Holy Silence and Candy Crush

One of my New Year’s Not-Exactly-Resolutions this year was to work on building quiet into my daily schedule.  Focused quiet, where I’m meditating on a Scripture or inspiring thought, maybe praying, maybe listening, maybe all of the above, but definitely being quiet.  I still think that’s important, but I have a feeling I should expand my original goal a little.

As I write, my daughter is upstairs in her room writing another chapter of her modern twist on a fairy tale.  (The last time I checked in, the princess was rescuing the prince and wasn’t sure if she actually wanted to go out with him at all.)  My son is lying on the couch icing his knee from an injury he got at Boy Scouts this morning, and reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers.”  I’ve been drinking a cup of tea and enjoying a rare non-working Saturday afternoon at home.  I’ve been alternately catching up on a favorite blog and playing Candy Crush, which isn’t your standard Bible study fare.

It’s not thought-provoking Biblical exegesis or anything like it.  The blog I’m reading makes me laugh and think, but it’s not like I’m plowing through Spurgeon’s sermons or a commentary on the Petrine epistles.  I’m not praying (other than a quick word sent upward if something pops up in my news feed that I think God should have a little friendly reminder about).  I’m not searching my soul, but I really could use another one of those striped/wrapped candy combos, because this level is kicking my butt.

Is this what the Friends tradition would generally consider “holy silence”, that quiet stillness that centers on listening for the voice of God?  Nope.  Do I need it?  Heck yeah.

I can’t even remember the last non-midnight time that both children were quiet, I wasn’t answering work emails, and there was no music playing or Netflix running somewhere in the house.  Earlier this afternoon I sat at my kitchen table, looked out at the soft grey sky and occasional raindrops, wrapped both hands (both! the other hand wasn’t taking notes or clicking a mouse or pushing buttons on the washing machine!) around my mug of tea, and … did nothing.  NOTHING.  I looked out the window and noticed that there’s kind of a neat reflection of the porch railing across the wet boards of the porch floor, and heard my kitchen clock ticking, and enjoyed my warm tea, and that was it.

Maybe it’s not REAL study time, with notebooks and interlinear translations and highlighters.  But I think God lives in those quiet, domestic moments, and I’m going to see about finding a few more of them.

Some Days I Go To Westboro.

Westboro Baptist Church.

You just had a gut-level reaction to that, didn’t you?  I sure did.  I try not to swear TOO much, but this not-Baptist not-church seems to bring that side of my vocabulary bubbling up out of sheer frustration with how AWFUL they are.  I saw a quote recently on an atheist’s signature line that read, “Live in such a way that Westboro Baptist Church would want to picket your funeral.”  Since they seem to target the funerals of the innocent and the heroic, I have to say I agree with the basic sentiment.

They have taken good principles and twisted them beyond recognition.  They have contorted themselves into a parody of righteousness that no longer bears any resemblance to the original.  They have listened to their own voices, and shouted so loudly that they can no longer hear the quiet whisper of truth.

I go to Westboro.

I bet you do too.

Not every day, and hopefully fewer and fewer as I grow in years and wisdom, particularly the part of maturity defined as “learning to keep your mouth shut.”  But there’s still a streak of horrible that runs through me – call it sin nature, not walking in the Light, or just generally being a jerk, it’s all the same thing.  There’s a part of me that sits on my backside, reading the news and polishing my halo, and saying, “I would NEVER do THAT.”

I would never … fill in the blank.  Steal a million dollars from a corporation.  Shoot somebody with a gun.  Blow up a building.  Slap my child.  Get wasted on drugs and wreck my car.  I would never do those things, because I am just that awesome.

Or is it because I don’t work somewhere that I could steal a million dollars?  Because I don’t have a gun and I’m not all that angry right now?  Because I managed to quit drinking before I drank myself silly and got in my car?

And what about all those “little things” that I can so easily ignore in myself – chronic lateness, eating seconds when I’m not hungry, spending money on things I don’t need and telling myself I can’t afford to donate money to the homeless shelter?  Rachel Held Evans wrote recently about a subject so near to my heart that I like to pretend I can’t even see it, saying that “everyone’s a Biblical literalist until you bring up gluttony.”

Fine, so I don’t march around being an idiot in public.  (Usually.)  But I’ve got pockets of ignorance and intolerance in my psyche, same as Westboro.  I’ve got the tendency to shout at other people when I really need to be speaking firmly to myself, same as Westboro.  I screw up royally and try to cover it up by complaining about what everybody else is doing wrong … same as Westboro.

All I can do is wake up every day, get out of bed, and mentally tear up my membership card.  I might need to tear it up seventeen more times between breakfast and lunch, but I’ll keep doing it for the rest of my life.  The minute I think I’m inherently better than they are, that I could NEVER be THAT bad, I’m right back in the pews of Westboro Baptist Church – and the only way I’ll ever fight it is to recognize that in myself, get off my butt, throw out my halo, and keep walking toward the Light.

Jesus is My Fishing Buddy

If your childhood religious experience is anything like mine, the words “Sunday morning sermon” bring up images of a pulpit, a congregation, and a pastor or priest speaking from a prepared text.  If you grew up in a church with frequent missionary guest speakers, you may also remember squirming in the seats with your friends and watching the minutes tick past noon and into overtime.  There seemed to be something about spending a few decades in South America (where the congregation was unlikely to be wearing digital watches) that gave our guests a hazy recollection of North American concepts like the ladies imprisoned in the nursery, a roast in the oven at home, or kickoff time for the ball game.

No one would have dared interrupt them, though – the sermon was sacrosanct, or at least its continuity was.  Nobody would have interrupted ANYBODY behind the pulpit (or the music stand, if it was a Sunday night).  That kind of interaction was reserved for Wednesday night Bible study.  Even then, participants in the discussion tended to be the same people, with occasional brave words spoken by quieter adults or the rare teenager.

This, then, is why I nearly dropped my Bible the first time I sat in the wooden pew of my Quaker church and heard a church member casually interrupt the sermon with a related comment.  What was he doing?!  He was talking!  In church!  During the sermon!  Did I need to worry about stray lightning bolts?

No, as it turned out – the Quaker tradition of “that of God”, the belief that each person has in themselves some essential spark that is from God, is simply alive and well at my church.  Sure, the pastor preaches, but that doesn’t mean that somebody else might not have a darn good idea.  And that could be anybody else, regardless of gender, age, speaking ability, or education – they take that “everybody” part seriously.  So if a listener has a relevant thought, they raise their hand (or not) and toss a new idea into the ring.  It’s fascinating, liberating, and to my Baptist sensibilities, it’s the slightest bit rebellious.

I love it.

In a traditional Sunday morning sermon where the pastor speaks and the congregation listens, “What is Jesus to you?” is understood to be a rhetorical question.  The pastor would list a few things that Jesus might be, and then answer the question with a sermon on the nature and person of Christ.  But when my pastor asked this question, he actually wanted an answer, and he wasn’t going to start preaching again until we answered it.

The first answers were exactly what you’d expect from a group of seasoned Christians, and nearly everyone in the congregation tossed out an idea or two.  Jesus is my friend.  My hope.  My salvation.  My Lord.  My redeemer.  You could hear the wheels turning as people thought through the Psalms and came up with a few more.  Jesus is my Rock.  My deliverer.  My shield.  My shepherd.  We cast our minds to the New Testament.  Jesus is my Savior.  My intercessor.  My light.  My king.  Words were flying now, and they kept coming.  My joy.  My peace.  My teacher.  My rescuer.  My fishing buddy.

Wait, what?

Yep – it came from the quiet-spoken man over on the left – Jesus is my fishing buddy.  I heard a few chuckles, and I admit I smiled too.  And then I stopped, and I thought about it, and my soul said, YES.  

Sure, He’s my salvation and my hope and my peace.  He is my rock, my shield and (clap) my deliverer, my fortress and my strength.  (OK, so maybe not everybody knows that camp song, but I can’t say “rock” and “shield” without clapping.)  Jesus is all those things, and those things make great singalong tunes.  But I want Jesus to be my fishing buddy too, even though I don’t know how to fish.

I love the image of this taciturn Friend out on the lake in his boat, apparently alone, but actually in constant companionship with his God.  I can’t even call it praying, because you don’t pray to your fishing buddy – you just talk to him.  Or not.  Depends on if you’re in the mood for talking, or if you just want to hang out for a while.

I want that.  I want Jesus to ride around in the passenger seat of my grungy Civic, where I will not have to apologize for all the library books on the front seat because He’s just that good of a friend.  I want Him to sprawl out in the chair next to my sewing machine when I’m on a tear finishing summer jammies for the kids, just because He feels like being around me – we might talk a little, or He might chill out and read whatever novel He’s into right now, just enjoying being with His kid for a while.  When I decide I’m done with my work for the day and I go out on the porch to look at the sunset, I want Him to be there saying “Wow” right next to me.

I think that if Jesus is part of my everyday life like that, it will make Him easier to find in the holy silence of Sunday morning’s open worship.  If I’ve been listening to Him all week, I’ll be more likely to hear Him on Sundays.  Maybe it will make Sunday feel a little less set apart, but maybe, I think, I hope, it will end up making every day holy.

There’s a Girl in the Room.

I don’t usually post about things that get me riled up online.  There are plenty of angry people on the internet already, and since the temptation to be articulately nasty is one of my besetting sins, I do a lot of counting to ten and clicking over to funny cat pictures when I’m reading about the discussions about gender roles in today’s church.

angry cat

Today, though, I’m making an exception.  Dr. John Piper is an author and preacher whose theological writings have blessed and challenged millions, myself included.  However, virtually every time he decides to make pronouncements about the modern application of his theology, I want to beg him to please, please stop talking.

I’ll let you listen for yourself:  http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-written-by-women

The first part of the podcast is rife with the usual assumptions and overstatements common to his viewpoint – men are like drill sergeants!  Women are like city planners!  It’s just confusing and wrong when women try to teach and preach like drill sergeants!  (Or something along those lines – I was laughing too hard to remember it verbatim.)

However, toward the end I stopped giggling because my jaw dropped in astonishment when he explained why he is comfortable reading and teaching from Biblical commentaries written by women, but he would not allow the same women to teach the same material from the pulpit.  He says that the book “puts her out of my sight, and in a sense takes away the dimension of her female personhood.”

Takes away the dimension of her female personhood.

This surprised me, coming from the man who teaches that we are intrinsically male or female, and that our roles in family and church life are permanently and irrevocably determined by our maleness and femaleness.

It’s tempting to joke that all I have to do to be a God-approved preacher is go into the next room, where I’m out of sight of anybody who might be offended – ta-daaa!  My female personhood is balanced out, and I can teach now!  It’s also tempting, as other women have done, to wonder exactly what it is about my female personhood that is a problem when men can see me, but not when I’m on the other side of a book or the internet.  (The answer here is generally “boobs.”)

But the reality isn’t quite that amusing.  In the movie “Erin Brockovich”, a woman diagnosed with cancer asks the poignant question, “Ya think if ya got no breasts … no uterus … you’re still technically a woman?”  The answer, of course, is an unequivocal yes.  Even the staunchest complementarians draw the line at saying that a man who has survived testicular cancer, but at the loss of the relevant body parts, is now disqualified to teach – he is still a man.

We are still men, still women, even when we are sick or old or childless or unmarried or (dare I say it) not all that romantically interested in people of the opposite gender.  We do not stop being men or women for any of these reasons, and we darn well don’t stop being them just because we’re not in the same room as John Piper.

I am a woman.  I love the Lord, and I love His Word.  In earlier seasons of life, I’ve taught and done well at it, by all accounts of the people I’ve taught.  Even though this season of life has me listening and healing instead of talking, I am still intrinsically a teacher – and still intrinsically female.  I don’t believe that combination of traits is an accident.  I think that if God has given me things to say and a woman’s voice to say them in, then it’s because he wants those words spoken in this voice.

We are his hands and feet, but we are his voice too.  These hands are small.  These feet have red nail polish.  This voice is a soprano, and it’s the voice of a mother, a sister, a daughter, an aunt.  If God decides at some point that people need to hear it, then I hope they hear what He wants them to hear.

And on the off chance that Dr. Piper decides to drop by my little Quaker congregation and I’m contributing to the discussion that Sunday, then I will set up a chair for him in the hallway, pray that he will be blessed, and talk loud enough for him to hear.

Teeny Tiny Lent

I didn’t mean to give up blogging for Lent, honest.  It just worked out that way.

I thought about giving up something big for Lent, even though the whole concept of the liturgical calendar is pretty much the opposite of the fiercely independent Baptist tradition I come from.  (Liturgy?  We don’t need no steenkeen liturgy!)  And, come to think of it, it’s probably not what you’d call a standard element of Quaker faith either, what with the pointed lack of symbols, rituals, and creeds.

I still feel a need for it, though – that sense of community that comes from knowing that a whole bunch of other Christians are doing this thing, at this time.  Granted, Lent looks really different, depending on who’s celebrating it – and that probably means quite a few of them are doing it right.  It ought to be individual, and play out differently in the faith journeys of different people.  Some people loudly and theatrically give up chocolate.  Some of the more traditional folks grumble and mumble and give up meat, while their more modern-minded cousins give up their favorite iPhone apps.  And you can always find a few students who want to give up homework for Lent.  (This rarely works.)

I thought about giving something up, thinking spiritual thoughts, and blogging about it, as many people seem to be doing these days.  I have loved reading their thoughts, but when I thought about doing the same thing here, all I could think of was that pesky verse about praying on the street corner in a loud voice.  For me, getting all holy and blogging about it was going to be the spiritual equivalent of standing at the corner of State and Commercial and hollering about what an awesome Christian I am.  Thankfully for my blog and the state of my soul, I frankly didn’t have the energy.

So I gave something else up.  It wasn’t this blog – that hiatus had more to do with several weeks’ worth of insane music schedule followed closely by a respiratory virus from the lowest pits of hell and a stomach bug which I will not gross you out by describing.  (You’re welcome.)  Instead, I gave up something small and silly that would register about a 0.001 on the Richter Scale of Sacrifice.  I did not have deep and holy thoughts about it, or at least not very many.  But I stuck with it, and every few days I thought, “Hey, it’s been a while since I … oh, yeah.  Lent.”  And I did think, “Jesus did a lot more than this.  That is pretty awesome.”  But that was pretty much it.  I didn’t have epiphanies or decide to give 50% of my income to the poor.  I just remembered, now and then, and I was thankful.

And really, that’s the point, isn’t it?  So maybe my observation of Lent was on a tiny, tiny scale.  Maybe next year I’ll give up something a little bigger, a little less silly.  Maybe the  year after that, I’ll be a better person and I can write about it.  Maybe those thoughts will bless others, and turn around and bless me all over again in the process of putting them into words.  But for now, I am just going to smile, close the door for today on my little metaphorical prayer closet, and try to keep that mental habit going:

“Hey, Jesus.  Thanks.  I haven’t forgotten.”

Just Say No To Laundry

It’s Monday night, it’s a little after 10:30, and I am not doing the laundry.

Before you start in with #firstworldproblems, let me explain.  Mondays are my laundry day.  Mondays are also a work day and cello lesson day and Cub Scout night, but it’s one of the only consistent days where I’m home with the kids, due to a really whacky custody schedule.  (It works well, except for minor details like finishing projects around the house and remembering which house I’m in when I wake up in the morning.)  It’s tempting to just do it every other Saturday when I’m home, but we’d run out of clean jeans and underpants.  Also, my son’s dirty socks would probably achieve sentience and take over the neighborhood if I left them alone that long.

So, Mondays it is.  But not this Monday.  I’m just as tired as I am on most Monday nights – VERY tired, since they tend to run for about 18 hours with only a few minutes’ break here and there, with at least one meal a day eaten while I’m working or standing up.  I’m just as busy.  The clothes are just as dirty.  But tonight I am putting my weary bare foot down and saying no to the laundry.

The next five weeks will be [insert bad word here].  I made a quick estimate of the number of lessons, rehearsals and performances I’ll be involved in over the next five weeks, and it’s around 120.  Some are half an hour long, some will approach five hours.  Nearly 100 of those will be in the next 19 days, building up to a hellacious three-day period with two major evening performances and a day-long student competition.  It’s not my favorite part of the year, but it’s a crucial part of making enough money to survive the summer.

I’ve decided to do a few things every day of the next five weeks, in order to keep my sanity.  They’re everyday, obvious things – drink water, sleep, take a walk, spend 15 minutes reading something non-work-related, that kind of thing.  But these are things I will forget to do this month, if I don’t remind myself.

I blush to admit it, but I made a rewards chart.  It has little squares for star stickers.  (I paperclipped the stickers to the chart so I wouldn’t lose them.)  Today I got five stars out of the seven.  The sixth one (quiet meditation on Scripture) I can do right before bed.  The seventh one involves sleep.

And that means going to bed.

Now.

Even if the laundry isn’t sorted.

This shouldn’t feel like an epiphany, but it does.  I am so accustomed to doing one more thing, sorting one more basket, stuffing one more thing into an already too-full day.  I’m trying to make tomorrow easier, but the truth is that tomorrow is going to be a lot like today no matter what I do tonight – I’ll just be groggy from lack of sleep if I try to get too far ahead of myself.  This seems painfully obvious, now that I think about it.

The small, homely epiphanies are the ones that most thoroughly surprise me.

God Between the Notes

One of my favorite things about the Quaker tradition is the high value it places on silence.  Active silence, waiting silence, not just a passive stillness, is a recurring theme in Quaker writings and meetings.  “Be still and know” is one way of putting it.  I also like the more direct version:  “Shut up and listen.”

This evening I went to hear two of my musical colleagues in concert, a tenor and a pianist who are both unbelievably good at what they do.  The music, as expected, was stunning.  What surprised me tonight, though, was the quiet moments between all the sturm und drang of the poetry and wild Late Romantic harmonies flying through the air.

My friend, the tenor, has a lovely soaring voice that can carry with apparent ease over an orchestra.  My former teacher, the pianist, is barely taller than I am, but he can wrestle huge and powerful sounds out of the marvelous Steinway in the university’s main performance hall.  All of that big and wonderful sound was in evidence tonight, but there were also many instances of quietness and stillness that were somehow even more compelling.

Listening to that astounding voice fading into near-silence, but still floating high above the barely-there tones of the piano, the divine seems not so far away.  People often use terms like “magical” to describe this kind of music, but tonight it occurred to me that “holy” is at least as true.  I sat there, barely breathing, as the pianist’s hands hovered over the keys, reaching down to delicately draw each note from the instrument and drop it into the echoing silence.

I think God lives in those echoes.  We make our human noise, and we make it as best we can, and then in that silent, listening stillness, we hear our voices and the work of our hands come back to us, both less and more than they were when we sent them out.

The musical term for a silence within the music is a “rest”.  God lives in the rests, as much as in the music, if I can just hold still long enough to hear him.