Friday, January 29, 2010

What We Worship

The Gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And a person will worship, have no doubt of that either. One may think that tribute is paid in secret, in the dark recesses of his or her heart, but it is not. That which dominates imagination and thoughts will determine life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we are worshiping, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.
From the Gates of Heaven alternative services, quoted on the CD, Life's A Lesson, by Ben Sidran.

I picked up this CD at the public library and brought it home mostly because of this quote. Ben Sidran is a Jewish jazz musician who was trying to find a spiritual home for himself and his young family in Wisconsin when he wandered into an alternative service led by Hannah Rosenthal at the third oldest free-standing synagogue in the United States, Gates of Heaven. His story about the making of the CD is wonderful background, but it is this quote that really caught my attention.

What am I becoming? What is written on my face? What do I worship? Worship comes from the Old English root of "worth," so what do I find worthy of my love and attention?

I have been working on developing my habits in this new year of accessible and fun physical exercise. The key for me has been to make the exercise either playful or with some twist and/or short enough that I can either do it mindlessly or mindfully, and the time slots must fit in my life. I have spent five minutes bouncing a foam practice tennis ball or throwing a small stuffed bear repeatedly up into the air, ten minutes dancing to Ziggy Marley's Walk Tall while hitting a punching balloon in each hand, or taking a 53 rock walk (that is, using decorative stones as counters for the laps as I walk around my house). I call these "Spark" exercises after the book by Dr. Glenn Gaesser, that is, bursts of relatively high intensity exercise that spark your fat burning and ignite your energy levels.

I've also done more mundane weight lifting using the Strong Women Stay Young book by Dr. Miriam Nelson, breaking the sets up into something that I can do in 10-15 minutes, but using the goal setting and tracking psychology to add weight each time, and have also used a walk at home DVD by Leslie Sansone, because she's fun, but not manic about form: just walk.

Doing exercise requires a mindfulness all by itself so that it doesn't become too much of a focus in and of itself. Certainly that's the reason the quote about what we worship caught my attention. I don't want exercise to become an idol that I worship. But neither do I want avoiding exercise to be something I worship.

These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. 1 Corinthians 10.11-14


1. Worship of idols.

2. Blind or excessive devotion to something.

I also think that Christianity's Hellenic heritage has created a very dualistic view of mind/body, with the body getting the bad rap. The idea that our body is wonderful and holy has been twisted by some of our forebears into the idea our bodies should be contained and kept pure. Where is the joy of glorifying God in your body?

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6: 19-20

Yes, you worship in your body and your body will reflect what you worship.

I realized on Thursday that I had done a fairly good job of paying attention to my body this past week, but my mind and soul also need to be fed. That wheel-spinning sense of ennui or boredom that still provokes my unmindful eating and frankly my general distress at the state of the world, the state elections, and the health and well-being of my community of friends needed something as counter-balance. As serendipity would have it, my new issue (January 26, 2010) of Christian Century magazine had just arrived in the mail, and I began flipping through.Paula Huston's article on "A midlife spiritual challenge," Wake-up Call documents her "third" conversion: a call to pay attention to doing the Spirit's work in the world.

Benedictine Michael Casey captures what's going on during experiences like these. "Conversion means being liberated by God's grace so that we can at last follow the intimate spiritual aspirations that have long been unheeded, neglected, or frustrated."

Oh, yeah, I remember now: Call—that was the reason I went to seminary. Now I have to ask again what am I doing about my intimate spiritual aspirations? That's right: what am I worshiping?

If how you spend your time is a true reflection of what you worship, then I am worshiping my secular job, and it is not a place where I often remember call or grace. This week there certainly was frustration. So I took today off. In an attempt to be restorative, yet spontaneous, I let my morning music on the iPod go to shuffle—a random selection. As my UCC friends would say, "God is still speaking," and the first piece of music was Crux Fidelis from Women in Chant: Recordare. My early morning translation only got as far as "faithful cross," and I meditated on that while listening to the Latin chant. What is my cross? How am I faithful in spite of or because of the cross? Again, what do I worship?

The next song was Shiviti HaShem, from the album Each of Us by Ya Elah, and I know that that HaShem is a name for God, so I knew that God was in front of me when this song came up, although I didn't know what shiviti meant. My Hebrew was better than I knew, as I found out that this is the Hebrew phrase from Psalm 16: 8, "I have set the Lord always before me," "shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid."

Am I keeping God in mind? Well, you get the message—or at least I started to get the message. By the way, these are not songs that I regularly listen to, and in fact I suspect it's been more than a year since I had listened to either song.

Today as I did my 56 rock walk, I stayed in the moment: the way my foot needed to step to make the corner as I did my turns around my house; the way one beam of sunlight could catch and illuminate the color of whatever rock I was holding in my hand as I came past the living room windows; the beauty and mystery of veined rocks and stones; the feel of rough and tumbled stones; the twinge in my hip. God is present in all of this.

God creates us whole and holy and in order to worship truly we must bring our whole and holy selves to the presence of the Creator. My prayer is that we each remember to set the Other, whole and holy, in front of us, and worship and become more whole and holy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Romance with Integrity

Over the last several trips to the library I have been re-reading the Regency romances written by Georgette Heyer in the first half of the twentieth century. She was among my favorite romance writers as an adolescent, back before I had my own disappointments in romance. Her characters all have character—not all good, not all bad, but with quirks and foibles. I got started reading her again when my daughter was studying Napoleon and Waterloo. I remembered her very vivid depiction of the aftermath of the battle in An Infamous Army and wanted to read it again and share the scene with my daughter.

This past week while reading The Black Moth I realized something else that at least one of her heroes or heroines have in each book, and that is integrity. Sometimes integrity comes with a twist as in this book where the hero took the blame and society's shunning when his brother marked the cards in a high stakes game, but became a sometimes highwayman who robbed only the coaches of young and middle aged rich men for the adventure of it and, like Robin Hood, donated his takings to the poor. Heyer understood that a good novel hinges on a moral dilemma, and in her day and in her writing that clearly required having a character who did take the moral high road even when tempted to do otherwise. Heyer gives us people who have a life-long commitment to integrity, not just an occasional flirtation with it.

As always when I begin to write about words, I go to the dictionary to see what nuance of meaning I might be missing. Integrity comes from the root "entire" and has not lost that connection in our modern usage. Romance, as a noun, reminds us of a strong emotional attachment, love, fascination or appeal.

Etymology: Middle English integrite, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French integrité, from Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer entire
Date: 14th century
1: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2: an unimpaired condition : soundness
3: the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness

1. a. A love affair.
b. Ardent emotional attachment or involvement between people; love: They kept the romance alive in their marriage for 35 years.
c. A strong, sometimes short-lived attachment, fascination, or enthusiasm for something: a childhood romance with the sea.
2. A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful: "These fine old guns often have a romance clinging to them" (Richard Jeffries).

Last weekend I attended the memorial service for a friend of mine from church. Julia had a lifelong romance with integrity. She was someone who walked the talk. Our friend Harvey raised the question in his words of remembrance: can anyone ever truly live a Christian life? For his own faith to be sustained, he said he needs to see examples of people who do, and Julia was one such example. Her stewardship of creation included commitments to recycling, composting, vegetarianism, and energy conservation. Her commitment to love the neighbor caused her to work for social justice locally and abroad, to welcome the refugee and the homeless, and to work for peace. Her roles in the church included pastoral care and community events—always welcoming the stranger.

Another friend who spoke at the service, whose children were raised in the co-housing building where Julia lived, said that Julia was their moral compass. What Julia would do became synonymous with doing the right thing for his children. Although she suffered from Alzheimer's in her last few years, she still could speak to the reasons to do the work of community building and peace making—clearly central and what she was called to do. This work was part of her life's romance, something that she clung to even as the disease progressed.

The more common definition of romance was also a part of Julia's life. At the service, her husband of 51 years told a funny and touching story of how they met and started dating. For me, watching him cherish her and care for her when they came to my house for New Year's Day two days before she died was a gift and affirmation of romance lived out—yes, with integrity, whole and entire.

At home this week my daughter and I talked about integrity as it gets lived out in the daily life of a high school student. When the teacher makes a mistake in grading a test not in your favor, you certainly go up and make the point. She had an interesting conversation with a friend where the reverse happened—her friend got a better grade than she should have, and when my daughter suggested that she should tell the teacher he had made a mistake, her friend laughed at her. I hope that kind of response does not shake my daughter's willingness to act with integrity.

While I am proud of my daughter for her academic results and her musical gifts and her writing, I am most proud of her when I see or hear of her kindness and her own moral compass. I pray that she too will have a lifelong romance with integrity. Others in the world, like Harvey, need such examples. Both integrity and romance, or at least love and perhaps passion, are essential for our holy wholeness, our shalom. May we each have and be such people that have a passion for being whole and entire—a romance with integrity.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Habits for the New Year

New Year’s Reality Check

Another year, another chance
To start our lives anew;
This time we’ll leap old barriers
To have a real breakthrough.

We’ll take one little step
And then we’ll take one more,
Our unlimited potential
We’ll totally explore.

We’ll show off all our talents
Everyone will be inspired;
(Whew! While I’m writing this,
I’m getting very tired.)

We’ll give up all bad habits;

We’ll read and learn a lot,
All our goals will be accomplished,
Sigh...or maybe not.

Oh well, Happy New Year anyway!

By Joanna Fuchs

There really is no sense in making New Year's resolutions. In a good year, resolutions last about two weeks. My birthday is in mid-January, so most years I use the time between New Year's Day and my birthday to consider my resolutions, so I might get an extra push and they last until the end of January—mostly because they didn't start right away. The problem with most resolutions is that they are unconnected to our lives in a real way. To say that I want to lose twenty pounds doesn't guide me into the mindful practices and habits that are going to make a difference in my health and weight.

One of the best fund raising solicitations that I have ever received came late this summer from Andover Newton Theological School after I had graduated in May. The note asked for my news and enclosed a dollar either as a way to help me in time of transition and job search or to get me started in the habit of philanthropy when the time came for the annual appeal. When I got the year-end report with a brief request to give, that letter assured me that they would receive any gift with joy, and would be keeping me in prayer as I waited for news to share of ordination, calls, or other life events. Frankly, it is a brilliant idea to have people understand that you have to get in the habit of sharing your money, and to provide you with the starter kit to do so. Just to say that I need to develop the habit is worthy, but to provide the dollar as a token to do so was inspired. I will say that their dollar came back to them multiplied.

So, as I consider what changes I might like to see in my life in the coming year, I know that the changes I want to make need to be sustained by habits. Habits in turn, as so aptly illustrated above, need both emotional and psychological support and a physical reminder in their starter kit, as well as a time or reminder about when they can be accomplished. Now, this is not a plug for you or me to go out and buy something, but rather an observation that we are tactile creatures, and need a physical reminder, as well as strong enough motivations.

Let me describe the starter kit for two of my current practices. Each morning I stretch. The physical piece of this is that my living room rug has to be cleared of all obstacles and debris, so that I actually have room to stretch. Assuring that this is the case has the helpful side benefit of my regularly cleaning a large portion of my living room. The emotional impetus for this habit comes from knowing how much better I feel and how much more easily I move after I stretch.

Then each morning during my stretches, I also keep a time of prayer. The physical reminders for this are the praying hands next to the mantle clock. The emotional support for this comes in the connections I make as I open the world for God's presence for those I name in need of healing or attention or comfort, and then as I pray for myself in own centering to do the work that I am called to do. Both of these practices are prompted by the morning and both are short enough so that I can do them every morning and always have time to fit them in. I finish my morning practices with my gratitude list: five things written in my little notebook.

I describe these elements here as a way of figuring out how to start some new habits. Writing this blog nearly every week was a matter at first of having made a commitment to do so as a part of a project, and then setting aside some time on a weekend morning to write. The reminder is the blog folder on my computer desktop, and emotional support comes from the satisfaction of writing as well as from the responses from some of you who read it.

So, what if I do want to lose twenty pounds? For me that must come with two components: eat more mindfully and exercise more regularly. You note that I'm phrasing those not as deprivations, as I know I don't respond well emotionally to that, and I'm not saying I don't eat mindfully or exercise at all, because I do. Just yesterday I worked up a sweat shoveling snow and I suspect I'll have the opportunity to do that again today. But time for more regular exercise also means not depending on the randomness of weather—good weather for walking outside or snowstorms for shoveling exercise, although it might incorporate consideration for what can be done depending on the weather. Time for exercise also needs to fit into my schedule where no two days are the same. Therein lies the challenge, but perhaps exercises could fit days of the week, and not be the same each day, but have a pattern for the week—but of course! Now, the task is to develop that pattern—a simpler and more manageable idea, while keeping in mind what might be the emotional and physical links for reinforcing habit maintenance success.

Mindfulness in eating will have to come with some new practices and realizations about my emotional associations to food. I need to find something else besides turning to food as a way of dealing with stress or ennui. Perhaps mindfulness is eating is a doorway to thinking about better ways of managing stress, defined by my Oxford University Press dictionary widget as "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances" and ennui, defined as "a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement." These states and feelings most often occur in the evening, when perhaps not coincidentally I also do not have any practices of prayer or reflection. Another ah-ha?! Perhaps that is what is required—maybe a prayer before any time I want to snack? A prayer instead of a snack?

I'll keep you posted as to decisions about the new habits and their success. In the meantime, my prayer for you and for me is that we are able to give thanks for the love and support of friends and family and for health and sufficient economic resources, and that we are able to create and sustain in this world a place and time of joy and grace and peace that passes all understanding, and to forgive ourselves and others when we cannot. In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.