Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Difference

Last Saturday was positively glorious, such that even though I have a distinctly lazy streak, I decided to get out for a walk. I didn’t even need a jacket. I walked down the usual route, because there is very little else to do but walk the usual route unless you want to go down it backwards, and presently I came upon the House on the Corner.

The House on the Corner has little stone fairies in the rocks along the side of the road and on Saturday an older couple was raking the leaves out of the rocks. By the time I got there, the wife had gone inside, and it was just the husband out there raking. I said hello. He said hello. We both remarked approvingly on the weather. I kept walking.

I had gone quite some way down the road when the nagging voice in my head that was telling me to go and offer to help him rake got the better of me, and so I turned around and walked back. I had a conversation in my head where the man gratefully accepted my help (even though he’s a New Englander--I should have thought that one out a little more) and then I said something trite but heartfelt and true about Jesus loving him.

At least I know enough by now to be fairly certain that the conversations I have in my head will not remotely resemble the ones that happen in real life. This one didn’t.

It started all right. I offered to help. He declined. I asked if he was sure. He was. Then he leaned on his rake and started talking. He began by talking about his grandkids, but what ended up happening was a full-on “evangelistic” promotion of paganism. He was lucky, he said, that he had had the upbringing he did. His mother was very sensitive, he said. He grew up with ghosts and learned not to be afraid of them. He had experiences, which he told me about. One of them involved going “back and back” past his Egyptian period and discovering he was holding a galaxy in his hands and singing a love-song lullaby to it.

The thing he had learned, he told me, was that everything is interconnected, and every moment is to be enjoyed and that we are pre-existently eternal, and more powerful than we can even know. “There are some Entities,” he said, confidentially, “who don’t want us to know how powerful we are.” I felt him looking at me pointedly. I was fairly certain he had figured out I was a Christian, even though I had said approximately nothing in the entire half hour he was talking to me. I thought he was implying that the Entity that Christians worship as God was one such being, set on keeping us down.

I wanted to argue, but I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it wouldn’t do any good. I wanted to say, “Yep. We are more powerful than we have any idea of. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day we were to hold galaxies in our hands [actually, that’s not true--the act itself might be surprising when it actually happens], but we don’t get that from ourselves. We get it because we are made in the image of the Lord God Almighty who doesn’t want to keep us down--He wants us to reign with Him. But there are entities who don’t want us to reach our potential, and those are the lying spirits you’re listening to, who fill your head with delusions of independence, spinning out the deception until the end, all the while keeping you away from the One who loves you and can enable you to be more than you ever thought.”

I thought if I tried to say something like that, first off he wouldn’t allow me to get that many words in edgewise, and secondly it would degenerate into a “my God is better than your god” (or whatever) argument, and, on the level of argument he would probably win. I daresay he has seen more supernatural or at least paranormal experiences than I have.

But I couldn’t stop wondering how one does engage in a real give-and-take about beliefs with someone who believes like this. There’s a man at Old Church who talks about Jesus and the difference He’s made in his life in just the same way this man, Pagan-Jerry, was talking about his special spirits. I knew from the bottom of my soul there was a difference, but I couldn’t find a way to helpfully articulate it.

The weird thing was that I had just been thinking that morning, for some unknown reason, about how CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein engaged paganism in their stories and made use of the similarities with the Christian story to show how Jesus fulfilled not only the prophecies of Judaism but the dreams of paganism. But right then, talking to Pagan-Jerry, the similarities seemed like the biggest stumbling-block of all. How could I refute anything he said when to do so would sound like I was just changing the labels around?

I kept asking Jesus to give me some words, but He didn't, that I could tell, so I just listened. And then Pagan-Jerry said, “It’s just such a shame we don’t realise all this about ourselves. We do such atrocious things to each other and to our world. Some that I’ve talked to [here he looked significantly at me, giving me to understand he meant some spirits, and not some other humans] keep asking, ‘What’s wrong with all of you? You destroy each other. You foul your nest. Why do you do it?’ And I just don’t know. That's just how it is.”

That was when I realised the difference. The pagan stories have no true place for sin. There’s no explanation of it--how it got here, why we do it, why the world is in the mess it is today. Ironically, the one story that calls sin “sin” and whose Hero definitively triumphed over it and eradicates it is the one story that also has a place for it. Only the long slow multi-millennial process of the story of Jesus can give us a reason for why we destroy each other and foul the world we live in. And only that story can give us an ultimate solution.

As if proving the point--that I sin--I took my own personal safety and composure in my hands at that point, and returned home.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sesame Street Has Been Brought To You Today . . .

. . . by the nouns "miracle" and "intercession" and by the interjection, "huh?!"

Two weeks ago a bunch of people who don't know each other all decided to tell me across the span of a week the same (or mostly the same) thing about an aspect of my life. When that happens, I usually think it's worth listening, just in case, you know, it was actually God trying to get through to me or something. One of these people has just started an praying ministry on Facebook and I guessed I should especially listen to him, maybe?

I didn't really want it to be God, because I didn't really want to re-examine that area of my life (having already done so numerous times over the course of the year). But I didn't get the same "answer" I had been getting all those other times of hashing it over. I didn't feel like I got an answer at all. So I wasn't sure, even if it was God talking, what exactly He was telling me to do about it.

I'm still not, entirely, but I'm getting at least a little bit of a clue how to think about it. First of all, I should tell you I wrote at A Wandering Line a companion piece to the last post here. Two days after I wrote that, I visited a church with New Church's confirmation class, where they read Ephesians 1. Which, you know, is basically about God accomplishing the Impossible Reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Then yesterday I got a whole bunch of "messages" at least as insistent as the ones of two weeks ago, and this is how they went:

I went to see my counselor, who I meet with in a church. I was early so I made a pit-stop detour and on the wall on my way was a big sign saying, "Expect a miracle." Ha. I thought. That's ironic. Since, you know, I've been talking about those lately and also praying for one or two more than lately. I wanted to take it as a confirmation of . . . something, but I don't believe in fortune cookies. This was a little large for a fortune cookie, however. I have, on occasion (including last week), wished aloud that God would give me a literal sign. You know--one with writing. So . . . if I get one, should I dismiss it?

Then I went into the bathroom. I had forgotten that on the stall walls in this particular church, they have pasted Bible verses--a different one in each stall. I had evidently never been in this stall before, because I was startled when I read, "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (Luke 1.45, NIV). Curiouser and curiouser . . .

At the end of my session, my counselor prayed for me, as she does, and prayed that I would see God do the impossible. I don't remember ever talking to her about that in those terms before. Or maybe she prayed something else similar . . . I don't exactly remember, but it was something along the lines I had been thinking of, about miracles and the irresistibility of God.

Then I went to work at New Church. The phone rang. It was the line the Milk Guy usually rings in on, and we had just been talking, so I thought maybe he had thought of one more thing to say, so I picked it up. It was definitely not the Milk Guy--it was a Wrong Number. This Wrong Number wanted to talk, though, apparently, because when I said the word church his ears perked up.

Evidently he is a Ghanaian intercessor praying for the City. We talked about church and about what we hoped to see God do in this City and about some of the problems we face here. I had that weird brain-prickle that sometimes occurs when I think that God might have orchestrated a mistake on purpose and so I couldn't really argue when Wrong Number said, "This is from the Lord--God wants to do things here, because look--I was trying to call my work, and I called a church instead and am talking to you. The Holy Spirit did this." I've been learning a lot about the Holy Spirit lately--maybe even more than I did when I worshiped in a charismatic church. I thought he was probably right. Then Wrong Number said, "Don't ever forget. God is a God of the impossible. He wants to bring people to Himself and He wants to do miracles. We need to pray. We need to pray for Him to do the impossible."

There's a certain vein of theology that says things like that in a way with which I am not comfortable. I don't, for example, think that the Christian life becomes trouble-free if you pray and believe hard enough. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I don't know. Do you think all that was coincidence?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Expectations

I used to have this friend who expected a lot of me but would completely freak out whenever she felt I was expecting anything of her. I don't know if I thought at the time that I could deliver, thus feeling the burden of expectations less, but anyway, it took me a few more fraught experiences and friendships to realise that superimposing expectations over personhood is pretty tough to deal with when you're the person being superimposed upon.

All of a sudden in the last week a whole lot of things have come up independently of each other regarding expectations I have of others and of myself. And of Jesus. Then today I discovered that Jeff's been blogging about worshipping expectations instead of Jesus. I feel like I do that a lot. I also feel like it's impossible not to have expectations and that I don't know what to do with them.

I think the short, and theoretically easy, answer is: just worship Jesus. Relinquish expectations. Just fuggedaboudit.

Or something like that.

I would counter, however, that a relationship is about trust, and a relationship with Jesus is especially about trust, and it's hard to actively trust if you're not expecting something. I guess what I'm supposed to trust is that Jesus loves me and will take care of me and no one will snatch me out of His hand. Which I feel He is graciously enabling me to do more and more these days. But I don't know, on a practical level, how to trust Him with specific situations.

Say there's something I'm praying about. I've been praying about it for a long time. I feel I've been obedient within the situation as best I know how. I know that on a realistic level, the thing I'm praying about can't change much. I also know that Jesus does miracles. Seriously. He does miracles, people! And I'm talking to Him. And He's pretty good with upsetting the status quo. So . . . do I expect Him to do the miracle? Or do I expect Him to get me through the situation without the miracle?

Well, I'll tell you what I'm temperamentally more likely to expect. (I mean, I won't tell you, but I'm pretty sure you can guess.) Is it more trusting, more Jesus-glorifying, more obedient, more worshipful to expect and hope for the totally unlikely miracle? Or is it more all-those-things to be more of a realist, to expect no miracle and to watch and see what happens without it?

Hoping and expecting a miracle seems braver and scarier and a lot more like putting myself out there to get hurt and shamed and at the very least disappointed. But it seems like that's what all the people who get a mention in the Bible did anyway--expected a miracle. At least eventually. (And they did often get hurt and shamed and disappointed, but they still got their miracles, too.) Not expecting a miracle seems safer but also more responsible and less of an imposition of my will on God's.

I don't want to burden God with selfish expectations the way my friend and I burdened each other all those years ago. If there's a free Being anywhere, it's God, and He doesn't deserve (nor do I believe will He tolerate) to be boxed in to my own little personal will. But without faith it's impossible to please God, and all those people in Hebrews 11 trusted in God, but also in specific things that God had promised for them. I don't know how to tell the difference between my wishes and God's promises, and I just don't know what to expect . . .

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wandering Over

Last night I posted something about--what else?--trust over on A Wandering Line. Check it out.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Writing Into the Maze

Let us all keep in mind and remember here that I am not a very disciplined writer. The story whose first draft I finished last Lent hasn't changed much since then, and the one I'm occasionally glancing at these days I hadn't looked at in years before last week. I'm only saying this because I'm about to tell you about one of my characters and I don't want Certain Readers to get their hopes up too much.

But I just wanted to point out that phenomena that I have mentioned and also heard other authors mention on occasion--the one where the characters end up changing the story on you.

I have this character Jake. He's 23 or so and he gets completely infatuated with this young woman named Sophie and follows her to London. They get in kind of a fight on his first full day there, and he decides to go find a pub and think. Or at least drink. He has some conflict-resolution issues. Anyway, so he marches out of the Tate Modern and goes to look for a pub.

I really thought he was going to find one. I mean, they're all over London. I thought, too, that he'd be too jetlagged and maybe intimidated by this new huge city to want to go very far. He was a little nervous about flying to begin with. I figured he'd get on the Tube and head back to the area he was staying and go to a pub there, just to be safe. But he didn't. Instead he got all distracted by the thoughts in his head and kept walking through Bankside and got lost somewhere beyond Tower Bridge and now it's getting dark.

I didn't know that was going to happen.

I don't think this is necessarily going to be a pivotal part of the story, but I just point it out because this kind of thing happens a lot when I write: somebody goes down a road I hadn't planned for them to go on and I have to follow them down it. If I don't, they might never get out. I have an idea of where I want the story to head, and sometimes I have to write a character out of quite a bit of mischief. But I also have to give them the dignity to make their own choices and see how the story unfolds on that basis.

I'm not trying to draw out any deep symbolism here. I've already talked about how I feel about making this experience a metaphor for God's interaction with us (I think it works in part . . . but not well enough). But it does fascinate me when it happens, and I thought I'd let you in on it.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Remember . . . ?

I have another blog. I know it's a pain to set up yet another account so you can comment on yet another blog, so I understand if you don't want to do it. On the other hand, that one might be where it matters if people can tell I have a readership--I don't know. So . . . I've been talking about pot and the Transfiguration and giving people spring over there in the last three weeks. Not all at the same time. If you missed any of that, you might want to go check it out.

Telemarketers Are People, Too

Here, as closely as I can remember, is an honest-to-goodness conversation I had on the phone last night.

The caller ID came up as Charter Communications, and I have been ignoring their calls for a while, but they are my internet and phone and tv providers, so I decided I had better finally answer, just in case there was actually something they needed to communicate with me.

Me: Hello?

Charter Chick: Hello--is Mr. or Mrs. Grosser there?

Me [I get this a lot, and it's really fun to tell people they've left the country]: Um, I'm sorry--they don't live here anymore.

Charter Chick: Oh. [Pause.] Should I take their names off the account?

Me [I'm about to say yes, but I happen to know their names were never on the account, because I switched to it after they left the country]: Well--are their names on the account?

Charter Chick: Is one of them Jennifer Grosser?

Me: I'm Jennifer Grosser.

Charter Chick: What? Wait. I'm so confused!

Me: [Laughing] Me, too! I'm Jennifer Grosser--you kind of threw me off with the whole "Mr and Mrs" thing. [I could have a whole rant about this here if we wanted, but that's for a different post and I don't think it was her fault.]

Charter Chick: [Laughing, too] Oh--sorry! Okay. [Pause, though still laughing.] Well [deep breath] my name is Kristy and I'm calling on behalf of Charter to let you know about a very exciting offer.

[I don't remember if her name was really Kristy, but that's probably just as well.]

Me: [Pretty sure I'm not going to accept the offer, but we just had a laugh together and so I feel it would be rude to hang up now.] Okay.

Kristy: First I need to tell you that this call may be monitored or recorded for quality control purposes. [She's still laughing.]

Me: That should be entertaining for them.

Kristy: Okay, you ready?

Me: Go for it.

[Kristy launches into a schpiel about their offering me HBO and a whole bunch of other stuff for only $5 for a month for an entire year. This would be a good deal if I ever watched TV, other than Lost and sometimes The Office, both of which I can also watch on-line. As for movies--I rarely have time to sit down and watch a full-length movie. I decline. She tries again. I still decline. She offers me a free trial month. I still decline although she has been very pleasant about the whole thing.]

Kristy: You know what? This is the most fun conversation I've had all day!

Me: Well that's good! I'm glad. I hope your other conversations are a little more profitable for you, but . . .

Kristy: You know what? It doesn't matter if you buy anything or not--this was the best conversation!

We both heartily wished each other a good evening and I went on my way, but I couldn't stop smiling. I think it was because I realised I had just inadvertently treated her the way I wished people at Starbucks would treat me. And some of them do. But that day I had worked an eight-hour shift during which Mouse got chewed out essentially for not wasting paper product, and I got chewed out because Starbucks charges extra for packets of jam for bagels. ("I'm pretty sure they give jelly out free at Dunkin' Donuts," said one of the accusers. "Well, you can go to Dunkin Donuts," I offered.)

I don't know that I will make a practice of engaging in friendly banter with telemarketers, but you know what? It didn't kill me. It kind of made my night.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Daffodils

After church on Sunday, I bought myself some daffodils and brought a second bunch to the Milk Guy for St. David's Day. It was snowing, and getting ready to snow a whole lot more, and neither of us was happy about it. We don't like winter. I used to like it as a child when there were such things as snow days and I wasn't the one shoveling the snowdrifts, instead burrowing snow-forts into them and making snow-centaurs with my brother. But now it's shoveling at 4.30 in the morning for me, and getting achy and being cold all the time, and frankly, I hate it. Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure the Milk Guy has never liked winter in his life. So I decided to snub my nose at winter and bring us each some spring.

While the Milk Guy was putting the daffodils into a vase, I mentioned that daffodils are my favourite flower. (I'm pretty sure that this is because, though my offering him daffodils was truly pure-hearted, I'm not, exactly, and I probably wanted him to take note of this for future reference.)

"Why?" he asked.

I wanted to say, "Because they're yellow," but that doesn't actually make sense, since yellow is not my favourite colour and I feel that it requires certain specific contexts (like daffodils) to be acceptable. In this case, daffodils are what make me like yellow, rather than the other way round.

So I had to stop and think about it. "Probably because of the Welsh connexion," I said. "But also because they're so . . . joyful-looking. Because they bloom in defiance of winter."

He chuckled. "That sounds like something I would say."

Which might have been why I said it like that, but I think it's true. I love crocuses for the same reason, but not as much as daffodils. Crocuses are the brave little scouts that sneak up through the snow and surprise us with dots of colour. But daffodils are the heralds of the new order. They trumpet the news that spring is coming, that winter is dying, that summer will follow and fulfillment of the year's promises. At this time of year, buried under the snow, it's inspiring enough that they shine sunshine into winter's cold face.
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