Surrounded by Steadfast Love

Surround - All Eyes on Jesus

Surround – All Eyes on Jesus

On Saturday, March 16, Rethink Church’s suggested word for the Lenten “Photo of the Day” was surround. That evening, I saw my daughter setting up the nativity set that my Aunt Marie gave to me the Christmas before Hannah was born. The set she now thinks of as hers could not be more different from the set I played with as a child, an unpainted cast of dozens carved from olive wood in the West Bank circa 1970; but my six year old self had the same instincts as my daughter when it came to the arrangement – everyone crowding around the baby Jesus, surrounding him. After all, he is the main attraction! He is the one everyone is there to see.

SNAP! Once she saw I was taking photos, Hannah started arranging the characters differently, everyone facing out as if they were posing for a group portrait. But without reference to the camera, her gaze and the gaze of the figures were directed towards the baby Jesus.

You may or may not have known that I started off Lent with Rethink Church’s Lent Photo-A-Day challenge. And you may or may not have noticed that I fell off the wagon not quite two weeks into the project. Various life challenges intervened with my ability to stay on track with taking the assigned photo each day… but when I did have time, I didn’t know what to do – should I just take the photo for that day? Or didn’t I need to catch up? If there were gaps in my photo list, people would notice! They would know that I was not keeping Lent properly! That my one Lenten discipline was beyond my capabilities! I would be a public failure!!

[Note: the fear of being a public failure is not limited to my spiritual disciplines. It reaches into all parts of my life, including my wardrobe, as seen in my other post today, at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Durham. See also this parody of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” that I began writing when despairing over my clothes closet this past November.]

Without reference to my blog, my gaze was on Jesus. But once I started posting the photos here, a new layer was added – what had been an intimate time of prayer through creation became a group portrait. The pressure to produce an image turned a spiritual exercise into an occasion for anxiety.

I grew up United Methodist before we went all Revised Common Lectionary and started doing “high liturgical stuff” like paying attention to Lent. 😉 If anything, I was raised to look askance at Lenten disciplines: firstly, they were showing off (fast and pray in private, says the Bible), and secondly, they could lead to spiritual laziness (what? are you spiritually disciplined just a couple of months a year?) But during my time in seminary, I was converted to observing the Christian calendar as a discipline in the sense of revealing to me (and giving me language for) the seasonal nature of my relationship with God, as well as my place within the Christian community.

Now I am starting to find a place for the wisdom of my old Lent skepticism, however. I am asking myself two questions: Am I observing Lent for God, or for my public image within my community? And am I being unrealistic – is this Lent a time when I am somehow more able to take up this discipline than at any other time of the year?

Which has led me to a conclusion: I am going to keep taking and sharing my photos on past Lent. But not every day. Instead, I will post as I am able, and as it gives life to me and my community.

In the Rite of Infant Baptism found in the old Methodist hymnal – the rite I grew up with – the congregation makes this vow: “With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”

Just as the figures in my daughter’s nativity surround Jesus, I have a community of sisters and brothers whose gaze is fixed on Love Incarnate. I met some of them at seminary, others in high school or in college, or on Twitter or Facebook, or at church or through work or another friend, and countless other ways. As they order their lives after the teaching and example of Christ, I am confirmed and strengthened. I am surrounded by their steadfast love.

May the steadfast love of my sisters and brothers in Christ serve as my North Star – always recalling to me the way in which I am to go. Amen.

There and Back Again: A writer’s tale

Given that I slipped deeper into depression yesterday while unpacking events from my last year of college, driving around town today listening to songs from the unhappiest decade of my life was arguably unwise.

A couple of weeks ago, we bought a new Prius V! I feel more affection for this vehicle than any inanimate object properly deserves, but I am not alone in this: just this past weekend, after a couple of hours of Christmas shopping, my daughter actually hugged the Prius, and with genuine affection in her voice said, “I love you, car!”

Since we buy new cars only every 10 years or so, relatively standard features are a revelation to us. This one comes with satellite radio capabilities. Hoping to rope us into a paid subscription, the car comes with a free 3 month trial subscription to Sirius. Today I discovered a station called “First Wave – Classic Alternative Rock” which could just as easily be titled “The nostalgia channel for aging Gen X pre-hipsters.” It is the first time in years that I have heard Echo and the Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, The Buzzcocks, Berlin, The Pretenders, Alphaville, The Clash, REM, and Midnight Oil all on the same day. Delivering my daughter’s forgotten backpack to school, it took a great deal of effort to turn off the car just as “London Calling” was getting underway.

Exhausted after a bit of exercise this afternoon, I reluctantly headed off to an appointment, only to discover that it was cancelled! And located right next door: frozen yogurt! With mochi and strawberries! And best of all, after eating said frozen yogurt while reading the latest mystery novel in my rotation, I got into the car just in time to catch the beginning of The Cure’s “Close to Me.”

It was the same remixed version that I had listened to on my way to pick up a high school friend for our first date. The music and lyrics both seem designed to intensify anxiety, and I remembered that long drive (he lived an hour away – these sorts of drives are common when you attend a magnet school which drew its student body from 3 adjacent counties, as ours did), and the strange mix of fear and optimism that always preceded a first date for me.

Poor guy – he was sweet and naïve in a way that I had not anticipated from someone with long dark hair, leather boots, a black trench coat, and genuine artistic ability. Most damningly, he refused to accept my carefully cultivated badass veneer. As a friend from my first year of college recently told me, “Even in that dark time, I could see the light of God’s love shining through you.” Which is great and all, since I really did love everybody. But that was dangerous, and the only way I knew how to protect my overly vulnerable heart was to be under constant attack. Young Mr. Trenchcoat was far too chivalrous. I kept my internal demons at bay by externalizing them – he didn’t have so much as a snarky bone in his body. And so it was that what began with the anxious anticipation of danger became instead the long anxious avoidance of breaking the heart of a truly decent person.

Last night, in the midst of a difficult conversation about the dark years governed by my depression, by my experiments in how much damage I could do to myself and allow others to do to me before I was utterly broken, my husband asked, “Are those your only two choices, for that time to matter so much that it breaks you, or for it to not matter at all?”
“Yes!” I answered, “Yes. If I think about it, I am paralyzed. So all I can do is not think about it. To remember that that time is past, that the present is good, that I am happy now. To cut the past loose and forget it.”

But then I remembered something that my daughter has said about her anxieties, her memories, her scary thoughts. “Mommy – every word I have in me is written on a piece of paper in my mind, and I can’t erase it or throw it away! It is there forever!”
Yep. There they are. As made most evident by my mood yesterday, brought on by a simple allusion to the five months I spent as a cabdriver in Richmond, Virginia. That seemingly innocuous footnote opened up into a wormhole that I sped through screaming, like Bill & Ted in the phone booth, only to land in a past time that I had no real interest in reliving. “Execute them!” “Bogus.” Bogus indeeed.

Writing yesterday afternoon about my past made me feel temporarily worse. But I have reason to believe that by naming my demons I might slowly begin to exorcise them at last.

I have some experience with this. September and October proved to be a time when I was given the opportunity to explore my divorce at age 22 through a couple of writing assignments. It was a miserable process at first, this going down into Sheol. But as I edited one piece in particular, stripping away layers of analysis until I was left with dialogue and sensory experience; as I cut away paragraphs of events inessential to the story to find the core, the center – Sting’s “still point of destruction” –  I found healing. I remembered the preciousness of my pain, and how it has honed my empathy to a clean edge that can cut away at sentiment or pierce the protective carapace of long suffering, a blade with which I may draw those few drops of blood that will remind one who has come to loathe herself that still she has a heart that beats within her. And as I wrote and remembered, Jesus broke the gates of Sheol and grasped my hands and pulled me back into my place amongst the living.

And so I shall peer into the abyss again, with a reasonable hope that should I fall headfirst over the precipice, I will not be forgotten there, nor left behind.