God and grocery lists

How do you talk to your spouse? Before you were married, it was probably normal to write messages like “Hey, I miss you! I look forward to seeing you tonight!” After you got married, how often do you say the same thing? Do the majority of your messages consist of grocery lists now? “Hey, can you pick up milk on the way home? And don’t forget to check the air pressure in the tires.”

How many of us talk to God in the same way? “Hey, God, I’d like a new job and a car that runs. Oh, and while you are at it, world peace.” How often do we see God like this? Even if all the things are not self-centered, this still seems to be a limited way to view God.

This is our Creator. Who are we to order God around? Who are we to see God as a short-order chef or a servant? In the book of Isaiah we are told that God is the potter and we are the clay. Does the clay dictate to the maker what it should happen to it?

It is that sense of trust that is the goal. It is so hard to be that clay. It is so hard to relax fully into the experiences of life and trust that everything is going the way it should. Our perspective is very small. We can’t see it all. In many ways I think that is a blessing. I don’t want to see it all. What I can see I’m not very good at taking care of. I don’t have pets or plants for that very reason. So I like the idea that I’m not in control. I like the idea that I’m not driving the bus. So much for “Jesus is my copilot.” Drop the sense of control entirely and let Jesus take over.

I suspect this is part of what people who aren’t Christian see as being wrong about the faith. They look at the idea of having an “imaginary friend” being in control as the same as being a zombie. There must be some voodoo that the minister does that makes all the believers like sheep, like followers, rather than active participants.

Yes, we are sheep, but we have chosen to be this way. It isn’t something that any minister has done to us. It is something that we have chosen. Now, if I intentionally give over my power to someone who I recognize is more powerful, isn’t there a paradox? It wasn’t taken from me. I gave it away in that whole “free will” thing. And yet I’m still me. I’m still the same person. I’m an active participant in creation. I choose to yield to my Higher Power to use AA talk.

I used to fight against God. I used to not trust where God was leading me. I’m still not very good at praying about my actions before I do them. I have a suspicion that part of it is that talking about God isn’t really something that is done in the Episcopal Church. Oh, sure, we read from the Bible. We sing hymns saying how great God is. We have pre-written prayers for almost every occasion. But actual, unscripted God-talk? That is totally awkward. Telling people about how God has shaped your life isn’t really an Episcopalian kind of thing to do. It is more Pentecostal than high-Protestant.

But God is real, and God does move in our lives. Sometimes it is painfully obvious. Sometimes it is really hard to see unless you journal and start to notice a pattern. Sometimes the only way to see it is to make a regular habit of praying and being thankful.

I like the Jewish concept of giving thanks before everything. Note the direction here. Thanks before – not after. This is like writing a thank-you note for your birthday present before it is even bought and put in the mail to you. But when you give thanks for something before you get it, you are then in a position to actually receive it. The idea of giving thanks before meals was explained like this – if you do this, you are proving that you aren’t an animal. Only animals snarf up their food as soon as they can see it. They greedily devour it and pay no attention to where it came from. Part of being a human is trying to rise above our animal natures. We want to think we are better than that. We want to think we have self-control .

But we humans don’t have self-control. We have the illusion of it. We think we are in charge of our lives. We don’t even have control over our own bodies. The smallest hunger pang makes us rush for a meal. When we go to a buffet we eat three plates instead of one. “I couldn’t help myself” is our battle cry for self-pity. So even those who think they are independent really aren’t.

I’d rather be honest about the fact that I’m not in control. Then I want to try to be thankful all the time that I’m not in control. Then I want to work towards harmonizing my desires with God’s desires. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say “Thy will be done,” not “my will be done.” I remember a prayer a long time ago that went like this – “I will to will Thy will.” The idea is that instead of getting what I want, I want what I get. This may seem very passive, but it is actually very freeing. It gives up the desire to control outcomes. It gives us new eyes to appreciate what is actually there.

Now, about that world peace…

Addiction, powerlessness, and grief

I used to smoke not only clove cigarettes but pot. With both I was trying to avoid my problems. I used to get really fidgety if I couldn’t have a smoke when I wanted it. When I was at work I would look forward to getting home so I could smoke as much as I wanted. This was especially true when I’d had a bad experience. Perhaps somebody had yelled at me, generally over a misunderstanding. In my opinion the majority of the blame was always on them. (Here lies another problem.) All I wanted to do was get home quickly so I could smoke and start feeling good. Then one day I thought about it differently. I was letting them “win”. The patron who was driving me up the wall was driving me to smoke and ruin my health. Of course, that patron didn’t have a gun to my head. I was doing the smoking. I was choosing something bad to counter something bad. This makes no sense but it happens all the time.

I had a friend who had posted that she saw a roach in her house. She was so freaked out that she had to smoke. I commented that the cigarette was doing her more harm than the roach. She then absolutely went thermonuclear on me. This is someone who knows that both my parents died from smoking so this is a really sensitive and important subject with me. Her rant went on for quite a long time. Either Facebook has a limit on how much you can say in a message or she kept coming back up for air in her rant. Boy she was mad. There were at least 6 long messages, one after the other in quick succession. I didn’t even read every word. I said “I’m sorry” as honestly and sincerely as I could and that was all. That kind of reaction cannot be soothed by anything, so it was best to be short.

The part that really interests me is that she then said that my comment to her made her go smoke more. Really? It doesn’t work like that. I didn’t force her to do anything. In fact, I was trying to encourage her to stop smoking. She chose to smoke. She chose to make it a situation where she felt powerless. She chose to feel as if my statement caused her reaction. This is a sense of giving over your power to another human being. How is this different from being a puppet or a slave?

If I had that much power I’d use it far better. But I don’t have that power at all. Her reaction was proof that she was acting in the passive. She was not in control of her own actions or I suspect even her own life. I know from previous talks with her (they weren’t really conversations so much as monologues) that she was physically abused as a child. This story came up apropos of nothing. It was a bit embarrassing to be shown her dirty laundry right there sitting at a friend’s table while we were painting.

While I feel grateful that people trust me with really deep private stories, I feel embarrassed and helpless when the stories come up unbidden. It is as if a friend is sick but has no symptoms. Then she starts throwing up – and I wasn’t prepared with a bucket. I need a bit of warning to know how to handle those big emotions and feelings that occur when someone tells something really heavy.

In a way, I’m glad that she told me her story in that way. It let me know how deeply damaged she is. I’m sad for her and I know that I’m not qualified to carry that burden for her. It also gave me an insight into why she blamed me for her smoking. She is used to being the victim. She is used to things happening to her. She does not see her life as her own, and the feelings she had as a child were unbearable. Feelings that aren’t processed will come out later in really unusual and often disturbing ways.

It is like a hackberry bush. You can try to cut it down, but if you don’t dig up the entire thing it will send out new shoots and be bigger and more difficult to manage than ever.

I’ve read about processing grief – and this is grief. Grief isn’t just about a death of a loved one. It is about loss. Losing a job, divorce, moving, a diagnosis of a chronic ailment – these can all produce grief. If you don’t get grief out it can manifest itself in addictions and compulsions that cause even more problems. In all those situations there is a sense of powerlessness. Things aren’t as we think they should be. Life is not following the script.

There are things you can do in the sense of overwhelming grief that help. The best results were from cultures that really wailed about grief. They got really loud and waved their arms. This is totally foreign to white American culture. It is normal for us to grieve in private or not at all. We feel that grief is embarrassing and should be done at home, silently. Perhaps we see grief as too personal.

Perhaps we have a problem when anything from “inside” ourselves gets “outside”. In the same way we have prohibitions about nudity, we have prohibitions about showing too much emotion. It is seen as gauche or tacky. It isn’t civilized.

Sometimes there are new ways to express grief. Sometimes I think they miss the point. There are those roadside memorials that are for people who have died in car accidents. I feel like they have been around only in the past ten years. These little reminders of death in the midst of life are odd to me, partly because they aren’t reminders to me at all. I didn’t know this person. I don’t even know their family or friends. Why is this display here? Why are they for traffic accidents and not everything? Are we going to have memorials everywhere for everyone? Am I going to walk into a building tomorrow and see a memorial for someone who died of a heart attack right there by the elevator?

Then there are those car decals. These have appeared in the past few years. They usually say something like “In loving memory of Dustin.” Sometimes there are praying hands. Often the birth and death dates are there. This to me is stranger than the memorial tattoos. This is more public, and more anonymous. If you have a tattoo of your loved one on your arm, I’m not going to see it all the time. I’ll only see it when you show it to me or if we are both working out at the Y. But on your car, I’m going to be able to read it when I stop behind you at every traffic light on the way to Target.

People have a habit of memorializing their dead relatives on Facebook. “Happy Birthday Granny! You would have been 103 today! I miss you.” This creeps me out the most. What is the point of the message? I could understand it more if the post was more like “Today would have been my grandmother’s birthday. She died 17 years ago and I still miss her.” At least there is an audience for that post. Your friends can read it and console you. But in the first post the audience is dead. It feels like I’m reading mail that was misdelivered. And how long is this going to go on? Every year? When is grief over? I like the Jewish concept of grieving. There are specific time periods and specific actions for grief. There are levels that are allowed, and there is a time that you must get back into the community. You can’t wall yourself off forever.

Perhaps we all need better ways to process our grief. Perhaps we need better ways to identify it first. Perhaps we need regular rituals to get it out.

Or is this just another way to compartmentalize it and shove it away in a box?

Death used to be something we did with family. Now it is handled by professionals. Aunt Bertha used to die at home, surrounded by family. Her body was lovingly washed and then clothed in her favorite dress. She was laid out in the living room for friends to gather around. These days, Aunt Bertha would die in a hospital, and if she wasn’t alone when she died, she’d be with strangers. The nurses would note her passing. They’d write her name on a chart. They’d call the attendants who would take her out like so much trash. Then the funeral home guys come, and a stranger processes the body. Just reading about that process makes me want to die in a house fire rather than in a car accident. At least in a house fire my body is automatically cremated, rather than embalmed and stuffed. I don’t want to look “natural” at my funeral.

But really, I don’t have a choice. What will happen will happen. I can tell my loved ones what I would like but there is no guarantee it will happen. Everything about death is loss of power. You aren’t in control. You have no say as to what happens. It is an inevitable event. It will happen. It is the great equalizer.

Perhaps people keep the same boyfriend or spouse who is at worst abusive and at best lazy and unmotivated out of that same sense of fear. Perhaps people stick with the same dead-end job for the same reason. Perhaps all sense of powerlessness comes from a root fear of death. Perhaps the root of this comes from a sense of a loss of control. Perhaps our need for control is the problem.