"False Spring" - A Poem
by Becca J.R. Lachman, guest contributor
Photo by Daniel Peckham/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
February 1. 65 degrees in SE Ohio. Our minds shift to “April” “earth,” “skirts.” We check lawns for daffodils-in-the-making, our laundry remembering how to flap. No one checks the 10-day forecast. We don’t want to know.
On my way to play piano for a ballet class, I spot a sunflower the size of my palm on the sidewalk ahead. Escaped from a bouquet? I think, excited, Or a sign that spring’s settled in? I reach down to be its rescue—find out it’s plastic. The rest of my day feels the same.
A college town openly displays its secrets, especially when snow finally melts. Crushed green glass and leopard bikini briefs, abandoned; an open pizza box with a necklace inside; cigarette butts, the tail-ends of conversations never finished. This time of year, the ground can reflect us.
For seven weeks, I gently build up to two questions, give my poetry students hard homework: What does it mean to be a writer in a time of war?, What would you ask a soldier if you could ask anything? Only half the class shows up to answer. I come home and pull covers up over my head, just another bulb.
The full moon pulls out dreams like silk pajamas from open drawers. For weeks, my sleep’s been filled with characters in plain dress, actors in bonnets or suspenders pretending to be something they’re not. I am the one who calls them out, reveals their false identity. Exact accusations from these dreams: “Who’s your bishop?,” “What have you given up?,” “What’s your favorite cheese?” The question I get most often about my upbringing: “What makes you different from me?” Sometimes, it also feels like accusation.
Last night, I was going to build a house on the edge of my grandpa’s farm—but in the dream, I didn’t recognize the land. I wake up frightened.
The wind stirs up more questions, allergies, afternoons under the quilts. How long can a Mennonite last without community?, Have the squirrels eaten all the daffodil bulbs?, Could my students spend a whole day in silence? Could I?, Who will shake our lives gently, tell us, ‘Shhhh—You’ve just been dreaming’?
Even Thoreau kept secrets hidden by the louder things he said, had his mother do his laundry. The wind blows our socks from the clothesline and into the woods. The president gives a speech. We forget what we’re funding. It’s too warm to care. I may never know what my students have learned from me.
Accepting the shape of one life takes practice. Remember asking for someone to help you trace the outline of your body on a sheet of torn-off paper? Did you recognize yourself as only border? I swear, just now, I smelled what the garden could be.
Becca J.R. Lachman is a poet, college writing instructor, and singer-songwriter living in Athens, Ohio. Her first book of poems, The Apple Speaks, investigates her Swiss Mennonite roots along with being an “AMK” (adult missionary kid), and is slated for release in April 2012.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Tuesday Evening Melody: Saturday Night Tavern Storytelling with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People”
by Marcy Bain, guest contributor
As a Presbyterian minister I spend a great deal of time in sanctuary spaces, but I confess that my favorite spiritual music is not always sung by the Sunday morning choir. Often it’s sung in Saturday night taverns by mainstream folk artists like Over The Rhine, Patty Griffin, and Jennifer Knapp. Other artists shuffle in and out of my iPod rotation, but when I seek spiritual comforts, to these musical mainstays I always return.
The other day I was trying to locate that thing, that ineffable quality in their music that draws me into sacred space, and it proved a daunting task. Like a flash of creative insight, or a burst of beauty that wrecks the senses, I can’t really put my finger on the pulse of such mysteries; I can only receive them when they come to me. And so it is with these artists and their songs.
However, if I endeavored to speak in broad terms, I would say that these artists hold a few key characteristics in common. They make music that strikes a spiritual chord in me without being doctrinaire. They each pursue excellence in their craft. They defy labels and simplistic categorizations. Folk music at its core is story tellin’ music; each of these artists sings out their stories from the deep-seated wellsprings of spirit and soul. None of them make music specifically geared towards the Christian marketplace, but all of them have deeply nourished me in my journey of faith.
For those of you with New Year’s resolutions to expand your musical palette, start with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People,” dive in to Knapp’s “Mr. Gray,” and let Ms. Griffin take you to church with her stirring rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” If the Saturday night tavern happens to be your favorite sanctuary, who knows, you just might get to see a preacher overcome by “a juke box altar call” (to borrow a lyric from another OTR song) as she sits in the corner putting the final polish on her Sunday morning sermon.
Marcy Bain is an ordained Presbyterian minister from Dayton, Ohio. She believes that there is a special place in heaven for girls with guitars, and she is ever so grateful for all that they’ve contributed to her life.
Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody? Submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the On Being Blog.
Making Room for Both Traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah
by Meg Smith, guest contributor
Although I was born on Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried — an event which brought two Jewish stepchildren into my life — I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the Winter Solstice/Yule and Christmas.
My stepchildren are actually half-Hanukkah and half-Christmas; their mother is Jewish, their father is not. Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a bar and bat mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting, out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.
by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor
This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.
Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.
The Wrappings of Love in Enveloping Arms: An Advent Reflection
by Pádraig Ó Tuama, guest contributor
There’s an internet site called The Nicest Place on the Internet that I came across the other day. I’m not sure how I saw it — a link from a tweet, or something somebody wrote.
When you open the site, an acoustic version of “I Have Never Loved Someone” by My Brightest Diamond begins playing. While it’s playing, short videos of people hugging a camera are played. There seems to be an unending slew of people who have sent in these YouTube videos of themselves approaching the camera. That’s all it is: the song on repeat and these videos of people hugging the camera that’s filming them.
My first time meeting Protestants from the north was at a church camp in August 1987. I was eleven years old. I spent my camp asking the poor Protestants if they were Irish or English, with a curiosity I usually reserved for asking whether certain characters in Wonder Woman were goodies or baddies. At the end of the church camp, one of the Protestant women, a woman with blonde hair called Annette, said “Give me a hug.”
I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t know what hugs were to give her one. I didn’t know that I had one to give.
An Advent of Doubt and Struggle
by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor
Advent is my kind of season.
No, not the pseudo-Advent of most Christian piety with liturgically-correct hymns and texts on the Sundays of the season and full-on Christmas hoopla all the other days, but this one: the ancient, autumnal interval of darkness and foreboding with its achy uncertainty blanketing landscapes both inner and outer. This Advent offers room for doubt and struggle. It grants permission to rest in — rather than to resolve — the tensions and paradoxes, the sometimes maddening contradictions that shape the life of discipleship.
We read the appointed texts for the Sundays of Advent and they are startling in their bleakness, their familiarity inuring us to meanings inscrutable, ominous, perilous. (Unless we subscribe to the Left Behind school of hermeneutics, in which liturgical Advent doesn’t exist and these texts are never bad news for us).
What the season reveals in its hymns, poems, texts, and traditions is that we begin the Christian year not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists, as Rowan Williams has put it, between “our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God.”
Prophetic oracle is a fitting literary companion for traversing such a divide. While the lectionary texts for Advent are rooted in a time and place that have everything to do with their significance for our own time and place, it’s the apocalyptic form itself that provides strange comfort to those of us with less than sunny spiritualities. We are not very sure of ourselves, theologically and otherwise. Our questions often consume us, overwhelm us. More than anything, sentimental Christianity makes us want to run away from church and never come back.
But the Advent rantings of John the Baptizer and the little apocalypse of Mark’s gospel intrigue us and are part of the reason we stay. There’s something interesting going on here, something that even an accommodated church can’t quite tame, obscure, or ignore. The God spoken of in these ancient texts is saving a people and redeeming all of creation. In this work we sense, with Flannery O’Connor, that “grace must wound before it heals.”
And we also sense that the three-fold coming (adventus) of Christ — as baby refugee, as word and sacrament, as glorious Lamb of God — is more political than personal: He comes to "shake the powers in the heavens" that justice at long last might be established, that the politics of fear and the economics of scarcity might be exposed as the fraudulent scams they are. In Jesus is abundance — life and health and joy for all. For the brooding skeptics and cynics among us, indeed for all Advent people, He is the apocalyptic thief who breaks in not to rob us but to give us the goods.
Maybe a domesticated church — even one that observes pseudo-Advent — can hear this good news with new ears.
Photo by Stuart Anthony/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for publication at the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Into the Wilderness: Parenting a Terminally Ill Child
by Emily Rapp, guest contributor
"You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any." ~from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I woke up and held my son for a long, long time. I’d been gone for three days at the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Disorders Family Conference and had missed him terribly. Driving through Boston on the way to the airport, I told my friend Kate that it was so difficult, so impossible even, so disastrous to imagine feeling that way forever. The missing, the ache.
We agreed that, say what you will about heaven or where we go or visions of the afterlife, the truth about someone being dead is that they’re gone from this life, right now, here on earth, with you. That particular person has been removed from your particular life. That’s the gut punch and there is no balm for that, no platitude, no prayer, and, I would argue, no belief even that will fix it. My son will be dead within three years and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Giving Thanks to My Ancestors on Día de Los Muertos
by Jenny Ward McDonald, guest contributor
Last fall the idea to visit the family graveyard came to mind for the first time in ages. Día de Los Muertos seemed like the perfect excuse to make the journey. I allowed life and distance to keep me away, however, and I never went.
I am not Latina, but I did develop a strong appreciation for Mexican culture while studying midwifery on the Texas/Mexico border. When I moved home to Georgia, I kept a piece of Mexico in my heart. Since the first idea to celebrate my ancestors Mexican-style entered my mind last year, the urge had only grown stronger. So as November approached this year, I resolved to do it. I invited my two sisters. One said she’d bake a casserole and we planned to picnic at the cemetery. On October 31st, they both cancelled on me. I was determined, however, and went anyway.
Facing Our Darkness on Halloween Night
by Caroline Oakes, guest contributor
Photo by Susy Morris/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Like most people, since I was a child, Halloween brings a heady rush of excitement that definitely goes beyond costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and even trick-or-treating for good chocolate.
Year after year, exhilaration sets in as children and parents begin their animated zig-zagging through neighborhoods in the deep dark of night, dressed as something or someone they aren’t really, knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, coming face-to-face with the unknown and unseen.
Now, I am aware that some parents and a number of churches are less than enthusiastic about the traditions of this liminal night, and are going so far as to pull their children out of Halloween activities entirely, or are offering “Godly” alternatives. (Heard yet about “Jesus Ween”?)
While some people’s claims that Halloween should be assailed as inherently “evil” or “of the devil” and not consistent with Christian values are questionable — both theologically and historically — the real regret here is the opportunity that is lost by missing the point of Halloween.
In pre-Christian, Christian, and now post-Christian times, October 31st has traditionally been a night to name and face our fears, a time to face “the dark” — the dark outside of us, and the dark inside of us.
When we give our children the freedom to take those first steps out into the dark of Halloween night, we are allowing them to learn, first-hand, that the foreboding darkness that will envelop them will not, in fact, consume them.
They learn on their own that, even if they wear a mask of something they think is really scary, they don’t actually become that scary thing. In the act of putting on the mask, the scary thing loses much of its power, and the child’s own sense of inner power, inner light, and identity is affirmed.
As Halloween comes and goes each year, children slowly and safely wander farther from home, becoming more secure in their growing knowledge that what looks (at first) like something deep, dark, and foreboding can also be full of surprise, delight, and even joy.
The subliminal messages here are positive and healthy ones for our children and for our planet. The world around us, even the world inside each one of us, is neither all evil nor all good, neither all light nor all dark. There is always more than meets the eye.
So, parents banning Halloween night? There is real irony here. Parents forbidding their children (and themselves) this chance to face their fears, telling them instead that they cannot dress up, they cannot go outside in the dark, they cannot trick-or-treat, may actually be promoting fearful messages — that the world is a terrifying place, no one is safe, and we have no power over the inner and outer demons of our lives.
These are messages that perpetuate the dangerously dualistic, black and white, uncompromising way of seeing the world that is polarizing our society today.
But when we shed some light on the dark complexities of Halloween night, even the simple exchange of trick-or-treating can carry an important subtext: at every open door on Halloween night, children and their parents are enacting the universal (and spiritual) principle of giving — namely, that it is good (indeed it is a sign of our inner humanity) that we can willingly open our doors and give generously to complete strangers, even to those who wear masks, making them unrecognizable and frightening to us. There is always more than meets the eye.
Halloween can be as grace-filled as it is black-dark, a night to discover, year after year, that when we venture out into the darkness of the unknown, the night can be beautiful. Others are kind. Evil is actually a lot like a monster mask, and after an exhilarating few hours of exploring the dark, we can always return to the light of home, safe and sound.
And sometimes with a boatload of pretty darn good chocolate.
Caroline Oakes is a writer with a degree in ascetical theology from The General Theological Seminary. You can read her “Mind and Spirit” column in The Bucks County Herald. She lives in in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Which Catholic Values and Social Teachings Get Noticed?
by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings
Maureen Dowd wrote an almost innocuous column in The New York Times in which she noted, or argued, that “American bishops have been inconsistent in preaching their values.” Any reader who is up on the teachings of the company of bishops should not be surprised that they are inconsistent or that Ms. Dowd caught them in action. Such a reader who is up on the parties in play can also expect that the columnist is zeroing in on a zone of teachings about sex, which are of a different nature than are the rest of the social teachings. Someone had to notice her generalization.
Someone did. An authoritative if informal response came in the Letters to the Editor column from Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany who wrote on “The Values of the Bishops.” He argued that Ms. Dowd and so many like her were not paying attention, so he cited all kinds and degrees of interest they had shown in focusing on the social teachings. Since we don’t often hear about almost all of them, it pays to note his list.
Bishop Hubbard pointed out that the bishops consistently raised grave moral concerns regarding the decision to invade Iraq back when that stance was unpopular, before the war became unpopular in the mind of the larger public. Who noticed? The bishops have been consistent supporters of efforts to repeal the death penalty, and have held this position for decades. They challenge the capital punishment culture and routinely request clemency for death-row inmates, in low- and high-profile cases alike. Who noticed?
The full body of bishops in 2007, Bishop Hubbard argued, overwhelmingly adopted "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a document which showed them “preaching their values.” Who noticed it? Bishop Hubbard listed some of the specific “values” positions, e.g., against torture, racism, and the targeting of non-combatants in acts of terror or war. These were “intrinsically evil.” Facing up to the need to deal with the suffering “from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigrations policy” also escaped public notice among many. “Today, we bishops are exercising our leadership in advocating for the protection of poor people at home and abroad in the continuing budget debates.” Notice, anyone?
Included in the values list were condemnations of “abortion, euthanasia,” and he could have added, “homosexual” activity. Now, check these three as “noticed,” “noticed,” and “noticed” by much of the Catholic public which likes to ignore all the other “values” here, and by non-Catholic publics who never heard of other parts of the “seamless” or consistent ethic about which we heard some years ago. Now we are left to ponder: which zones of values get noticed by Catholics (including “by which Catholics?”) and which not? Who praises the bishops for what they put on the extensive values lists which are as old as 1893 or 1917 or other times of the formulation of social ethics? And is “consistency” among them to be valued? Also, which consistent instances help the Catholic “values” cause, and which are counter-productive? An election year is a good time to ponder some answers to the questions. One hopes that the whole range of issues will get noticed.
A last question: how do these values differ from those of most humanist, mainline Protestant, and Jewish choices? Believers and unbelievers are in much of this together. Do the old lines and definitions still serve? It’s time to notice.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, includingPilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.