Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Why don't you take up smoking like a normal person?" and other Lenten reflections

The first I heard of Lent was my sophomore year at ASU. I had a Catholic classmate who gave up caffeine for Lent, leading me to believe that Lent was mostly about giving up something you really like to prove to God how devoted you are. I've come to see that there's a bit more to it than that. I wrote this description on my old blog a couple of years ago:

We start with a potent ritual reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, then an invitation to set aside for a time some of the more trivial pleasures or distractions of life to make space for something more meaningful. (Last year, atheist Sabio Lantz wrote about observing Lent "to taste life more fully and more intentionally," which I thought was really beautiful.) Then comes Easter, a celebration of new life, new beginnings, a way to be redeemed from the darker side of our human nature, and I love it, not because I have to please some god who's keeping tabs on me, but because want to be a better person, and taken symbolically, the story of Christ conquering death is a road map of how to do it that works for me.

Easter and Lent are really a package deal. I remember the packed church on Easter Sunday last year, and I don't have a problem with people who only show up at church on holidays, but as I looked out at some of those bright eyed faces in the congregation I felt a little pity as I thought, Easter really just doesn't mean as much if you haven't been through the discipline of Lent.

Actually, the whole liturgical year is really a package deal, and one of the things I love about the mainline Christian tradition that I didn't experience when I was a Mormon. Each season is meant to compliment the others. The anticipation during Advent heightens the joy of Christmas. Christmas and Easter are seasons, not just days. Even when we're just coasting during "ordinary" time, there's still intention and focus, and the knowledge that the cycle will begin again.

Lent was one of my first religious observances that my oldest son took notice of. The first year I observed, I gave up eating out during Lent, so when my son (age 6 at the time) asked about going to IHOP one day, I explained to him that we weren't going to do that for a while. He asked why.

"Well, it's something I'm trying out. A lot of this is new to me because we didn't do it in the church I grew up in."


"Well, Joseph Smith, the man who started that church, he got rid of a lot of things that the other churches were doing because he thought it was just a lot of stuff that people made up and it wasn't from God."

"Oh. Well, is it?"

"Well, I think it is stuff that people just made up, but that doesn't mean it's not good."

Last year, I gave up scratching my head, which I'm sure sounds funny. I have dandruff and it's not even that my scalp is itchy, but I find it so incredibly gratifying to feel those flakes sloughing off under my fingernails. (If you suspected before that I might be weird, now there can be no doubt.) I lose track of time and get distracted from important tasks because I can't drag my fingers away from my head, and I know it's not good for my scalp, so I tried to give it up last year. I did well for the first couple of weeks, and then one day I had this paper due that I had worked on for days and hadn't gotten anywhere with. I'd pulled an all nighter and was desperately scrambling around campus with my laptop to get it finished before class that afternoon, and under the stress, I fell back into the old habit of head-scratching. I was sitting on a bench with my laptop next to another student (a friend), who could tell how frazzled I was. I told him about how I'd tried to give up scratching my head for Lent, but I was slipping up that day. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Why don't you take up smoking like a normal person?"

This year, I'm stealing Sabio Lantz's idea and giving up checking my blog stats, for a couple reasons. First, it's addictive and eats up vast amounts of time, and I need to graduate this semester (which is also why I'm not giving up caffeine). Second, it makes me more concerned with the results of my blogging rather than the process of my blogging. I recently read this really great interview in which Cheryl Strayed gives the advice, "[Be] ambitious about your writing, not about the accolades you hope your writing may someday receive." Elsewhere in this interview, Strayed says of one of her recent books, "Wild would be the book that it is regardless of how many people read it." I do think that my writing is good, and deep down I know that number of readers does not affect the inherent goodness of my writing, but... Still. I do! I want people to read my stuff! I had a fairly decent readership on my old blog, and I was proud of that. And I confess feeling at times frustrated and disappointed that the new blog is still so modest by comparison. I always feel exhilarated when I finish writing a post. I think, Wow, that was fun! It was so great to find just the right words to wrap around those ideas! And then I start checking my stats and think, How come more people aren't reading? How come more people aren't commenting? How come more people don't put me on their blog roll? Why am I even doing this? And all the satisfaction is replaced by frustration. It's not like no one reads. People do read! (And thank you, by the way!) I'm not even sure if there's a level of blog traffic that would make me happy, that I would deem "enough." But I do know that constantly checking on how many people read doesn't make me happy, so I'm not going to do it for a while. Life is too short. Another great quote from that Strayed interview: "You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life."

Remember that you are dust.

I was wondering where the ashes come from that are used on Ash Wednesday, so I texted my priest and asked him. Turns out, they save and dry out the blessed palm fronds from Palm Sunday and burn those to get the ashes for Ash Wednesday. "It smells like pot," he said. (I ♥ my priest.)

Interesting cyclical implications. Palm Sunday was the only time Jesus received any glory during his mortal life, and the remnant of that glory is what smudges our foreheads as we begin the journey that culminates in sharing in his death, burial, and renewal. We are marked with it. Palm Sunday won't be the same either, now that I know what happens to the palms. It will be a reminder of the transient, ephemeral nature of the praise of the crowd. So really, really don't fret yourself over accolades. Just live your life. Even if you get accolades, they won't last. And neither will your life.

Remember that you are dust.

"Lent" watercolor by me

I had to write earlier this week about how I view sin, since Lent is about turning from sin. Checking stats may not sound like a sin, but it is something that inhibits me from being my best self, cuts me off living and loving more fully, so in excess, it does actually fit into my definition of sin. But turning from sin isn't just about giving up things. I tend to be much more of a "things left undone" sort of sinner; I don't think I often do hurtful things (and almost never do I intentionally do hurtful things), but neither do I often actively do helpful things. My default mode is mostly focused on my own little world with not a lot of reaching out. What can I add? What am I leaving undone?

What's coming to my mind is Christopher Walken's prayer in the movie Blast From the Past, "Make us ever mindful of the needs of others," which is hilarious and ironic when they're down in the bunker. I do think it's a good prayer though, and I'm going to make it my prayer for Lent. "Mother-Father God, Source of all Life, Light and Being, make me aware of the needs of those around me." Often awareness of a tendency is all that's needed to correct it. I hear from my voice teacher, and tell my own students, things like, "You need to loosen your jaw on the [i] vowel," "I'm hearing too much [h] in that melisma," "Your placement falls back and your vibrato gets heavy around C and D." And after having the tendency pointed out, we catch ourselves when it creeps in during practice and make the necessary adjustments.

So my "adding to" practice for Lent is going to be an effort to be conscious of my tunnel vision tendency to not notice people around me, to try to be a little more outwardly focused, to make more connections, to be part of the world instead of just passing through it, for soon I return to dust.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Redefining sin

I heard about sin a lot when I was growing up. Lots of things were sins: stealing, disobeying Mom and Dad, going to the store on Sunday, swearing. And once adolescent hormones kicked in, when I thought of sin, I thought of sex more than anything else. Mormons place sexual sins "second only to the shedding of innocent blood" on the hierarchy of sin badness, and it's not just doing the deed itself that makes you a colossal sinner. Thinking about it, causing others to think about it, touching yourself, or fooling around with someone else that you aren't married to, even if you don't have intercourse, all make you almost as bad as a murderer.

That was one hell of a weight I carried as a teenage girl.

There was the psychological harm of the constant guilt over having and acting upon normal human feelings and urges, but what I think was even more detrimental was how so much emphasis on (avoiding) sex took away from focusing on other areas personal growth. When I heard talks in church about overcoming sin, I immediately thought about how I could be less lusty. When I prayed, it was always about asking God to help me develop the self-control to not masturbate, and I felt worthless and weak because no matter how hard I tried, I could never go more than a few weeks.

What I didn't think about, because I was so concerned with avoiding the Very Worst Sin in the World, were things like: how could I be a nicer person? How could I show love to the people around me? What passions and interests would I like to develop and contribute to the world.

An interesting thing happened once I quit trying to deny and suppress my sexuality, once I decided that neither masturbation nor non-marital sexual relationships were sins. My sexuality dropped way into the background of my life. By no means did it disappear; it's definitely still there, but accepting my sexuality as a positive and joyful aspect of myself transmuted it from this horrible, looming Thing that metastasized onto every part of my life, to only one of a myriad facets of who I am. "Giving up" on "overcoming" sexual "sin" freed me work on overcoming other sins, sins that unlike what I do in the privacy of my bedroom, have the potential to hurt other people and have consequences in the larger world.

What is sin, really? I don't believe in some sort of balancing scale that bad deeds tip in one direction, making God powerless to forgive unless a price is paid to tip it back. I do make a confession of sin every week during the liturgy. I join with the rest of the congregation to tell God: "We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." (BCP p. 360) That's it. A sin is an act or a thought that cuts you off from God, which to me means somethings that cuts you off from authentic living, cuts you off from love.

Nowadays, when I think of sin, I think of things like not treating other people well, thinking I'm better than other people, losing patience with my children, not having enough empathy or understanding for someone else's point of view. Not loving my neighbor as myself, which I am guilty of every day. I pray for forgiveness, mostly from myself, to escape the paralysis of guilt, and I pray for the capacity to love better, not so I can be "saved" from any external hell, but to save myself from the internal hell caused by discord with the human beings around me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thank God I'll never be a model.

A friend shared this TED Talk by model Cameron Russell, in which she discusses appearance and privilege in our culture. She's very honest about how cultural factors have worked in her favor, and about how she didn't earn her privileged place in our society.

Russell makes a lot of interesting points in her talk, but there are a few things that bother me. She shows photos from her early career when she was very young, which show her in very sexualized poses, and struck me as exploitative when she described the circumstances. She also states a statistic about 53% of 13-year-old girls not liking their bodies, and the number jumping to 78% by the time girls are 17. And I wanted to say, "Yes, and part of why so many girls don't like their bodies is because they're looking at magazines full of people with bodies like yours!" I remember looking at those magazines and worrying about the ways my appearance deviated from the models', because I wanted to be a model when I was around 12. The way they looked was the best way to look; that's how they got in the magazines, or at least that's how I reasoned it as a tween. I wanted to be famous. I wanted money. I wanted attention. I wanted validation. I wanted to be told I was pretty. I went through an awkward phase,

like I think most kids do, but came out the other side not too shabby. I am thin. I have nice hair, skin, eyes, and symmetry, but at 5' 3", I'll never walk a runway. When I was around 14, I realized I would never be a model, because I wasn't growing anymore and there was no way to make myself taller, which for a time was a disappointment.

I did get over it, and with a few years' distance, I saw how unhealthy so much fretting over my appearance had been. Toward the end of her talk, Russell makes herself vulnerable and confesses that she is insecure, and that this is largely because of how much she has to think about how she looks. And when I heard that, I thought, Wow, I'm really glad I'm not a model! I hear the pain in this woman's voice as she describes the anxiety of constantly having to think about her appearance, whereas I worry very little about how I look.

I am aware of my physical "imperfections." Even when I trained for and ran a marathon and was in the best shape of my life, there was still visible cellulite on my thighs, and there always will be. The skin over my stomach is wrinkled because I've had two babies. My breasts hang lower than they used to because I nursed those babies. I'm congenitally missing my premolars and the gaps show when I smile big. I opted not to have those teeth replaced because the procedure is expensive and painful, and I'm not a model, so I don't have to have "perfect" teeth (or thighs or stomach, etc.). I love these "imperfections." They make me unique. They're part of the story of the life I've lived. (I have a friend who had maternity portraits done. The photographer asked if she wanted to have the stretch marks airbrushed out of the photos. My friend replied, "No! I earned those!") I am aware that I fit a lot of our cultural norms for what is considered attractive, and I do get attention because of how I look. I'll say it: I like being pretty, but I never would have gained this level of comfort with my appearance if I worked in a job where my appearance was everything.

Russell got into the industry very young, I'm sure unaware of a lot of the ramifications of the fashion and advertising industry. Now she's an adult, and this talk makes it plain that now she does understand the dynamic of privilege and oppression that has made her career possible. That she's continuing in her modeling career, with this full understanding, seems to me almost complicit on her part in the continuation of the cycle. She also talks about how it doesn't always make her happy. Nobody loves their job all the time, but her job seems to actually make her unhappy at times, something less benign than dealing with a few mundane tasks in a mostly-fulfilling job. I sincerely want to ask her, Why are you still doing it? Why, when you recognize the harm, to yourself and others, in the perpetuation of the false reality portrayed in these images, do you continue to be a part of it? I'm sure the answer is more complicated than she could explain in the ten minutes allotted to her on TED, but I really am curious. To me, no money or travel or perks in the world would be worth the constant pressure to measure up to someone else's standard.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Introducing Heretic Sermons!

Heretic Sermons will be an ongoing series that needs a little explanation. It was a little over a year ago that I decided I was gonna dig in and take this whole Episcopalian thing seriously and see if it was for me. Something that I thought was important was to be studying scripture. (Maybe that's a vestige of my Mormon years.) I had a Book of Common Prayer (book containing texts and instructions for the standard rites and services of the Episcopal Church, and which I bear my testimony contains a lotta good stuff; p.s. get ready for lots of explanatory stuff for people who, like me, didn't know much about liturgical churches). In the back of the BCP, there's a schedule of readings for the Daily Office (meant to be done by individuals and families) and for the weekly Lectionary (specific passages read aloud in church as part of the liturgy of the Mass). Both the Daily Office and the service Lectionary always consist of four readings: one from the Hebrew Bible, one psalm (or portion of a psalm), one from the New Testament, and one from one of the four gospels. Now, if you're a monastic, you do readings for the Office eight times a day. If you're a schmucky lay person like me, then it's just twice a day. But you know what, I'm awfully busy being a student and a teaching assistant and a single mom. I don't have time to do four readings twice a day. So I decided I'd just read the psalms from the Daily Office, and I got a lot out of that, but I also wanted to familiarize myself more with other parts of the Bible.

In my quest to delve into parts of the Bible beyond the psalms but not do the complete Office readings every day, I thought, What if I just do the weekly Lectionary readings each week before church? So I did, and I found that I got more out of both hearing the readings again in church after having already read them for myself, and I got more out of the sermon that week. (The preacher is supposed to base his or her sermon on the Lectionary readings.) And then I thought, What if I were gonna write a sermon based on these readings? What would I say? What sort of meaning would I derive? So I started doing the readings earlier in the week, reading over them several times, changing the order in which I read the passages, jotting thoughts that came about connections I saw. That was a fun exercise, and it was always really interesting to see how different what I came up with was from whatever was preached on Sunday. And then I thought, What if I put these sermons on a blog? I actually the got idea from my priest who puts his sermons on a blog (except he's on vacation now, takes two weeks off a year, during which time, he produces no sermons, slacker!). Then I thought, What would I call this blog? And I came up with Heretic Behind the Pulpit. Now, I wasn't quite ready to come back to blogging yet, but I did like the name and the idea. I ultimately decided against Heretic Behind the Pulpit for a blog title, because (a) I thought I would probably want to blog about things besides sermons, and (b) I don't always feel like doing a sermon every week. But when I do, I'll post them here, and thus we will have Heretic Sermons, in which a complete amateur and everyday gal just like you takes a stab at finding meaning in some ancient Middle Eastern texts! Degree of fleshed-out-ness and coherence may vary.

I was gonna start tonight. I did jot ideas about the readings this week (and they were pretty good, too), but after writing the introduction, I've decided I'm tired. I did a long workout today and a lot of practicing. I still have some houseworky tasks to do tonight, and I have told myself that I will not become a slave to the blog, so I will skip the sermon this week. But now that the idea has been introduced, I won't have to do that next time, so stay tuned for future Heretic Sermons!