Archive for December, 2012

Many thoughts are swirling in this season of Advent and Christmas, informed by prose and poetry, by hymns and carols, words stumbled across and words given.

I return to an old favorite to read and ponder and respond:

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason,
There’d have been no room for the child.

—Madeleine L’Engle


I am a very rational person. That is, I can rationalize just about anything.

Rational with my reasons;
rationalize my excuses;
ration my time, myself; 
rash decisions, made in haste.

Mary decided almost on the spot, yet
avoided rationality, 
		the this-makes-no-sense-just-now,
avoided rationalized excuse, 
		the yeah-but and here’s-why,
avoided rationing her body and belief, 
		the I-have-other-things-to-do,
avoided rashness, 
		the knee-jerk hell-no-you’re-crazy!

And then I read Denise Levertov (from “Annunciation,” A Door in the Hive):

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
	almost always a lectern, a book; always
	the tall lily.
			Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
	the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
	whom she acknowledges, a guest.

	But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
		The engendering Spirit
	did not enter her without consent. 
					God waited.

	She was free
	to accept or refuse, choice
	integral to humanness.


	This was the minute no one speaks of,
	when she could still refuse.
	A breath unbreathed,

	She did not cry, ‘I cannot, I am not worthy,’
	nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
	She did not submit with gritted teeth,
						raging, coerced.
	Bravest of all humans,
				consent illumined her.
	The room filled with its light,
	the lily glowed in it,
				and the iridescent wings.
		     courage unparalleled,
	opened her utterly.


How many times have I failed to consent? How many times, driven by fear or reason, have I missed out? In another section of the same poem, Levertov asks, “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” She proceeds to catalog our possible responses: consent…but in unwillingness, sullen pride, incomprehension; or turning away…in dread, weakness, despair, relief. And when we say no, when we turn away from that road, “Ordinary lives continue. / God does not smite them. / But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.”

Oh my God, how many gates and pathways have I willingly slunk away from? Thanks for not smiting, but oh, what might have been!

But then Aslan replies to Lucy, when she asks what might have been, “Child, did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?”

And St. Benedict reassures, reminds, challenges—for it is all three of those in one message: Always we begin again.

May I learn to recognize annunciations when they are proffered. May I consent in courage.


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“The absolute major challenge is not your schedule, organization, etc. ….  It is your FEAR,” she announces in all caps.

I catch my breath.

“In order for you to go forward, you are going to have to decide that it is okay to fail.  I’m not saying you will fail.  I’m saying that when you have a ‘Plan B’ and it’s okay to fail, then it often releases people to go forward.”


She continues, “At this point, you are afraid of what folks are going to say, but more importantly, you’re afraid they will validate all of those nasty voices in your head that are telling you that you cannot do this.”

I meet this with wry laughter.  It is all I can do.

It is so much easier to teach than to do.  I can always provide better advice than I implement—for time management, for writing, for not overvaluing the opinions of others.  I famously preach wisdom and good strategy to my high school students;  why can’t I apply it to my own life effectively?

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a student, M, a young man, who was working on his research paper and consulting with me nearly every step of the way.  He shared that he had taken my advice to chunk up the assignment in smaller segments, and then worked on one or more of them each day, rather than waiting until just before the due date to work on it and stressing out about it.  He was exultant—it had worked for him!  He was no longer the slacker student he claimed he had been in the previous three years of high school. He enjoyed the feelings of diligence and success.

I felt no small excitement for him…and no small hypocrisy of my own, as we sat in my classroom talking, my desk littered with stacks of ungraded assignments.  So much easier to tell than do.  Preach—success;  practice—fail.

At the same time, in my AP classes, my students were writing to one of my favorite prompts, about a passage by a science writer concerning mistakes.  It always leads to interesting conversation with and interesting writing from my students, and it’s also an annual reminder for me.  It hit home a little more deeply this year, in light of the conversations I’ve been having with different people over the past couple of months.

In his 1979 book The Medusa and the Snail, biologist Lewis Thomas argues that mistakes are necessary.  “We are built to make mistakes,” he writes, “coded for error.”  He notes that it’s not without reason that we talk about learning by “trial and error” and not “trial and triumph.”  He speaks of the “lucky laboratory” on a “lucky day” that a mistake is made, for “then the action can begin.”

If I run this through an overtly Christian filter, I might bristle at his celebratory application of the term “lucky” to our mistakes and note that the reason we are not perfect is our fallen nature, the taint of sin, which brings with it our separation from God.  And that is certainly nothing to celebrate.  But Thomas does not leave it there.  “The misreading is not the important error;  it opens the way.  The next step is the crucial one.  If the investigator can bring himself to say, ‘But even so, look at that!’ then the new finding, whatever it is, is ready for the snatching.  What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.”

So it is not that we make mistakes but how we respond to them—what we do in the next crucial moments—that matters.  If we take our failures as an opportunity to beat the crap out of ourselves for failing yet again—sadly my own pattern, often—our mistakes will yield nothing of value;  no “lucky day” in that approach.  If, however, we take them as an opportunity to learn, to perceive matters from a different perspective (perhaps from the floor, possibly on our asses), they become the key to discovery.  Even Thomas Edison, the man who is said to have found over a thousand ways not to make a light bulb, said that “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”  So failure is not the time to walk away;  rather Lewis Thomas suggests that the real work has not begun until mistakes are made.  Mistakes are useful because they demand a reaction.

Thomas elaborates that the argument, the debate, must necessarily precede the new discovery, that “there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides.”  If we are in perfect agreement, we stop moving, stop thinking.  In this light, his final grandiose proclamation is not so farfetched:  “The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.”  Even our flaws and failures can be turned to good effect.

Apparently there is nothing God cannot redeem.


The implications of Thomas’s writing seem to suggest that we should not merely surround ourselves with likeminded thinkers but with those who might provide us with opposition.  This is difficult for thin-skinned perfectionists who already see the myriad problems with their work and prefer to beat you to the punch of announcing it;  it hurts less when I say it first.  Most real learning and scientific breakthroughs come of the aftermath of mistakes, error, failure. I know this.  I preach it to my students.  And yet I don’t want it to be true of myself, don’t want it to apply to me.  I was one of my AP kids, the kind who cares deeply about grades, and who blurs the concepts of learning and grade-earning (or rather, I saw them as different, but I wanted both in equal shares).  I was the child who, according to my mother, walked late…but walked perfectly—that is, I watched and waited until I was sure I could do it, and then I did it without falling.  Gah, it’s hard-wired!  I hate falling.  Falling hurts.  And it’s embarrassing as hell.  (I know this because I have fallen even as an adult, even in front of a class once.  Mortifying.)  Except I read all the books and stories that depict the time period after falling, failing, as being the most creative and fruitful times of people’s lives.  Great literature, great films, great inspirational stories are full of those good examples who overcome their fears and refuse to be governed by them, despite the risks, and also of those tragedies who remain paralyzed by fear, thereby denying themselves lives of quality.

What if I fail?  It’s really not a matter of if—it’s a matter of when.  I am human and therefore flawed;  I will fall sometimes.  St. Benedict writes in his Rule, “Always we begin again.”  This has become both my mantra (one of them) and my regular reminder.

Failing to act because of fear of failure—that would be the biggest regret-worthy failure of all.

Fear paralyzes.  I have to move.

If (when) I fail…I’ll have to pick back up and begin again.

I’ll have to remind myself that there is nothing God cannot redeem.

I guess I’ll go sit and write.


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I have lately been forcing myself to leave my “real” camera at home and just limit myself to what I can capture/receive via the iPhone camera.  I call this a discipline, not in small part because, if I had my “real” camera, I would probably spend more time looking through its viewfinder than being present in the moment.  Photography is its own way of being present–don’t get me wrong–but I know myself and know that I might allow myself to hide behind it.  And so I force myself into the limitations of this little less-than camera as a way to curb my own sometime-tendencies.

Sometimes what I get isn’t so bad.  And while I often lament ‘what could have been,’ one result of this discipline is that it enables me to feel a greater appreciation for my Nikon when I do get to take it along.


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Becoming Anglican after growing up Baptist took some getting used to.  Not just the liturgy (“vain repetitions!”) or the kneeling and genuflecting and crossing of oneself (“it’s so Catholic!”), but also the church seasons and their various focuses.  In my childhood years, our church seasons, such as they were, mirrored the physical seasons of our local slice of the hemisphere and the holidays being celebrated by Americans.  But my having grown up reading Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis meant that the church seasons also felt right, like a homecoming of sorts, even though I’d never actually been there before.  And the power that resides in the observance of these seasons is not to be understated.  Let me tell you, Easter was never so powerful as the one I celebrated after truly observing Lent for the first time.

Christmas, too, takes on a deeper meaning after the four-week observance of Advent.  It has taken me time to process and comprehend the implications of Advent.  Oh, I’ve always known, even as a Baptist, that we’re supposed to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ in human form.  But quite frankly, it always seemed symbolic and commemorative rather than something ongoing right now.  Imagine my surprise when I heard from the pulpit for the first time the notion that Advent is a sort of mini-Lent, a time of repentance and preparation, of fasting and taking on of new disciplines!  For Christmas?!

The dissonance between the usual Christmas season prep—decorating, shopping, baking, shopping, gift-wrapping, shopping, card-sending, shipping (not a typo), deal-hunting, shopping, party-planning/attending, shopping, list-making/checking, shopping, stressing, shopping—and what I am told at church that I should do for preparation is quite evident—it’s Christmas in two different and clashing keys.  And yet, all of the epistle and gospel readings on and leading up to this first Sunday in Advent—both in the service and in the lectionary, which guides our morning and evening devotional prayers—seem to support the notion of approaching this season very differently.

The epistle reading for today’s service, for example, from Romans 13, advises us, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.  […]  And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed.  The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.  […]  But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”

And my first response is something like, But…it’s Christmas!  It’s the time to indulge a little in the goodies that come with Christmas parties!  And it’s tempting to take advantage of that sale to buy a little gift-to-self; after all, I’ve worked my a#$ off this year!  And this scripture doesn’t mean I can’t do that—it’s just reminding me where my focus needs to be, not on myself and my wants but on the preparation for something much larger than myself and my petty desires.

It is high time to awake out of sleep…the night is far spent, the day is at hand.  But this is winter, the season of darkness;  it’s dark when I leave for work, and it’s dark when I leave to come home.  All I want to do when I get home is curl up under a blanket and hibernate, after eating yummy warm things.  Again, I don’t think this scripture means I cannot do that, but it should not be all that I do.  I may not want to wake up, but we are preparing for something larger, mysterious, important.  I can wake up now and prepare myself, or I can get caught flat-footed when it happens anyway.  I don’t know about you, but I hate being rushed;  if the alarm fails to go off, and I have to dash into my clothes, perhaps showerless and coffeeless, it really puts an ugly spin on the new day.  This verse, apparently, is the alarm clock.  Even though it is still dark, it won’t be for long.

Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.  This speaks loudly of Advent as a season of repentance and not just of holiday parties.  As in Lent, I am to examine myself and take note of my besetting sins and take on disciplines that will strengthen the virtues that correspond with and trump those sins.  I still have much work to do there.  (Ahem!)  This is a reminder, too, that seasons of repentance and fasting are not just about giving stuff up—they are also about taking on new things to replace what we have forgone.

But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.  Again, I may want to rebel at that, but it’s a reminder that this season is not about me.  And I need to be okay with reining myself in, and not just use the holidays as an excuse to throw all caution to the wind in terms of consumption and spending.  There are other ways to celebrate.  There are other ways to give.  In a season of repentance and fasting, one does not only give up that which is sinful; one can give up things that are inherently good or neutral but that may have been given more power than they should have—power evidenced by one’s reluctance to give them up.  I watch my kitten practice temporary self-denial by depositing her fuzzy catnip froggy someplace out of her line of vision and then walking around chirruping and meowing to it, as if she’s forgotten where it is, sometimes even distracted for a time by another toy or plastic bag;  but then she finds it again and the reunion is so much sweeter for the time away from it.

It’s always fun to think of the Baby Jesus in the manger and see his sweet and tender little head lit up by a halo of holy light, gently anointed by cows’ hay-sweet breath, like he’s shown in the paintings and Christmas cards.  And yet the psalms appointed for today tell a slightly different version.  For example, Psalm 50 says, “Out of Sion hath God appeared in perfect beauty.  Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence; there shall go before him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up round about him.”  Um, okay, but I think I like the tender Baby Jesus better;  he’s less threatening.  And the reading from Isaiah 13 begins, “Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand.”  Really?  But Christmas is about warm feelings in my heart about this little baby in a cozy, glowing stable with candles and angels!  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps more is lurking there, beneath the precious and sweet tableaux.

Another psalm the lectionary assigns for today, Psalm 18, says, “There went a smoke out in his presence, and a consuming fire out of his mouth, so that coals were kindled at it.  He bowed the heavens also, and came down, and it was dark under his feet.  He rode upon the Cherubim, and did fly; he came flying upon the wings of the wind.  He made darkness his secret place, his pavilion round about him with dark water, and thick clouds to cover him.  At the brightness of his presence his clouds removed; hailstones and coals of fire.  The LORD also thundered out of heaven, and the Highest gave his thunder; hailstones and coals of fire.”  Yeah, that God came in the form of a human baby born in a barn.  How to wrap my mind around that crazy and impossible paradox?  How did that God—the God who flies and rides cherubim and breathes fire and makes it thunder—keep that god-ness at bay (without ever losing that god-ness) to force himself into a tiny human baby form (and we all know how limited this human form can be, regardless of our age)?  How?  And why?—why he “came to visit us in great humility”—that is where the mystery comes is.  That adds a core of power to this dark season of preparation, and makes it possible for the anticipation to matter, for the longing everyone speaks of but that I have, historically, found very difficult to muster.  This isn’t just some tender, sweet baby—as miraculous as every single baby is.  This is that God, and I have a lot to do to get ready for that God.

After all, “[h]e’s wild, you know.  Not like a tame lion” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 182).

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