Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reflections on Friendship

Friendship is challenging at times, for me. In the course of so many years, I've had a lot of unpleasant experiences. Many of them have been due to my own lack of social graces...which is due to not having had much of a social life as a child, therefore no opportunity to learn the fine points of friendship, therefore prone to blunders, therefore avoided by the more socially graceful kids, ..... Sigh.

A lot of them have been due to others' lack of social graces, too.

This past year has been an interesting year, the beginning of several tentative new friendships. Each is so unique. Each of us, in some way, has hit a "bottom" where we were desperate to find a better way of living with ourselves and with others. We have been hurt, physically and emotionally abused, neglected, manipulated, you name loved ones of all descriptions as well as relative strangers.

That means we come to friendship with "issues"..."baggage"..."history"...i.e., we're each in some way "damaged goods" thanks to previous friends, family, etc. Sometimes, no matter how compatible we are as people, our "baggage" just interferes with the other person's. It makes starting a new friendship interesting to say the least.

Last night I had a very special dream about one of my new friends:

In the dream, this person, like me, was a professional bus driver. We went out for a leisurely drive in one of the busses that I drive daily. (Like I said, this was a dream; I'm not really allowed to take the busses out for a Sunday drive!)

My companion and I did all the things we would normally do on a Sunday drive. We went up and down hills. We turned left and right. We stopped and started in all sorts of conditions. Ordinarily, we would have been doing this with the purpose of performing our duty of transporting people to their destinations. In our own cars, off-duty, we might have taken the same trip to see the scenery, or simply for the sake of enjoying one another's company and talking while driving.

But this trip had a different purpose. We were evaluating the vehicle--an older, quirky bus that had a lot of miles on it. Before we committed to driving it on-duty, with precious passengers on board, in all kinds of weather and road conditions, we needed to know its limitations...and we needed to develop reasonable boundaries for operating it in service, so that we would never exceed the limits of this particular vehicle. Some busses just shouldn't be driven out on K-10 at 65 miles per hour; others are just fine for that but would rather not go 5 miles per hour on the busy campus all day.

Each bus is a little different, and they become more individual with age and wear. On-going repairs and minor accidents add to the aging process of a vehicle. They start out bland and identical, but over time they are customized more and more. Zip ties and duct tape, Tek screws and caulk all come into play when something irreplaceable but non-essential fails.

We put the bus through its paces. We tried accelerating fast and slow, on slopes up and down, to see how it would respond in various situations. We assessed the play in the steering wheel, and whether the vehicle tended to drift to one side or another as we went down a level road. We tried the brakes to see how fast it would stop, and whether it pulled to the left or right. We tested the turning radius...and one of us had to help the other back it out of the cul-de-sac where it couldn't turn around (oops--we should have planned the route ahead, not just wandered around making random turns).

I woke up knowing exactly what this dream was about. It was about how to be friends. Or more specific, how to take good care of friendships.

We need to take time, now and then, and assess our friends/friendships. Not to judge, not to try to change someone else, but rather to better understand what we have to work with in our friendship. If someone has sensitive areas, we need to be careful of those in the friendship. If someone has blind spots, we need to understand that. Likes and dislikes, skills and disabilities--these are all equally part of the assessment. Not that anything about them is right or wrong, we just need to know what they are. Some, we may be able to fix right away. Some we may need to wait for a part. Some we may need to wait to fix them until they get worse. Many really can't be fixed, but are just the unique "character" of something that's gone down the road a few hundred thousand miles.

This assessment is not a one-time thing, because people change and friendships evolve too. With some friends, we may need to assess the boundaries of the friendship frequently; with others, not so often. With the buses, we do a daily inspection report, required by federal law. But sometimes a more comprehensive assessment is needed, as this friend and I did in my dream.

Too often, we go about friendship just like we go about driving our personal vehicles. We just take them for granted, and never take the time to look under the hood until we are stranded by the roadside facing an expensive tow and repair. How much easier it would have been to just check the oil routinely! But, in fact, many friends would be fearful of doing such an assessment, while others would be offended by the whole idea, fancying themselves free of quirks.

I especially treasure those few rare friends that begin the friendship with the instinct to do that "test drive" and assess our strengths and weaknesses right away, together, based on fact, so that we can set realistic boundaries for the friendship. In the long run, I think we will not be disappointed at having taken the time to approach friendship seriously, as seriously as driving a bus.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Random Reasons, Part 4

"Doesn't that make you hotter in this weather?" the bus passenger asked.

This conversation occurred hours after the first round, which I drove in a vehicle without AC with internal temps reading around 113. That's the highest I've ever seen in a bus. It might actually be the top of the scale, so that it could have been even more. Later in the day, the replacement bus was a more civilized 83 degrees.

The surprising basic answer is: Actually, there are only a few days every summer when I am ready to tear it from my head because it feels like it is adding to the burden of the heat. Other than those rare times, it offers a little protection from direct sun. And I've never had a sunburned "part" in my hair since I began wearing it. Small but nice benefit. My hair stubbornly parts itself, even when firmly brushed and tied straight back. For this reason alone I will never be mistaken for a birthright Old German Baptist, since their hair always obediently flows straight back from hairline to covering edge to bun.

The more complicated answer is that the covering offers a unique line of defense against the heat. Being cotton, it absorbs and evaporates water quite effectively. So when the heat bothers me, I just whisk it off for a moment, soak it down with water from my water bottle, the hose, etc., wring it out, and put it back on. Probably no one has ever noticed that it was wet. But unless the weather is terribly humid, it makes a huge difference in helping my body keep at a functional temperature.

The passenger's follow-up comment was, "That string under the chin would drive me crazy!"

It took a little getting used to. Going through that transition in the mountains of British Columbia, where (no matter what they say) it is never too hot or too humid was a good start. I found in my first few coverings that the exact fit has a lot to do with the comfort of the strings. The little bit of elastic at the nape of the neck is a nice modern touch on my Old Order River Brethren style covering...the Old German Baptists have just a rigid binding at the back, so there's less flex in the chin strings.

Sometimes, like my OORB friends, I'll untie the strings for awhile when I'm in a semi-private setting. Some denominations never tie the strings, but leave them hanging down loose. Some have a long continuous ribbon that loops across the back of the shoulders without holding anything, or ribbons that are tied loosely at the collarbone--purely vestigial. Some cover just the back of the head, and not the ears like mine does. Most women, but especially these, rely on a straight pin at the top of the front to hold the covering firmly to the hair. It doesn't seem like it would be effective, but it is. I like the OORB style for its plain, practical work-a-day functionality. It stays on because it is tied on. And I can make them myself.

The firmly tied strings do serve a spiritual purpose, I find. Though they are not distracting, I do notice them as I move my jaw. Which means whenever I speak, there is a subtle reminder to consider my words, and be sure they are becoming to a godly woman. The slight tug of the strings reminds me that I am a light to the world that is not hidden under a bushel--when people see me, they know at a glance, from a distance, that I am a Christian. It behooves me to make sure I am comporting myself in a way that honors Christ. In this way, my every moment in the world at large is a witness to my faith in God and His son.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The prodigal Son, Revisited

I woke up in bed at home at about the time the opening in hymn was being sung at church. Oops! I jumped into clothes, grabbed a snack, and headed off on the 45 minute drive. In case I haven't mentioned it before, the fact that others frequently arrive after the beginning of the two-hour service helps me feel more welcome there--just as I am, imperfect. Better late than never. If nothing else, the weekly drive through rolling Kansas hills uplifts me with awe at the progression of the seasons, the diversity of plants and wildlife, etc. I see neat rows of corn and soybeans, home gardens, woodlands, wetlands, pastures kempt and unkempt, hayfields.

Thus I walked in as the minister was in the middle of expounding on the parable of the Prodigal Son. One of my all-time favorites, maybe because I've been such a wayward child of God all my life. It was a series on this parable that drew me back to Peace Mennonite months after the first time I left, after being publicly humiliated by the pastor during a service...that pastor left, and the interim pastor made room for this lost sheep to return to the fold. (That time was made easier by the outreach I felt from numerous people in the congregation. During that absence, I received several cards and calls from people who understood why I chose to stay away, who expressed appreciation for the spiritual gifts that I had brought to the church, who kept me in touch with church activities. Oddly, few of those folks are still with the church. This time, no one has tried to encourage me to come back.)

But the beauty of scripture is that it is always new. There is always something more to see in it, as in a mirror. There is always a new insight, a new lesson, a new juxtaposition of the verses with each other, or with my daily life.


...As I struggle through a time of chafing at the isolation of my daily life...

...Having yesterday found myself in yet another seemingly pointless discussion of Peace Mennonite's bizarre shunning of me for the past 5 years...

...Remembering two single women of about my age who committed suicide in recent years and understanding from my own experience how easily one could come to feel too lonely to go on...

...Having very recently chided someone's stereotypical disdain for Pollyanna as an unrealistic optimist, where in fact she is courageously honoring her minister father's love for the bible's many, many "rejoicing texts" by struggling to find something to rejoice about no matter what horrible things befall her...

...What caught my mind today was the centrality of rejoicing with others in this and the two preceding parables. The three parables are perfectly parallel: Something valuable is lost; it is found (through diligent searching in the case of the sheep and the silver talent, diligent hope and patience in the third parable); and rejoicing naturally ensues...rejoicing with relatives, friends and neighbors.

How have I overlooked, in these parables, the theme of rejoicing in community as a scriptural, spiritually important activity, all these years? I knew that celebrating--rejoicing--was important, and I've lived my life accordingly for a long time, but I never really "got" its spiritual significance until now. Possibly because there is no immediate family or community in my life at this time, to rejoice with or to mourn with.

Modern life co-opts the spiritual need of humans to celebrate and rejoice together, and trivializes it in many different ways. We are encouraged to celebrate "Hallmark holidays" like Mother's Day by purchasing unneeded gifts and eating unneeded food. We are encouraged to celebrate annual milestones like birthdays and anniversaries in the same manner. We are encouraged to make sports teams our idols, and celebrate their activities. We are supposed to celebrate "hump day" and "TGIF".

These are the kind of celebrating that the elder son resented not having been offered--the opportunity to make merry with his friends. A kind of meaningless celebration that is not about the successful hard work of mending of something broken, not about gratitude for a miracle, but simply about glorifying things that we take for granted. The eldest son, like today's culture, does not recognize the difference between revelry and true thanksgiving.

This kind of celebrating is simply so many excuses to indulge in excess, to spend money, to lose our souls in meaningless frenzies of spending and indulging. The economic system loves these sorts of celebrations. They are predictable. Commerce can tell us when and how to celebrate them, produce special foods and media bits and attire and memorabilia. Commerce can make it easy to "rejoice" because we can purchase everything we need.

In the end there is hardly a moment that we aren't supposed to be celebrating some pre-ordained "special day". Every day is special, according to the calendar. They blur together. Celebrating becomes a way of life. Any true miracles worthy of rejoicing are lost in the bustle of day-in, day-out celebrating. We become immune to rejoicing, numb to wonder.

What is lost is something precious. There is no room left to celebrate the little personal victories in our lives. Our neighbors are too busy to rejoice with us over the finding of our lost sheep, because it's Superbowl Sunday. They are too busy to join us in celebrating that we've found our lost coin, because they are out shopping for Halloween costumes and candy. They are too busy to join us in celebrating our reconciliation with a long-estranged loved one because they are taking all of the neighbor kids to the pool to celebrate someone's birthday with swimming and cake and ice cream and pizza and pop after which everyone is exhausted and strung out on sugar and broke.

It is not just that we are too busy celebrating to rejoice. We've also become a culture where these real causes of rejoicing could never be admitted in the first place. It's a shame to admit losing something (only a bad shepherd would lose a sheep--call the humane society! And why didn't she have those silver talents deposited in an FDIC insured account?) We don't talk about our family problems (unless we're rich enough that the media talks about them for us); if we haven't been able to share our heart-wrenching parental agony over Junior's running away with our credit card and not calling home, how can we explain our joy to the neighbors upon his chastened, repentant return?

Understanding that, these scriptures take on an even deeper meaning. Not only do these people--this culture we have sadly lost--have close relationships with families and neighbors so that they rejoice together over personal milestones, rather than empty conventional occasions, but they also are close enough that they can admit to one another the misfortunes and errors that have laid the grounds for the situation calling for rejoicing.

For nothing can be found unless we have somehow managed to lose it.

But a further sad coda on the theme. What do these parables become, when the rejoicing in community is stripped away? They are empty, nothing is left of them. There are a hundred sheep in the pen, ten coins in the purse, two sons working in the field. The journey of the human emotions and effort to attain these things is negated. A tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. Meaning is stripped away.

At some point, the unacknowledged struggle isn't simply worth it anymore. I wonder if this is what my departed friends discovered, and sought an end.

People need others to rejoice with, real rejoicing, the rejoicing of personal struggle and achievement.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Going Home

I was driving the truck home late. I'd come down Massachusetts, which I often do late at night because that's just about the right amount of night life for me. And I was first in line sitting at the red light, waiting to hear the words "WALK LIGHT IS ON TO CROSS 6TH STREET; WALK LIGHT IS ON" that would signal a green light for me to proceed across the bridge. Traffic was light, and I wasn't paying much attention to anything.

Never-the-less alert to my environment, I noticed when the man on the northwest side of the intersection moved. Suddenly, he turned, looked both ways, and bolted into the intersection. Was he trying to get across before the walk light was on to cross 6th street? He moved hesitantly at first, then boldly. But instead of heading to the corner next to me, he ran up to the driver's window of the truck.

In the streetlight shadows, long straggly hair flopping into his face as he ran, his behavior first inspired me to think he was someone I knew but just didn't recognize. Or someone who knew me by sight because of the covering, but whom I didn't particularly have acquaintance with. But as he reached the truck and spoke, I knew he was a stranger. Not even a bus customer, or he would have mentioned recognizing me.

"I live in North Lawrence. Can I pay you to take me across the bridge?" I was dumbstruck. This broke all the rules! Just this summer an lgbt person was badly beaten when strangers offered him a ride downtown at night. Now this strange, bold man was asking me to let him into my truck and drive him into a dimly lit section of town.

Everything stopped. "What on earth does God want me to do with THIS?" I wondered. Visions of axe murderers, carjackers, etc. threatened to take over my mind.

But the only thing to do seemed to be to gesture him to the passenger door with a solemn flick of my head. Profuse thanking ensued, clearly powered by alcohol. He held a handful of coins towards me, saying, "Here, gas money." "Just put your seatbelt on", I said quietly. After the second request, he complied.

As the walk light turned on to cross 6th street, I asked where he wanted to go, and he indicated a general area of the neighborhood. I drove to the nearest major intersection where I could easily continue on my way home. As we went, he continued to thank me. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye once, and saw that he was watching me intently. Yet I didn't feel afraid or threatened. I just drove serenely down familiar roads. "You're an angel," He went on. "A real angel of God. I'm a sinner. Thank you again...well, I'm not that much of a sinner, I'm a man of God, I just..." If I responded, it was with the slightest Mona Lisa smile of amusement at his classic alcohol-based reasoning.

"No," I said slowly. "I'm not an angel. I'm a child of God, and I'm a sinner, just like you." He lapsed into profuse thanks again.

Coming to an intersection near his destination, I stopped and said, "I'll need to turn here." Amid profuse thanks, he offered the money again, and again I refused. He left the truck and we went our separate ways.

Ever get the feeling you've just met an angel, as a test of your Christian integrity?

As I think back on this event, I realize once again the blessing of not being a news junky or watching a lot of TV or movies. I was able to make a rational assessment of the situation, rather than flashing back to images of some horror movie scene. I could just let the scene unfold on its own. And that left me free to do what Jesus might have done.

Coming to Christ

Some people are born into a Christian life, raised on it as well as the bread on their table. At some point they are asked to claim a deeper commitment to it, as a formal stage in their life journey.

Some people wander around for decades without any religion. In some cases, their lives become unmanageable, they hit rock bottom, and in the depths of brokenness they reach out to God as a last resort, and thus are led to give their lives to Christ.

It's plain to anyone that my life hasn't followed the first plan. So it's perfectly reasonable to think that there must have been some awful crisis that prompted my conversion. And it's probably human nature to look at my definitely non-bible-approved sexual/relational history, and come to the conclusion that the crippling burden of my carnal sins drove me to cry out to God for relief.

In fact, this doesn't seem to have been the case. In not one crisis did I ever think God would be any help whatsoever. I might have cried and screamed and thrown temper tantrums, but I certainly wasn't going to ASK for help from something that didn't exist, anyway.

God had to be sneakier with me. God courted me patiently during all those years I didn't even believe He existed. And when I finally started noticing Him, He wooed me. All that time, He was protecting me, fitting me for the work he had for me through the diverse experiences of my life, preparing me to be his servant. Whenever I decided to make that commitment.

The not-so-straight-and-narrow sexual history was (in hindsight) clearly part of that preparation.

For the occasion of Baptism at Peace Mennonite Church, it was the custom for the one being baptized and admitted to membership in the church to give a brief statement of their faith as part of the service. On February 25, 2001, I read these words to the congregation:

What I'm about to read won't make much sense. That's OK. It doesn't have to. I'm rummaging through a backpack I've been wearing all my life: some stuff I don't even remember, or know how it got there. Some of you will recognize bits and pieces and see that they are out of context or broken or inside out. That's ok, too--just how it is in a bag you've carried a long time. The cough drops come unwrapped and stick to the Kleenex and grocery store receipts, and there's some pennies, and magic beans a little kid gave me, some rocks, a dirty sock, some nuts and bolts and raisins and birdseed--well, YOU KNOW!

A parable: A child watches a parade in a foreign city, surrounded by strangers whose ways make no sense. Her parents stand over her, hovering, keeping her safe from alien influences. The Emperor of that world walks by, wearing nothing. Her parents bend to whisper, "He's got nothing on." She is puzzled, then listens to the crowd around her describe the rare beauty of his garments to one another. "but He HAS GOT NOTHING ON!" she cries aloud. The foreign children throw sticks and stones at her. She clings to her parents.

Childhood values: family values. Homemade dresses, saddle shoes. No cartoons, no bubble gum, no soda pop, no Barbie dolls, no paint-by-numbers, no movies, no social groups or activities, no church. No explanations that made sense. Everything scientific and educational.

In grade school, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, hymns. Tis a gift to be simple. Hiking the wonders of nature, identifying birds and flowers, rocks and fossils. Living in tents in Canada for a month every summer. Sailing; watching fish in their strange watery world under the docks. Tidepools; turning over rocks in the streams. Searching for living mysteries to unfold.

In high school, In Manhattan, Kansas, seeking to unfold mysteries of the spirit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Tao Teh Ching; for the first time in my life, the Bible. Unitarian Fellowship: taped classical music, lectures on social issues. It's all about coffee, which I never drink. The youth group, which hides itself from me, does drugs. A few wise elders inspire me to a long life of service.

Tentative friendships with peers in the foreign city: pot-smoking Hippies, vicious Born-Agains, treacherous Charismatics, suicidal Lesbian Feminists, crazy Artists, shy Poets, condemning Baptists, hypocritical Preacher's Kids. Where to I fit? How CAN I fit when I still can't make sense of their ways, and can't articulate my own? I have a dream.

Independence hits like a brick wall. an unplanned child, a brutal marriage, divorce, homelessness. No work or living skills. A few friends hold hands through the storm of early adulthood, each similarly desperate for unique reasons. The dream, unattainable, is abandoned.

A life of fragments, pieces from different puzzles, ends that don't meet. Waling the void's edg, three years of celibacy, lesbian lovers, drunken old men, two-timing young ones. Women of the Heartlands, Women's Festival, the I Ching, the Wander Game, The Manhattan Mercury, in slipstream time, cycles into a dark night, spiraling down a twisted tortured mile. None of this is sustainable. Who tempts me to walk away?

Only years later, I realize that over those troubled waters there came a quiet bridge, a bridge to gently lead me to a new way of thinking, living, loving. It came so ordinarily that it's taken 20 years to see it: the More With Less Cookbook. Not another issue of the Watchtower, not a visit from the Sister Missionaries, not people on the street corner selling roses. I bought it at the local food Co-op. i knew I had "less", I wanted to know what to do with it. The stains document its centrality to my life: a toddler's scribbles, Whole Wheat Orange Bread, Fruit Crumble, Mini Pizzas, Tangerine Peels. Gather up the fragments.

I walk away from the castle: a retreat into the wilderness. No child now; she's in my parents' care. Vision quest. Sitting zazen twice a week. Chopping wood, carrying water. Walking to the mailbox. meeting my self for the first time. A wise woman guides me through dark nights, helping me learn to heal and love myself. How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces? I remember that once I had a dream.

A voice emerges from the wilderness. A new life, a new job, another marriage. Still in a foreign country, but learning the language. K-State, then Friends University; Vegetable Crop Production, then Business Ethics.

Time and again I realize I've strayed from the path. I boldly abandon each wayward trail and strike out cross-country in the right direction. I don't know what the path is or where it's going; I only know it exists because I am learning to know when I am not on it. I remember fragments of a dream. I buy a house from a Mennonite family; and old hippy friend turned Mennonite repairs the stair rail.

A divorce, a job loss, another job, another marriage. Lawrence. The Episcopal Church calls me a child of God but denies me bread at His table--even the crumbs. Hundred dollar floral arrangements with South American flowers, while we pray for the poor. An old lady I've never seen before, with too much perfume, tell me to move from HER family's pew on Easter sunday. Does the Emperor have clothes?

I retreat again: church in the garden. I consider the lilies. A friend comes to gather wildflowers for his church; the third time I follow them. Here! The upper room is full of windows and sky, faces I danced with on Saturday, friends I'll dine with on Sunday. Sunday school discusses stewardship: sustainable agriculture, not a pledge drive.

Thanks to a dog, a farm falls in my lap, I lose the job. The dream! The path! God calls me to follow. He sends a flock of Quaker sheep--I listen--a flock of Mennonite sheep--I act. Mennonite hay. One good dog leads to another. A llama. I don't need a sailboat any more, I'm in charge of an ark! I begin to know how Noah felt.

Who tempts me to walk away? I spend one Lent in silent retreat, being the Lord's shepherd through lambing time. At midnight, by moonlight, I walk to the flock pastured by a stream, I move silently among them, I rest on the ground where they lie chewing their cuds. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. It is good. I consider the lilies.

Who tempts me to walk away? We spend another Lent studying TREK. Puzzle peices begin to fit. Tis a gift to be simple. Everything that is not of the farm and church fall away from me like an old skin: pieces from some other puzzle. Some are people I love; I have been transformed into something new that I have always already been, and they don't know how to follow. I'm sad, but without self-doubt. Chop water, carry wood. Tis a gift to be free. At church, each service holds some special, surprising message for me. Mandy's dad preached on teh Kingdom of God. Imagination caps! I come to the little children; I'm a child. There's room for me at the table, whenever I'm hungry. Weren't we supposed to remember Him EVERY time we shared bread with one another? Dream becomes vision. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.

Who tempts me to walk away? Separation and sin, a season of stress and strife. Misunderstanding, regrouping. For others, great good fortune far, far away. For me, eventually, the prodigal daughter returns. What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good--need we anyone to tell us?

The Emperor has no clothes; He's given them all away. He tempts me to walk away, and welcomes me to His table. Actions speak louder than words. I wash my face with tears, time and again. This water will be fresh and sweet!

Congregational response: And when we find ourselves in the place just right we will be in the valley of love and delight.