Exaltabo te

I feel as if I were under a pile of things left undone: letters and e-mails and phone calls, conversations and agendas and projects, and all kinds of writing.  (Thankfully not also under a pile of housework, thanks to my sister and my husband!)

I returned from the hospital a week ago.  The verdict was another vertebral artery dissection, but no brain damage of any kind – just an artery in need of healing, and the news that I likely have a collagen 4 deficiency, which is to say, a condition that makes me prone to this sort of thing.  But regular scans and aspirin should be enough to keep this condition from putting me in any real danger.  In the meantime, a dissected artery HURTS, so I am taking medication which makes me unable to focus very well most of the time and makes me sleep more – and which even so keeps me from hurting only so long as I don’t put any stress on the artery by lifting anything heavy or turning or tilting my head to far to one side.  When I am alone, I can be grateful for the pain, insofar as the pain is what took me to the hospital, where we discovered what we needed to know to keep me healthy and alive.  When I am downstairs with the meowing cat and my concerned 5 year old and my almost verbal 13 month old nephew, and the clanging pots and pans and closing drawers and cabinets that signal my diligent husband and sister – then I can only be cranky and not very good company.  I am a much better person when I don’t have to interact with other live people!

I have been trying each morning to sing through a part of the Psalter.  I am using the Daily Lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer, which directed me this morning to Psalms 30 and 32.  It was very timely to sing: “O LORD, my God, I cried to you for help and you have healed me.  O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

But I found that I no longer understand the bargaining that the Psalmist engages in in verse 9 – basically asserting that God NEEDS her – that if the singer lives, she will praise him, but if she does not, then she cannot.  I remember the people who said to Jesus, in defiance of any change, “WE are the children of Abraham!” and Jesus’ reply, “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.”  The dry bones, the stones, the dust will indeed praise God.  Or, as Dr. Hall reminded us frequently during Ethics lectures last year, “We are grasshoppers, children.”

And so it was not enough for me to sing the final verses of Psalm 30 – that “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy…”  I was glad for the BCP’s direction to then turn to Psalm 32 – to the acknowledgement of my need to confess my transgressions to the Lord.

Especially I confess that sometimes I have found myself believing that it would be possible for my voice to be silenced:  that not being a pastor (or being a pastor!), that not having work as a teaching assistant, that not teaching Sunday school, that not writing – that vacating any particular position or title, that these deaths would silence my praises – that God needed me.  And I give thanks that I no longer keep my silence, groaning all day long.  Instead, I uncovered my iniquity, and found freedom and healing in God’s forgiveness.

God does not need me to be well in order that I might write my blog or even pray for longer stretches without falling asleep.  God does not need me to be well.  And yet, I am growing well.  My life has been restored to me.  Such is the extravagant goodness of God.

“O LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever!”

Atlanta airport

It is just two weeks ago now that I was in a food court at the Atlanta airport.  I was sitting at a table facing a low opaque wall that hid the escalator from view, so that what I saw was a seemingly endless stream of people.  One after another, a head would appear, and then shoulders, then torso, and then the whole person, walking quickly past the tables and on to their connecting gate.  The experience was something like watching snowflakes fall, or watching raindrops slide across the window of a moving car.  If I tried to keep my eyes focused on one place, the rate at which new faces would appear was overwhelming.  But following one person from appearance to disappearance, and then repeating the process was enough to inspire motion sickness.  So many people!

At VCU, I took abnormal psychology from a professor whose unifying theory was that our brains are not significantly (if at all) different from a Cro-Magnon – that our brains evolved to handle a reality in which we would not live long, nor would we ever meet but so many people.  Modern humans, he contended, saw more people in a day than we were made to see in a lifetime.  Is that enough to explain most mental disorders, as that professor would have it?  I think it unlikely.  But I will admit that my brain became confused, even distressed, in the face of so many – well, faces.

Because they are not just faces, right?  Each person, a person with as much backstory as myself, with their own constellation of friends and family, with their own beliefs and experiences, with their own reasons for being at the Atlanta airport at that hour on that day.

It is no wonder that giving even ten minutes of considered thought to the problems of the world is too much for people – the mere existence of a few thousand people in our immediate proximity is too much for us, and there are billions of people, and so billions of stories and billions of wounds and billions of opportunities to pass by without looking too carefully, lest we be overcome with motion sickness.

The mere existence of the people coming off the escalator were overwhelming to me, and yet they were just a tiny fraction of all those held in God’s loving embrace.  I was so overloaded, I could not have recognized any of them ten minutes later – God could tell you how many hairs were on each head.  Not to mention what they had for breakfast, and who loved them, and what they feared most, and whether it was love or fear or something else that brought them to the airport.

“How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!”

Love your enemies

So I haven’t posted lately. And I haven’t responded to the many people who have left comments on my blog. I’m so sorry. I have lots of good excuses, including flu and an Advent devotional booklet that I am editing, and very little childcare coverage.

I anticipate that next week, after I have preached (woohoo! first time in more than 2 years!) and celebrated Thanksgiving and finished the devotional booklet and taught Sunday school, I am going to blog like crazy. After all, I have notes built up for several entries that I have just been too overwhelmed to flesh out. But as a stopgap, I am pasting in here one of my contributions for my congregation’s devotional booklet.

(This will make better sense if you read Psalm 70:19-29 first. But you probably know the kind of Psalm I’m talking about.)

I had always had trouble with Psalms like this. Praying that bad things would happen to other people didn’t seem to be what Jesus had in mind when he advised, “love your enemies.” I struggled even more as the desire grew in me to embrace all of the Bible, not just part of it. How could I embrace words like these?

Then a rabbi explained to me how our “Old Testament” is viewed in the Jewish tradition: it is divided into the words of God for humanity (the Law and the Prophets, invoked as authoritative throughout our New Testament), and the words of the faithful to God – the Ketuvim, or Writings. And included in the Writings were the Psalms. Perhaps the inclusion of these Psalms did not mean that God had any intention of raining destruction on my enemies – only that I was liberated to spill even my darkest emotions in the safety of God’s loving presence.

And so it was that I found myself, weeks later, on my knees in Duke Chapel. I was consumed with anger with a fellow student. [Note to my J2J friends who are now wondering who it is: I can say with some certainty that he doesn’t even know about this blog, so at least you know a couple of people you can rule out! ] I prayed that God would obliterate him with great fanfare, but only after letting him suffer a bit. I described in great detail all the horrible things that I hoped would befall him. And after many minutes of this – I remember my knees aching on the stone floor – I was spent. My rage was all poured out, and I was empty. And into that silence, a new thought entered: God loved me! God loved angry, hate-filled me! … and God loved my enemy. Could I bring myself to love him, too?

That day, bringing the full force of my anger before God had in fact empowered me to love my enemy so well that I remembered that he was my brother in Christ, and God’s own beloved child – without feeling ashamed of my having expressed such rage, remembering that I continued to be God’s beloved child, too.

Loving Creator, sometimes I get really angry, so angry that I don’t want to admit it to anyone, even myself. Give me courage to bring even my scariest and darkest emotions to you, trusting in your saving love, knowing that my darkness can never overcome your Light. Amen.

So, friends, I hope that you can forgive me for not yet responding to your helpful and thoughtful comments, nor reading your own blogs in the past week or two — or at least I urge you to take whatever vengeful thoughts you have to God in prayer! 😉 No, that is not really why I posted this. I posted it because I did not realize until later that this interpretation of “be angry, but do not sin” might be controversial. And I thought I’d put it out there for community discussion and review.