Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Penguin Tag

A couple of years ago I took an improvisational comedy course. Every Sunday evening from fall through to spring, our group gathered in a room with nothing in it but a few folding chairs, to conjure up skits from nothing.

We'd shuffle in the door still thinking about the outside world, sometimes with worries on our mind. Perched on folding chairs, making idle conversation until the teacher showed up, we were our regular, moderate selves.

But you can't make magic from moderation. The teacher's first priority in each class wasn't to impart information to us. It was to shake us free from our rational, linear selves. He wanted to rev up the crazy. He wasn't happy until he saw us being downright rambunctious, because that is when the comedy magic happened.

My favourite of all our warm-up exercises was Penguin Tag. It's exactly like regular tag, except for one additional rule: your knees must remain touching each other at all times. He wouldn't warn us in advance which warm-up was coming. He'd get us all up and standing in a circle, and then suddenly bellow:

"Penguin Tag! I'm It! Go!"

There would be a mad scramble as a dozen or so people frantically waddled around the small room, trying to evade It. I don't suppose it would make a great spectator sport, but I can tell you that it really gets the adreneline pumping. It only took about three minutes of Penguin Tag before we were all flushed, laughing hysterically, and completely in touch with all the wild possibilities of the child mind.

Exuberance is a wonderful thing, and sadly lacking in adult life in mainstream North American culture. Where it exists, often chemicals have been called upon get us there. It's tragic.

The other time I was part of a group that frequently had spontaneous, non-chemical, unplanned expression was when I took a course called "Soundwork as Soulwork". It involved improvised group singing, drumming, and movement. Sometimes we were more "in the groove" than others, and there certainly were times when I felt like a silly fool, but there were also magic moments when we touched something truly beautiful together.

Once I attended a black Baptist church in Indiannapolis (with my ex-in-law family), and there was a lot of improv going on there. I particularly remember one older lady who sat behind me, prim and proper in a navy blue suit with white trim, and a matching hat. She came bursting out with spontaneous praise in response to everything the preacher said.

"Yes, Jesus!"

"Thank you, Jesus!"

At the time I thought it was really weird, and I felt uncomfortable. Now I think back and I understand the spirit that moved her. Celebrating the divine should make us want to shout out in joy and agreement!

My current church is much too well-behaved and quiet. The congregation is Baptist, liberal, and multicultural. There are approximately equal numbers of white, black, and Asian faces in the crowd. The black folks are best at giving the pastor an "Amen" here and there. There is one lady, old as the hills and with eyes clouded by cataracts, who belts out "Praise the Lord!" at regular intervals. She makes me smile.

But the rest of us sit quietly, and take flack from the pastor for being too restrained. I'm as guilty as the rest. I have occasionally found the juice to give an audible "Amen", but most of the time I'm as quiet as the proverbial churchmouse.

The hardest part is Going First. If there were just a few more people expressing exuberance, I tell myself, I could do it too. It's like I feel I need permission to be heard, to possibly call attention to myself.

Granted, I'm new there. Maybe as I feel like less of a stranger I'll feel less shy. Because if someone has to Go First, if someone has to be the one to establish Permission, why not me? There's no rule that says a little white girl can't shout out Hallelujah!

Instead of switching churches, I'd rather see what I can do to bring that kind of spirit to my local church. I can't be the only one who's waiting for a cue to loosen up. The pastor would definitely like to have a more lively congretation, and he lets us know that every week. I pray to be brave enough one day. That's the kind of devotion that God deserves.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Singing from Italy

Another birthday has come and gone.  This one was beautiful, in many ways.

Every year since I was a small child, my family has gathered around my mother's table to celebrate my birthday dinner.  And ever since I grew old enough to appreciate how fortunate I am to be surrounded by my family (even though they drive me crazy on a regular basis), my heart swells and my eyes mist over when the lights dim and their beloved faces are lit by the glow of flickering candles on a home-baked cake carried in by my mother.

I always knew a day would come when there would be one or more faces missing.  I assumed that the first to go would be my grandparents.  Any other 36-year-olds out there who still have all four grandparents living in this world?  My oldest grandfather at age 95, is frail in body, but he's still as stubborn as a mule.  "They're gonna have to shoot me," he says.

No, it wasn't one of my grandparents who was missing from the party.  It was my step-dad, gone since he separated from my mother in January of this year.

I was sure that he would forget my birthday.  He's notoriously absent-minded and disorganized, and always relied on my mother to notify him of important family dates.  Not only that, but he's away in Italy at the moment, far from any reminders of his usual schedule.

I was so sure that he would forget, and so desirous of receiving his blessing for my coming year, that when I spoke to him the day before my birthday, I prompted him to wish me "Happy Birthday".  

"Oh," he said, surprised. "I thought it wasn't until tomorrow."  

"It is!" I said, more surprised than him.  "I didn't think you would remember!"

"It's in my planner," he said.  "I was going to call you.  I'll still call you tomorrow, to sing to you."

 I'm pretty sure my mom must have reminded him, when they had one of their many conversations about the administrative processes they are now going through.  But even so, how sweet of him!  Singing for someone is always a lovely gift.

Another thing that I kind of forgot was that he's in a different time zone.  Usually he doesn't wake up until around 11:00 am.  Since his new girlfriend's house is in California, three time zones later, half the time he's not available by phone until after 2:00 pm Toronto time.  So imagine my surprise when my phone rang at 8:55 am on Saturday morning.  It was my step-dad, singing Happy Birthday to me.

After I got over the shock, I realized that it was 2:55 pm in Italy.  Still, this year he earned the distinction of being the first person to wish me a happy birthday on the Actual Day.

It was a good start to an excellent day.  A summery sun shone in a blue sky, and there were many good things in store.  Friends, family, gifts, cake.

And in the evening, at my mother’s house, when my family sang the birthday song for me, I only felt a little smidge of sadness at my step-dad's absence.  My mother leaned over and whispered to me "I eats you last!", her code for "I love you", and even that smidge was erased.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Getting Baptized

Everyone is asking me:  "How did your baptism go?"

The answer is 1) Good, and yet also 2) I'm not sure because I don't feel that it's over yet.  I mean, clearly I got out of the font, dried off, put on my regular clothes and went home.  But in another sense, energetically or emotionally or something, I feel like I jumped out of an airplane and I'm still free-falling, hoping that my parachute will open soon so that I can land.

Being baptized is most closely analogous to having a major birthday.  Like when you turn 16 or 18 or 30 or 40.  You know the birthday is coming.  You feel a building anticipation.  Then on the actual day, you wake up feeling surprisingly unchanged, and yet aware that you have passed a significant milestone and you can never go back.  It marks the midpoint of a process that extends to a fuzzy fade on either side, with no clear beginning or end.

Technically, it all went very smoothly.  Ken and I arrived at the church early to meet the three other folks who were also being baptized, and to get some stage directions.  We changed into our bathing suits, and then covered ourselves with royal blue gowns, the type you wear at graduation.

I had been under the impression that we were to wait in a holding room at the back until our names were called for the ritual.  Then I expected we would immediately go and change back into regular clothes before joining the congregation.  However, the pastor's wife led all five of us, barefoot and feeling naked under our voluminous robes, downstairs and into a pew, where we sang hymns with everyone else and listened to the weekly announcements.

There is nothing like being barefoot, underdressed, and nervous in a room where everyone else is smartly outfitted and serious to put one in the mindset of being around six years old.  I kept catching myself swinging my feet under the pew, or digging my toes into the carpet.

The gowns had generous slits at each side to allow the wearer to reach through and into his or her pockets.  This is a greatly convenient feature, if one is wearing pants.  In my case, I noticed that as I modestly clutched the front of the gown over my bare legs, the pocket-holes gaped, flashing slices of blue-white thigh at anyone who happened to be looking as we shuffled to and from our seats.  Well, anyway, God is familiar with my thighs and wouldn't be offended by them.  Everyone else just had to cope with the scandal.

After a few more hymns, we were led upstairs to what would be "stage left" in a theatre.  Or the green room if it were TV.  There were steps leading from this room directly down into the baptismal pool.  A microphone was set up on the edge of the pool.  One by one, we waded into the chest-deep water, then stood up on a little box that was at the bottom of the font to speak our testimony into the microphone.

I was 4th in line out of 5.  It was nerve-racking to watch as each individual spoke, voice cracking with emotion, and was then plunged underwater, returning to us dripping and forever changed.

When it was my turn, I descended gingerly into the water, gripping the handrail.  It was surprisingly warm, like stepping into a bath.  By the third step, I could see what I estimate to have been over 150 people looking back at me.  I cleared my throat, and heard the sound echoing back at me in stereo from speakers all around the ceiling.  I unfolded the paper containing my testimonial speech.  The microphone picked up the rustling and magnified it into every corner of the sanctuary.  Suddenly, I felt extremely small and self-conscious.

I stood up on the little underwater box, and read directly from my paper in as clear and steady a voice as I could muster.  Once I got started, it came easily.  At the end of my speech, I placed the papers at the edge of the font, along with my glasses.

The pastor asked me two ritual questions, to which I answered "Yes".  Then he took my wrists in one hand and, placing the other behind my back, bent me backwards until I was completely under the surface.  Chlorinated water rushed up my nose and into my sinuses.

Then I was up, wiping water from my eyes, pinching my burning nose, and finally locating my glasses, as the congregation launched into a hymn.  Dripping and shivering, more from emotion than cold, I climbed the stairs carefully back up to the green room, out of sight of the 150-plus pairs of eyes.  The pastor's wife smiled kindly and handed me a towel.

I joined the rest of the recently baptized folks, all of us sopping wet, and we watched the last woman give her testimony and then go under.  Once she returned, we shuffled off to the restrooms to get dry and change back into clothes.  Wonderful clothes!  It's been a long time since I was that grateful to be wearing shoes.

We returned to the sanctuary.  The pastor, who had also changed from his robe back into a suit, said a few words that drew on all five testimonies, weaving them into an inspiring closing message.  That was the end of the service.  But not the end of the experience.

As soon as we were dismissed, I'd estimate that half the congregation queued up to give us hugs, handshakes, kind words, and big smiles.  Everyone seemed completely genuine, and it was absolutely incredible and overwhelming to receive such a flood of support and love from people I'd never met before.  In the 7 weeks we'd been attending church, we'd met a dozen people at most.  

I was grateful that no one felt it necessary to introduce themselves by name, because my memory for names is horrible under even the most favourable circumstances, and by that point my rational brain was overwhelmed.  All I could do was smile, accept the hugs, and feel grateful to the bottom of my heart that I had joined such a lovely community.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Award Time!

My good friend Ron was sweet enough to award me this:

Awesome!  That totally makes my day.  

As usual, this award comes with some instructions, with which I shall gladly comply.

1.The winner puts logo on her/his blog.


2.Link the person you received your award from.

You can pay a visit to Ron's labyrinthian brain at The Warped Mind of Ron.

3.Nominate 7 other blogs.
4.Put links of those blogs on yours.

Whose blogs do I love?  Let me count the links:
  1. Keera's A Roll in the Universe.  How could I not love a blog that features a quote from the Muppets as a sub-title?
  2. San's A Life With a View.  San sees the world through a rainbow-coloured glasses.  I love vicariously experiencing that view.
  3. Aurora's self-titled blog.  Beautiful photos, plus I get to hug Aurora in real life now and then.  
  4. Dianne's Forks Off the Moment.  Dianne has a big heart and she knows how to use it.
  5. Syb's No Moron Left Behind.  All I have to say about Syb is that she is one of myveryown fave-rits and I lurve her blawg.  If you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, you won't understand Syb either.  ;-)
  6. Nilsa's Somi.  Nilsa is pretty much Superwoman as far as I can tell.  Watch her handle ridiculous stress with amazing grace, and be inspired!
  7. Claire's Country Mouse Tales.  Because Claire is adorable, and this award was made for a sweet blog like hers.
5.Leave a message on the blogs of those you’ve chosen.

I'm on it!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


The primary issue that had my brain (and my guts) twisted into knots for the past month was the question of whose authority to trust regarding matters of the spirit.

Frankly, I would love to find one earthly source to feed all my otherwordly needs; to answer all the hard questions; and to take the onus off of my own notably fallible judgement.  

In the past, I've searched high and low among New Age self-proclaimed gurus (and one Buddhist monk), hoping to find someone who actually lives up to their claim of having all the answers.  No luck there.  I had a very specific spiritual problem to solve,  i.e. my tendency to pick up other peoples' feelings and take them on as my own, so it was easy to tell what worked and what didn't.  None of these people, even those whose theories were very convincing, were able to give me practical tools to change my situation.  After several years of consecutive disappointments, I stopped expecting to find anyone who could help.

As you know (or if you don't, read the post I linked to above), I finally found someone who could help me, in the person/God who goes by the name of Jesus.  One answered prayer led to another and another, and now my days of feeling overwhelmed by psychic bombardments are just a fading memory of a nightmare.  It wasn't about faith to begin with: my first prayer was almost sarcastic, with just a sliver of hope, and I still got an answer.  I can't prove it to anyone else, but in my personal world it's a repeatable experiment with consistent results, proving that Jesus really does exist.

Will I ever get used to making that statement?  34 years of turning my nose up at Christianity do not fall away in an instant.  But how can I argue with what I personally know and have experienced to be a fact?

The Bible is another matter entirely.  Just because I believe in Jesus doesn't mean that I automatically accept everything else that comes along with any of the major Christian combo deals.  It's supposed to be pretty much a given that if you call yourself a Christian you're going to put some amount of faith in the Bible, but how much?

It appears that no two people on the planet, even including those who claim to take the Bible as the inerrant word of God, can agree exactly on a complete interpretation of scripture.  Every human who reads it has their own bias.  Not to mention that there are over 50 complete modern English translations of the original scriptures before we even get to divisions on the basis of personal opinion.

Unless you're someone who was born into a particular denomination and 100% accepts your church's interpretation of scripture from when you're first able to understand Sunday school until the day you die, your personal opinion is going to colour the way you read the Bible. Therefore, any person who disagrees even in a small way with the tradition they grew up with, or who converts to Christianity as an adult, makes choices about the way in which they approach scripture.

There is a very convincing argument which I have read from more than one source, critiquing the New Age movement and encouraging people to pick one faith and submit to its authority.  It goes something like this:  The New Age movement treats the world's spiritual traditions like an all-you-can-eat buffet.  New Agers pick and choose among the elements of each tradition that they find beautiful, attractive, comforting, and non-threatening.  This approach, the argument goes, will always result in a faith that cannot result in personal growth, because by definition it will never take you out of your comfort zone.

If you really want to grow beyond the limits of your own small soul, you have to submit to a greater authority and trust it to guide you through deep waters to a greater truth, the argument concludes.  

The bottom line seems to be: don't trust your own preferences, because they will limit you.  You have to set your judgements aside and follow a tradition that has accumulated wisdom for years equalling many times the span of your brief life.

But which one?  I mean, you have to choose to begin with.  And if you're choosing, you're still exercising your own judgement and preferences.  

This is where everything starts to get circular and confusing.  

Even within the first few weeks of my education in Christian theology, I ran into disagreements between interpretations of scripture.  I was listening to some podcasts from this source , and also taking verbal instruction from a pastor at my local church.  Which one of them should I trust?

Honestly, there are things that rub me the wrong way within both views.  So let's say, for argument's sake, that I went ahead and picked one of them to be My Trusted Authority.  If someone were to ask me why I picked that source as Correct In All Things, I wouldn't want to say "well I just picked one at random because you have to give yourself over to something greater".  I'd want to give some compelling arguments based in fact and logic to show that this was a basically trustworthy source.  The subtext of this is:  I have good judgement!  Therefore I made a good choice!

But let's say that there are some points upon which I disagree with My Trusted Authority.  I could put my own views on a shelf and try to force my mind to accept the view of the Authority.  If someone were to ask me why I was ditching the beliefs I'd held strongly for all of my life in order to embrace the theology of the Authority, I'd have to answer "I don't have all the answers, and I believe that one must give oneself over to a wiser tradition in order to grow spiritually".  The subtext of this is:  My judgement is flawed!  Therefore I must be protected from making bad choices!

Let's review.  I've made one choice, and someone has asked me two questions regarding that choice.  The answer to the first question ends up being "A" (I have good judgement).  The answer to the second question ends up being "Not A" (I have bad judgement). 

Can I tell you how many hours of sleep I lost going through these arguments over and over in my mind trying to find some way of breaking through the impossibility?

In the end what it comes down to is this:  I can't find any way of half-trusting myself.  Either I believe that my judgement is basically good and I check in with myself to see if things feel right before I believe them, or I distrust myself entirely and let myself be led.  If I trust my judgement even a wee little bit, I'm going to end up questioning things.  You can't have A and Not A at the same time.

And considering that I wasn't born into a Christian faith that I could accept unquestioningly for the duration of my life, exercising no judgement at all is not an option.  Not that I find that to be a problem.  I hated thinking that I had to force myself to throw my own feelings and opinions into the garbage when it came to controversial topics.  Before I'd had enough time to puzzle it all through, I thought that might be what God wanted.  

My judgement might not be perfect every time, but it's been good enough to get me this far.  I'm going to keep counting on it as much as I always have.

I do believe that there's a lot to the Bible.  The past 20 years have unearthed quite a lot of archeological evidence that supports the historical points in some of the scriptures.  And, when it's interpreted through the eyes of love, the wisdom contained in the Bible does come to life.  Oddly enough, I find that I enjoy reading the Bible, even when I find the content leaves me with questions.  

I came this far in my journey, hugely outside my comfort zone, without accepting any human authority as fundamentally superior to my own.  Sure, lots of people have more education, or do more good works, etc.  I can learn from them.  But the only person I'm willing to surrender to completely is Jesus.  I reserve the right to disagree with anyone else.

I realize this post leaves many questions hanging, but it's long enough.  Tune in next time, when I plan to get more specific regarding the disagreements which trouble me most, and hopefully answer any questions you good folks leave in the comments.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shields Down

I used to have a Blogging Persona. Sparkling Red, born into the blogging world in October of 2007. She stood at a remove from the world, using that distance to find humour within anger or fear, and beauty within sorrow.

After Jesus came along and found me, and lifted me up to himself, I changed. At first I had trouble writing because my basic assumptions about reality were in flux, and I wasn't even sure who I was anymore. How can you write about "I" when you don't even know who that "I" is?

But now things are settling down, and I still find myself reluctant to return to this blog.

I can't be the old Spark anymore. I no longer stand at such a remove from the world, claiming observer status. Living like that allowed me a measure of protection, and also left me feeling alienated.

Now that I've set my intention to engage lovingly with real people in the real world, my heart has grown. I'm less likely to escape into ironic humour, and more likely to get genuinely emotional as I let myself be impacted by life. It's not that I feel this approach is unwelcome in Blogland, where there are no outsiders. But I'm more vulnerable now that I've dropped my shields. It's one thing to share my new self with trusted family and friends. It's quite another thing to put it out on the internet for anyone to see.

Also, I find myself preoccupied with some very controversial issues at the moment. Nothing I wish to share with a limitless audience. I'm not sure what would be gained by spouting my opinions on these matters, because peoples' minds aren't generally changed by words, but by personal experience.

So that is why again and again, I think about writing for this blog, and come up with question marks.

And yet, here I am!