Last Friday’s Dream

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Last week I had more time to blog because I scheduled a “staycation” to mark both the end of my daughter’s school year and the beginning of the summer season. I had hoped to squeeze in some housekeeping, as if I could wake up early every day and sleepwalk through the tasks painlessly until my daughter emerged from hibernation. Alas, I slept nearly as long each day as she did. Thus only minimal cleaning was done.

On Friday, I had a dream that first seemed to be of the classic wish fulfillment variety. I was walking through my house. The morning sun streamed through the windows. Not a book or a blanket was out of place, and every surface was free of dust. I surveyed my bedroom, very pleased that I had somehow cleaned the whole house to a level that I’ve never achieved in real life. I then said something so improbable that when I awoke I wondered if I’d had one of those dreams that seem to come from someone else’s mind, as if the experience were first person in a fictional sense. I smiled and said, “Now I’m ready to deal with Satan. He’ll be here soon.”

I then woke myself up. After all, this was one of those dreams that one doesn’t really want to see what comes next. The statements I uttered and the attitude underlying them startled me. I had the serene confidence of an regular hiker walking along a familiar trail. I knew a challenge awaited me, but I had no doubt I could contend with it (with the help of Jesus, of course).

I wondered over the origin of such a dream. I haven’t remembered many details of my dreams lately, but when I do, it seems that I am often dreaming of things I’ve recently read in the Bible. This pattern reminds me of Hebrews 4:12 (NIV):

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

My dream of the clean house could be a reflection on Luke 11:24-26 (GNT):

24 When an evil spirit goes out of a person, it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can’t find one, it says to itself, ‘I will go back to my house.’ 25 So it goes back and finds the house clean and all fixed up. 26 Then it goes out and brings seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So when it is all over, that person is in worse shape than at the beginning.

I confess that I have a waking attitude about Satan that is still somewhat Gen X—he is a trite, gauche bogeyman whom psychology knocked off his cloven feet sometime in the 1950s. Now that I’ve taken time to read more of the Bible, I see that this perspective doesn’t neuter Satan at all. Actually, it opens a window for him. As we laugh at him, it is harder to see that pride, envy, isolation and indifference are his handiwork. When we give up, he smiles invisibly beside us.

But Christ denies him victory. By his sacrifice on the cross, he did neuter the forces that do not wish us well, that want us to be broken and alone. When you surrender to Christ, the demons may come to tempt you, but they have no victory over you, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:38-39 (KJV):

38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

To the Moon

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In blogging I often encounter posts by other bloggers that affect me deeply. I don’t take enough time to thank the authors for opening a window onto their lives and revealing their struggles, for in doing so the authors do much to validate the humanity of their readers.

This week I had the privilege of reading “From Earth to the Moon” by Rachel Mankowitz. In that post, she opens the window unto a dark time of her early adult life, and I felt great relief in knowing that I was not the only one who lagged behind in my youth. I often think I’m past regretting those days, but essays like Rachel’s remind me that I have work to do in this regard.

I responded to her post this morning at her blog, but I will take the time on my blog to expand on that comment.

I’m intrigued at how she found inspiration in the miniseries that shares the name of her post. I’ve also gravitated toward the “moon shot” during times of adversity. Just last year, I wrote a post called “I Choose to Go to the Moon” when I moved forward from my failed back surgery. I thought it only natural to use that metaphor given that I live just 20 miles from Neil Armstrong’s hometown, but now I see that the process of America’s moon landing has inspired many people to overcome the odds, regardless of place.

Now I will approach the heart of the comment I made on Rachel’s post. I wrote:

This post affected me deeply. Much of my young adulthood was a wasteland due to mental health issues, mostly major depression. I dropped out of college twice and did not get a degree. When my depression would clear temporarily, I’d make impulsive choices with a long-term impact on my future, such as up and moving 2,000 miles away and coming back with an infant daughter. The fog didn’t begin to clear until I was 35. I’ve found a way of thinking of that time that helps ease my regret (because there usually is regret over the loss of what-could-have-been). When I start to beat myself up over what I may have lost during those dark years when I was 19-35 years old, I think: What did I really miss out on? Buying a bunch of stuff that by now no one wants anymore. The secondhand stores and junk car lots are full of the things I couldn’t afford to buy when they were new. What is the time pressure our culture imposes on mental health recovery but an indictment of the patient’s economic productivity?

I admit is rather odd to use a block quote on one’s own writing in this case, but it’s the most efficient way of taking what I wrote there and putting it here.

It is possible that I owe my thoughts on economic productivity and mental health to my history of madness. I choose to embrace the term madness because no better term captures how I made choices in my early adulthood. What I do know is that it does me no good to disavow my past diagnoses. Doing so would be a disservice to myself and those who currently live with major depression. I’m aware that I may undermine the authority of my words spoken and written in admitting my mental health history, but isn’t that risk wrapped in stigma? While stigma reigns, people will not understand the intersection between mental health and the rest of one’s life. For instance, just because I was depressed at the time doesn’t mean that my testimony has no validity.

I am grateful for my fractured past. My struggles both mental and physical were persistent reminders of how much I need God in my life. I know the truth of Solomon’s words, “Whatever happens or can happen has already happened before. God makes the same thing happen again and again” (Eccles. 3:15 GNT).

The things I buy now will become things no one else wants. My car I so value now will someday be deconstructed, recycled, its parts reused. Meanwhile there are young people just emerging into adult life, and some will progress slowly because of mental health issues. If you have such a young person in your life, be patient with him or her. Life itself is a gift worth far more that what a person can buy or do.

Memorial Day Reflections on Ezekiel 37:1-14

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For as long as I’ve lived with my husband, this is the weekend we visit his parents’ grave to place flowers and tend their plot. Since I met my husband long after his parents’ passing, I rely on his memories when we commemorate their lives. As we visit their grave, I honor a woman who did not fail to cook a hot breakfast for all eight of her children. I honor a man who served in World War II and rose from the darkness of the Kentucky coal mines to the blazing brightness of the (almost equally dangerous) Ohio steel mills.

Before we leave the cemetery, we linger on others who’ve passed who also migrated from the Hollers of Kentucky to the Rust Belt. My husband reminds me: Here are my neighbors who lived their whole lives without a hot water heater. Here is my sister-in-law whose death from breast cancer still haunts me. Here is my old neighbor who died in a bar fight.

As we drive away I notice some names that belong to the Scot-Irish branches of my family tree, Hanthorn and Craig. These people are almost undoubtedly connected in some way to my second great-grandfather Rollie Craig. His father, the only Craig who migrated to this area, died so young that Rollie was his sole heir to carry on the family name. Rollie did well in upholding the line. He had 72 great-grandchildren at the time of his passing.

Of course Memorial Day is a time to honor our service members who sacrificed their lives to uphold our freedoms. Our local cemeteries all full of American flags, placed both by families and civic groups. My family tree has many people who served, but we were lucky that all of my direct ancestors returned home alive. In a way, I owe my life to their fellow soldiers who took enemy fire instead of my ancestors.

The photo above shows a headstone belonging to a fallen Civil War soldier who is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Lima. Back then, some people had unusual names. I had a fourth great aunt named Experience. It is unknown to me whether Reason and Experience encountered each other in Antebellum Lima.

This weekend has definitely brought to mind a passage of scripture I encountered only recently. If I studied this passage in school or heard it in church while I was growing up, all memory of it was gone by the time I read it this year. In Ezekiel 37:1-14, the prophet visits a valley of dry bones with the Lord. God asks Ezekiel if He can bring those who are fallen there back to life. In verse 3, Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, thou knowest.”

This passage reminds me that faith is a blessing. To have enough faith to answer that question without hesitation or doubt would be to live a life transformed. The prophet Ezekiel lived through terrible times, including the fall of Jerusalem and exile in the Babylonian captivity. Throughout it all, his faith sustained him.

This passage from Ezekiel also reminds me that God has the power to right all wrongs and forgive all sins. He will transform all of our losses. Only his timing defies our human understanding.

I will close this post by quoting this passage of the Bible, from the King James Version which is in the public domain:

37 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,

And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.

Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.

And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.

Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

13 And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,

14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.

Jamais Vu

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Winter has returned for a brief encore, offering me a bit more time to mull over what has been a huge change in my life: my return to church.

The first thing I’d like to mention is a matter that has distressed me several times since my return to church. I don’t like the “Christian right” stereotype which implies that Christians are Republicans by default. There is no political party that conforms to the gospel. Although I’ve renewed my faith lately, I have been a Christian since the 1970s, and I continue to be mystified at how Christians can be exposed to the same text (i.e. the Bible) and develop such different political values. I’ve noticed that the Bible mentions caring for the poor so often that I can’t in good conscience for a candidate that wants to cut programs for the needy. I also don’t buy the idea that helping the poor creates poverty.

Onto why I titled my post Jamais Vu . . . Now I am going to approach my faith from the opposite of the idea of being a Christian for decades. I encountered the concept of jamais vu in the writing of the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. Jamais vu is the opposite of déjà vu, and it is the experience of seeing something familiar as if you’ve never seen it before. Since I started reading the Bible again in December, I have approached the text with purposeful jamais vu: I am going to read this book as if everything is new to me. I’ve discovered that there is precious fruit of the Spirit to be gleaned from this approach. It reminds me of how Christ said in faith we must become like children (Matthew 18:33). The word of God never loses its freshness or vitality; only our ways of reading and hearing it can become stale.

As for the picture I’ve used for this post, it reminds me that it is much harder to suspend one’s familiarity with the physical world. No matter how hard I try, my mind can’t make the buildings in that picture look like something I haven’t seen before.

I feel a consolation beyond description in reading the Bible as if it is new to me, for it would be impossible for someone to read it enough to make it old news. As I read the words of the Bible, it is like the Holy Spirit fills me with the complete opposite of the pain and despair I’ve felt in the past.

In the Beginning Was the Word . . .

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The photo above shows the evening sun cast on part of my front door. As spring approaches, I’m mesmerized by these moments when clear sunlight seems to break into the house. The light is so bright it can render a door into pure darkness by comparison, at least according to a camera.

I’ve been thinking about how I’ve becoming one of “those people” who want to talk about God all the time. What is happening is a variation on a story told so many times over the last couple thousand years: a tale of one who is born again. In America, being born again is very often wrapped in a temperance narrative, a story of conquering one’s demons in the form of drinking and the like (and, by the way, I think our culture is hooked on dieting because it too is a temperance story). In my case, there is no sudden change in behavior. Instead, there is an ongoing revolution within.

The notion that someone could be born again despite having never lost one’s core faith would puzzle me if it wasn’t happening to me. In my whole life I have not experienced a moment of true doubt in God. Growing up I knew an ex-nun who told me (long story short) that while faith may seem foolish at times, it is better to be a fool with faith than a fool without it. I took her words to heart and accepted God’s existence as a basic truth. No matter how I’ve struggled with depression and various other adversities of life, I have not doubted in the basic notion of the divine.

When my daughter started reading the Bible in earnest last fall, I wondered why it had not occurred to me to do so the same thing. I had eight years of parochial school religion classes and a few college religion/theology classes, yet I had read less than half of the Bible, and only what was prescribed in worship services or quoted in textbooks.

I still haven’t read as much of the Bible as my daughter has. I’m working my way through it slowly. I’ve found that I can’t just steamroll through it as one would plow through a work of classic literature for the first time. The sensation of reading the Bible on my own has been akin to the opening line of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

In the those moments it’s like pure light and joy floods out any pain and regret. Words can’t adequately portray this feeling. It’s not something I only feel when I read the Bible, but reading the Word definitely renews it. It’s a joy that nothing can dampen while it lasts. I’ll take the window dressing away and speak plainly of it: I believe that I am feeling the Holy Spirit.

Growing up, I’d hear stories of saints and other worthies and resign myself to never becoming good enough or brilliant enough to have such an experience of the Spirit. What I now feel in my heart of hearts has turned that sort of resignation inside out. I now understand that we cannot earn salvation or any sustenance at all from God based on our merit alone. God offers help in this life and salvation in the next based on faith alone. The notion that we can change our ways to curry favor with God simply doesn’t work. We can get better by deepening our faith through trust in God. Stated otherwise, we are justified through faith in God and sanctified through trust in God.

With the time change, my evening is evaporating more quickly than I’d like, but I will close with the following thought. In the past two years, I’ve been through a lot of physical pain, a chronic pain that flared so badly last year that I’d wondered if God had abandoned me. My daughter also had a mental health crisis during the same time my pain raged. It is possible that our struggles emptied us of any resistance to the divine. On the other side of this pain, I discovered that joy is possible no matter what happens in life. You don’t have to perfect yourself for God. He already knows all of your faults, and He waits patiently for you.

Some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:18-19

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I’ve encountered another passage of Scripture that really resonates for me, 1 Corinthians 3:18-19 (quote from Good News Bible): “No one should fool himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise by this world’s standards, he should become a fool, in order to be really wise. For what this world considers to be wisdom is nonsense in God’s sight.”

There is so much to contemplate in this passage. For instance, am I drawn to these words in humility or because of those times in life when it seemed I was the lone (and sometimes silent) voice of reason? Lately I’ve become increasingly disillusioned by some of the comments I see on social media regarding local news stories. It seems like harsh judgment has become the reigning paradigm in such comments. If the authors of such comments could create a reality to their liking, we’d live in a world where children are never spared the rod unless they act like perfect servants, where all defendants, whose guilt is a foregone conclusion, should go straight from arrest to prison, where welfare no longer exists, and everything is seasoned with a heaping portion of capital punishment.

Then again, who am I to judge these people? I don’t bother to present an opposing viewpoint because I’ve seen dissenting opinions quashed several times over the years. It’s so hard for me to tell who is foolish in this situation: the harsh local pundits, people like me for letting them steamroll local forums unopposed, or the people who created essentially unmoderated forums?

The answer is likely to be something I can’t imagine, as least not yet.

Communion

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Like a growing number of Americans, I am a lapsed Catholic. It’s not that I ever lost my basic Christian faith. Rather, I hit an invisible wall of sorts around the time I turned 18. For whatever reason, I could no longer face the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s not that I had cataclysmic sins I needed to confess. I could no longer imagine that there was a priest who could truly listen to my sins. The more time that passed, the more it seemed impossible to do a true inventory of my conscience; the sacrament would not be valid on the grounds that I couldn’t possibly confess all the sins. And without reconciliation and penance, there could be no Communion.

Until today, I’d been stuck in place since the early 90’s. I’d attend Mass very occasionally and think of going to confession so I could take Communion the during the next Mass. From time to time, I’d consider joining a Protestant church to circumvent this issue entirely, but then I wouldn’t go to a different church for fear that I’d be betraying the Catholic church by doing so.

Today I finally attended services at our neighborhood Methodist church. My daughter bought a Bible with her birthday money last month, and she has been reading it almost daily. I decided it would be better for us to attend any Christian church at all rather than remain stuck over the sacraments in the Catholic church.

I had such a positive experience at the Methodist church. The communion service had a portion in which forgiveness of sins was offered to the repentant, and the sacrament itself was “open table” and offered to all baptized believers. This solved my decades-long problem, and it was a relief to feel the grace of that sacrament again.