Sunday, May 01, 2016

Retrospective On Easter

I was moved Easter Sunday evening to write a letter to the editor. I emailed it off to the local paper, but as I am not a subscriber, they seemed to have deemed it not fit to print (I never got a call from them asking, "Is this really you who wrote this?")--then, my mom (who has faithfully subscribed to the paper for more than 30 years, mostly for the obituary section) messaged me out of the blue that they'd featured it, and that I should not bother to read the online commentary in response, which was uniformly hostile. Mine was a curmudgeonly sort of epistle, born out of irritation at unprofessionalism and an upsetting Easter morning which ended with me decamping the choir loft in tears less than a minute before the beginning of the 11 AM service, tearing off my surplice and cassock and hastening for my car and the gym. 

The 8:30 Easter service was beautiful, and the sermon was solid. But in the hour break between services (Sunday school was cancelled because of the holiday), my emotions--already pulled thin over my expanding waistline and the fact I hadn't exercised in over a week--received several additional burdens that sent the fibers snapping in rapid succession. 

First, I congratulated a fellow choir member on her son's engagement. She responded, "He's my nephew!" And went on to inform me that I'd made the same mistake the previous week, and that I'd confused her with her sister. I was mortified, the more so because she's not Caucasian, and she was implying that I was committing the notorious White Error ("Ya'll all look alike to me"). It wasn't that--it's just my terrible memory. I tried to explain, but the damage was done. 

Second, the only eligible single guy in church was standing out in the hall with his arm around the waist of a tall young blond. So, I made a beeline outdoors for fresh air and cool water, and encountered one of the only other two single men in the church (in a congregation of more than 1000) who are about my age, and chatted with him for a bit--and was again reminded how kind and sweet he is, and how we have almost nothing to talk about. We stood and watched as the locusts--a scrum of forty or so small children equipped with baskets--suddenly swept at a signal across the pink egg peppered lawn, picking up every object in their path in less than four minutes. Near the fountain on the other side of the sanctuary, smiling, freshly-dressed families were getting their pictures taken. I was alone, and conversation was lacking. Couples were hugging and toddlers were bouncing around in pastel outfits. 

 Feeling ever lower, I gradually wended my way back to the choir loft, where the musicians were assembling, thinking to myself that the only rotten thing that hadn't happened was that the woman who accused me three months ago via text of selling her fake Polish pottery hadn't mentioned it. And within twenty seconds, that very person rounded the corner by the pulpit, and announced to me that she still had to send me pictures of the pottery. "I didn't sell it to you," I said. "Yes, you did," she responded. It took about twenty seconds from that point for me to realize that I just wasn't going to be able to handle singing. I know, the show must go on, and so forth, and if I were one of just a handful of singers, of course I should have gutted it out, tears and all. But the loft was packed--people without places to sit were standing in front of both sides of the risers--and I am a weak reed to lean on for vocal support, and so I knew I shouldn't be missed. 

 I was ashamed of myself later for abruptly abandoning ship, but another factor was that I was seated right behind the pastor in the camera frame during the sermon (so my mother, who'd come to the early service, texted me--she'd had to sit in the overflow room, because she and John arrived at 8:30, and by that time, the sanctuary was full), and I didn't want to ruin a reverent Easter for those present and for future YouTube viewers--it didn't occur to me until hours later that I probably wouldn't have done this anyway, because the choir was vacating the loft before the sermon, and they wouldn't have "close upped" on me during the earlier songs! Crap. 

 On the way to my car--my eyes were all red, and my pupils looked a peculiar neon green because of the tears--I ran into the "He's my nephew" woman and told her, in a simple (but not "look what you've done" fashion), that she'd contributed to my upset--that I truly had a lousy memory (which is steadily getting worse, though I didn't admit that). She apologized, which was great of her--I hope she understood how sorry I was to have been stupid. 

But I prayed all the way to the gym that God would cause that dotty pottery woman to remember that she hadn't gotten those bloody bowls or plates from me! I thought about contacting her and telling her to come to my house and go through all the boxes of pottery in my garage, promising to give her, free, any piece she found that had MADE IN CHINA on it (there wouldn't be any), but truly, I do not want to see her ever again on this earth. I've found my copy of the sales receipt for the event where she says she bought the bowls, and so there's physical evidence to support my claim, but if she doesn't believe me when I say the truth, this isn't likely to convince her, either. We can laugh over the silly non-consequence of dishware in heaven, but right now the thought of encountering her--even remotely--makes my stomach hurt. Totally hypocritical, right? To hurt someone's feelings because of bad memory and then be so upset by someone else's poor recall? 

 I was so glad to get a good workout. I'd already been soaking with sweat in the choir loft--two layers of robes on top of a regular church outfit, under a crowd of spotlights and pressed shoulder to shoulder with fifty other overheated people had sent saltwater running down my spine twenty minutes into the service. We were all painfully thirsty. But 2000m on the rowing machine, and then another 40 minutes pedaling on stationary bikes did wonders for my morale. I hate that I am so bothered by what people think of me, that I am so overcome when someone challenges my honesty, but it's particularly wounding when it comes from a Christian sibling, who, by definition, is supposed to stick with you come hell or high water. 

My new job permits and requires me to learn a lot about an enormous variety of writers and literary works. Of a seventeenth century Spanish clerical poet, a rigid misanthropic fellow sketched as "an austerely self-righteous intellectual," a contemporary complained, "If he's not even a human, why are they calling him a divine?" I've summarized criticism about a modern British writer whose specialty is lesbian fiction set in meticulously-researched neo-Victorian contexts--one academic celebrated her challenge to "heterocentric time" (naively, I'd thought the earth turned on its axis and revolved around the sun irrespective of the gender of its inhabitants). I've learned a lot about other Calvinists, and those who came from Calvinist stock--an impressive number of eighteenth and nineteenth century English-language writers, really, were either composing within that worldview or in grim opposition to it. And then there was John Henry Cardinal Newman, who started off as a devout Reformed theologian and became an even more devout Roman Catholic clergyman. 

 I've read of poets and playwrights, mothers and murderers, the enviably happy and the resolutely miserable. The once hilarious Mark Twain became bitterly, evangelically anti-God in his later years, not so much atheistic as loathing the divinity whom he blamed for all ills. Twain organized at least one of his last short stories as an unremitting attack on the niceties of polite hypocrisy, his characters weak in well-doing and strong in manipulative maliciousness. Contrast William Cowper, who lost hope after writing some of the most beautiful, emotionally rich hymns in the classical Christian tradition, but was not abandoned by those who loved him, even as he fought debilitating depression time and again. I specifically requested to edit the piece on Cowper--he and I are much alike, his memoirs recording symptoms exactly those I suffered, and we have been similarly blessed with faithful friends in extremity. Again, and I cannot repeat (happily, in well-treated OCD fashion) too often how profoundly grateful I am for modern psychiatric medications--fighting through darkness to sunshine, constantly struggling to remind yourself that the "clouds ye so much dread are big with mercies and will break in blessings on your head" is a position of emotional debilitation I never hope to revisit. Many Christian biographers, knowing how hopeless he felt in his later years (convinced in a hellish melancholy that he was destined for damnation), recognized Cowper's pitiable, yet redeemed condition, but several recent secular scholars have seemed perversely to relish what they perceive as a permanent loss of faith. But logically, this doesn't compute, because if Christianity is all about positive thoughts, and Jesus wasn't who he said he was, we're hopeless anyway. If Jesus did come back from the dead, even the tiniest shred of hope in him is worth a ocean of tears, and it's his work to save us, not ours.


Salmonista said...

Not sure what you think about liberation theology in general, but you may find this link interesting

Barbara said...

Appreciated your final thoughts. And also hearing about some of the things you're involved with at work. :) (Glad to read all of it, though!)