Baptismal gowns

My friend asked me to make baptismal gowns for their twin boys, who were baptized this All Saints’ Day. We chose Ginger Snaps Designs “Brantley” day gown pattern, a lovely white-on-white striped shirting material, and a crochet-style lace and ribbon trim. The pattern was coming together quite nicely, very straightforward.

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But we were having trouble achieving the plain wide satin hem she wanted. This blanket binding was too coarse, with a manufactured edge that seemed too inelegant for this application, and neither of the laces I had on hand seemed a good alternative.

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We couldn’t find a satin material we liked, but this satin ready-made ruffle seemed at the store like it might work, along with this shimmery lace trim, but it too had that inelegant edge and was rather stiff and thick, making the gown look like it had a hoop skirt.

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The solution was a ruffle made from the same shirting material on the bias.

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I had thought I would embroider a cross on each gown, but my embroidery skills are better suited to very simple doll faces and writing my name in my choir robe. Instead I crocheted some to appliqué.

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Earthly things and things heavenly

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. BCP p. 234

This week’s prayer involves a distinction that is easy to make too black and white. It is tempting to think that earthly things are all the things that have anything to do with this earthly life — food and clothing, work, relationships, hopes and dreams and fears, war and peace, the environment, etc. In that case the things heavenly would be God and… heaven. Harps? Streets of gold? Maybe our character and moral progress? Or our sins and need of repentance? The strength of our faith, the quality of our doctrine, etc.

But heaven is not some place outside this universe where we go after this earth is destroyed and we have died. Heaven is the renewal and redemption of the only universe God has made, including this earth.

What if everything about this present life is intimately connected with life in the age to come?

What if earthly things, the things that are passing away, are the things of falsehood, evil, and sin? People are heavenly things, and so are our relationships. The earthly anxieties I need to let go are not things like caring about people or even myself — how then could one practice the command to love neighbor as self? — but things like worrying about winning and maintaining other people’s approval, trying to contort and distort myself to meet others’ expectations, or any other kind of desperation around trying to get my relational needs met. One could make a similar exploration of earthly anxieties around other things of this life, too — and there are even earthly anxieties around heavenly things — like misguided efforts to earn God’s favor, or a distracting and fruitless scrupulosity.

A Buddhist and a Methodist…

A year or three ago I came across a children’s book written by Thich Nhat Hanh, called A Pebble for your Pocket. The whole thing is quite lovely. I especially loved and remember the section about anger. He talks about holding one’s anger as one would ideally hold a colicky baby — listening warmly and affectionately and tenderly, not threatened or reactive or otherwise taking it personally; not dismissive, suppressive, scornful, or otherwise pushing it away; not enraptured, enmeshed, or otherwise morbidly attached to it.

Recently my friend gave me a most beautiful book on prayer by J. Neville Ward. In the chapters on fear and suffering, he talks about pain, whether of the body or the mind, as an alarm signal, a warning that something needs attention. The right use of the mind, whether in fear or in pain, is to either come to some decision to act, or else to realize that in this case no action is warranted or possible. In the case of fear, it is then necessary to detach or disengage from the fear, as “further brooding on the matter is a misuse of the mind” (68). In pain that goes beyond the ordinary warning signal, it is necessary to “accept the situation, reject [one’s] resentment and self-pity, and… to wish to do God’s will in this situation” (77). I imagine Ward would see both cases as a detachment, and that detachment does not mean denial or repression, but involves acceptance and wise action.

I think the two could talk to each other, especially in further illuminating what detachment is and is not.

Thich Nhat Hanh might point out that it could be fruitful to explore how brooding and self-pity compare to and differ from compassion toward the self. That sometimes sitting with a feeling or set of feelings might be more fruitful when it is less focused on solution and action, and more focused on simply listening, observing, allowing, feeling, caring — on simply being with the self that is afraid or in pain. How often what our friend needs is not our advice or problem-solving assistance or external help, but our compassionate presence, affectionate and warm, often silent, unhurried, unworried — should we not offer the same friendliness to ourselves?

J. Neville Ward might suggest that it is important to know when enough time and energy has been invested in the matter, and when it is time to turn to action, whether action to resolve the matter, or some other action of doing God’s will in the situation.

I wonder if both would agree that the cessation of the sense of fear or pain is not the only or most reliable signal that it is now time to detach and move to other things. The very terms “detach” and “move” suggest something to detach and move away from. So there must be some other signal or signals by which one can sense when to remain still and silent with the feeling(s) and when to go on to something else while the feeling(s) continue in the background — some sense of having done what is called for, having reached the end of what can be done in this moment.

Perhaps it seems peculiar that I could worry that detachment could entail any sense of scorn or lack of compassion toward the fearful or pained self, that I would need reassurance that compassion and acknowledgment don’t (have to) cease when one turns to action or other matters. I wonder if either or both of these authors would readily understand that worry.

Talking about depression

I understand the desire to make depression legitimate by framing it in purely medical terms.

To get as far away as possible from the idea that it’s a mere choice or some kind of flaw or weakness in character, in spirit or faith, in maturity. To avoid any hint of blame or complicity for people and systems that may otherwise be thought to be part of the issue.

And yet I worry that we risk losing so much by limiting our understanding of depression to ‘chemical imbalance’ as if anyone even really knows what that is and how it works and why.

Surely the abundant life includes experiences of deep grief, sorrow, anger, and fear as well as the more pleasant feelings; not all pain is pathological. Surely our physiology and our mental and emotional and spiritual being are intimately interconnected, mutually influential. Surely our personal history, our culture(s), influence and are influenced by both. Surely the existence of evil, the challenges of the human condition, even the bits outside our immediate personal experience, also influence us. Surely we can come to a richer, deeper, broader understanding of mental, emotional, spiritual health, that accepts the benefit for some people of certain kinds of medications and / or certain kinds of therapies, and that also is willing to explore the subtle nuances and limits of agency and relationships and circumstance.

More on spiritual transition

My faith, my spirituality, my understanding of God and the Bible and the church and sin and salvation and myself and other people and everything, has been a thing subject to change — from its beginnings in my Sunday School experiences (or in my baptism, depending on how you think the Spirit works), through experiences in a mainline Presbyterian church, a Plymouth Brethren church, a non-denominational Pentecostal New Testament church, several conservative Presbyterian churches (my longest lasting spiritual home was the PCA; over ten years), a different non-denominational church, a Church of Christ (Restoration movement), and an Evangelical Free church, and now in an Episcopal church. I have been at one time hardly consciously anything but “Christian,” was later a fundamentalist without quite realizing it (thought that was just “real Christian”), was then both evangelical and Reformed, and, never able to fully integrate all aspects of Reformed theology, have been moving in more progressive directions.

Spiritual change is uncomfortable, to put it mildly.

One thing that has undergone change is my understanding of the Bible, through wrestling with the same issues that are familiar to many who have read or studied it much. Why would God order genocide — and does the workaround really work without fatally distorting our sense of love and justice and our ability to trust in God’s good character? Why do the first eleven chapters of Genesis read so like “just so” stories, as mythic explanations for why certain things are the way they are, like pain in childbirth or snakes having no legs or the existence of many languages? Why would God tell Moses to lie about going into the wilderness just temporarily to worship and return? Why, if God regretted making people, would he save a family of them instead of starting with some new creature — and why punish (but preserve) the animals, too? Why does the God described in Numbers, parts of Isaiah, and other places seem more like the most immature petulant authoritarian parent or petty dictator than like a coherent and serious creator-redeemer-sustainer who triumphs over evil through good? I don’t quite see the neat division between wrathful OT God and gentle NT God — there are many OT passages that describe a God of grace and mercy and unending compassion, and there are some things in the NT that seem awfully harsh.

So I have gradually slipped out of inerrancy without quite noticing. Or at least without a conscious decision to simply abandon all sound doctrine and reject the authority of the Bible in my life. I am, as far as I am able to be, willing to be corrected, to be persuaded, to be taught and led, to embrace all the truth of God. It just has become more and more impossible to understand the Bible I read in terms of the inerrancy framework.

Peter Enns has been featuring guest posts on his blog from folks who have experienced significant ‘”aha” moments’ about the Bible — mostly from biblical scholars, but also some pastors and students. So far all have been moving from fundamentalist or evangelical to progressive or liberal. I would like to also read the stories of those whose studies led them into inerrancy… Anyway, I have read eleven of these stories so far, over several days. Today I read two or three. And while there is much that rings true, much that resonates, much that breathes living air, there is also much that is distressing and perplexing, not least the comment sections, where I read one response and agree, and read the counter-response and agree with that too, and they are mutually exclusive, and I don’t even want the responsibility of making such decisions.

I read a bunch of these articles and then think, I ought to take a break and actually speak with God, and spend some time listening, and do the daily office and read the actual Bible… and yet it is so hard to escape, or to understand the propriety of escaping, that all we know about God we get from the Bible. That some kind of deity exists and sustains things in some way seems somewhat suggested by observation of nature… but beyond that it seems we need Scripture for the specifics and the nuances. We can talk about church tradition, but what does that come from, if not Scripture? Is there anything in church tradition that trumps Scripture? In terms of an arbiter, I mean — isn’t it by Scripture that we judge which of the early Christians were heretics and which were not, and so on?

Of course, one answers; of course we need the Bible — we just need to take it as it is and not as we wish it were or think it must be based on our extra-biblical convictions or extrapolations from a handful of verses. But I don’t quite yet know how to take it as it is. When one has been reading this Bible for a couple decades, how does one ever hope to come to it in a fresh way again, without all the baggage of all the ways one has previously been taught to understand it all?

And I have longed for many years to have a more integrated, holistic grasp of this anthology of books from many authors in many genres for many purposes, and I was startled a few weeks ago to come to the thought that perhaps this very uncomfortable state of dissonance is an integral part of fulfilling this longing. It encourages me to remember that very few of these issues were unknown to church history; there was not a simple division between all the complete heretics and all the others who held monolithically to the same systematic doctrine — there has always been diversity in important matters, even as the church has worked to find consensus on the crucial matters.

One guiding principle is to take jesus as the center of our hermeneutics, and understand everything else in light of what he has revealed. On the other hand I am increasingly unnerved by those who also talk about the limitations of the Gospels… and there are some, such as significant differences in accounts of the crucifixion. If Jesus is the center of our hermeneutic, and we can’t even be sure of what all he said and did, the foundation seems awfully crumbly.

There is the Spirit. Who seems to lead people in all sorts of directions, some of which seem awfully contradictory. How can I trust what I think the Spirit is saying to me, in my spiritual mentors, in the Bible, in my prayers, if other people, trusting the Spirit to be speaking to them, are moving another way?

I can’t return to inerrancy. It’s too strident, too much founded on fears and necessities and assertions made ahead of time. It doesn’t seem to do justice to the actual Bible we have.

The alternative to inerrancy isn’t any clearer than inerrancy itself is. Just as inerrancy consists of multiple overlapping views, ranging from the extremely literalistic to the nuanced and sensitive to human contexts, so does the alternative admit a range of views, from something very much like the broadest view of inerrancy, to something that preserves nothing historical at all, nothing of God at all.

And so I shall go to my prayer closet with very little certainty about anything, and attempt to speak and listen to one I am not sure I know at all. Aslan certainly is not a tame lion! — but it does not make sense that God would not be good. I will rest in that certainty and wait for him alone in silence. And in conversation with authors and bloggers and my spiritual director and friends and pastors.