag in hand, and was scooping up a pineapple from a basket on the sidewalk.  I only _glanced_ the scooping motion.  Because I have not actually seen someone steal something before, my mind first interpreted it as, “He’s getting his fruit last before he leaves.”

It was the slant at which he left which most told me that he was a thief.  Truly, his body was at a sideways angle, the fruit he held up to his body, which made his elbows both angles.  His face tilted up the street, to check for traffic before he darted across the street.  And as he dashed right past me, I (finally) thought, “Hey!  He just stole that pineapple!”

I thought I should do something, but none of the staff was outside.  Also, even though I was once a teacher, it’s not like the general public are my pupils.  (Even though I apparently have an inner reaction that tells me otherwise.)  As I went in the door, I looked behind me again, and noticed that the guy behind me was also noticing the thief running away.

I said to him, “Did you see that?”  He said, “That was some b*llsh*t.”  

I said, “Yeah, but _pineapple_?”  He just shrugged.


What is one to do, in the face of a petty theft?  I mean, I’ve begun to figure out how I personally handle panhandling, and vomit or urine on the subway, or even drunken fights on the bus.  But a sneaky thieving hipster?  What is one’s responsibility there?

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The first time I went to physical therapy, the therapist asked me, among other things, if I could stand up against the wall, and stand up on my toes.

My mind immediately said, “Yes, of course, I know exactly what that is.”


How many times in 31 years have I made that action?  Stood on my toes to reach the serving dish on the top shelf, to reach a handbag in the back of my closet, to fix an errant blind in the window, to re-shelf a book in the library?  Even babies stand on their toes before they begin to walk– it’s an old, old muscle memory.

I was _astonished_ when I went to the wall, and my mind said, “Tiptoes,” and my foot-ankle-leg did nothing.


Along with the shock, I had a mental curiosity: “Hm. How strange.”  I’ve done physical things that were _difficult_, or challenging, or _nearly_ impossible, but I’ve never told a body part to do something and had no response.  So weird.


A month later, after lots of “massage” (ie, breaking up the scar tissue) and exercise, I still can’t quite do the tiptoe thing.  Now, the muscle responds, and I can feel it doing something, but it doesn’t propel my foot up to my toes.  It’s such a strange endeavor.

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Airbrushing = whoa

This is really unbelievable– I actually gasped out loud.

Once you click the link, you’ll see a gorgeous, typical photo of a swimsuit model.  The directions let you move your mouse over the image to see what it looked like before any photoshopping/airbrushing took place.  I was amazed, and then mortified.  I mean, I know that models have some imperfections “brushed” out, but I had no idea magazines would go so far.

I read a lot of magazines.  I love them.  I love cooking, nesting, and fashion magazines.  When I saw these examples of airbrushing, I thought, “How many false things am I consuming?  And when I inevitably compare my hair, teeth, skin, fat… to them, what am I actually comparing?”

The site lets you click also on images of her whole body, and also a close up of her stomach and hand.  The untouched stomach made me smile a little, because she has “down” on her tummy skin, like I do.  And I was again shocked at what they did to her hand, and her belly button.

Finally, the scariest thing– the first time I saw her “real” face, I thought: “Ugly.”  But when I saw her whole body untouched, including her face, I realized that she actually _is_ pretty, even without the airbrushing.  But if you go from the airbrushed to the real, the real looks somehow really wrong.

(Thanks to digital photographer and artist Greg Apodaca for posting such amazing examples of work.)

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In a good way, very good.

I was just perusing some CS Lewis quotes for my wedding blog, and saw two I’d never seen before:

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.

His, “my God” there really nails for me the humanity I feel in him when I read his apologetics.  I do agree with most everything he says, but when he writes about doubt, grief, fear, despair…  I sense as a reader that he has felt there, been there in barren 3:00 AM hours.  And when Lewis explains something, I feel him as a kind teacher, not as a didactic know-it-all.  Here’s another:

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

“Very same story.”  I love that.  I love that the Story is so everywhere, so completely accessible to us, if we only could see– and the idea that miracles give us that chance.  I have a similar idea about relationships– that the “small” relationships we seek and nurture and gain strength from are part of our grasping-yearning for that (capital R) Relationship.  That “very same Relationship,” if you will.

And finally, as if Lewis is reassuring me individually:

“Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith but they are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the passion of Christ.”

Hmm.  I never thought about my anxiety like that, like a wound open to the world that links me to both Christ and the woundedness of others.  I have thought that way about doubt.  My spiritual director Sister Carla Mae once told me: “Faith and doubt aren’t opposites; they are two sides of the same coin.  The real opposite of faith is despair.”

When I was studying at Oxford, my tutor (professor) there held the position and quarters of Lewis, three positions ago.  That is, he was Lewis’s third descendent in that faculty role, and in those rooms. It was often hard for me to concentrate when I was supposed to be focusing, or answering sharply-crafted questions, when I pictured Lewis being in this very room, by this very window, looking at this very scene.

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