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September 2006
Fall 2007 - Uncle Harry on my mind

    Yesterday after church I swung by the store for more chicken bbq to spice up the last summer salads.  Looked forward to getting home after a long morning.  As I walked back to the car carrying a substitute for the usual brand (I was tempted to say product but I boycott the term--don't get me started on everything being a "product"--grrrr) between me and the toyota a geezer/ette was taking all the time in the world backing out.  Mellow from a good sermon on the sin of pride, I mused silently about the ancient, invisible driver, sunk below the dash.  A white-haired gent heading into the store waiting patiently on the far side of the slot.  The car backed imperceptibly.
    At some point I realized there's but One Power; Crossan calls it "Holy".  Similarly, in the small town I grew up in, we're All One, like it or not.  One's gotta assume the vehicle and driver that annoys, is one's neighbor.  When I moved back I instinctively knew you don't do anything you don't want everyone to know about.  Especially driving, since I have the only ski board carrier on any vehicle probably in the entire west central region of the state.  Everyone knows my car or could in a heartbeat, which has advantages and of course, disadvantages.  Some know and hate one of the world's slowest driver, although I'm relieved to be in a retirement area where I'm not the only turtle (i.e. above incident.)  The morning I didn't see the car at the 4-way stop down the way--the driver angrily stopped for preoccupied me--I ran an apology in the newspaper, and believed in my heart it got to the right driver.  (Took down license plate just in case.)  Thanks to a "neighbor's" fast reaction, I was not in the police blotter under crunches, which we all read religiously.
    Sure enough, just as I was at last able to cross to the car and was unlocking it, heard my name called cheerily from the car by now blocking the row.  Thank you God, I quickly prayed, for reminding me this beloved child of yours, between me and lunch, is indeed a neighbor.  Walked over to identify said child and was startled to find a short, round fellow classmate.  As I recognized her and she greeted me, suddenly pieces fell in place.  It hit me that a few Sundays before this same woman and I, in the same parking lot (though to the best of my knowledge without impeding traffic) had had a longish, confusing to me, conversation.  As I recognized Linda reality dawned that the other Sunday I'd thought she was someone else, albeit also a round singer.
    (It's challenging being semi face blind.  Seriously, wouldn't know John Wayne if he came to the door.  Same thing happened the other evening--thought I was speaking with someone I wasn't.  No wonder the husband's name had me raising eye brows.  I was so confused I almost asked if she had her husband's name wrong!  I'm not kidding.  Gotta be weird being talked at by someone who thinks you're someone else.)
    Back to the parking lot and the community of saints that are neighbors, it was almost too good to be true that 3 days later I lunched with the same parking lot woman and she complained bitterly about slow drivers!  Couldn't wait to share this!  This really happens, all the time, in small towns, where there are no secrets.  Try as we might, we all stew in the same pot.
    Where I'm going with this tale is to how very often the past months I've been reminded of legendary teacher extraordinaire Ram Dass' "Uncle Harry story".  Again and again it comes to me since moving back to small town America, where we are all-one-like-it-or not.  Here it is from the web:

Regarding relational proximity, Ram Dass tells the story of a record set he produced some years ago which sold for $4.50. His lawyer father saw the set and said, "Gee, that's a beautiful job. You know, if that was in a store it would sell for $l5.00." "You're right," replied Ram Dass, "but, would a lot less people buy it at $l5.00?" "No," said his father, "I think probably the same number. So, why don't you charge $l5.00?" Ram Dass replied, "Because it only cost $4.50." "Well," retorted his father, "what's the trouble, are you against capitalism? You could do a lot of good with that money."

Ram Dass asked, "Didn't you just try a law case for uncle Henry?" "Yes," his father replied. "Was it hard?" Ram Dass asked. His father answered "I put in a lot of time on that case." "Well, you charge pretty good fees, I'll bet you charged him an arm and a leg," said Ram Dass. His father replied somewhat indignantly "What, are you - out of your mind? It's uncle Henry!"

"Well," Ram Dass said, "that's where I run into a problem. If you'll show me somebody that isn't Uncle Henry, I'll rip them off."

    By Sept, heat or not, could wait no longer to take a few days off to collect thoughts.  Like a frog in hot water, hadn't realized my attitude had been slowly sinking to what always feels like an all time low.  So hot all summer I couldn't imagine camping, despite the instinct to escape for a night away now and then like I had in that former life Out West.  Erroneously thinking it can't be this hot everywhere, late September I headed off with maps, tent, box of books and travel computer, camp stove and soups, to explore The Shawnee (National Forest).  Just had to get away, dig to the bottom, sort and toss, pick things apart, try to make sense of the wreckage that was me, on what, it dawned on me, was roughly the anniversary of my return to the Midwest.  Apparently since landing, I'd sunk slowly into ye olde slough of self loathing.  Once the tent was up, I alternately wrote out everything on my heart-mind and launched into memoirs (2 Christian, 1 Buddhist).  Started John Dominic Crossan's story of growing up in Ireland first, went on to Cecil William's story of Glide Church, No Hiding Place, books I'd awaited eagerly, like Crème brûlée.  No overnight quick fix, the gloom lasted days.
    Luckily I realize crises are basically spiritual.  How I needed those edifying books!  Began relaxing, breathing better, sleeping more deeply despite the heat, as I read about the Christianity that had opened the eyes of my heart a few years back.  Not the Christianity that condemns and separates us from each other.  Evidently, after embracing spirituality on the west coast, without consciously realizing I'd ignored some of my heart felt beliefs trying to fit into the small old churches of the midwest (I'd grown up in).  In it's place, of course, was depression and unhappiness.  I'd once been lost; thought I was found, only to feel lost again.  I was lonely and starved for the teachings that had changed my attitude a few years back.  After the west coast, who wudda thunk a red neck Idaho church would have kept the bar "so high"?  Held my own revival, nodding my head, wiping tears, remembering the Christianity I'd painfully grown to love.  Pages held teachings and stories like those that had brought me back to church--thank you Crossan and Willams.  Wrote, read, steamed vegetables and slowly examined the first year back, realizing it was perhaps a rougher than I'd thought.  Shock is a blessing.
    Late the final day started reading zen memoir, Bad Dog.  With a sigh of recognition, remembered I must be zen christian, stumbling in the footsteps of Merton and others.  Try as I might to be mainstream Christian (whatever that is), zen buddhism remains the miracle salve for the inconsistencies of the world where local churches leave me hanging.  No way can I throw Buddhism out, especially now that I'm back in the Bible belt.  Buddhist teachings about the nature of suffering are a veritable life preserver in the rough seas of a crazy world, in a small town whose churches would rather die than change or get together to survive.  Paradoxes rest more gently under the wisdom teachings of zen buddhist masters.  Jesuit William Johnston writes: (Jesuit) Lassalle "...saw that the Western spirituality he had learned, all in the upper levels of the conscious mind, paid little attention to the deeper unconscous."  Ahhh.  Black and white Christianity may work for many, but for some time, my Christianity has been a different shade, tempered by the teachings of New Thought, Christian Science, Jesus movement churches, yoga, and of course, life.  I'm 60 plus and know what it's like to wander 40 years in the wilderness both literal and hypothetical.  In those teachings, I found relevant Christianity.  Slowly I've moved towards an interfaith balance that makes sense and sustains.  Indeed--religions are windows to God!  Thank you, Deacon John.
    Shifting topics abruptly, or so it seems, a few weeks later, Saturday morning October 13th, while driving east, the absurdity of Only Son hit me like a slap in the face.  Only son?  I don't think so.  Think about it: a God with only ONE son?  How many folks do you know with only One son?  How many fathers want just ONE son?  I know a string of single moms with one son, but I simply don't think of God as a single parent.  Probably not.  (Not on my farm as my first beloved pastor from down the road New Berlin put it, meaning, in the face of facts, one still believes what one chooses.)  Don't most couples yearn for their own basketball team (boys of course)?  Why would God be any different?  I've never heard anyone express sympathy to God for having an "only", albeit a good one and a boy.  No one says, "Poor Jesus, an only," the way we talk about kids without sibs.  I know, I know, there's James.  "Poor God, just ONE son."(Of course not!)  People like having kids.  They feel sorry for people without 'em.  Maybe even God, if we're to believe we're his childen, likes having a lot of kids!!  Sorry for God for having but ONE???  Not likely.  Doesn't make sense, a magnificent God having but one kid that only some people run into.  Naw.  Folks don't believe it.  If we're made in his image, he'da hada lotta kids-marriages-divorces-wives, que no? ONE son of God?  ONE true religion?  ONE window to God?  I don't think so.

    Why then so frustrated with these neighbors, the small "c" church all around me, who are politically incorrect, bicker and whine, won't turn off cellphones in funerals, won't recycle, ignore their kids, blah, blah!  Why such harsh criticism of self and others?  (Who me, judgmental!)  Where's the peace I so admire in these midwest folks who lured me back home for my finals (lessons), with their smiles and inner peace, these people who stun me with their intelligence, humor, charm, wisdom and tolerance?  These same folks lean on the past, wave flags in their yards, look back, collect stories and alarm clocks, fans (did you know there were oil powered room fans?) and dolls, anything their hearts desire.  My version of Lake Wobegan is a puzzling mix of wisdom and ignorance, professors and hicks, in any combination, a terrific hash, the full spectrum of over and under-educated (though I confess I hold "overs" to a higher standard of tolerance), mental health and illness.  The community and it's churches are a veritable state hospital.  In turns I'm horrified and overcome with wonder and love.  Amazing grace, how can it be!
    I cherish Marilyn's story of how her granddaughter balked when M's husband sent back the pot roast while she apologized to him, "you're right dear, it's awful".  I want the sparkling eyes and peace of that wise woman, who told me with a double twinkle in her eyes of the turtle sundays at the Double Dribble in the next town, causing me to drive the 30 miles there more than once!  (Thank goodness they've closed for the season.  Memory slipping?  We'll see who's waiting next spring!)
    So much to learn about paradox from these former farm folks who now go from one doctor appointment to the next, hook and line sunk into the medical insurance system (health--my cherished issue)!  They ferociously attend small country churches, shrug at changing times, dying congregations and rotting neighborhoods.  They host potlucks with not one healthy, unsweetened dish in sight unless Charley brings yams or I bring steamed broccoli.  These doves of peace whose grandkids are in the police blotter, eat together at Long John Silver's or Granny's, take their kids to MacDonalds, and leave the rest to the Lord!  How dare they!
    How can I not love these women, like coach Maryann, who leads us seniors to sing in nursing homes, etc. sometimes including singers from the nursing homes, handing them a binder.  (For $5 every few years, she provides us with binders and endless lyrics (some she's written), often from her childhood or the turn of the century-- 1900.)  She never runs out of patience when we show up late, can't find pages.  We're never scolded or shamed like every other group I've ever known.  We ain't no fine chorale, easy on the ears.  A former music teacher quit in disgust, but another chorale member sings his heart out.
    "Everyone found 'Deck the Halls'?", coach Maryann asks and waits, handing out duplicate copies to those most befuddled.  Sometimes nursing home residents want pages; she hands her own over.  St. Maryann of the Senior Singers.  Sometimes during "Ain't She Sweet", she jitterbugs around the lunch room and hugs or pats each patient/resident, or maybe each of us!  The men blush.  Today we had 8 men singing heartily.  Most choirs would eat their hearts out.  Like I say, she's a retired junior high coach (also an irrepressible ham who wheels along a tub of wigs and dress up clothes she takes to performances).  She'd rather raise a barn than sit at a concert.  She has the right attitude to work with men, and a child like sense of humor, not for the faint hearted. When we get to the end of the program, she always says like a kid, "We're done now."  That's after we've stood and sung God Bless America.  I love it.
    Most months we go down to Scott County nursing home where her mother lives.  Sometimes she hands (her) mom a mic (though we still can't hear).  She orders mom to stop crying like a coach might.  Tough love from a wise lover.
    No shortage of master teachers in my life.  How to be true to one's self and live among saints?  Deacon John forever reminds us the only dance in scripture is community!  We The Imperfect are it!  I watch my elders live each day well, with unceasing prayer and patience, turn the other cheek and put others before themeselves--classic teachings to surpassing peace in any window to God.

    By the time I packed up tent and books to return home for a few more weeks of summer heat, I'd seen more clearly what can change--that would be me--and what can't--that would be everything else.  The key to peace, thank you teachers great and small, of course, is accepting what is, with heaps of patience.  I smile every time I think of Suzuki Roshi's phrase "Things as it is."  Yup, learn to accept things as it is, Jeannie.  Chosing one church home may elude me, but the heavy paths to truth and peace lightened during the waxing moon of my stay in the tinder dry woods of the Shawnee.

Summer 2007 - Battle for God -- Church Wars

    Our cul du sac has episcopal, catholic, jewish, methodist, and bar owner households along with my uncommitted one, plus the best mower I've ever known--baptist elder Joe.  Frequently attending and socializing with a variety of churches and members, I'm starting to be reminded of the joke about the participants in a discussion about how to do something or other, who each say: No--like this!  Blows my mind to think there could only be one right path to God--only like this!   How could it be--we're all so peculiar in this backwater, perhaps overdoing Deuteronomy 14:2 some: "I have chosen you to be a peculiar people unto Myself!"  The more I learn, the more I find myself referring to the entire community as one big State Hospital.
    Slowly realizing at this time of my life a small town's my perfect cup of tea--a smorgasbord of small stubborn churches all within a couple blocks, let alone miles.  Though I sometimes despair of finding the "perfect" church, I'm wondering if the entire town might not be my true church.  A small town is forced to be somewhat interfaith, or sink.  There's no "catholic" or "Polish" neighborhood, no "methodist" district, or Russian center.  YMCA is as close as it gets.  (We have slums like I never saw out west, heavily black, but since most families are intermarried--meaning blacks and whites here--economic boundaries are clearer than racial.)  Amazingly there are at least 5 methodist churches; 5 pentecostal; 3 baptist; 3 lutheran; 2 UCC, 2 LDS; 1 catholic; 1 episcopal; 1 assembly of God; 1 presbyterian; several newer non denominational and independents; no Jewish.  Looking at the methodists and baptists it's obvious (to me) these folks can't get along with each other any better than the rest of us!  Catholics seem to do best staying under one large roof.  I call them all churches, but only away from sensitive ears of those who attend the only true church.  Over the years churches have split, yet the population base of church goers has remained about the same.  So, go figure, folks rattle around in big, old churches, scattered far and wide in pews.
    Notes from the last 6 months smorgasbord.  The women's interfaith group sponsored lovely Thursday morning lenten services that took me to more churches and introduced me to women interested in unity and community.  I was so smitten by methodist part time pastor Janet than I've returned several times to be in the presence of this passionate, spirit filled woman who prays and sings like we oughta to the stolid little congregation.  Love that fiery woman, one of the few women in local pulpits.  I was also impressed by the new baptist pastor who spoke.
   He spoke again a few weeks later at a Kiwanis prayer breakfast held at an ungodly--oops--hour, short and to the point.  Most excellent Rod the cement? concrete? man sang.  What a treat--the mature singers of Jacksonville, both male and female!!  Don't know when I've heard so many good male voices.
    Although women from a number of churches compose the women's interfaith group, congregations still tend to stick together.  I was hoping to meet more black women like my lay pastor classmate Shirlee, but no more African Americans turned up for the friendship service at black Mt Emory than at any other service.  The same half dozen Afro American leaders are on every council and board.  I'm humbled to have been in grade school through high school with Shirlee--what a woman of God.
    Also during lent First Presbyterian held a Wednesday evenings series of dinners and talks led by Prof Jamison.  My favorite part was heartily singing old Welsh and Scottish hymns!  Folks really sang out!  Often thought of my old Scottish by way of Canada and  Bellingham mentor Barbara, who would have approved and understood this almost old world enthusiasm for singing.  The final evening Prof Jamison spoke about love letters in the Bible, illustrating with the first letter he wrote his new wife as he went off to serve as a navy chaplain.  (An Arabic speaker, he was sent to Africa, where he reports his Arabic went unused.)  As a recent WW2 history enthusiast, I loved hearing him read this intimate, old fashioned letter, perhaps something like dad wrote mom, but I'll never know.  I was deeply touched by his willingness to illustrate love letters with his own.
    Sunday mornings until adjournment for summer, I enjoyed enormously another retired presbyterian professor's history of Christianity class.  An outcome is that Prof Koss is now helping me dig up German Kirchenbücher, for mom's side of the family.  I'm amused that David, as most call him, is reputed to be the regional expert on royalty.  Whoever would qualify on the banks of Mauvisterre Creek!
    Continuing with Presbyterian connections--almost missed going to local playwright Bradbury's "Faith on Wry"--so much to do in a small town!  Luckily I heard about it the last day and went to the last two performances to catch every word.  Knocked my socks off.  Perfectly captured the dance of churches in this community, more lovingly than my some time view of church wars.  Young Presbyterian junior high teacher Tim (who's soon off to Lithuania to teach!) was out of sight as the new pastor; elder Sylvia was fabulous talking to God; the young girl was perfect; and everyone in between was sensational.  Now we're looking forward to Ken's musical about King David this August!
    Got the jump on spring when I headed south in early March to Missouri's Sacred Harp convention in a small country church west of St Louis, near the Missouri River.  Camped my way down to see the first flowers of the year and join folks singing from "Missouri Harmony" as well as the original sacred harp text.  How I love that passionate, difficult-for-me music, and being with both men and women who unabashedly sing their hearts and faith, and teach their children to do the same.  If only I'd grown up singing fa so la!  Having first met shape note singing in the northwest where singers didn't tend to be church goers, it felt rather different to be singing in the Bible Belt with serious church folk, singing their religion.  (BTW--what a potluck.)  Interestingly a Missouri episcopalian priest or bishop, with help from a Canadian anglican, led an optional church service.  He was as warm and friendly as the rest of the local hosts, quite a contrast to formal Jacksonville Trinity (where I have so many friends, but would rather not spend Sunday mornings).
    It seemed right to go see the new "Amazing Grace" movie that evening at the small local theater.  (Don't think it ever came to Jacksonville.)   On the heels of a Saturday of shape note songs filled with worldly suffering and the promise of a golden gates, it probably wasn't a good time to stop at a new thought church in St Louis the next morning, but I did, hungry for the truth I used to hear in new thought churches in the northwest.  Something seemed missing, I admitted, like "Wimber's meat" (Vineyard denomination reference), perhaps.  I'm defensive about evangelical pastors who've never attended or studied new thought but use the term New Age pejoratively, bashing that about which they know not.  Had to stop myself from whining and judging one of my most valued paths.
    Father's Day pastor J started a series of men and church that's keeping me on the edge of my seat.   For the summer, I'm going to Psalms class and services under the same roof.  Visiting other services afterwards, I've heard 2 former local pastors speak, deepening my understanding of local church history and increasing the mystery of what's next.  Meanwhile several new pastors have been called here, several have left or retired.
    Although it's a tiny part of my life time-wise, the odd Saturday morning I sit silent with Springfield Buddhist students continues to be an invaluable part of my spiritual balance in the Christian community.  It's not something I mention to many. (Could it be why I was turned down by Sunday morning church visit club!)  What would I do without a sangha of silence and lucid teaching!  One morning after sitting and walking this was read aloud to the group:  "Behavior and experiencing are, however, not found separate.  When I experience you (see you, touch you, hear you), you are my experiencing just what is.  But the human tendency is not to stop there, instead of you just being my experiencing, I add on to it my opinions about what you seem to be doing—and then I have separated myself from you… examined, analyzed, judged."  [p 91 Everyday Zen, Joko Beck.]  Zing!  There's the truth how experience leads to those cherished views that tangle lives, expressed with eastern clarity.
    I've met the local catholic ed coordinator and a sufi devotee interested in silence; and I'm close to attaining prison clearance.  Things should stay interesting!

May 2007
    Settled yet?  Practicing yes and no.

    Never know what's gonna come out when I turn my fingers to things of the spirit.
    Perhaps the biggest event of the season--my opinion, nat--was witnessing the decommissioning of Northminster Presbyterian Church, the stunning old Portuguese church that's down to a half dozen members.  The church with it's lovely dark wood balconies on 3 sides was full.  It was stunning when a moderator asked those in the congregation to stand who'd been baptized... married in the church.  By the time the questions were listed, many were standing.  But the past does not keep a church alive, does it?  Drs. Kaye and Jamison moderated ably.  Hearty singing made me yearn for more community sings, less handfuls.  I noticed the contemporary drum sets to the side, backlit with gorgeous stained glass windows.  As much as I love [some] contemporary music, the obvious message made me uncomfortable.
    The crowd adjourned to the basement for cakes iced like some of the stained glass. A table with articles about the old country roots of the church attracted a few old timers and the curious, like me.  Vasconcellos, Defrates, Fernandes, DeWees--grew up with these names.  Those in wheelchairs struggled with the make shift chair lift.  Another statement of the times.  It was a bittersweet event, to witness my first, of what I suspect, will be more church funerals, among churches facing change.  Although I have no memories of Northminster, even as a newcomer/returnee I was moved by this historic moment-- the way community turned out, came together and participated.  I hadn't had such a strong sense of leadership and elders since I returned.  Jacksonville knows how to do funerals!
    Perhaps I was moved because my childhood church appears to be similarly disappearing.  Attended that same big old, deep blue church last week.  Stilil love it's big old clear glass windows.  I'd heard a rumor that the new interim was attracting a crowd, but what I experienced was the usual handful of folks scattered about in their accustomed pews.  The talk was on grief, perhaps because the interim's father had just died.  I stayed awhile but was clear the service wasn't for me and left, an appalling habit I've fallen into, after decades of enduring talks.
    Although I love seeing the familiar faces of elders in these old churches, I'm drawn to churches with life, even if I have to sit alone in them.  Been there.
    After a half a year, I still have no idea where my church home is.  Still look forward to Alan's 8am Psalms class; have settled into David's interim history of Christianity class.  Usually I return to 1st Christian for a service.  I probably know and enjoy more episcopalians--such as my lively neighbor-- than any other folks; but it's clear anglicans are a social disaster for me.  I'll never dress like that or dye my hair.  Ritual can be good but wow.  Not me.  I've more or less given up on the Baptists, as excellent as the pastors are and as drawn to their passion and sincerity as I am, since I'd never make the grade if I opened my mouth.  Just ain't Lutheran either, much as I appreciate 'em.
    The other day I found myself repeating history--I'd rather go to a church where I don't know anyone, but where I hear a message that challenges me, than go to a service where I'm comfortable with the people, but can't remember a word afterwards.  It's a tough one, though; those Presbyterians are terrific folks.
    It's not that I don't like death and dying--I insist it's one of my big interests!  But I seem to be uneasy with it when it comes to churches, my church!  After all, I just trotted over to Cleveland for Unit 1 of Groves' Sacred Art of Living and Dying Seminars.  He's a world class teacher, but I don't fall under his vision of changing the world by working in hospitals and hospice.  I'm just one lone stranger out on the rural prairie, not part of a team.  While Groves was teaching how leaning into the pain seems to be the way to a peaceful, pain free death, I was reminded of Barb Smith's great teaching that her heart attack was painless and how much she enjoyed her stay in the eastern Canadian hospital (and how her relationship with her sister who wanted to take care of her was never the same!)  Thank you, Barbara!
    Listened to Groves' CDs as I drove back across Ohio and Indiana.  Terrific teacher.  Had to howl when he said liberals are hopeless at discipline!  He's right on!  But Anamcara student I am not to be.  Three more of those seminars, processing grief with groups of grim paid hospice staff'd bore me spitless.  Been there, done that (or so I think).
    The most challenging thing I've worked through this spring is realizing and expressing why I became so unhappy with the covenant group this outsider covenanted to stay with 'til death do us part.  Got more and more frustrated listening to replays of family conversations until Laura said, and I got it: "You want a Christian Conversation group!" (rather than accountability group) putting me on the right track.  Just back from Groves/Cecile Saunders "How are you Within" question, realized why listing the week's failures and successes didn't engage me.  Now, if we were accountable to the prayer of St Francis--maybe.  Spiritual email buddies Ann and Sheila helped me suggest the type of questions I'd prefer to discuss.  Thank you.
    I've enjoyed getting to know a pastor and a pastor's wife, and a former Lockwood neighbor, but I've been more frustrated than not.  After thinking and talking this through, my move to adjourn for the summer was discussed and accepted.  No, I'm not wanting to be on the genealogy board either.  Not yet.

January 2007
    Am I Home yet?

Happy New Year, 2007!  Whata year!
    This year the thought of holiday travel (as I've done nearly every Thanksgiving and Christmas for decades) was a distant memory.  Stayed put in my new/ old home town--my first back in the Midwest since ????-- where I listened to The Christmas Story pour from pastors' mouths and an astonishing variety of church music--from an unpolished Baptist elder singing O Holy Night, to hired soloists and in-your-face, dressed- down youth singing along with CDs.  Once again I embraced Christianity as my home faith, my people, for better or for worse, in small town Illinois.  Especially in the aftermath of Christmas, if cult is defined as a group with a high degree of tension, Christianity might well be so labeled, if not locally and nationally, in my own heart.  My own experience of tension and frustration with Christianity often peaks at Christmas when materialism and holiness clash.  One pre-Christmas week I watched a woman dash from the car, pause at the store door, turn around and go back and get a small child from the car.  The image of the forgotten Jesus haunted me throughout the Christmas season, as cell phones rang throughout church services.  It's tempting to focus on what we seem to have forgot, what we're not doing so well these days, like the fellow in the theology class who starts every paragraph "The problem is...".  Indeed we seem a bit confused lately between shopping and parenting, church and home, right and wrong.  Over "the holidays" (as they're being called so as not to offend those offended by "christ"), I felt alternately blessed, stressed and appalled.  Perhaps the most helpful teaching I heard this holiday was from the pastor who mentioned how he celebrates all the people who come to services at Christmas (as opposed to lamenting that many only attend once a year).  Good idea.
    Hands down, the highlight of the season was the Dominican taize service I rushed over to in Springfield, a week after the first big ice storm.  Big stone chapel, packed, people singing along.  I sat with the overflow crowd by the back door I was let graciously in.  Satisfying chants, short readings, candles.  Lovely, peaceful service--utter bliss.  Afterwards the congregation was invited into the large dining hall.  Aged nuns circulated, serving The Best Sugar Cookies of the season (more on cookies later), blessing us with the grace of the religious.  I joined the Jacksonville folks who'd told me of the event.  Despite dashing to the car in heavy rain, returned home revived, wrapped in the warm and gracious spirit of the evening.  I look forward to more with the Dominicans.
    As the New Year starts, I'm primarily relieved.  At times last year I wondered if I'd get through 2006.  New Year's Day (after an underwhelming but interesting New Year's eve at Springfield's First Night--midnight fireworks were canceled--more later) I lunched with episcopalians at Behan's tavern.  I'm blessed to be included in gatherings with this warm, sociable community, probably based on my parents good works.  Pure grace in action.  I do little but say Thank You.  Smelled like an ashtray for days--bless  Smokers Welcome to Jacksonville, with it's overfed and aging population.  Go figure.
    Although Christianity is what's happening here, I still prefer "All of the Above".  My heart remains interfaith.  After Behan's I dashed straight over to Springfield on back roads (for Christmas I received a letter saying my newly transferred car insurance was dropped) to sit silent with the zen community for the last couple of hours.  Where else is there designated quiet space to sit and breathe with others?  Haven't found that here in Christianity.  (Not yet.)  It's another zen group I know I'll never know socially, thanks to my years around Idaho buddhists.  By the time I arrived there were only 1 or 2 other sitters.  I was good for an hour of sitting tall before being overcome by Behan's buffet (perhaps the best food of the holiday--when we went to pay we were embarrassed to learn it was free--Buddhist generosity has nothing on Behan's!)  Slid off my cushion, pulled coat over hips, rested head on cushion and slept.  Why fight?
    Which brings up my spiritual achilles heel--discipline.  This very morning, as I lay in bed (releasing spine tension is my defense) I'd read: "The disciplined life will cost us, but the undisciplined will cost far more".  Attributed to Dallas Willard in Christian Science Sentinel Oct 9.  (I'm months behind.)  "The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy..."  Taken from an article in Christianity Today, Sept 2006.  I couldn't agree more.
    As it happens, Sangamon Zen Group meets at the Unitarian church in Springfield (apparently none of the zen folks are affiliated).  Bless the unitarians.  I spent 2 important years healing from the "C" word, Church, at the Spokane Unitarian church, the first church I attended as a consenting adult, even going to a national convention.  Unitarians welcomed me to their choir (unlike the local community choir) with no fanfare; perhaps it's their job.  I was only there to sing, but when I heard the astounding tidbit that the minister was from the tiny farm community of New Berlin IL between Jacksonville and Springfield, I began to take the cotton from my ears during The Talks.  Linda opened the eyes of my heart with tender stories of folks from our mutual stomping ground.  I began to hear the "G" word, God, differently, even going so far as to take a spiritual autobiography class.
    Years later I still feel right at home with unitarians, in their churches, at their picnics and in their kitchens.  Lo, as I cut through the kitchen to the bathroom, there on the kitchen counter was a large pile of New Year's Eve leftovers,  packed neatly in plastic sacks, with a large hand written sign on top that flashed--"Eat Me".  Having averted my eyes from plate after plate of homemade cookies (especially those iced sugar cookies I adore) in order to survive the holidays, I helped myself to iced gingerbread men and pumpkin bread, thinking (perhaps erroneously) church won't be meeting for nearly a week!  Thank you, Abraham Lincoln Unitarians.
    There are more home made cookies in this neck of the woods, than I saw in all my years Out West in Costco country (granted, I didn't live in small towns).  I was so inspired by the beautiful, old fashioned cookies I saw at church bazaars this Christmas that I pulled a recipe for candy cane cookies off the web, bought peppermint extract and red food coloring, and stirred 'em up.  Came to a halt after a couple of toaster oven trays.  Not only was the pink dough impossible to roll out--you wouldn't believe how different pink and white were--the canes were breaking up, unwinding, sometimes burning.  Toughest cookie I've attempted in decades!  Sanbakkels are a piece of cake by comparison!  Since I can't figure out how to use the digital wall oven, I use the toaster oven I almost didn't move-- disreputable looking, with a mind of it's own-- but incomparably more user friendly than the built in oven which doesn't have so much as an on/off knob I recognize.
    Like many, I digress easily this time of year.  Back to church.  Even if the Bible Belt is near (strong Christian radio stations out number fuzzy NPR by a long shot), I still crave silence, zen or otherwise, to sort through the cacophony of the season for that still small voice.  I still visit churches anywhere on the spectrum from heady to hearty.  It looks like shopping to affiliated folks (pretty much all I meet.  On the other hand, you won't find me carrying around coupons looking for weekly deals.  Feels more like life or death to me--maybe I take church too seriously!!  If I can find a middle ground, healthy church in Idaho, surely I can find one in Illinois!
     Sunday mornings I attend Alan's Psalms class regularly.  Call it shopping it you will; I rarely shop at 8am.  Usually I go on to Shalom study with the Presbyterians to see how the pastor facilitates professors--I'm fascinated.  Once I gave up learning about Shalom and just enjoyed the profs' stories--particularly WW2 tales--I adjusted.  But it's not "church", so I go to a regular service at one of ~3 churches I enjoy, none of which I'm totally at ease with.  I go to Howe's baptist church when he can attend; he's friendly and likes to talk about the service afterwards, something I crave.  We sit with the elder who handed me her research on the evils of yoga.  I smiled; been there, thanks to my beloved former church.  Thursday afternoons I attend a methodist covenant group that includes the minister.  Tried singing with their praise band last fall!  Noooo.
    Occasionally I visit an entirely new-to-me church, sense the heart of the church, often only staying for part of the service.  What I'm looking for, of course, is a church where the congregation wants to be there as much as we did in my old church that advertised "Come as you are, you'll be loved".  God knows it wasn't perfect, but it was very, very good.  I look and listen for life and heart, in the music, pastor, congregation and bulletin board.  In my former church there was no way to sit in the front section of the church, closest to the podium, where pastors, close friends and staff sat, worshipped and supported the service.  The church filled front to back--I'd never seen anything like it (in church)!  You had to have connections to sit up front!  It's a tough act to follow, a church so functional that even this nontraditional spirit, who flunked the Does She Know Jesus test, couldn't stay away.  Recently I noticed a minister's wife sitting alone in an entire front row and winced remembering my former congregation.
    Not only do I miss the music and life of my old church, I'm weighed down by what feels like obsession with illness in churches (and the community).  Hence, my sense that the church search is a life and death matter.  A healthy church, please God!  Perhaps the pastor I've most enjoyed is with a small church country in Nortonville; he kept the focus on praise, not ill health.  No list of who's going, going, gone, etc.  Brothers and sister--Look Up!  Keep Thine Eyes on High, not on problems!  I'm not going back to Idaho, but I am looking for healthy attitudes and teachings to help me along.  I don't need to go back to my Idaho church and be told Christian meditation is a cult.  Nooo.
     Looking back (as I do this time of year), I realize it took several years to settle into church in Boise.  Like the author of Eat Pray, Love (who was repeatedly asked whether she was married) I've learned to reply "Not Yet" to whether I've found a church home.  Looking at it another way though, I've found several.  I'm listening carefully, with heart and mind.  The search is challenging, humbling.  Lord, help this arrogant servant get on board!  A true servant would have hit the ground running as soon as she arrived (I did phone the local prison immediately!), only looking around to see what needed to be done next.  Not there--not yet!
    Already I know someone in most every church.  I love the way people still go to church in this neck of the Midwest, any church (no agonizing over whether it's the right church like I'm doing!); and still say the pledge of allegiance.  A few years ago I would have rolled my eyes; now I'm teary eyed.  Shift happens, slowly.  More folks than not have gone to the same church all their lives!  Churches don't seem competitive (except possibly when it comes to hosting dinners.)  At the same time, seems to me few churches have much life left.  While I've been out West doing my own thing--first the outdoors, then back-to-religion--the old churches of my hometown have either been dying, dividing or re-inventing themselves.  Congregations have splintered, are down in size.  And still I was stunned to learn one friend wants a small church--oughta be happy with the local possibilities!  I can't imagine how in the world a handful of folks can keep doors open!  Is it possible I think bigger is better when it comes to churches?  Lotta learning ahead.  What looks like certain death to me, may not be.
    How surprised I was to end New Year's Eve/ First Night in Springfield, standing in the left aisle of an old downtown Episcopal church singing familiar worship songs, with a handful of folks.  I was leery of the frosted, designer tossed hair of the pastor/song leader, but his spirit was right on!  Christian praise bands on a First Night Schedule?--this ain't Idaho!  It was the first time since moving I'd heard songs from my old church sung with passion, one after another.  Amazing Grace, how can it be!  I was equally stunned that my buddies for the evening didn't bolt (they also sat patiently through our shaky Shape Note sing earlier in the evening.  No one I'd ever known in Boise would have lasted a minute!)  An amazing end to 2006.  God is Good, all the time!
   I like this coming full circle.  Like an oil panting, the view gets better the further I step back, look, listen and breathe.  I've brought my curiosity about religions and cultures, probably acquired growing up in a small college town, attending the congregational church, back to the same.  Why kids move and why they return is on my mind, but for another time.
    Received an email this holiday called Carols for the Psychiatrical Challenged--oof, I hate forwards.  Eventually opened it and saw one on the list for me, Amnesia --- I Don't Know if I'll be Home for Christmas.  That got me going....  "Am I Home Yet?" ... "Is It Christmas Yet?"  Maybe, just maybe, mine's "I'm Finally Home for Christmas!"  The Midwest feels good, this first winter back.

A Tale from the Bible Belt
    This really happened.  Always up for a new church experience, I was told of a group that follows the teachings of Jesus.  I imagined a few rebellious airy fairy types talking over coffee about finding a church with life in it, putting in my 2 cents.  The parking lot was full--more folks than I see at some mainstream Sunday services.  It took a while to realized all the women wore long skirts and had long hair pulled into buns (but me in pants plus, forever unruly hair.)  I could have left before I was handed a small hymnal, but why not see this through.  The hymnal was British!  The service began with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by several hymns, accompanied by piano, every verse sung slowly, painfully.  Two older women were at the helm, women of God written all over them.  Both had serious, attractive, peaceful countenances, graying hair knotted up.  It was the kind of peace I'm simultaneously drawn to and uneasy with.  The taller woman, in white blouse and cardigan over black box pleated long skirt spoke first--simply, straightforwardly about her experience with scripture that day.   More hymns and the second spoke likewise.  My eyes were riveted on her purple print jacket over a plain dark A-line skirt; it was rather like a jean jacket--could possibly have been considered trendy.  With their utter simplicity and sincerity there was no doubt they were "called"; no way could I ever do such a thing.  The entire service all I could think of was Babette's Feast.  I'd been tempted to check it out at the library recently.  No need.  This was the real thing, Jesus their nourishment.  Who were these Sisters of the Word?  I know not (nor do those who told me of the meeting, nor does the city who rented the space), but they have quite a following.  Sister workers?  Stay tuned.

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