I had the freakiest, scariest experience this morning.
I woke and prepared for my day. My partner and I discussed plans and schedules, and I headed out the door for my commute. It was a fairly smooth drive, and I earned points on Waze for updating gas prices and adding a marker for active police. (I have my shield now! Yay!)
I exited the interstate at my typical off-ramp, noticing that the “faster” route was actually blocked due to a crash and being glad that I had established this routine. I yawned and confirmed an earlier decision: I needed coffee. I turned on my blinker and moved into the left lane.
I checked the time. 7:48. Plenty of time to get through the crowded drive-through before my 8:30 meeting.
I turned left at the stoplight, and decided I would pick up a cup of coffee for my boss as well. Pike Place. Black, no room. Venti.
I turned right into the shopping center. The time was 7:49. As I crossed through the parking lot, I took a deep breath. It’s the 1st of the month: payday. This drive-through is almost always full and slow. I prepared myself to drive around the parking lot so that I could establish The Line in a way that doesn’t block the entrance.
I approached the stop sign. Something was wrong. The view ahead looked awfully sparse. I wasn’t sure what this meant. I wouldn’t have to drive around the parking lot, so that was good.
I crossed the street, into the parking lot. I looked to my right and saw…
At this moment, my body does not feel any pain at all.
Unless you live with chronic pain, you probably don’t know what this means. I have lived with pain as a companion every day since August 2006. Every single day. There has been no respite, no time when I was free of pain. Not once. I mourned the loss of a pain-free life, just one pain-free day. Somehow I managed to keep the barest flicker of hope alive, but there were bad times when it was almost snuffed out.
Words cannot express the joy and deep gratitude in my heart right now. Even if this strange no-pain doesn’t stay with me through the entire day, even if today was the only day I’ll find it, even with that, I would still need to sing out praise and thanksgiving. It takes music, dance, art to tell you what it means to be without pain.
My joy is like the clear blue sky above,
autumn-clear, swept free of every cloud.
My gratitude is like the swift-running river,
fast and quick, dancing and jumping over rocks.
My delight is like a playful puppy,
a frisky kitten,
a child laughing and running.
My heart sings with the voice of the wind through the trees,
the voice of the ocean on the sandy shore,
the cry of the gull, the cheep of the cardinal, the song of the lark,
the roar of waterfalls,
the rumble of locomotives,
the quiet purr of the aging cat.
There is a cost for this lack of pain. The cost is my new medication. In terms of monetary cost, it’s in a higher tier of my formulary, and apparently not available as a generic drug yet. In terms of side effects, I’m dealing with somnolence and problems thinking. I hope that there will be an adjustment period, after which these costs will be easier to deal with. If not, then I will have to make some choices about how I live and work. But right now? Those costs are absolutely, completely, one hundred percent worth it.
A day without pain. How often have I prayed for this, begged for it, pleaded with God for it? Today it is in my grasp, and so I will sing.
Glory to God in the highest
and peace to the people on earth
whom God favors!
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant!
Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands;
serve the Lord with gladness,
and come before God’s presence with a song!
Sing praises of the Lord, for he has done great things,
and this is known in all the world!
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy,
for the Great One in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel!
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever,
world without end!
If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say…
Thus begins Psalm 124, appointed for this coming Sunday. It is a song of praise, of thanksgiving, to God for deliverance. In the stories of the Old Testament, the Israelites were troubled by many enemies; their nation was conquered, carried away, delivered, brought back, and conquered again. It is no wonder these men and women waited with great excitement and anticipation for the promised Messiah; over and over, they learned their own helplessness in the face of the powers of this world.
You may be surprised to learn that I can occasionally be a little bit stubborn. Okay, so by occasionally I mean all the time, and by a little bit I mean a whole lot. In my own story, I’ve noticed that the lessons I’ve had to learn over and over — like the children of Israel learning the lesson of their own helplessness — are the ones I never seem to completely get, to fully embrace… or the ones that I argue and rail and fight against, in my own stubborn and stiff-necked ways. The lessons that I fight the hardest against, each time I encounter the lesson again, it becomes more difficult, more frustrating. I refuse to admit the truth of the lesson to myself — I’m not helpless! I’m in complete control here! — and I refuse even to admit it to God.
Every single one of us is helpless in the face of the powers of this world. We do have some little power, some little control. But we cannot change the thoughts and feelings of another, just as we cannot change the path of the weather. Not one of us can prevent our enemies from rising up against us. Not one of us can stop the flooding in the southeastern US, or the suffering it brings, though I’m sure every one of us would stop or prevent it if we could. At the same time, none of us wants to admit this. We have to be strong! We have to be independent! We have to be powerful! We have to be capable and competent and in control! Because if we’re not — if we are not all of these things — then what are we? Lazy? Incompetent? Powerless? Helpless? Dependent? Weak?
Our readings for Sunday give us some answers to this. Beyond confirming that yes, individually we are weak and helpless and powerless, we hear three responses to our helplessness (if not to our stubbornness and pride).
The first response appears in the story of Esther — the only book in the canonical bible that does not refer to God. Esther is a woman — weak, helpless, powerless in a society of males — and though she is a Jew, she is chosen by the Persian king to be his queen. Esther’s adopted father Mordecai learned that one of the king’s closest advisers planned to destroy the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai is helpless, with no response to the power of this earthly king. So he turns to Esther, and he places his trust in her. He has done this once before, when he learned of a plot to assassinate the king. And so now he does it again. This first response to our helplessness is to trust. Mordecai trusted in Esther to help the Jewish people; Esther, in turn, trusted in the king to save her people from death.
We also see this response in the gospel, when Jesus tells us to trust those who work in his name: If they are not with us, they are for us. And the psalm concludes with a magnificent statement of trust:
Our help is in the Name of the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
We respond to our own helplessness and powerlessness with trust. We trust in God, in God who formed us and breathed life into us, in God who has our names written on God’s hand, in God who loves us perfectly and without limit, in God who weeps when we do, in God who knows every single hair on our heads. Who better is there for us to trust, than the One who created all there is, who established the rules of physics (including the parts we don’t understand), who invites us into deeper and deeper relationship with God? And just as we trust in God, we trust in each other. Our relationship with God leads us into relationship with each other; the love we receive from God manifests in the love we share with each other. We’re all in the same boat; we all lack control over the powers of this world.
Trust doesn’t get us completely off the hook, though. Trust doesn’t mean that we just let go of everything. Oh, that’s someone else’s responsibility. I trust them to do it. Ultimately, everything is God’s responsibility, and yet, at the same time, we are God’s hands and feet and eyes and ears in this world. So we trust in God, and there is a further response for us, too.
This brings us to the second response to our helplessness, which also comes up in Esther’s story. When Mordecai comes to Esther, giving her his trust, how will she respond? Esther can’t contradict the king’s orders. Esther does not have the power to arrest and charge Haman, who spearheaded this betrayal. So Esther does what she can: she speaks up at the king’s banquet, asking her husband to save her people. Esther does not have the power or the ability to do much, but she does what she can. This action involved some risk to Esther, potentially embarrassing her powerful husband in front of his court and subjects, but she still did it. And what Esther was able to do, this was enough to save her people.
So this is the first response to our helplessness: we need to do what we can, even though this may be risky. The letter of James addresses this, too, in the context of a Christian congregation. We may not be able to take away someone’s illness as though it had never been, but what we can do is pray, anoint them with oil, and help take care of them.
And on the other side, we also should not prevent others from doing what they can; if we do not let our church family know that we are sick or otherwise in need of prayer, then they cannot do this for us. Sometimes, as awful as it can feel, the only thing we can do is pray. So that’s what we do: we do what we can.
But when each of us when each of us trusts in each other, and when each of us does what we can do, then we can do a whole lot together. This applies to both big things, like global warming or starvation or malaria, and small things, like the cobwebs in the church basement or our next door neighbor’s gallbladder surgery or our pastor’s ailing puppy. God’s not going to reach down with a broom and sweep out those cobwebs. But we can — or some among us can — and so that is what we do.
The third response to our helplessness may seem strange at first: this response is to be thankful, to give praise. In Esther’s story (parts we don’t hear in this lectionary reading) we see the institution of the Purim holy day, a day of celebration and generosity and forgiveness and thanksgiving and praise. Our psalm for Sunday is, in its entirety, a song of praise and thanksgiving to God, for delivering us all from our helplessness in this world. After describing the enemies, the torrent, the raging waters that overwhelm us, the psalmist shouts out his praise.
Blessed be the LORD!
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler;
the snare is broken, and we have escaped!
It is important to show our gratitude to God, of course, because we know that everything we are, everything we have, everything we see is a gift from God. It is also important to show our thankfulness to each other, to lift one another up with encouragement and praise. The healthy congregation that James envisions in his letter is one where we lift each other up; we help each other, we trust each other, and we give thanks and gratitude to each other. After Mordecai, speaking through Esther, revealed the plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus, the king gave Mordecai great honor and praise, to express his gratitude. While we might not have crowns and royal horses and kingly robes to give to those who help us, the very least we can give them is our words of gratitude and praise.
This world is not perfect, and we are not perfect. We cannot do everything, and we lack the power to make everything right and good and whole. We’re not in control, and there are days when we feel like all of the powers of this world conspire against us, like we are utterly helpless and defenseless. This may even be true. But Sunday’s readings give us these responses, these tools to help us. We put our trust in God and in one another. We do what (little) we can, trusting that those around us will be doing what they can as well. And we give thanks; we give praise. We might even thank God (though maybe a little grudgingly) for the lessons we have learned through our struggle. Or, if you’re as stubborn and stiff-necked as I am, you might not. 🙂
you declare your almighty power chiefly
in showing mercy and pity:
Grant us the fullness of your grace,
that we, running to obtain your promises,
may become partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
If it weren’t Lent, I’d use the forbidden A-word. Tonight, maplestar and I led a discussion at church. As part of the parish’s Lenten series on spiritual disciplines and prayer practices, I led a discussion on the Taizé community, with an eye to how one might integrate Taizé spiritual practices into one’s personal prayer life. It was about twenty minutes of presentation and discussion, followed by the office of Compline, into which we’d brought three Taizé chants and a beautiful setting of the Nunc Dimittis by someone I know only via the internet. Maplestar led the music from the keyboard while I led the worship. It was wonderful. Compline was beautiful — as Compline already is — and made even more so by integrating the Taizé songs.
But by far, the most wonderful and beautiful part is that for the very first time, I feel like I’m able to live out my spirituality — this most vital and important part of me — with a partner who is committed to his own spirituality. Together, we hold each other up, and we support our parish community, our diocese, and really, all of Christendom, with our prayers and our love and our witness. This is what Christians do, or what we are called to do.
My ex-husband does not understand faith, can not comprehend having faith in anything or anyone but oneself. He cannot trust people, and he certainly does not trust God. Any expression of faith from me would send him into spirals of fear, rage, and depression. I was living an inauthentic life with him. I could not be who God wants me to be. And I came to learn — in very difficult and painful ways — that one who truly loves me is one who wants to help me to be me, to grow into me, to live into the life God wants for me. It is not an act of love to seek to control someone, to make him or her into your image of them. This is an act of fear and dominance, not of love. It was a difficult and terrible decision to leave that marriage behind, even with rage and control and emotional abuse.
But now… now I am blessed to live with a partner, with someone who seeks to share and learn, to grow and to help me grow, to love and be loved, to be more than we ever could be apart. We go to worship together, and we hold each other in prayer. Each night, before we turn out the light to go to sleep, we kiss each other and make the sign of the cross on the other’s forehead and say God bless you.
It is almost two years now since I told my ex-husband that I was moving out, seeking a divorce, ending the marriage for good. He didn’t believe me, because I’d tried three times before. I know it has been a very difficult time for him, and that he’s had to grow in ways that he’d never expected. Truth be told, I have, too. And tonight, well, tonight I am basking in the glow of something that I didn’t think I would ever be able to look forward to. Tonight, I go to bed in the arms of my husband and partner, who prays with me and for me, who comes to church with me and plays the organ and even when it’s completely out of his comfort zone, leads a discussion night for the parish. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so blessed before.
Tomorrow is the US holiday of Thanksgiving. There are many wonderful stories about days of thanksgiving to God, in the early years of the European colonists, and the holiday has been observed in many different ways. Today, it is primarily observed as a day of thanks for the gifts of our harvest. Of course, most of us do not harvest grains or vegetables or meats; rather, our harvest is a paycheck or possibly an electronic deposit to the bank account that leaves no tangible trace behind. But with that money, we partake of a much richer harvest, including not only the food that sustains and nourishes us, but also our homes, our cars, our clothing, and all the many things that fill our surroundings. Of course, we earn this harvest through our hard work, but we could not even put forth that effort without the gifts, talents, and graces we’ve been given by God. Thus, on this day, we take the time to intentionally note our harvest and the gifts we’ve received that enable us to reap that harvest, and we take the time for the intentional practice of giving thanks.
Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
In America, we do live in the promised land, in a good land that flows with streams and springs, where we eat bread without scarcity, where we mine iron and copper. But we did not create this land, though it does take hard work to enjoy the fruits of the land. These gifts were here long before European colonists were, long before humans were.
Paul’s advice in the epistle reading is the next step, after we recognize that our harvest flows from the gifts God has given us. We are not expected to hoard our great harvests, to sit on stockpiles of grain – or of money – while others around us go without essential needs. No, God intended the riches of this promised land for everyone. What’s more, when we share the gifts we were given, then God pours out yet more and more and more gifts upon us. The entire point of every grace that is given to us by God, is that it is to be shared. A harvest does nobody any good when it is locked in an impenetrable silo. Nor do forgiveness or openness or love or generosity do anyone any good when they are locked within an impenetrable heart.
I’ve always found this particular gospel passage a bit disquieting. Ten lepers approach Jesus and beg for healing, so he sends them to the priests in the temple – who are the only people who can declare these men to be ritually clean, so that they can once again take part in society – but only one of the ten comes back to Jesus to thank him for this amazing gift of healing. The others just kind of say, “Huh, whaddayaknow. Didn’t think that was going to work!” and go on their way. Jesus lifts up this man who returned to show gratitude, and praises his faith. But then, the evangelist Luke throws a wrench into the whole thing. This one man, the one who was healed of his disease and returned to thank Jesus? He’s a Samaritan, a member of a race despised by the Jews. It would be like telling this same story today, but making the one man a pedophile or a rapist or the CEO of an American automaker. The other nine men, probably all observant Jews despite their ritual uncleanness and exclusion, likely accepted the healing as their due, their entitlement. “Of course he healed me; I’m not a terrible sinner like those awful, dirty Samaritans!” But this one man, who could not take part in Jewish society anyway, he prostrates himself at the feet of Jesus, shouts praises to God, and gives his personal thanks to the man who healed him.
So on this holiday, this Thanksgiving Day, we are reminded how important it is to give thanks. Of course, just like forgiveness and openness and love and generosity, our gratitude does nobody any good when it is locked up within our hearts and minds. My challenge to myself, and to everyone else, is to pour out this gift of gratitude upon God and upon the people in our lives. I’ve said before that we must love extravagantly, and my challenge today is to thank extravagantly. Thank your parents, your siblings, your children for what they’ve added to your life. Thank your boss and your coworkers – yes, even that annoying guy in accounting – and thank the lady who empties the garbage can in your office every day. Thank the cashier in the grocery store for her hard work, and thank the girl in the drive-through window at Burger King. Thank your bank teller. And for God’s sake, if you go shopping to celebrate Black Friday, thank every single person you encounter.
Then we can pray together, in the words of tomorrow’s collect,
Almighty and gracious Father,
we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season
and for the labors of those who harvest them.
Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty,
for the provision of our necessities
and the relief of all who are in need,
to the glory of your Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
And thank you, my beloved friend, for taking the time to read these words. I’m glad you stopped by, and I hope you’ll visit again. And I hope that your life overflows with blessings, always.
Today was an uppy-downy-roller-coastery kind of day. My children came over for the weekend, and I hadn’t seen them in a couple weeks, so I was looking forward to seeing them. They are fourteen (my son) and thirteen (my daughter), and they seem to take turns being The Sweet One and The Hostile One. This week, it’s been my son’s turn to be The Sweet One. Sigh. I was excited to see them anyway. Esther Gabriel Kittenpants was here, and I knew my daughter would adore her. Of course, maplestar is also here, and my daughter… well, we’ll just say she doesn’t adore him. She doesn’t approve of me being involved with him, and she’s angry and hurt on behalf of her father. I’m sorry that our relationship angers and hurts her so much, but I will not tolerate her being disrespectful or even nasty to him or to me. The tough part is, teenagers loooooooove to walk that fine line between being smart-alecky and lippy, and being disrespectful and nasty. And having a grown-up, almost dry and witty sense of humor, my daughter has always had a hard time with her mouth getting her into trouble.
Miss Esther Gabriel Kittenpants was showing more signs of a kitty-cold today, but I wasn’t terrifically worried because she’s still eating well, and because we had a vet appointment scheduled for her. She is fine – no feline leukemia or FIV – but for her kitty-cold and a case of roundworms. She had her first worming and came home with a bag full of medicines, and I know she’ll be back to normal soon. She’s very playful, very spunky – a real little fighter – and my daughter loves to call her Scrap.
After supper, my daughter amused herself by getting on my nerves. Her favorite game is to push and push and push, until the point I tell her she absolutely cannot push any further… and then she pushes and pushes and pushes some more until I blow up and yell at her. THEN she plays the victim card, unable to understand why everybody is always yelling at her. (Yeah, very teenagery. I know.) So tonight, I just got quiet. We were in a pet supply store, and I asked her and her brother to go look at the fish while I finished up. Instead, they snuck up behind me and tried to startle me. I repeated my request, and they walked away, and then did the same thing again. Finally maplestar took the cart and made some evasive maneuvers while I went down around the other side of the store to the registers, and I had a few moments of silence to settle myself enough for when the kids caught back up with us. Once we were all rung up and getting back into the car, my daughter started up with me again. I just remained quiet, feeling my frustration and anger, recognizing them for what they are, but not expressing them in ways that would be counterproductive. Instead, once we got home, I took my sudoku book into the bedroom, shut the door most of the way, and stretched out in the quiet to try to relax. The anger started to soak back into the earth, and in the quiet I was able to restore my emotional equilibrium. It’s amazing how our family members are the ones most able to push us into those reactions. Ah, well.
My daughter had a session with her math tutor tonight, and they started working on some geometry as a preview of her course work this coming school-year. I can see her feeling more confident about math, and she is already liking geometry much better than she liked algebra ,which didn’t surprise me one little bit.
We went out for Italian ices, and after that maplestar and I made some music. I sang a couple of the songs I worked on this year, while he accompanied me on the piano. Then I took out my flute, and we tried my favorite Bach sonata with the harpsichord. It was… mostly okay. The tuning on the harpsichord was different, so I ended up reading the E-flat sonata in the key of E, so that we could match pitches. So the note names would be the same, but instead of three flats, I was playing four sharps, and all the accidentals and the scale passages (where my fingers knew what they were supposed to do, but that was all wrong for being a half-step higher) tripped me up. I can sight-read something where I have to transpose in my head without too much problem – though the accidentals can trip me up – but to do that with a piece I know so intimately was really difficult.
After that, I played a couple more things on my flute, and I realized that I hadn’t even taken it out of its case since Easter Sunday… and before that, I hadn’t taken it out of its case since late December. I only played for about fifteen minutes, and even with the special device my flute teacher had made me for my right hand, it was completely cramped and had to be massaged back into normal shape. My neck was spasming, my back was tight, and the pain was building in my hips and knees. My heart had been flying from the music, and I realized that making music on my flute is going to be one more thing I will mourn. After twenty-eight years, I don’t think I can consider myself a flutist any more. There aren’t many things I have identified as a part of myself for longer than that. A female, perhaps, the daughter of my parents, the sister of my sister. A lover of books and reading. I could never give up music entirely – that would eat the soul out of my body in no time – but it looks like this part of my identity will need to be properly remembered, buried, and mourned.
About a month ago, one of my favorite bloggers and just one of my favorite people, wrote a blog post about grieving for lost futures. This Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, this chronic pain – it will never completely go away. I will never be the same person I was a few years ago. I will always have to make decisions, will always have to weigh my activities against the pain and harm they could cause to my body – if I go bowling with the folks from work tonight, how will I have to pay for that tomorrow? if I fix supper tonight, when I’m already so exhausted, will I be able to make it into the office tomorrow morning? if I spend the afternoon out, will I have the energy for the housework I have waiting for me? if my son doesn’t help me mow my lawn, will it tear up my joints to do it myself? Playing the flute makes my heart dance, makes my soul leap… but it makes my hand stay curled like a claw, and it makes my neck and skull and back muscles spasm, after a mere fifteen minutes.
Right now, my son is playing his favorite online computer game. My daughter is tucked into bed, curled around tiny Esther Gabriel. Maplestar has gone to bed, too, but I’m too wound up yet to sleep. I have pain all through my body, from dull aches to sharp stabs, and my mind is still unsettled. I have a book to read, sudoku puzzles to solve, a couch to lie on with my ice pack. I have many things to thank God for – a wonderful home, awesome (if annoying) children, an absolutely amazing fiance. I’m thankful that I can still play my flute at all, and that I can still sing. I’m thankful that maplestar is a musician, and that I can hear him play piano and organ and harpsichord. I’m thankful that I know now the illness I’m facing, even if there’s not a cure for it. I’m thankful – in a strange sort of way – that I know a few family members who have it also, because when the pain strikes – and especially when others doubt me, because the syndrome is completely invisible – they still know and understand and believe in me.
Next week, my car is being repaired, maplestar is participating in a sacred music conference, and I’m traveling to another state for my job. When I return, I’ll take a taxi to the car dealer, pick up my car, drive back past the airport to pick up the kids at their cousins’ house, drive to the conference to pick up maplestar, and then come home… probably exhausted and craving comfort and quiet, but needing instead to feed them all, love on the pets, get the laundry going, catch up on mail and voice mail and email, and lots of other fiddly little details. Ah well – that is for next week. For now, all I need is to try to sleep, perchance to heal.
Good night, my beloved friends. May God the Father watch over you this night. May Jesus, the Son, hold the Light in the darkness, for when you feel afraid or alone. May God the Holy Spirit breathe life and strength and comfort into you. And may the angels of heaven stand ’round you and protect you, until you wake in the morning.