Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Writing

Nothing relativizes a hurricane like the walking dead.

Or The Walking Dead, as the case might be.

I'm sitting in our common room watching bad TV with my housemates. This particular bad TV involves zombies, which really makes the as-of-yet mild roar of Hurricane Sandy seem harmless. Of course, this is just prelude. It's overnight that the winds are going to pick up, or so they say.

I don't know a thing about surviving a hurricane. I remember Isabelle at Washington College. We stayed on campus when everyone else evacuated, and enjoyed generator power and an open dining hall. In the aftermath we played in the trees that had fallen and one student kayaked up the main street in town to take photos.

Yesterday I bought a Street Sense from a woman in Tenleytown. I've bought papers from her before. She has a slow, sad smile.

"You going to stay dry these next couple of days?" I asked her. A stupid question. I regretted asking it as soon as I opened my mouth. "Yeah," she said, nice and slow. I don't know if she will.

So here I am, in a dry house, with our power still on, watching a television show about the zombie apocalypse (which actually would mean "zombie unveiling," not "zombie end of the world," but maybe that's a story for a different time) and somewhere out there there's flooding and the guy who I bought a sandwich for by the AU metro is who-knows-where (I bought him a bacon turkey bravo from Panera. He told me he had no idea what a "bravo" is but that it sounded delicious. I told him I didn't really know what a bravo was, either).

So that's what I've got for you on Hurricane Sandy. Zombies, and wondering. And hoping for the day when we don't have to bow our head and pray in church for all the people who won't have shelter these next few days.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Acne and less visible things

I preached last week at Grand Oaks, the assisted living facility at Sibley Hospital. Before the service began, one of the women seated in the chapel called me over to her.

"How are you?" I said.

"I need to ask you a personal question," she said.


"What's all this stuff on your neck? It looks like pimples or something."


"Yes m'am. It's acne. It's caused by a medicine that I have to take." Which is sort of true.

"Oh, but you're trying to get rid of it?"

"Yep, sure am." Which is sort of true.

"Well, I've just never seen anything like it before."

"Yeah, I like to do new things," I said.

"Oh yes. You're a pioneer!" she said.

I laughed, hard.


I've had acne since I was a teenager. Awful itchy stuff. I make it worse by scratching at it. In high school I was on medicine for it for a little bit but it gave me ugly stomach cramps so I stopped. (I got away lucky and didn't get put on Acutane, which as it turns out can make you suicidal. So not what I needed in high school, any more help with suicidality.)

In college I tries that Proactiv stuff for awhile, and it worked ok on my face, but wasn't really designed for my neck and my back.

Ok, why am I saying all of this?

Just the other day my friend Dana and I were eating in Chinatown. Just as we were leaving the restaurant, one of the waiters stopped me.

"For your neck," he said with great determination, "you need a Chinese doctor."

He went on to tell me that American doctors are no good for this kind of thing, that it's an inside issue not an outside issue, and that in the meantime I should eat a soup made out of pigeon, mungbean (I don't know what that is), and seaweed. He even gave me a slip of paper with the ingredients. I'm assuming I could buy the pigeon somewhere. I'm a bad pigeon hunter. I mean, not like I've tried or anything.

"There's a Chinese doctor on 6th street," he said as Dana and I thanked him and walked away. I wonder if they take my insurance.


What to make of this, this interest in my skin? Frustrating expectations about what people should or shouldn't look like? Wanting people to look at me and see something other than acne? Genuine concern from strangers? All of these, probably.

I guess what I've been thinking about, though, is how acne is easy to see and to ask about. Bipolar, or whatever it is, isn't so easy to spot. The stuff that really haunts my life isn't something I wear visible on my skin, with the faded exceptions of one forearm and a couple of other spots around my body.

So I've been thinking about minor, visible inconveniences. And major, invisible illness. And how my acne is made a lot worse by lithium, by the awful little pink pills that I take because they tell me that my sanity is worth everything tasting like metal and my hands shaking and my thoughts slowing down and my affect flattening out and, well, acne. And how neither acne nor bipolar do much for self-image.

And I'm thinking of how on this day, with the tree across the street turning red and some exercise put behind me and plans to head to MD to see a dear friend, life is worth it. Acne and side effects and bipolar be damned. I like this life.

And that's a major, invisible victory.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Stays hot longer that way"

"Excuse me, sir. Could you help me out a little today?"

"No, not today," I said, my standard response.

"Thank you, sir."

I walked on by.

And turned back after 10 yards. "You know, I'm going to Starbucks. You want anything from Starbucks?"

"A cup of coffee'd be nice," he said.

I realized after I had his coffee in hand that I didn't ask him what he took in it. A bit sheepish, I walked back out and handed it to him. "Not sure what you take in your coffee, so it's just black," I said.

"Oh, that's how I take it," he said. "Stays hot longer that way."

"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

And I walked away, wondering what I had put in my drink to make me feel this cold.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sermon: "God's not done with us yet"

I have a post I need to write about Palestine and churches, and another post I need to write about one of those DC experiences you have that make you blink awake, but those aren't written and this is, so you get another sermon. I preached this on Sunday at Grand Oaks, the assisted living facility at Sibley Hospital (so about a 60 year jump from the demographic I preached to last). I think it went pretty well. I do that thing where I end more than once, but there it is, it's done and preached now.

Philippians 1:3-11
Psalm 51: 6-12

My father is a very practical man.

He’s the kind of person you want around when a tire goes flat or a furnace filter needs changing or a pipe is leaking. He and my mom live in North Carolina where I believe he’s in the process of building himself a work bench.

Like I said, he’s a very practical man.

It’s funny what we remember. I remember my dad’s shoes. As a child I watched my dad polish his shoes, something that he did, as far as I could tell, perfectly. He would spread newspaper all over the kitchen table and shine away until he had restored the row of shoes in his closet to perfection. 

I think I always took for granted what my father did. He would try to teach me how to do something, how to plant a garden or caulk or work with wood, and I would only half pay attention, because I knew, I just knew, that I would grow up and I would know how to do all these things. I figured that there would come a time that I was a grown up, and as a grown up I would know how to do grown up things. Why learn how to do them as a kid?

Well, I turned 10, and then 13, and then 16. When I was 16 I figured that I would be a grown up after high school. When I was in college I felt like I would be a grown up after college. And suddenly I was 25 and I still didn’t magically know how to do all these grown up things that I guess I thought I would suddenly be able to do at some point.

It turns out that I still have a lot of learning to do. Life’s not done with me yet.

I wonder how many of us are like this when it comes to our walk of faith. I wonder how many of us have gone through life thinking that there would come a time when we were finally where we wanted to be spiritually, when we had finally learned all that we could of God and we had become perfectly the disciples we are called to be. I don’t know about you, but I wonder if perhaps some of you have felt a sense of frustration about spirituality, a sense of not doing enough or praying enough or reading the Bible enough. I don’t know about you. But I know that I feel this frustration. That I often say to myself, “next week I’ll read the Bible more” or “come Lent I’ll pray more.”

There is good news for those of us who feel this sense of spiritual incompleteness, who wonder why at this point in our lives we don’t have it all together like we thought we would, that we’re not suddenly spiritual grown-ups like we thought we’d be. The good news is simply this: God’s not done with us yet.
I think we get a glimpse of that good news in Paul’s letter to the Philippian community. Paul is writing this letter from jail, and so it’s striking how joyful a letter this is, how reflective of the wonderful relationship in Christ that Paul and the Philippians have. This is a community that Paul (along with Timothy) planted, that he has watched grow up, that has supported his ministry from afar and welcomed him when he is near. And as joyful as Paul is about the Philippian disciples of Christ, as proud as he is of this community, he does not believe that they have finished their journey. Listen to his words: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” God, Paul believes, will complete the growth of this community. But not yet. Not yet. God isn’t done with them yet.

This concept of God’s continued work in our lives is often called “sanctification.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, did not by any means invent this concept, but he did put a particular focus on it in his writing and sermons. Wesley, who emphasized the importance of grace, argued that humans experience grace in different ways. There is prevenient grace, the grace that comes before—that is, the grace that is at work in our lives before we even realize it, before we even know to call it grace. There is justifying grace, or pardoning grace—the grace through which we experience forgiveness from God and reconciliation with God. And then there is sanctifying grace, that grace that continues to be at work in our lives, growing holiness and deepening our relationship to God.

Wesley actually believed that it was possible for a believer to achieve what he called “perfection”—not perfection in the sense of making no mistakes but perfection in the sense of always acting out of love. But he also felt that he never achieved perfection in his lifetime, that he was always going on towards a goal. In other words, John Wesley, the founder of one of the great revival movements in the church’s history, felt that God wasn’t done with him yet.

We can see the concept of sanctification in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul writes: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you maybe be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Even the Philippian community, Paul’s favored child, had growth still to do. Their love could overflow more, and more, with more knowledge of God, more insight into the love of Jesus Christ. They had come a long way. But God wasn’t done with them yet.

We can see the concept of sanctification at work in the psalm that we read as well. Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm, begging forgiveness for past sin. But the psalmist doesn’t ask only for forgiveness. It’s not enough to be restored to a past state of affairs, before the sin. The psalmist wants transformation. Wants “wisdom in [their] secret heart.” Wants “a new and right spirit within [them].” Psalm 51 is a prayer that has faith in forgiveness. But it doesn’t stop at forgiveness. God isn’t done with the psalmist yet.

And so God is at work in our lives. Growing. Transforming. Leading. There is no magical point in our lives when we have learned everything we need to learn about God, when we have walked every step of discipleship there is to be walked. We continue in prayer, in Bible study, in meeting together in worship, not because we have it all together but exactly because we don’t. Exactly because we are still growing and learning in Christ. Exactly because the one who began a good work among us is still working in our lives to bring it to completion. Exactly because God isn’t done with us yet.

God is, this very day, extending God’s grace to us. Grace is already here. We are merely putting ourselves in the way of grace. Putting ourselves in the way of grace with our actions, with our prayers, with our life together. It’s something we commit to again, each day, knowing that God is not done with us yet.  
I have to admit that I still don’t know how to polish a nice pair of shoes, and that’s just the least of the things my dad can do that I still need to learn. I have a long way to go. All of us, no matter what stage of life we are in, still have a way to go to be the people that God intends us to be. But this is not like a test to see how much we can achieve in a lifetime. This is growth, fast or slow, growth toward the sun of God’s  love for us. We have a long way to go but we don’t go alone. God isn’t done with us yet.

Oh and one last thing. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written to a community, not an individual believer. God is at work in our lives together. Spiritual growth is not something that happens just to one person or another person in isolation. We grow together in love. We lift each other up. We hold each other accountable. We pray together and study the Bible together. Because no matter what stage of life we are in, life is something we share. And God isn’t done with us yet.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Another "a year ago" blog

A year ago I was being admitted into the acute unit at Silver Hill, with deep scratches on my arms and some combination of anger and fear ruling my life.

I watched the leaves change last year in Connecticut, which would have been more beautiful if I wasn't in a wire cage with no top, turning around and around while the smells of cigarette break wafting around me. I woke up each morning to the sun striking at just the right angle, turning everything to gold. And it was beautiful, even though I was waking up in a prison designed for my safety. Even though I was trapped.

I moved to the big house across the street and learned about radical acceptance and riding the wave and all these other esoteric names of techniques for getting myself to calm down enough to keep living. And there was such frustration, and so many trips to the psychiatrist to be rediagnosed and rediagnosed again. And the leaves changed and they fell off the trees into the rushing brook behind the house and I imagined my thoughts rushing away like that, rushing away to plunge over the little dam and disappear. And I read Rilke, and Henri Nouwen, and I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.

I'm sitting in the cafeteria at Princeton now, and the leaves are starting to change here in the middle of New Jersey, and they are beautiful. And it is so good to be able to watch them in freedom. But there's sickness in my bones, and that sickness wants to be back in a hospital, back in an environment where everything is controlled and everything is provided to you. And where I prayed. I prayed all the time. I prayed when I woke up and when I went to bed. And now I'm learning how to pray again, learning how to pray when it doesn't seem like the only thing holding me together, even though I know that it still is, it still is, it still is.

I had this clever, really insightful blog saved up for a long time that I haven't finished or posted. And then this came along and I had to say something. A year ago I wrote letters to the outside world and wrote songs about a troubled young person I met in the hospital and walked along the pond and prayed. And I am so, so thankful to not be there, to be here in Princeton visiting Sarah instead.

The leaves will still change this year. Somebody is watching them from a wire cage in Connecticut with cigarette smoke drifting around them. Say a prayer for that person. Say a prayer for me.