Monday, October 19, 2009

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship: My Resurrection "Problem"

Is it just me, or do you have conversations in your head too? I do this all the time, “talk” to people in my head about all sorts of things. When I’m thinking something through, I guess I need an audience, even if it’s just an imaginary one. That’s the reason I started this blog, really: I love to write, I need to write, but I could never make myself do it just for me, in a journal. But I also have never felt that fire in my belly to get published. Oh, it would be nice, I’m sure, and if someone out of the blue asked me to submit something to a magazine, or offered me a book contract, I would surely say “Yes!” and be thrilled. But that’s not how it happens, and I have never had the stomach for the sort of self-promotion and marketing it takes to be a successful writer. Still, I need to write, and a blog seemed like a way to gather around me a little bit of an audience to make me actually get words on a page now and then. (And as it turns out you, my dear little group of readers, are everything I need and I totally adore you, by the way!)

My friend Gordon says that reading, like writing, is communal, that we always read with someone, even if they don’t know that we are reading with them. I never thought about it that way, but instantly I knew what he meant – I’m always reading with someone or other, a friend who loves this author, or someone who reminds me of a character in the book I’m reading, or a loved one who has sewn themes into my life related to the themes in the book I’m reading. Since I joined Gordon’s book review group, affectionately know as the “Booksters,” I now read just about everything with Gordon, in addition to the other folks I’m reading “with,” because I know at the end of my book I will write a review for him. I love that, having him and all those other folks with me as I read.

My solitude is much like that, very much animated by souls who don’t even know they are with me. As an introvert, I need solitude to stay healthy and whole, but I’m also really a relationship-hound. I love people. I just adore them. I treasure relationships and crave intimacy and am promiscuously affectionate. And though I need to be alone a lot, I find that even in my solitude, I gather my dear ones around me in the form of imaginary conversations. I carry on conversations in my head with just about anybody, whether I’ve met them or not. I can “talk” to my loved ones, of course, but also to authors of books I’m reading, famous people I admire, “friends” on Facebook whom I’ve never even met – it’s how I flesh out ideas, ideas that often make their way here in written form, ideas that are influenced along the way by books I’m reading – it’s all very dynamic, my reading, talking, and writing. (Of course in my imaginary conversations, I’m always incredibly articulate and wise and quite attractively clever and witty, so maybe they also serve a therapeutic purpose, to perk me up when I’m down!)

At any rate, what I realized recently is that I don’t “talk” to people who aren’t alive. My imaginary conversations are really rehearsals, fantasy conversations that I’m imagining, at least theoretically, could really happen. I realized this recently when I was thinking (having a conversation, actually, in my head with someone I don’t even really know) about why prayer is so hard for me. The prayer that works best for me is liturgical, praying the Psalms, even praying the Rosary (though I pray it in a very modified way that would probably horrify orthodox Catholics … though just the thought of me praying the Rosary in any way would probably horrify orthodox Catholics, now that I think about it, so what are you going to do?) But I’m terribly undisciplined about any of that, which, combined with my complete inability to pray meaningful in a “talking to God” sort of way, leaves me without the rich prayer life that I really crave. Okay, so yes, I could just get some discipline about the sort of prayer life that actually does work for me (why is it so hard to just pray the Psalms every freakin day, when I love them so much? Go figure.). But still, this “talking to God” sort of prayer is fascinating to me, but ultimately elusive. Entirely elusive. Which doesn’t really make sense, right, if I’m all about imaginary conversations with folks.

Yesterday after church a small group of us gathered over lunch (broccoli and cheddar quiche made by yours truly and a lovely fall salad from Jane) in the parsonage to brainstorm topics for the adult Sunday school series, and George suggested a series called something like, “What’s Jesus Got to Do With It?” He speculated that there are some folks outside the church who are maybe craving something we have, but can’t quite get themselves to join us because while they sort of get God, they’re just not sure what Jesus adds. What’s he got to do with it anyway? I thought that was interesting, because for me, it’s just the opposite: I’m all about Jesus. Truth be told, I’m kind of crazy about Jesus. But God? I really, honestly can’t wrap my mind around God. No, that’s not right -- I can wrap my mind around God, and I really do believe in and experience God, all the time. But the problem is, I can’t wrap my arms around God – I can’t animate God enough to give God personality and the sort of presence that I can be in relationship with, that I can talk to. So when people try to reassure me that really, prayer is easy! It’s just talking to God! That doesn’t help. Not even a little.

But if you have been reading me even for a little while, you know that Incarnation is central to my faith. I just really love the notion that in Jesus, God shares God’s Godness (I was going to say Self, but like I said, I can’t really imagine God as having a Self) with us all in such a physical, earthy, intimate, bodily way. If you’re a relationship-hound like me, who loves the way we can touch one another not just with our heads and our hearts but literally by touching each other, holding hands, kissing and laughing and laying our hands on one another in gestures of love and healing – if you love all that, well then, Jesus is your boy, right? And eating! Have you ever noticed how central eating is to our Incarnational faith? That’s because bodies need to eat, and it is sacred and good to eat together. It’s no accident that Jesus left us with a meal to recreate himself among us. It’s no accident that Jesus revealed himself in Emmaus through the breaking of bread. So, yeah, I’m all about the Incarnation. (I should note here that none of this about the centrality of bodies and food to faith – not one single bit of it – is unique to Christianity; I just happen to be Christian so that’s the tradition out of which I write.)

So the other day, as I was driving past the Art Museum on my way home from a meeting at church, I was thinking about prayer and why it is so hard for me (okay, again, I was actually having a conversation with one of you! In my head…. all the time, I’m telling you, these conversations are going on in my head). I thought, okay, it makes sense that I can’t “talk” to God, but why can’t I “talk” to Jesus? If Incarnation is really so central to my faith, and I’ve got this man, Jesus, whom I adore, and he’s perfectly embodying God, then why can’t I “talk” to him? At first I worried that I had an Incarnation problem, which would be a real crisis of faith, let me tell you. And then I realized what it was: I don’t talk to dead people. I don’t “talk” to my mom, much as I wish I could, and I don’t “talk” to Thomas Merton, even though I call him my patron saint. I don’t talk to historical figures, and, as I realized winding my way past boat house row, I don’t talk to Jesus. At least not unselfconsciously, not in the way that I can lose myself in imaginary conversations with people who are alive.

I realized then, on Kelly Drive, that my problem with prayer is not an Incarnation problem, but a Resurrection problem. And I will admit that I realized this with some relief. Not because Resurrection is not central to my faith: it is, actually. But, I will confess, I don’t “believe in the resurrection of the body,” much as I love to say the Apostles Creed, and I don’t “look for the resurrection of the dead” even though I love saying the Nicene Creed. I believe in, and experience, the Resurrection of Christ all the time, every day, but not in a way that manifests one body, in the person of Jesus, who is alive in a way that I can “talk” to.

Last night another group of folks from church met for dinner at Bob and Joanna’s house. (I brought salad this time, and there was also chili and baked lentils and awesome chocolate chip-raisin muffins for dessert; and always, with that bunch, good wine and beer). We were there as part of our covenant ministry with Michael, with whom we are embarking on a period of revitalization during which we hope to share our good news with others who need it and are seeking it, but aren’t sure where to find it. Michael asked us a series of questions and we shared around the living room, a wacky diverse group of folks. Among the questions Michael asked us was, What is a central way that we as a church experience Jesus? The discussion was thoughtful and moving and just lovely. Dorothy told the story of coming to the United States as a refugee from Liberia, and against all odds finding a church home with us. Laura told of how difficult for her is Jesus’ challenge that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom, yet when a pack of kids, led by Micah and Meg, randomly and very noisily flew through our discussion, there he was for her. Joe, a long-time UCC pastor, spoke of meeting Jesus in Buddhist practices such as meditation, and Bob spoke of meeting Jesus in the homeless men he works with at our food and clothing cupboard. Bobbie noted that because of her work in the HIV/AIDS community, she could only join her husband’s church after we became Open and Affirming, because acceptance of gay and lesbian people was so central to her experience of Christ. And on and on, one gorgeous story after another.

I was sitting in a chair, with Michael on the floor next to me on one side, and Dorothy in a chair on the other, and for a brief moment I had one of those “movie” experiences – you know, when there’s a sequence in a film where the music rises over the dialogue, and usually the camera does something clever, like zooms out or spins round the circle, and you are meant to experience with the character a transcendent moment? That’s what it was for a moment: pure transcendence. I resisted an urge to reach down and take Michael’s hand, to reach over and put my other hand on Dorothy’s back. And I looked around, as the camera would, not really hearing the sounds of voices for a moment, but seeing these faces of all these people that I just love so very much. And they were shining, I’m telling you. Transfigured. And I actually thought right then about all the petty ways that we can be annoying to one another, and let each other down, and be, well, human, you know? I was acutely aware of that, that these were human people, with very real human foibles, many of which I am well aware, having loved them and struggled in community with them now for over a decade. But in that moment they were all shining and perfect and utterly beautiful. And I thought this! This is it, this is the Body of Christ, this is the Resurrection: all these people I’m talking to all the time in my head.

And I realized then that maybe I don’t have a Resurrection problem at all. And maybe, just maybe, all those conversations I have in my head with all of you, my dearest ones, maybe those conversations are my prayer?


Anonymous said...

Lots of good stuff here.

Trying to put one's arms around God makes me laugh, because God is W-A-Y too big for me to put my arms around. But sometimes I feel like I'm resting in the arms of the Lord.

Sara said...

this is awesome.


I don't converse with folks all the time in my head. I "narrate" them though - wonder about them, wonder what they'd be thinking about this or that, etc. It's not dialogue though. There's a level of narration, and a level of just visualization (movies playing in my head).

Fascinating - and yes, I think that for you? They are your prayer.

Lilian said...

This is just amazing, this that you wrote... absolutely beautiful and oh, so profound (and simple at the same time)! I'm so glad you went back to blogging! Who needs to be edited and endure so much in order to be published on paper if we can self publish in our blogs, communicate with others the beautiful, deep truths that move us... just like that, pronto! YAY to blogging!
(and I'm not completely caught up with your blog, since I found out you'd started blogging again a bit late).

Marta said...

jmomma: your comment made me laugh at my own hubris, LOL! i'm so glad you stopped by. yeah, even to say that i can wrap my mind around god, much less to think i could wrap my arms around god, is pretty silly! but i guess i just mean that i can imagine that there is such a thing as god, but i can't imagine that god is personal enough to be in the sort of relationship with that i might hug god, or talk to god...

sara: always eager to continue these conversations with you! i think you're a great person for me to bounce ideas off of (in my mind, on my blog, even better irl!) because you come from such a different background. i'm never interested in converting anyone, but i do love to feel like i can make my experience understood on some level.

lillian: thanks so much for your kind words, they mean so so much! yes, blogging is super important to me. sometimes i feel a little self-indulgent, and sometimes i start to feel a little ambitious even about the blog, but mostly i just love my little band of readers who are willing to listen to my ramblings! so glad you're one of them. hope all's well with you -- i need to get over to your blog and catch up a bit as well!

Claire said...

Ohh, I got shivvers.
OK, so maybe tears came to my eyes because I am still up again working on my paper, and ignoring the rising stacks of un-attended grading and admin, but I do really think that the tears also came from the beauty. (put that down as Beauty)

looking forward to some fully embodied conversations later this week.

Anonymous said...

you got me to reflecting about my current ways of praying. Back when I was preachign every week my study was my prayer.

Now it's often visualizing sitting at a table with Jesus drinking tea. Sometimes visualing the icon "the oaks of mamre" and putting myself in the picture.

As for God -- I heard Karen Armstrong talking about her new book recently -- she made reference to the "God beyond gods" aka "The Ground of Being" (thanks, Paul Tillich) aka "The One in whom we live, move adn have our being." (thanks, Pauline writings)
that "oneness" of all. Again not much talking but more communing.

as for the Holy Spirit -- I've heard some say that the Church is the Holy Spirit in the flesh. So the friend above who said being in community or talking to all the saints/the community in your head is praying...well there's a point to that I think.

On we go


Marta said...

wanda, sometimes i really can make jesus that real in my imagination, real enough to have tea with, but mostly not...

i haven't read much paul tillich, but enough to recognize "the ground of all being" -- i will admit, that's the most resonant way of thinking about god that i have.

yup, on we go! glad you're one of my saints.

Lilian said...

You're so very welcome, Marta... I'm glad I was able to meet you in person (and wonderful Micah) even if only for a few times in the LLL meetings. I count every single one of my "blogger meet ups" as precious! We've had a crazy year, or couple of years, but we'll survive. I sometimes think my life is too overwhelming, so people can't even bear to keep reading the blog ;-). Too much stuff going on all the time. I like it that way, though, not the "downs" (and there were lots of downs this year with the fear of losing out house), but the "ups," which thankfully are plentiful.

OK, I write too much!

Marta said...

claire: CAN'T WAIT! tomorrow.... it means so much to me that you read what i write. thanks sister friend.

Elizabeth said...

Marta--ah, yes, I have found you again! I am *loving* this new blog. And I sent a link to my girlfriend.

I don't know if you remember me even, but I am the (formerly?) Greek Orthodox Christian who followed your Wide Tent blog until you stopped writing there. I was married to a priest at the time. And now I am living with my partner. I finally figured out my own sexuality at age 39! How freeing that was. And so great that my ex is supportive and my kids are happy.

I thought my girlfriend would be especially interested because she is getting her doctorate in theological ethics, and wishes for a place in the church. We are not able to be really "out" because the Orthodox church is not a good place for that yet....and to try to mix the two would be unsuccessful. To say the least.