Live Stitches

Unfinished at the Edge

Unfinished at the Edge

Rethink Church‘s suggested theme for today’s photo is “live.” I imagine they mean the verb, with the short “i” – but looking at my knitting today, I started thinking about the heteronym – the adjective with the long “i.”

In knitting, stitches that are ready to be knit into are called “live” stitches. Whether in knitting instructions or when talking to other knitters, a stitch’s status as “live” is most often considered worth mentioning when it is off the needle. However, until the piece is finished – “cast off” – some stitches will be live.

Living involves risk. Sometimes we make visible mistakes, and we have to decide whether to move on or to unravel – sometimes we try to unravel, to undo what was done, and we end up in a worse mess than we were in before.

It is possible to take the knitting metaphor too far – there are a lot of differences between a human life and a scarf! But one thing that I have been considering that I hold most in common with knitting: at my leading edge, I can become unraveled all too easily if I am not wrapped around something stable. Just as live stitches need a needle, I need something stronger, firmer than myself in order to live securely. Thank God for God, in whom I live and move and have my being.

I have collected all of my Lenten photos so far on one page.  Take a look!

Empathy, fatigue, and evil

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I was listening yesterday to “The State of Things” on WUNC radio. The program was on scientific and historical understandings of empathy. One of the presenters suggested that empathy was actually problematic, because we tend to give more weight to the problems of people we know (because that is who we tend to empathize with), and so bigger problems – like starvation, for instance – are too little addressed because we do not have faces and names to put with the problem.

This seemed to me like a problem of empathic imagination – and a theological problem. Can we truly forget when we hear of war in Syria, for instance, that the thousands of people killed already have families who know them by name, who feel their loss keenly – as keenly as we would feel the loss of a family member?  I suppose most of us can, or this and countless other atrocities would not continue.

As I listened to the program, I began to work out a hypothesis that I have been slowly developing about empathy existing on a spectrum. My idea is that some varieties of depression and anxiety may be rooted in a genius for empathy: if hearing of *any* suffering leads to feeling the pain of the one who suffers, then in a world full of suffering, the deeply empathic individual quickly becomes overwhelmed. Over time, this constant barrage of suffering can lead to classic depression symptoms of withdrawal (what I have sometimes called “retreating to my blanket cave”). In order to survive and function, a person with an overwhelming capacity for empathy must find a way to protect herself – perhaps through selectively ignoring certain information, or through finding safe modes of retreat and escape, or through constructing armor to shield her softest places.

When I was 27, I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time, as a chaperone to a group of middle schoolers preparing for confirmation. I was armed and ready. I had shed tears for almost two decades over the horror of the concentration camps: I had been reading about the Holocaust since I was ten, even having taken a class in college entitled The Politics of Genocide. I had celebrated Passover with the son of a Holocaust survivor – he wept through the entire meal. I had cried myself dry over the years.

I was there to support the younger people as they encountered wave after wave of new and distressing information. As for me, I was weary and jaded. The systematic elimination of gays and lesbians, gypsies, and the mentally ill was not new. The torture in the name of scientific experimentation was known and could not be more horrible than it had been before. Standing in a train car and imagining myself packed in with a hundred others, unable to see where we were going, on our way to our deaths, whether immediate or drawn out over years – I had imagined it before. It was the stuff of my dreams. The U.S. complicity in the Holocaust did not surprise me. The pile of shoes only told me what I had already known – that the sheer volume of the loss in no way belied the particularity of the loss of each individual. I began to feel afraid of my capacity for self-protection. Had I become so hard that nothing could touch me? Among a busload full of teenagers and chaperones, I alone had not cried.

And then, in the hallway leading into the vestibule that marked the end of our journey, there was a quote from a survivor. I cannot remember the exact words, but what he said was that for him, God had died in the concentration camp. God was dead. Like a vacuum, the emptiness left behind by God’s exit sucked the air out of my lungs and the marrow out of my bones – I felt hollowed out, an empty suit of armor. I wept. Wept for a loss that was greater than any other loss can be – the loss, for one who believed, of the ground of all his being. The loss of his belief in a love that would not let him go. The loss of his belief in a power greater than death and terror and insanity.

Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And evil is a relentless nothing that stops at nothing to separate us from the love of God. But evil is a lie. And I remain convinced that love wins.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging.  If Love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?

If Love is Lord…

In these days when we still wait for Love without suffering and Light with no shadows, I sing every chance I get, I hide in my blanket cave when I must, and when I am strong enough I weep, weep in the loneliest caverns of another’s heart.

What does the Lord require of you?

I am returning to my earlier series on giving to roadside beggars with this guest post by Lezley (Peach) McDouall.  I first met Peach at Duke Divinity School – I was a student and she was a teaching assistant, especially well-loved for her gracious and extensive comments on student papers. We attend the same church together, and I value her insight and her friendship.  You can read more of Peach’s writing on the blog of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church.

In response to Sarah’s question about giving money to people who beg, it’s important to begin by saying that my answer is not meant to be everyone’s answer. The movement of the Spirit is delicate and various, sanctifying the whole by blessing each unique part uniquely. So here is what I have been given to understand:

While attending seminary in Berkeley CA, I attended All Souls parish church nearby. This parish had a monthly Open-Door Dinner for anyone who wanted to be fed some chicken jambalaya, rice, corn, and cookies. The task I enjoyed most, which other parishioners seemed less comfortable doing, was hanging out in the courtyard with the folks who were waiting to eat. I made sure the coffeepot and its accessories stayed full, handed out numbered tickets, and invited in groups of 10 ticket-holders at a time so the servers/seats weren’t overcrowded.

Talking to the folks who were waiting helped me understand how incredibly various the stories of homeless people are. Talking to one man in particular, who had been a math teacher, was an epiphany for me. He taught me that most people on the street are chronically sleep-deprived, and that many who are addicted &/or mentally-ill become addicted &/or mentally-ill on the street, self-medicating for sleeplessness, depression, and constant anxiety. That possibility had never occurred to me, or to any housed individual I’d ever talked with about “the plight of the homeless.”

Each person of faith has Touchstone Scriptures that are particularly authoritative for them. Even the literalists have to make some choices. I happen to be something of a ‘red-letter fundamentalist,’ which is to say that while I don’t consider everything in the Bible to be God’s Binding Word On All Generations™, I take the words of Jesus Christ particularly seriously. I tend to read them as if He meant exactly what He said, even knowing that much of what He says is impossible for us.

E.g., “Love one another as I have loved you” (unto death on a cross); “Give to everyone who asks you” (until you have nothing left? See quote 1); “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (yike!); and “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

What does this mean, concretely, about the guy with a sign next to the freeway? It’s way too easy for me to over-think this, to try to guess his particular situation or suss what he ‘really needs’ rather than simply give what he’s asking. So I devised a personal metric:

1) Do I have any cash? (I often don’t). If yes, then
2) Am I, or can I get into, the right lane? If yes, then
3) Is the light red, or (in a non-traffic-light situation) can I stop here without blocking traffic unduly? If yes, then
4) I give money.

I consider that if the above conditions are fulfilled, the Spirit has maneuvered me into a position to help THIS person in THIS way on THIS day. If any question gets a ‘no,’ I consider that this isn’t the task I’ve been allotted at the moment – maybe next time, or maybe some of my tithe will reach them via an agency our parish supports. In any case, I pray for them, hope for them, and ask God to lift up all who are oppressed by this evil economic system, which discards precious human beings as though they weren’t beloved children of the Most High.

I know my metric is simplistic, but it prevents me from experiencing utter anguish and frustration with our political context repeatedly, day after day. I’m already on meds for depression. I help some people, I remove personal judgment of my fellow humans from the decision, and I trust that God is in action in their lives as well as my own. May God soon bring us all to that Kingdom where this decision will be completely unnecessary.