Tuesday, December 28, 2004

RHETORICAL QUESTION

Why, oh why, couldn't I have purchased this album instead of this album when I was in 11th grade?

My life would be totally different.

R-I-S-K

Look, said the Old Fart, do you believe in God or not?

The Old Fart is a friend of mine. (He’s making his debut appearance on my blog; he works at a profession in which he is required to make stabs at respectability from time to time, hence the pseudonym.) We were discussing whether or not I was going to do C.P.E. this coming summer. CPE, for those not in the know, stands for ‘Clinical Pastoral Education.’ In CPE one interns, usually for a summer, at a hospital or clinic while working as a chaplain. It’s supposed to help teach pastoral skills, caring for people, knowing how to be helpful in a crisis, etc. It also is excellent for scaring the piss out of aspiring ministers.

Princeton Seminary, where I am a student, doesn’t require M.Div students to do CPE. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I am a member, does require its prospective clergy to do so. Usually, they do it right after their first year of seminary, which for me will be this coming summer. I just found this out a couple of months ago, and, as usual, didn’t act on this information for quite a while. Finally, right before Christmas break, I got it together, put together some applications, and mailed them out to several hospitals in Chicago with the intention of interviewing with them over Christmas break.

I did just that last week. I interviewed at three major hospitals for CPE positions. And it finally hit me: you mean I (me, myself) will probably be doing CPE this summer? I’m not sure I’m prepared to do CPE this summer! Holy balls!

It was a combination of failure to really explore what CPE meant, and a failure to really meditate on the reality that I was actually going to do CPE—ignorance combined with denial, always a powerful force to reckon with. At one hospital I interviewed at, a chaplain-in-residence took me on a tour of the facility, a sprawling hospital spread across several buildings. We did the whole nine yards: emergency room (quiet at 3 PM on a Tuesday), pre-surgery anesthesia room (people on stretchers, tubes all over, moaning and groaning), maternity and delivery. Neo-natal intensive care: tiny, tiny red-skinned babies in big plastic containers to keep them warm and safe. I met a female chaplain who was assigned to that unit mostly-full time; I marvel at the courage required to work in such a place on a daily basis. Surgical intensive care (chaplain tour guide: “a lot of people die in here.”)

As a CPE chaplain, you do on-call work similar to what a doctor does: you spend the night at the hospital and if anybody needs your attention at 3 AM, they haul you out of bed. Regarding on-call nights, my tour guide and I had the following exchange:

Me: so, if someone calls you at 3 in the morning, what is it about, usually?
Him: Eh. Deaths, usually.
Me: (freaking out)

Each place I interviewed at seemed eager to have me, which was great—only I was pretty daunted by the idea of actually working there.

It’s been a long time since anyone close to me has died, or since I’ve attended a loved one in hospital. I remember visiting my ailing grandpa in the hospital when I was in 7th or 8th grade, but that was a long time ago. Just working in a hospital as an orderly or peon would be pretty challenging for me; blood, screaming, tubes, bed-pans, all of these are new and unfamiliar.

Working as clergy would also be new; there’s no youth ministry in my background, no preaching to the high school kids, no assisting in worship. I’m definitely still ‘in discernment’ about whether or not this whole ordained ministry thing is for me, and of late I’ve been leaning towards ‘no.’ Any job where I step into a clerical role would be a challenge. Much more challenging, then, the task of combining those two roles, of stepping into a hospital situation as clergy, as the spiritual vanguard, as someone who’s willing to stand up, examine closely the bedpans, tubes, scars, screams, and seizures, and say “Yes, God exists, and yes, God is working in this situation.”

Scary. Still scary several days after my interview. Probably scary for most people, which helps.

Which brings us to the Old Fart. Old Fart and I have a congenially contentious relationship, and when I expressed some of my worries about doing CPE, he pushed me to take a closer look at what assumptions my fear bespoke. Look, he said, peering at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke and coffee steam, do you believe in God or not? Do you, in fact, believe that God will even take care of schmucks like you? Do you believe that God is present even when people are screaming, crying their eyes out, in severe pain, wetting the bed? Because if you believe in God at all, then you must believe that God is present and working in those situations as well, as much as they give you the screaming heebie-jeebies. (The Fart being a truculent sort, I’m sure he threw in several four-letter words as well, but you get the gist of it.)

It was good advice. Summer CPE could be a good experience. I’m still extremely leery of the whole thing—and I want to do want to be careful about biting off more than I can chew. I’ll definitely be shadowing some chaplains at Princeton General this semester. But I keep thinking about what a quotation my brilliant friend Matt once shared with me, I think from John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Church: “How do you spell faith? R-I-S-K.” That willingness to climb out on a limb a little bit, to take a prayerfully considered leap into the unknown, is what faith is all about—at least if it’s a faith that’s distinguishable from good bourgeois manners and nice thoughts—and it’s a willingness I want to work at cultivating.

AN OPEN LETTER TO STARBUCKS:

Stop it. Just STOP IT. STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT.

STOP playing music that I really like. You are making feel OLD. I know you are not trying to hurt my feelings, but that is not the point. I am only 25, and I do NOT have to put up with feeling like an old person, just because you want to play the music I like.

I can handle hearing my favorite music in, say, a small, independent coffee shop, where the bathroom is not clean and the employees have spiky hair and tattoos. But not in STARBUCKS. Yet just today you played a run of songs ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "I Still Miss Someone," "Dear Someone," "Red-Headed Stranger,") that I would have been delighted to hear pop up on iTunes on my computer. Are you trying to drive me insane?

Starbucks. I'm serious. Please, please, stop.

Sincerely,
Dave

Monday, December 20, 2004

RHETORICAL QUESTION:

Why wasn't I told sooner about this? It combines virtually all my interests in one place.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

A LONG FACE IS NOT A MORAL DISINFECTANT

(This title quote is from C.S. Lewis.)

It has taken me quite a while to begin to distinguish between the virtue of being convicted of one’s sinfulness and the sin of disliking oneself. I am finally starting to get the hang of it a tiny bit.

I used to take for granted the fact that I felt myself very inadequate in a number of areas of my life meant that I understood that I was a sinner. After all, I disliked any number of things about myself: the way I looked. My sensitivity to criticism. The fact that I’m easily frustrated sometimes. My inability to beat Dragon Warrior for the NES. My occasional poor planning and organization. These things so frustrated me, even enraged me, that they were difficult to bear. I took a kind of solace in the fact that, even though I was horribly flawed, at least I understood that I was horribly flawed and I could ask for God’s help. It took me a long time to realize that not only did my disliking myself for these traits not constitute awareness of being a sinner, but it actually functioned as a cunning smokescreen for realizing what my actual sins were. It’s a pretty savvy defense, actually: look! I feel shitty about myself! Therefore, how can you be mad at me for being (selfish, lazy, irritable, critical, etc.).

Lewis, in the title quote, nails it: a long face is not a moral disinfectant. In my case, not only did feeling bad about myself prevent me from taking effective action to try to be a better person, I think it actually prevented me from even realizing some of the ways I did behave badly. It’s taken me a lot of thinking the past few years to see the ways that my sense of inadequacy failed to protect me from acting hurtfully or selfishly towards those I love, and doing all kinds of other dumb things. I’m grateful for some of the modest ways I’ve glimpsed that my disliking myself actually hinders my being loving, using my gifts, and following God.

A few years ago, I befriended a person who I believed to be much cooler than I was. I was actually a little surprised that this person would have anything to do with me at all, but they seemed to like me, so we hung out. And once I got past the initial stages of self-criticism (‘this person is so out of my league…what the hell are you thinking, dumbass?’) and self-congratulation (‘hey! They like you! You’re pretty hip after all!’), I immediately moved onto a third stage: suspicion. I started to question why this person was hanging out with me. ‘This person isn’t very hip after all,’ I said to myself. ‘They’re actually pretty lame in a number of ways.’ Soon I had downgraded this person several notches in my mental databank of hipness. (Yes, I do have one, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.) It was a small incident, but when I reflected on it, it spoke powerfully to me. It was easier for me to accept that the ‘hip’ person was actually a loser because they hung out with me than it was to accept that my low self-esteem might be off-base. It took me a while to figure that one out, and when I did, it was kind of a “whoa” moment.

Self-hatred and egotism are twin fruits of the same plant. In both cases, the self is still where all the attention goes. My flaws were so distressing to me, in part, because I had such ridiculously high standards for myself, standards that bespoke an unwillingness to accept myself as a flawed, imperfect human being—which is just what accepting your sinfulness is.

There is, of course, a theological tension between Christian notions of human sinfulness and psychological notions of mental health and self-esteem. The first says, “Despite my very best efforts, I can do nothing on my own to please God. I am inadequate.” The second says, “I’m an OK person. I do my best, and that is good enough.” I don’t believe these notions are fundamentally at odds, but it is true that in the Christian view self-esteem is not an absolute value. At times it can and must be challenged by the reality that we all fall short of what God intends us to be. Someone who marches into an encounter with Christianity with a very self-satisfied take on themselves (“I’m a great, upstanding, moral person; I do all the right things, and God likes me because I do the right things,”) is liable to wind up feeling a little bit inadequate at the end of the day—and that’s probably for the best. The real question, of course, is what the Christian conviction that everybody is a sinner means for how we esteem ourselves. The best answer I have come up with is that a) we must strive to see and accept ourselves accurately, just as we are, with both flaws and virtues intact, sinning neither by pride, which makes us out to be more than we are, nor by making ourselves out to be less than we are, which pridefully refuses to use the gifts God has given us; and b) we must strive to see ourselves through the eyes of God’s love, which is utterly accepting of us as we are, and utterly relentless in its striving to get us to be more than we are.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

ALAS, WARDLEY! WE HARDLY KNEW YE!

R.I.P., Wardley the Fish.
December 2nd-December 14th, 2004.

Shit.

Despite my best efforts to provide de-chlorinated water, smart, clever, and winsomely-personalitied Wardley croaked sometime after 1.15 AM EST last night. Sigh.

At least it answers the question of what to do with my fish over winter break...

Monday, December 13, 2004

ALAS, PEDRO! WE HARDLY KNEW YE!

R.I.P., Pedro the Fish.
December 2nd, 2004-December 12th, 2004.

We had a very solemn memorial service last night, in the men's bathroom here on the 4th floor of Hodge Hall. Music was unavailable, although I did hum a few bars of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" before flushing poor Pete. I offered the following funeral oration: "Dear Pedro: you were a good fish. Now you're dead. I hope you enjoy fishy heaven."

Frankly, I'm not too torn up about this. Pedro was definitely the larger, dumber, and less winsome of the two. However, if little Wardley croaks in the next 8 hours, before I have a chance to give him fresh (and freshly de-chlorinated) water, I will be irked.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

A MYSTERIOUS STRANGER HAS GIVEN ME FISH.

A mysterious stranger has given me fish. Two days ago, I walked out of my dorm room to go to dinner, and there on my doorstep was a small plastic fishtank with two goldfish in it. There was also a note. In its entirety, it reads thusly: "I'm Wardley and this is Pedro. Please feed us. Our lives are in your hands." (I appreciated the reference to the Best Movie Ever. Attached to the note is a photo of the Pope...also a nice touch.)

In the words of my friend Jeremy, what am I supposed to do with that? I guess I'm a goldfish parent now. I mean, I suppose in the world of "pets randomly being dropped off on your doorstep before mealtime," I'm lucky it was two goldfish and not, say, a lemur or a zebra, but still. I'm nervous. How often are you supposed to change their water? Feed them? What's the deal, here? I'd feel like a failure if my goldfish croaked within the first week or so.

I have my suspicious about who did it. And when I say "suspicions," I mean "the guilty parties cracked like an egg." (The deed-doers: this one and this one.) Despite my bluster, however, I'm grateful...when you've been spending too much time writing about Julian of Norwich and not enough time cleaning your room, exercising, or praying, having an encounter with the bizarre or silly can feel restorative. Big ups to that....and Abby and Reno, watch out for guinea pigs.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

ANNIVERSARY TALK

This man is desperate for your attention. In particular, for your visiting his site.

Reno's been running Far Country Tell for a month now. If you visited his site (thought-provoking, fascinating, disturbing), he'd love it, because it'd drive up his hit numbers. You should feel free to just go to the site from four or five different computers to boost his ego. But you'd be letting yourself off too easy if you didn't stick around to read his passionate ramblings on Woody Guthrie, Che Guevara, brandy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Check it out.