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JANUARY 1—NEW YEAR'S DAY
When many cares fill my mind, your consolations cheer my soul.—PSALM 94:19
Page after page of advice in the magazines about sorting out your life: clutter in your closet, chaos in your checkbook, your diet, your schedule. That seems to be what January's for—a new beginning in the parts of life that need one. I have a modest proposal of my own.
Before you tackle your closets or sign up at the gym, give some serious thought to your spiritual life. Do you have a place to take the joys and sorrows that each day presents? A way to mark them, to celebrate or to mourn them? I say "before" you turn your attention to these other things because a spiritual discipline is not just another something on your to-do list. It's not another task, like remembering your vitamins and flossing. It's the thing in which the tasks of life happen. It's the frame of life. I have found my own life happiest when my spiritual discipline is explicit, when there are certain things I do regularly. I have found living that way much happier than the times when I have been more general about it, vaguely waiting for inspiration to find me.
A group of nuns I see regularly spends at least four hours in prayer every day. Not everybody is called to do that—there's a reason monastic life is a minority vocation! But to live by a rule, a set of practices to which one commits oneself: that is within anybody's grasp. You alone decide what will be in it. You will walk a mile and meditate while you're walking. You will read a portion of a book every day. You will pray in the morning, or at lunch. You will get away for an entire quiet day a couple of times in the coming year. You will find a spiritual friend with whom to talk things over. You will do one, three, or all of these things—or you will do something else. But a commitment to be intentional about doing something will surprise you with unexpected joy.
Some people think it's wrong to plan spiritual things. You should be honest and spontaneous, they think. What if I don't feel like praying? Won't it be hypocritical to meditate if I don't feel like it? I don't want to be rigid.
My experience and that of many, many others suggests otherwise. Discipline doesn't crush the spirit: it sets it free. It gives it a room of its own. It honors its peculiar gifts. Your discipline should not be rigid or harsh; it is intended for your joy, not to increase your guilt. It is a gift, not a job.
Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.—PSALM 8:2
I am midway through my sermon when a baby in the back row begins to cry. A few yelps go by; the parents are hoping it will pass. No such luck: he was just warming up. Now he is in excellent voice and shows no signs of stopping. A few childless people and empty nesters look annoyed; most of us, though, have been there—and remember. I don't mind one way or the other; I can preach louder than most babies can yell. Admitting defeat, though, his mother slides out of the pew and carries her noisy little bundle out the door.
Yes, they are noisy. Yes, it's embarrassing if it's yours—nothing seems as loud as your own baby's cry in a quiet public place. But I visit profoundly disabled children in a city chronic-care hospital. They lie motionless in their metal beds, unable to move until an overworked nurse comes to move them. Their bodies are tiny; the arms and legs have never grown sturdy and strong from running and jumping in the sun. Many of the children are curled up into a little ball, as if still in the wombs they probably should never have left. For the most part, these children are quiet—they are past weeping, or they have never learned how. Theirs is a silent world.
One of my babies was born too soon. He did not live to be one of these silent children. I suppose that's just as well. I was home alone when he was born, suddenly, and with little warning. Instinctively, I carried him to the bathroom—to do what? Administer first aid? It was too late, of course—he was already dead. I never heard a single cry. Not a sound.
The noise of children praises God. Their messiness praises God. Their incessant demands, their banging of screen doors, their tears of frustration, their squeals of laughter—the earthly hope of the human race is made of nothing more complicated than these things. Discipline your children as best you can. Try to help them behave themselves in public places. Be considerate of other people's need for quiet. But never let anyone make you feel guilty about the noise they make.
Submit to the Lord with fear, and with trembling bow down before him.—PSALM 2:11
Language like this turns a lot of people off. Women, especially, correctly point out that the Judeo-Christian tradition was recorded by some pretty warlike folks, and think it's high time we found some images of God less violent than this one, of a despotic king who likes it when his frightened subjects grovel before him.
Well, fair enough. Actually, there already is plenty of gender imagery throughout our sacred texts: God is depicted at times as a shepherd, as a husband, as a mother, as a lover, as a farmer, and even as an artist, lovingly forming people out of clay. People have chosen to emphasize the aggressive images because people are aggressive, I guess, so if we decide to be otherwise we are free to emphasize something else. Nobody can make me understand God in a certain way. I must find my own way of understanding God.
The great religious traditions are custodians of our culture. It stands to reason, then, that they would contain elements of our history we no longer endorse; they conserve everything that people who have lived within them have believed, the good and the bad alike. And they will contain the contributions we add now, the good and the bad alike. Many things we do will seem quaint to those who come after us. Some of the things we do will seem offensive.
But faith is not just the custodian of culture. It can be its critic as well. Faith can call me to go beyond my upbringing, and it can give me the courage to do that when it's a lonely way to go. I don't have to leave the church because many Christians in the past were violent, any more than I have to leave it because some are today.
To live within the historical culture is like living critically in any other culture: we have the freedom and the power—and the duty, if we love the tradition and intend to stay within it—to take what is edifying and leave the rest.
Many are saying, "Oh, that we might see better times!"—PSALM 4:6
One friend has been out of work for three years. She gets temporary jobs in her profession: a month here, three weeks there, the kind where they don't have to pay you benefits. Another was out for almost two years. She had to rely on the generosity of a wealthy friend.
The designers tell us that bright, bright colors are in style this year: neon orange blazers, hot pink mohair skirts, bright green sequined tank tops. Or pastels, they say in the fashion magazines. Lots of the women I see in New York every day, though, seem not to have picked up on this: they are still all in black, every day, just as they were last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. I go out at lunchtime and look around: occasionally something in taupe, once in a while some grey. There was a run on oatmeal last summer, but you can't count summer, really. Mostly it's black. My daughter says it has nothing to do with depression. People just look good in black, she says.
I am not so sure. I look at the serious young faces, the somber clothes, the work boots: it all looks pretty grim to me. I remember the glitzy fabrics and bright colors of a few years ago. I go to my closet and try some of them on. They no longer look right.
Maybe we're in mourning. The economists tell us that our standard of living is diminishing for the first time, that young people today will not surpass or even equal their parents' success, as we have always expected they would. There will be a lot more people in "temporary" jobs, like my friend—more people to whom no employer has a sense of obligation. So maybe we are mourning the death of something we thought would always be here: the dream of more and more, of better and better.
But in the last century the wearing of mourning dress was ordinarily a temporary measure. It usually lasted a year or two, as a sign that one had sustained a loss and shouldn't be expected to participate fully in the world's affairs while grieving. Then people resumed a more active life, concerning themselves again with the living. So, if our version of the American Dream has died, we shouldn't mourn forever. Yes, it does look as though the American Dream is undergoing a serious change. But eventually it's time to turn our focus from what was and get on with what is.
Lord, how many adversaries I have! How many are there who rise up against me!—PSALM 3:1
It's a rare life that does not incur some enmity. Some people have lots of enemies, even seem to thrive on being at war with at least one person most of the time. Others of us are terrified at the very thought that somebody may not like us, and scurry away from the gentlest of controversies in abject fear of offending somebody we may not even like.
I am one of the latter. Now and then in the course of my professional life, it has become clear that a confrontation with another person was inevitable. A couple of times I have had to fire someone. Many times I have had to make it clear to someone that his or her behavior toward another person, or toward me, is not acceptable. I am long-suffering in the extreme, tolerating things other people wouldn't put up with for a minute. I never, never confront without very good reason. But the night before I must lower the boom, I am apt to be unable to sleep. The person will hate me. He will think I am unfair or mean. I think these things, even though I know that they are not true. There have even been times when I was frightened of my own children in this way, and there were times that I allowed them to do things I now wish I hadn't. I was so afraid of being accused of using power illegitimately that I was unable to use my legitimate power.
Most of the people I deal with would probably be better off if I weren't so afraid of incurring their ill will. Sometimes I have made a bad situation actively worse by circling it for too long, wringing my hands, instead of jumping in and kicking some derriere. But I can't help it. I'm just not a derriere-kicker.
I think I'm getting better, though. It's getting easier to make legitimate demands. I now share my fears with people who can help me stand up to them. Maybe I should be able to do this on my own, but I often find that I cannot. So what? If it's right to be tough and I can't summon enough toughness on my own, then it's right to find someone who can help me.
Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my meditation.—PSALM 5:1
I couldn't count the number of people who have told me that they stopped trying to pray because God never heard their prayers. I assume that by that they meant that things didn't work out the way they wanted in whatever situation they were praying about. But think about it for just five seconds and it is obvious: lots of people pray and don't get everything they want. Bad things just happen to people sometimes, and prayer will not stop them from happening to you. Or to me. Prayer really isn't about things always turning out in your favor.
So what is it about, then? How will I know that God is "considering my meditation"? At first glance, the truth about prayer is disappointing to many people. It's not a talisman against misfortune. It is a guarantee of the presence of God. Big deal, says the widow who prayed and prayed that her husband would live. To tell you the truth, I don't really care much about the presence of God. The absence of my life's companion is all I can feel.
And I know she's being dead-on honest with me. We don't get much choice in many of the things that happen in our lives. But we do get a choice in the matter of whether or not we will find meaning through them. Prayer imparts meaning to life, to everything in life, even the terrible things. It doesn't make bad things good. It doesn't erase our sorrows. It won't make the widow happy that her husband has died; it won't even make it understandable. But it will connect her with a reality beyond her sorrow that is bigger than she is, a reality in which she may rest and which can comfort her if she wants to be comforted. Grief and loss are painful realities, but a new life can come out of them. It's not easy to see it, and the nature of the new life can never be predicted beforehand. You will not be the same as you were before. But you will still be. And prayer, listening for the God who is listening for you, helps you discover how—and who—you will be.
I grow weary because of my groaning; every night I drench my bed and flood my couch with tears.—PSALM 6:6
Me, too, sometimes.
Bed is a great place in which to cry. Nobody will pester you to find out what's wrong and nobody will try to make you stop. You have a full eight hours in which to lose the puffy eyelids you are incurring (a cool slice of cucumber on each eye for five minutes in the morning will do the rest; try it and see). If I am sad and have some time, I go into my drawer and get one of my dad's soft old handkerchiefs, the sight of which is enough, all by itself, to bring tears. And I crawl into bed. And the tears come. I bury my face in the soft, old cloth—its owner is not here to comfort me anymore, not in the body. But I will awaken refreshed, even if whatever I'm crying about hasn't gone away; a satisfying limpness sets in after a good cry, relaxing muscles, deepening sleep, and calming nerves.
I remember crying in bed once, when I was about fourteen. I remember that my dad got up for some reason and heard me. Probably I sniffed extra loud to be sure he would. I remember that he is came into my room and just sat on the bed next to me. What's the matter? he asked, and I told him I didn't know. Then I just rested my head in his lap for a while as he stroked my hair. Neither of us spoke. Then, he went on back to bed. I have never been more profoundly comforted than I was by his wordless presence.
To admit to feeling sorrowful is hard for some people. They want to be optimistic, to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. And that is a good attitude with which to live one's life. But human beings just have sorrow sometimes, and there's no shame in showing it. You won't open the floodgates to a deluge of self-pity that never ends and drives everyone else nuts. You won't make your sorrow any greater by showing it; neither will you make it any less. And you will have the energy you are spending defending yourself against the true expression of it available for something a little more useful.
God sits in judgment every day.—PSALM 7:12
A friend remembers going to church every Sunday under the eye of God, literally: there was a huge eye painted on the ceiling. She found it terrifying when she was little, that all-seeing God taking note of every sin and marking it down to be used against her later. And that's the setup you see in cartoons and endless religion jokes: So, this guy comes up to St. Peter at the pearly gates, right? And Peter looks in his book.... The whole idea of heaven and hell, in fact, is based on the idea that God judges us harshly. This is not encouraging news: when you stop and think about it, there is no one who has done everything perfectly. We all fall short somewhere along the line. So if God is ready to cast us into hell for our sins, we're probably all headed there.
My guess, though, is that this concept was considerably enlarged by people as our religious tradition developed. It proved useful in getting people to behave themselves. Or did it? Were people really more righteous when more of them thought they would fry if they weren't? I'm not sure. They may have been better than we are in some ways, but every age has its failures. The 1930s may have had the Waltons, but they also had Jim Crow—and unlike the Waltons, Jim Crow is a matter of historical fact. The Victorians may have had rigid standards about propriety, but they also had child labor. So much of what we have taken for absolute morality turns out in retrospect to have been merely local custom.
It drives some people crazy to hear talk like that. But it's true: human values change from age to age. The meaning of righteousness changes, and it has always changed. You could own slaves in the antebellum South and consider yourself a moral person, and you would have had no trouble finding people who agreed with you. Only a few short years ago, you could light up a cigarette in an enclosed room and think it nobody's business but your own. Just try doing it today. Some of today's virtues will be tomorrow's sins.
Excerpted from Meditations on the Psalms by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright © 1996 by Barbara Cawthome Crafton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Posted April 2, 2012
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