Thursday, March 16, 2006

My Friend Rich

Those of you who have been reading my posts for a while may remember a series of posts on enacted prayer. My friend Rich Swingle who introduced me to the notion of enacted prayer is starring in this off broadway production and those of you who live in or around New York just might be interested. Click on title above for more information about Rich. Read on for his press release:

What do a 20th Century Olympic “Gold Medalist” and the 18th Century “Golden Boy” of Methodism have in common? They are both the subjects of off-Broadway, one-man plays appearing at Theatre 315 (315 West 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in New York City) from April 17 through April 23.

Critically acclaimed actor Rich Swingle’s new play, “Beyond the Chariots,” takes up where the Oscar-winning (Best Picture, 1981) movie, Chariots of Fire, leaves off. In dramatic style, he chronicles the incredible adventures of 1924 Olympic Gold medal runner Eric Liddell in war-torn China. Swingle recently performed the play in Hong Kong, where Dr. James Hudson Taylor, III, saw it. As a boy Taylor was with Liddell in the Japanese concentration camp featured in the play. Taylor called the performance, "authentic, moving, thought provoking!"

On alternate performances, you can enjoy the wit and wisdom of pioneer John Wesley as he rides on horseback 250,000 miles across the 18th Century British Isles. In “The Man from Aldersgate,” award-winning actor Roger Nelson recreates the life of the founder of the Methodist Church—as only Nelson can in 1,300 performances, in 32 countries, and all 50 States!

And to make sure these glittering performances really do shine, Broadway lighting designer David Lander (Dirty Blonde and Golden Child) will be working his magic.

Beyond the Chariots will appear on April 18 at 7:00 pm, April 19 at 8:00 pm, April 21 at 8:00 pm, April 22 at 2:00 pm, and April 23 at 7:00 pm.

The Man from Aldersgate will appear on April 17 at 8:00 pm, April 19 at 2:00 pm, April 20 at 8:00 pm, April 21 at 2:00 pm, and April 22 at 8:00 pm.

For more information on these productions or to order advance tickets, visit Order by March 17 and save 20%. Seniors and students save 25%. Group discounts are available also.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Miracle of the Hearing Aid

My mother wears hearing aids to assist her with a profound hearing loss which was caused by a case of adult mumps.  I don’t know whether she had the mumps when my brother and I had them, or how she, second to last child of ten, could have escaped them at an earlier time of her life.  I do know that my brother’s nickname for her was ‘Mumpy,’ an affectionate term which may have had nothing whatever to do with her having had the mumps.   I do know that her case of mumps was so severe that she was swollen from head to chest.  On her diminutive and elegant frame, the mumps must have been a horrific sight.

The hearing aids, which she has worn almost as long as she has worn glasses for reading,   have been a source of blessing and irritation to her from the beginning.  Fortunately the age of miniaturization was well advanced and she was spared the indignity of trailing wires and large battery packets.  The aids have always tucked conveniently into her ears, well hidden by beautifully dressed hair.  The necessity of changing the aids from time to time as technology improved has been a trial.  I suppose that one gets used to an aid, the feel of it, the size and weight of it.  Over time any given aid must become just a body part, without which one feels vaguely incomplete.  Adjusting to tinier and tinier and more and more efficient aids has been, in recent years, quite confusing and complicated.

This is why I am trying to see that her present aids work for the rest of her life.  She really couldn’t adjust to new ones.  I take the aids in for servicing by turn.  They were manufactured by a wonderful firm which will keep rebuilding them and providing warranty on new parts as long as they are needed.  

The hearing aids are seldom in my mother’s ears.  They migrate from pill cup to paper  tissue.  They rattle about with her fine watch in a drawer.  I panicked to find one under the bed.  It had been stepped on and needed a major repair.  “Cheap at half the cost,” as my father would have said somewhat enigmatically.  I was so grateful to have been able to have it repaired.    

Recently I needed to take an aid in for cleaning.  My mother announced:  “I DON’T THINK I REALLY NEED HEARING AIDS ANY MORE.  I CAN HEAR JUST AS WELL WITH THEM AS WITHOUT THEM.”  

This was reminiscent of the time, almost five years earlier, when she had declared that she didn’t think she really needed her glasses.  “I see just as well with them as without them.”  Quite possibly she does.  From time to time she discovers the glasses in her bedside table and wonders who they belong to.

“They are yours, mom,” I say.   She tries them on wonderingly and offers, “I should try to wear these more often.”  She doesn’t wear them.

So it was with considerable concern that I heard her shouted declaration.  Her aids are a last post of communication.  Conversations are repetitive, confusing and difficult as it is.  Without the hearing aids, we would be lost.  I took the offending aid away.

This morning Rob and I took it back.  It was a very good day.  My mother received the aid like a long lost friend, and tucked it instinctively into the appropriate ear.  I retrieved her other aid from the drawer and she fitted it in place.  “I’ll be glad to get my other aid back,” she said.  That statement gave us pause.  “Mother, it’s in your left ear right now!”  I could hear a rumble of hilarity issuing from Rob.   I laughed, unable to prevent myself.  

And here is the miracle, a moment of sharing the divine absurd.  My mother felt the truth of my words in the instant and joined me in laughing.  We roared on.  She giggled, touching her ear and her mouth and throwing back her head.  Tears of laughter rolled happily out of the corners of her eyes.  “Imagine that.  Imagine that,” she gasped.  We laughed on, stretching out the moment.  

Alzheimer’s dementia can be a sad disease.  A lengthy dying.   It is almost as confusing and difficult for family members as it is for the one whose self is disappearing by degrees. This morning we crossed an undeclared boundary.  It was permissible to laugh at the unthinkable.  It was permissible to look mortality and frailty in the face and howl with humour.  

“This will make a good memory,” my mother said, and that set us off again.  I could see she didn’t quite get this one, but it didn’t matter.  She chuckled anyway.  For a few minutes we shared emotion, were companionable and whole.  That is today’s miracle and it is more than enough.        


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Attachment to God

You know that book I am not going to write? All rights reserved. And if this sounds like an impossibly boring start, please let me know. Please. It is a spiritual autobiography, with poems, stories, insights and so on.

My memories go back before I was two years old, and I do not remember a time when I did not know the word ‘God.’ I believe I learned this name simply as I learned the words Mama and Dada, while my mother prayed.

Prayer was a constant part of our daily life as a family. We prayed at meals, before setting out on the daily round, at dinner-time devotions and before bed. Prayer was the rhythm of our lives. Perhaps this is why I, to the chapel born, am nonetheless attracted to liturgy and the prayers of the daily office. The rhythm of prayer.

I was the much desired first child of parents who had been childless for a biblical seven years. Before my conception, I was prayed for. My mother’s pain and yearning was evident in pictures taken with her multitude of nieces and nephews. Coming from a large family, she was the only one of ten to struggle with infertility. Thirty years later, I would pray the same prayers and feel the same shame, undiminished since the days of Hannah. It is no different now. While couples may decide to remain childless and take steps to insure this, those who are not childless by choice feel that they have been denied a blessing, the fulfillment of a very human expectation and an inescapable biological urge.

My mother had many false intimations of pregnancy during those seven years. Yet, in the January before my birth, she was given an assurance from God. Before she had missed a period, she knew that she was pregnant. She felt this with unswerving conviction, but my father, Zechariah-like, disbelieved. He was not rendered speechless, but believed only when the pregnancy had progressed beyond all doubt. Unlike my mother who had a simple and unquestioning faith, my father's lifelong position was: “I’ll believe it when I see it."

At birth, I was considered to be a child of blessing. In the line of Isaac, Joseph, Samuel and John the Baptist, I was set apart for God. In the second half of the twentieth century, the fact that this particular child of blessing was a girl was tolerated. I wonder, now, about those female children of blessing whose names were excluded from scripture by patriarchy. This was not a thought which troubled many minds at that time.

Quite early I intuited that to be an answer to anyone’s prayers exacted a weight of goodness, and one which I might not always be willing to pay. One of my mother’s sisters took one look at me and pronounced, “She’s too good to live.”

Beware what you intone over the cradles of infants. They may be listening.

What could my aunt have meant? And why would she have uttered these words? Mystery. My life has been a struggle to achieve some rapprochement between being good and actually living . A major breakthrough has come in later life as I have accepted that being good doesn't demand perfection so much as authenticity. This, I have discovered, is living.

From the beginning, the burden of sanctity was heavy. No one intended this. Least of all my parents. This legacy was a simple consequence of the context of my birth. When parents take scripture more or less literally, children also believe. The words of scripture were sonorous: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." That was it. The primary, elemental attachment to God. It was inescapable.

When, in due course, I was dedicated in the manner of our denomination this primary connectedness was further strengthened. These were the words spoken over me:

In the dedication of this child you now declare your willingness for the Lord to take possession of her, and you wish that she shall always and only do His will. You must be willing that she should spend all her life for God, wherever He may choose to send her, and not withhold her at any time from such hardship, suffering, want or sacrifice as true devotion to the service of Christ and The Salvation Army may entail.

You must, as far as you can, keep from her all intoxicating drink, tobacco, finery, wealth, hurtful reading, worldly acquaintance, and every influence likely to injure her either in soul or body; you must let her see in you an example of what a faithful Salvation Army Soldier should be, giving all the time, strength, ability and
money possible to help on the Salvation War.

(Salvation Army Ceremonies, 1947, p. 15)

Be careful what you speak over a sleeping child.

So, I was a desired child, loved, cosseted by parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and older cousins. Beloved. But being a child of blessing did have this dark side. In my family, at least, being a child of blessing meant being a child of self denial. Suffering. Want. Sacrifice.

I slept through the dedication service oblivious. My huge extended family witnessed my parents' declaration. They rejoiced that my mother's prayer had been answered. Throughout childhood, I, too, would watch other parents willingly pledge their children to a Christian life defined more by hardship than grace. There was, for me, a tough stoicism about this take on the godly life. The words were not so much in theological error as seriously devoid of joy. Vaguely romantic dreams of dying for the cause of Christ filled my head. Was this how one pleased God? And I was deeply aware that, should God call, my parents would deem it a high honour to see me in God’s service. Was entering ministry the best way to please my parents?

How complicated things are when we are young. How inscrutable the ways of God at any time, at any age. That I would eventually come to experience God on my own terms was nearly, though not quite, inevitable. If we can rebel against attachments within the family, then certainly we can reject our Divine attachment. Free will is a given.

This is the context into which I was born. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that I had a highly developed sense of right and wrong and a tender conscience. Nor is it surprising that I would have a personal encounter with God at a very young age. My mother recorded in her diary for October 5, 1953, "Connie gave her heart to the Lord." I was six years and one day old. But I knew, even as she wrote, that what I had experienced could not be encompassed by these traditional words. These were her words, her understanding, her interpretation of my experience.

What I experienced was other. Bright Light of Knowing. Radiant Comfort. Divine Presence. Eternal Truth. Transcendent Compassion. Oneness. From the other side of my life, it seems not so much that I gave my heart to the Lord, but that the Lord gave his heart to me. From this awareness, neither my failures and doubts, nor the cynicism of a liberal arts education have ever been able to shake me.