Monday, December 31, 2007

my scenic route to God ~ part one

I thought I would follow-up my "a little about me" post by beginning to unpack my spiritual journey. Let me say first of all that this will take a few installments. I'm semi-committed to keeping my posts to easily-digested serving sizes and this is kind of a long, weird story. (I say "semi-committed" because I generally break most of my own rules.) So here's part one and I'll call this: Before Religion Got Me All Confused.

I'm pretty sure I knew Jesus before I knew about Jesus. When I was very, very young (maybe 3 or 4 or 5) I lived almost entirely in my head for reasons I won't go into just yet. My picture of God was not really a picture at all. It was sort of this connection to a vast presence that I carried around with me like a secret or like a frog in my pocket that I would pull out now and then to shock everyone. This presence was warm and big and utterly on my side, wholeheartedly interested in my odd internal environment. It was a presence that held me close. I've never really been much of an evangelist, but especially during this time of my life I had no interest in sharing God at all. He was MINE.

If you want to know the truth, I really miss that early relationship. I had all kinds of incredibly damaging messages in my life at that time crushing me like a little bug almost constantly, but I had this direct, uncluttered voice of God saying, "It's OK" and "I like you." I didn't have a single question about God and he didn't have a single question about me. It was great.

My family was Catholic and we went to mass every Sunday, but in my mind that didn't have anything to do with my secret friend. It was something else. The closest I came to connecting this great presence with what they were talking about in church was when my dad would take me to the Cathedral in Saint Paul to light candles for our dead relatives. There were these rows and rows of candles in deep red votives sparkling in the dimly lit hallway. My dad would let me light a candle and then he would light one and we would pray in the glowing silence together. The transcendence of that huge place filled me with so much peace and love that I almost couldn't breathe.

So, God and I were off to a really great start.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

a little about me

For those of you who don't know me or for those of you who have made the understandable mistake of thinking you know me (how could you know me when I barely know myself?) here's a little bit of an orientation:
  1. I am a beginner.
  2. I make a LOT of mistakes, and my greatest strength may be that I know how to say I'm sorry. (As a matter of fact, I have been known to take responsibility for things that were clearly not my fault such as natural disasters. If I'm too apologetic I'm really sorry about that.)
  3. I have a really great husband who drives for UPS (that's right ladies...I have my own UPS guy!) He is my best friend and even though he's a student in my class (that's right, I'm sleeping with one of my students) he's my greatest teacher.
  4. I have two AMAZING kids who I wish I knew how to duplicate for others. They were the kind of babies that loved to cuddle on the rocking chair and who never ever stopped publicly demonstrating affection for me...even as teenagers. Seriously. They have hearts bigger than anybody I know.
  5. I'm lucky enough to have a daughter-in-law who I actually love and appreciate. She's really good for my kid.
  6. I have an unofficially adopted daughter who is amazing and brilliant and brave.
  7. I am a counselor, a teacher and a pastor. How I became a pastor (associate pastor...I don't preach) is a complete mystery to me. I'm still flabbergasted at that title.
  8. I like to completely upset people's idea of what it means to be a Christian. (I even hesitate to use that term...I don't think I mean what I think you think I mean by that word.) If you can figure out that parenthetical comment we're off to a great relationship.
  9. I love to play with words. (See previous parenthetical comment.)
  10. I love to play with clay and paint, but I haven't actually done much of that lately. (Note to myself: find time to do more of that.)
  11. I do life with some of the most brilliant and loving people on the planet who sometimes irritate the heck out of me. (This is mostly because they insist that I show up when I would rather be in a hole.)
  12. The reason I am even remotely sane is because of the people I'm telling you about.
  13. I love yoga, but haven't done much lately. (Note to myself: find time for yoga.)
  14. If you're tweaked by the concept of a Christian loving yoga and you'd like to keep reading this blog, you're really going to have to chill...and keep an open mind.
  15. My history is in process...I'm making it up as I go along.
  16. I'm trying really hard to make good choices for myself. I really wish someone would have clued me in to this concept some time before I was 30.
  17. I get a huge kick out of my 85-year-old mother-in-law who lives with us and who occasionally walks into my bedroom at inappropriate moments. (Maybe I should install locks?) She's got more of a social life than I do and is still driving in crazy Minnesota road conditions. And she loves Sudoku because "oh yah, it's good for yer brain."
  18. Jobs I have had in my life: nurse, bridal shop salesperson, claims examiner for a class action lawsuit, cell phone salesperson, personal attendant, graphic designer for business forms (before computers did this), and job coach for handicapped adults.
  19. I am on the board of a really cool ministry called Providence Ministries. You can read our blog here. Here's a post I wrote while visiting in October. I was working with a good friend of mine who's staying in Haiti for the year to volunteer her services as a pediatrician. Providence is a little ministry that's something like a foster home in Haiti and we do some education work too. What I love about it is that it's all Haitian-run on the Haiti side of things. No Americans in there mucking it up. (Not that there aren't some really great American missionaries...but there are a few out there mucking it up.)
  20. I have two Cocker Spaniels who make my life really interesting (one of them loves chewing on underwear) and I lost my old friend Feather this past summer. I thought her death would kill me but it turns out you really can survive the death of a dear pet.
That seems like an awful lot for one sitting. Anyway, it will have to do because this much self-disclosure is highly uncharacteristic for me. I'll excuse myself now to go rock back and forth and eat chocolate to calm myself.

the stories we tell with our bodies

I’m a counselor and a teacher and every once in a while I get really interested in weird things like how our brains work. A few weeks ago I was teaching a class on this topic and in the process of doing a little research I came across some pretty fascinating stuff. [Disclaimer: I am NOT an expert in brain function, so if you happen to know more than me and I say something silly, please forgive me.]

In the area of feelings and thoughts we usually imagine that things work this way: 1) a situation “out there” messes with me 2) I think some thoughts about it and 3) I express feelings about it. But the truth is that most of the time we feel emotion and express it BEFORE we think thoughts about it. (Our higher thinking areas are kind of slow on the uptake.) As a matter of fact, sometimes the emotions we feel and the way we express them in our bodies CAUSE particular kinds of thoughts. It’s as though our bodies begin the process of telling our stories and our brains try to make sense of these signals with appropriate thoughts. That means that our bodies are telling our brains what to think!

That’s part one of the interesting stuff. Part two is that we have neurons in our brains that are dedicated to reading the body language of other people and mirroring it so that we feel what they feel. (mirror neurons) In other words, we’re built for empathy. We are designed to feel the feelings of others. And everything I’ve just been telling you about how our brains work happens on a mostly unconscious level. We do it automatically.

Now the reason I’m telling you this is because it relates to the last thing I was talking about…the whole Scheherazade thing. It’s true that the stories we tell are powerful and able to create the world around us. But mostly our stories are not told with words. Words are not unimportant, but think about this…if there’s a contradiction between what someone says with words and what that person is saying with their body, what do you believe?

Last week I said something about only recently realizing I have a body. That’s more true than you can imagine. I remember moving through the world believing that I was just a pair of eyes (I think I was eight years old when this started). No speech, no substance, no sound. Looking back, I think this might have been one of the more brilliant adaptations in a world of broken glass. If you haven’t got a body, it can’t be touched in ways that are hurtful or confusing. I was everyone’s optical illusion.

My adaptation did have its problems though. I have very few memories of my childhood. And the ones I have are of the events that shocked me out of my silent hiding place. Even now my memory is fairly thready. The other unfortunate “side effect” is that it’s very difficult even now to be present. I’ve developed a habit of non-existence. I’ve tried really hard to figure out and honor the little smoke signals my body sends me, but mostly I don’t notice them until they reach a fever pitch.

But what if it’s true that my body is telling my mind what to think and remember? The curve of my back, the timbre and tone and inflection of my voice, the subtle gestures that mostly escape me, the expressions that play across my face, the way I position myself in a crowd of people…all of these things are whispering a tale and the people around me are listening in. They are believing my story and repeating it. They’re feeling my pain.

So today I’m choosing the audacity of new body choices. I’m inviting the beginning of a smile on my face. I’m risking the straightening of my back and the opening of my heart. I’m letting go of the diving bell that has pulled me in to the deep waters of depression and despair, tangling the people around me in the cords of its downward spiral. I’m challenging my history with the tone of my voice and the movement of my body. Who knows where this tale will take us all?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scheherazade and the Image of God

I’m thinking a lot about the stories we tell and the mistakes we make about those stories. I don’t think most people really appreciate the profound working out of the words that casually escape from our lips. I know I don’t.

Scheherazade was a character who spun the tales of one thousand and one nights to save her life. The story goes that the king would sleep with a different woman each night and then have her beheaded in the morning. But clever Scheherazade held him captive with the words of her stories. Each morning as the dawn listened in for the sound of Scheherazade’s voice, it found her still breathing out her stay of execution. Eventually the king was transformed by the stories and he came to love Scheherazade. There is something important in this story about stories. It reminds me of God, and the way his words are not just words. They create.

In the beginning, God spoke the heavens and earth into existence. His creative work is framed in the Bible as a result of his breath and his words. He saved the work of forming us last and declared that we were very good. We are very good because he says so. Like a divine Scheherazade, he spun a tale of goodness and love. And in this divine story he declares that we are not only good, but that we are made in his image. We are like him somehow, and I wonder if it’s not in this creative breathing and speaking.

What would it mean for me to take seriously the stories I am telling every day? What would it mean for me to find the words that will save my life and the lives of the people around me? What would it mean for me to begin to declare goodness all around me just because I say so? It may be that we are all creating a world in our own image every day that we live. We can speak a toxic poison or a loving balm. Which of these stories have I been telling?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the hangover

In a fit of optimism and unprecedented bravery (stupidity?) I started this blog last night. Then I woke up this morning with a wave of nausea and a headache and I realized that it was the “omigosh i’m all naked out in cyberworld” hangover. I was tempted to delete the thing and pretend it never happened, but then I checked another blog that I commented on yesterday and realized that this guy actually already saw my blog. What are the odds of that? Now I’ll look like a total chicken if I disappear. I suppose I could disappear anyway (I mean this guy doesn’t even know me) but here’s the kicker: I really think I’m supposed to write this thing. Not in the “thus sayeth the Lord” kind of way, but in the “this feels right” kind of way.

So, I’m pushing past the panic and nausea and writing anyway. In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) we call this Opposite to Emotion. If I teach it I probably should practice it, right? *following my breath and surfing the urge to delete the blog*

oh dear

Here I am. I'm writing my thoughts.

This might not seem very scary or noteworthy to anyone else, but I only recently realized that I have a body and as I allow myself to materialize I've begun to notice that my body can do things that affect the bodies around me. My hands can touch. My eyes can see. My ears can hear. My mouth can speak. And these things actually have a real impact in the world. Quite honestly, I would really like to go on pretending that I'm not responsible for any of that, but the jig is up. It's time to own my physicality. It's time to notice all of that touching and seeing and hearing and speaking. So I'm taking my first tentative steps into outloudness.

But for now it's late and I'm tired. I just knew that if I waited until morning this little blogging space in the world would never be born.