Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why God's Love Matters


I'm cross-posting this from Facebook, because I think the question's important.

*

Last night, my friend Chris Coake, motivated by his intense dislike of Pat Robertson, posted some quotations from Jillette's new book about atheism. You can find that post, and responses to it, here.

My rather forceful dislike of these quotations (which imply that Christians are pathetic losers who need imaginary friends because they don't have real ones) resulted in a conversation in which Chris posed this question: "Why, exactly, is the love of Christ/God so valuable to people of faith, and not to atheists?"

There are all kinds of answers to that question, and other people have addressed it more thoroughly than I can, and my own answers change according to my mood and circumstances. But for me, right now, the answer can be summed up in two words: social justice.

Look around. There are a lot of people in the world who aren't loved by other people: prisoners, addicts, mental patients, the poor. Look at all the hatred that gets spewed on Facebook itself, not to mention a whole lot of other places. The kind of Christian faith I admire and try to practice -- because there are many versions I don't -- is predicated on the core belief that God loves everybody, and therefore we're called to love everybody, too. Even people we don't like. Even people we'd rather hate. Even people who hate us. Even -- oh, honestly, you can't mean it? -- Pat Robertson. (Insert gagging sound here.)

Jesus loved everybody, and made a particular point of loving the people the rest of his culture hated. Lepers. People with despised ethnic/tribal identities, like Samaritans. Women. The unclean, the untouchable, the stigmatized, the scapegoated. Jillette's quotations suggest that if we have the love of our family and friends, we don't need God; Jesus spoke out quite forcefully about the fact that people who remain within the cozy cocoon of their families and friends are barricading themselves against the broken, hurting world we're all called to help heal. Sure, we're called to love our families and friends, but we're also called to love "the least of these," the people who make us really uncomfortable, the people we've been told to have nothing to do with, the people we'd rather ignore. We're called to love everybody, like Jesus did. That's the whole point.

It's worth noting that even he didn't get there right away. It was a process. My favorite character in the Bible is the Samaritan woman -- despised both for her gender and her ethnicity -- who asks Jesus for healing for her daughter and, when he declines (because she's not the Right Kind of People), stands up for herself, very cleverly, and gets the blessing after all. She's the only person in the Gospels who argues with Jesus and wins, and she's a stigmatized minority. You go, girl!

The Christian story reminds us that radical love isn't easy, and that it will get you killed in, oh, three years or so if you really practice it. (MLK Jr. and Oscar Romero are more recent reminders of that fact.)

Now, to try to address some inevitable objections: can the non-faithful love this way? Sure. People who do this work as part of faith communities often have a lower burnout rate, though. And are there people who call themselves Christians who don't love this way? (Hi, Pat Robertson!) You betcha. But they aren't the only Christians out there, even if they want to make you think they are. (As a person on the left, I believe that the Christian Right is the Christian Wrong, even though I know the Christian Right considers the Christian Left the Christian Left Behind.)

As for God's love not mattering to atheists, well, I personally believe it's what sustains all of us even if we aren't aware of it. You're free to disagree.

And those lonely, pathetic people who need to believe that God loves them because nobody else does? Are you going to make fun of them? Really?

Let me tell you a story.

Many people reading this know that I volunteer as a lay ER chaplain (and if you're reading this on the blog, rather than on FB, you've probably already heard the story). One evening many years ago, I knocked on the door of a room and heard a soft, "Come in." Inside, an emaciated man hooked up to IVs lay on a gurney. When I told him I was the volunteer chaplain, he started to cry.

"No, I visit everybody here," I told him. "My being here doesn't mean you're dying. Don't be scared!"

"That's not why I'm crying," he said. "I am dying. I'm dying of AIDS, and fifteen minutes ago I was praying for God to send me a sign that he still loved me, and then you walked through the door. You're a sign from God."

He needed God's love precisely because other people had stigmatized and isolated him, but what reassured him of that love was a flesh-and-blood person, not an imaginary teddy bear. My friends who work with prisoners have lots of similar stories. God calls us to love everybody; surprisingly often, that's simply a matter of showing up.

Okay, I'll stop now. I'm sure I haven't persuaded anyone who didn't already agree with me, but well, Chris, you asked. For evidence that other people are on this side of the issue, rather than Pat Robertson's, check out The Christian Left and Seminary of the Street.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Outcomes


The surgery went fine, thank goodness. Our friend will be in the hospital for about a week; her husband will be staying with us, since they live a bit too far away for commuting to be practical. I'm grateful we have a guest room to offer.

Still no writing today, but I am wet-finishing two pieces of weaving I'm pleased with. Tomorrow the car goes to the garage and I'll be stuck home most of the day. Will. Write. Then.

Honest.

Later: Got a little writing done after all. Ha!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday


Hella original post title, what?

I didn't write today, alas. I wove a bit, swam a bit, wasted entirely too much time on Facebook, and wound up going to the hospital after all (to visit a friend, not to volunteer). The friend will have surgery tomorrow. I can't be more specific here for privacy reasons, but let's all pray for everyone facing surgery, shall we?

Meanwhile, my friend Inez flew back home to discover that a hailstorm had destroyed her car's windshield while she was gone. So while we're at it, let's pray for everyone dealing with severe weather. Also, car repairs.

Which reminds me that I have to take our car in to the shop, so they can fix my perpetually illuminated "check engine light" icon (which has already been fixed at least four times) long enough for the car to pass its smog so I can renew my registration. My mechanic assures me that the CEL issue doesn't interfere with the actual operation of the car. What he needs to do to fix it this time, though (since the other fixes have lasted about ten miles each) will cost about $400.

Gack.

Today the loom I want (used and discounted) was advertised on Ravelry, but someone else snatched it up ten minutes before I saw the ad. Just as well, given the car situation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday


WorldCon is over. I'm registered at Fourth Street Fantasy for next year and on the waitlist for World Fantasy this year. I bought the Laurie Edison ring (tourmaline and sterling silver, gorgeous) as a birthday gift to myself, but because she has to size it, I probably won't have it until after my birthday. Elsewhere in birthday land, I went to Inez' birthday party, thrown by several of her old friends in Reno, which featured a truly fantastic Day of the Dead birthday cake.

Tomorrow, Inez flies back to Iowa.

Many other people are already gone.

I'm both sad and relieved. For five days now, I've been on a little piece of My Planet. Now, most of My People are going home, and I have to resume the stranger-in-a-strange-land gig.

On the other hand, tomorrow I get to sleep in. And exercise again, which hasn't been possible during the con. And maybe get some writing done. I'm very glad I had the foresight to cancel my hospital shift tomorrow!

For the rest of this evening, I plan to be a vegetable.

WorldCon


This WorldCon has, at the very least, been wonderful for me. It may turn out to have been life-changing.

For one thing, I got to see all kinds of old friends, including my beloved former students Kurt Adams and Inez Schaechterle -- with whom I've hung out for much of the con -- and my editor/NYC buddies Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell and Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden (most of whom have also edited me at one time or another).

I got very satisfying strokes for the panels I moderated, especially the one on "Faith and Science," which went very smoothly despite the potential for catastrophe. I went to excellent panels and presentations. I got a lot of knitting done.

But I also got a lot of very specific reinforcement about my own identity as a writer. For instance:

* At my first panel, someone showed up with, I swear, a copy of every book and story I've ever written, asked me to sign them, and then gave me a beautiful piece of fluorite to thank me.

* When I was wandering around the Dealers Room, someone told me that "Gestella" is "the best werewolf story ever written."

* Only ten people attended my reading, but one of them was Cory Doctorow, a Much Bigger Name than I am, who appeared to genuinely love the reading and told me it reminded him of some of Kelly Link's work. She's an Infinitely Bigger Name than I am.

* I didn't expect many people to come to my signing today. It was a group signing, and Carrie Vaughn was signing at the same time; I figured she'd have lines around the block and I'd be twiddling my thumbs, so I brought my knitting. Carrie -- sitting next to me, as it turned out -- indeed had long lines, but mine weren't bad. I signed solidly for the first half hour. After that, it got a bit spottier, but not enough for me to get any knitting done. There were a few people who had multiple copies of my books, and someone who had a copy of my very first story, published in 1985 in Asimov's, and someone who said that he's bought anthologies simply because they contained stories I'd written, and several people who heaped praise on "Gestella." And towards the end of the hour, Mega-Infinitely Bigger Name Than I Am Carrie Vaughn turned to me and said, "Susan, I just want you to know that 'Gestella' blew my mind, and as a writer of werewolf fiction I tell other people to read your story, because I think it's definitive."

Holy crap.

* I've always been deeply moved and honored that Jo Walton, whose work I admire tremendously (and who's also much better known than I am), has said glowing things about my work in print. I was very excited to learn that she'd be at Renovation. I looked forward to meeting her in person. I was flattered when she asked if we could have tea together and hang out for an hour between panels, and more than a little startled when she said that one of the reasons she came to the con was to meet me, "because you don't travel much, and I knew you lived here."

Jo proceeded to give me a bracing pep talk. She reads the blog (hi, Jo!), and, among other things, said briskly, "It's perfectly obvious from your blog that you spiral down into depression and then pull yourself back out, but you need to get to more cons. The external validation's really important." We talked about cons: WorldCon and World Fantasy are often impossible because they conflict with teaching. Lately, the only cons I've attended have been WisCon and Mythcon, and even that's been spotty. I'm going to Mythcon again next year; I've been waffling about WisCon. Jo recommended the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, which I've heard about but have never gotten to. Inez and I are talking about sharing a room there next year.

After tea with Jo (coffee for me, actually, which may have been unwise that late in the afternoon), I went home to help Gary get ready for dinner, since we were having Inez and Kurt and Kurt's wife Shauna over. I babbled to Gary about all this. Before I'd even told him about Jo's depression comment, he said, "You need to get to more cons. This is doing you more good than all the meds you've ever taken. It's all about connection and community."

Yep.

I know this probably sounds like a lot of insufferable bragging, but I've effectively been in exile from my community for a long time. Part of that's geographical; a lot of it's been self-imposed; and it's been reinforced and deepened by my increasing marginalization within my department. Some people there admire the fact that I write, but as far as I can tell, none of my English Department colleagues read my fiction, or particularly like it if they do (other university friends, especially in the music department, have been loyal fans and a wonderful cheering section). Various of my colleagues clearly think I'm a little strange -- one person I like and admire once called me a "fanatic" to my face -- and between all that and the fact that the job's become more difficult and less rewarding for all of us, leading to a universal nosedive in morale, I haven't felt deeply affirmed at work. I know some of that's my fault, especially because I'm terrible at certain kinds of political games, but blaming myself only makes me feel worse.

Church has filled in a lot of the holes -- faith's really a huge antidepressant -- but it can't do everything.

The recent three-year grief-fest hasn't helped any of this, of course (and that's not my fault, and I think my reactions have been entirely human and understandable).

So I went to WorldCon figuring that I'd see some old friends and that nobody else would know who I was, and that would be okay, because it would be my fault, because I haven't been writing much.

What I discovered instead is that people in my field know my work and admire it. People I've never met know my work and admire it. People I admire, blazingly successful and famous and talented people, know my work and admire it. I've written things that matter to other human beings.

It is very difficult to communicate what this feels like. Like floating in airless space and then finding yourself standing on solid ground in a beautiful forest? Like being a ghost and then regaining a body? (Good heavens: am I empathizing with Sauron and Voldemort?) Those are cheesy metaphors, and unsatisfying besides. Let's just say that I've found my country again, or my planet, and learned that I was always welcome there.

So yes, I'll definitely try to get to more cons. I'm exhausted, and I'll be grateful to get back to a normal schedule when WorldCon's over, but I'm going to be very sad when everyone leaves.

In the meantime, I may buy myself a token of citizenship. Y'know how in some fantasy stories, people think their adventures Elsewhere were just a dream, until they discover that they still have a coin or a key or a crown they were given there? The fluorite rock would work, but I can't keep it with me all the time, so I may indulge my shopping obsession and buy a ring. Laurie Edison makes gorgeous jewelry and sells it at cons. It's pricy, so I've never bought any of it. But today I tried on a series of rings and both Laurie and I went, "Oh, wow," at one particular one with a shiny blue stone that looks like opal but I think is something else I can't remember at the moment.

If that's still available tomorrow, I may spring for it, as a sign of renewed commitment to my SF/F citizenship. If it isn't available, I'll cart the fluorite around, maybe, or get some smaller thing. Either way, I'll be registering for Fourth Street.

This is an exceedingly long post. Thank you for bearing with me!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Today's Keeper


Among volunteer chaplains, it's axiomatic that even one good visit a shift means it was worth coming to the hospital that day. Some volunteers say all their shifts include a visit like that. Mine don't -- some shifts are dull, and some are exhausting and infuriating -- but today's did.

A nurse told me a psych patient had asked for a chaplain. The patient brightened when I introduced myself. "I'm glad you're here. I've been waiting for you. Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"Why's God letting me suffer like this?"

Oh, man. Theodicy 101. "I don't know. I do know that it's okay to ask questions, and it's okay to be angry. You can yell at God. God can take it."

The patient nodded. "That makes sense. That's a good enough answer for me."

I relaxed, since that particular subject usually gets a lot more complicated. "Would you like me to pray with you?"

"I don't know how to pray."

"That's okay; I do. It's kind of what I do around here." The patient laughed, and I offered my standard-prayer-with-personalization (you can find my Hospital Prayer 101 post here).

By the end of the prayer, the patient was crying. That happens pretty often, so I'm used to it. When other people have prayed over me, especially for healing, I've sometimes cried too: there's something about a) knowing that your concerns have been heard and b) handing them over to Somebody Else that tends to release the floodgates.

I handed the patient some tissues. "Here, you can keep the pack. This is something else I do around here."

The patient laughed again. "Can I tell you something?"

"Of course."

"That prayer moved me more than any prayer I've ever heard."

"Thank you!" I said, floored. Patients often say "that was a nice prayer" or even "that was beautiful," but I'm not used to superlatives.

"May I have a hug?"

"Of course," I said, and hugged the patient, and then moved on to the rest of what was a fairly chaotic, and intermittently crappy, shift. But it was okay. I had my keeper. It mattered to someone that I showed up today.

Please note that I'm not claiming any special skills here: I think any chaplain who walked into that room would have had the same effect, since the patient was clearly primed and eager for the visit. But I'm selfishly glad that I was the one who was there. It's also axiomatic among volunteer chaplains -- and volunteers in general -- that we get much more than we give.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Same Boat


Here's tomorrow's homily, which I'll be giving at the St. Stephen's reunion in Wadsworth, on the Pyramid Lake reservation. The readings are 1 Kings 19:9-19 and Matthew 14:22-33. Special thanks to Ken Houghton for helping me find a copy of the Patrick O'Leary poem on very short notice!

*

Good morning. I’m delighted to be here, and to see so many of you again, and I’d like to thank Eric Heidecker for inviting me to preach today.

This morning’s readings are about people, scared out of their wits, who learn that they can’t get away from where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing. Elijah, hunted by people who want to kill him, flees to Horeb, only to have God command him to go back. He still has kings and prophets to annoint. He doesn’t get to run away.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is still badly shaken by the death of John the Baptist. His first attempt to sneak away for some alone time was interrupted by a huge crowd, desperate for healing, who followed him. He healed them, but then they needed their supper. We heard about the famous Feeding of the Five Thousand last Sunday.

When the story picks up this morning, I imagine that Jesus is pretty tired. “Finally!” he must be thinking. “They’re all healed. They’re all fed. Now I can send everyone home and have some time to myself.” And so he does: packs the disciples off in a boat, dismisses the crowds, and climbs up a mountain to pray. He spends all night there, a much-needed mini-sabbatical. But in the morning, he again has work to do. The disciples, hapless as ever, are stuck in their boat in the middle of a storm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.

I’m told that the Sea of Galilee is quite geologically similar to Pyramid Lake. The winds on Pyramid Lake can be really dangerous, and anyone who’s been in a small boat, or even a larger one, knows how terrifying a storm on the water can be. People die out there. Anyone who knows the water knows that, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the disciples were frightened out of their minds even before they saw a ghostly figure walking towards them across the churning water.

Seeing the ghost freaks them out even more, until Jesus speaks words of comfort. That’s when Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Peter’s always doing stuff like this, trying to set himself apart. Yesterday, August 6, was the Feast of the Transfiguration, when Jesus climbed up the mountaintop and was joined by Moses and Elijah just before being clothed in light. Remember how Peter responded to that event? “Hey, Jesus, let’s build some houses and stay up here.” That time, Jesus said no. Sorry, Peter. We have to go back down the mountain. We have work to do.

This time, he says yes. Peter isn’t speaking out of pride now; he’s frightened, and Jesus wants to comfort him, because that’s what Jesus does. So he calls Peter, who starts walking on water just like his beloved teacher. Mind you, the storm hasn’t stopped yet. It won’t stop until Jesus gets back into the boat. I think Peter’s so desperate to be out of that blasted, bucking boat, so desperate to rejoin his Lord, the source of his safety, that he doesn’t even realize at first what’s happening. But the minute he looks down and sees the whitecaps under his feet, he panics again. He sinks, and Jesus has to haul him, sputtering and coughing, back up.

Where does Jesus take him? Back into the boat, while the storm’s still raging. Sorry, Peter. You can’t stay on the mountain and leave your friends behind. You can’t get out of the boat and leave your friends behind, either, not for good. You still have work to do. You’re in the same boat with the other disciples. You’re in the same boat with Elijah, and with me. You’re in the same boat with everyone who has heard God’s voice, whether it’s offering comfort over the raging winds of the storm or issuing commands in the perfect silence afterwards.

God’s people don’t get to run away, and they don’t get to opt out. Jonah learned that. Elijah learned it. Jesus learned it, when he prayed for the cup to pass from him and it didn’t.

All of us here this morning are in that same boat. All the baptized are in the same boat, whether we’re safely ensconced in a church we love, or bailing furiously to try to keep a parish from sinking, or flailing in the freezing water after our beloved home has vanished under the waves. Whatever else is happening in our lives, whatever storms we’re riding out and whatever fears we’re facing, we’re still bound by the promises we made at baptism. Our job is to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to seek justice for the oppressed, and to welcome the stranger. Sometimes that work is exhausting. Sometimes it’s joyous and uplifting. It’s always with us.

This morning’s Gospel lesson reminds us of the promises that come with this backbreaking responsibility. God will grant us the rest we need, the mountaintop respites we need to replenish ourselves. If we listen for the voice of God, we will indeed hear it. In the midst of chaos, we may discover a startling ability to walk on water, however briefly, and when we sink, Jesus will haul us up by the scruff of our necks. Necessity is leavened by grace.

Above and beyond those promises lies the larger one, the ultimate one, the promise that the ends we fear -- economic collapse, disaster, death -- are not really the end. Beyond death lies resurrection. To get there, though, you have to stay in the boat.

I have to admit that when St. Stephen’s closed, I thought about simply leaving the church. I’m at St. Paul’s now, and I like it, but it’s still not home for me, not the way St. Stephen’s was. I know it never will be unless I stick with it, so I keep doggedly going to church every Sunday. But now St. Paul’s is having some of the same problems -- financial shortfalls, sparsely filled pews -- that brought down St. Stephen’s. This is happening to mainstream denominations all over the country, and it’s only one symptom of the very scary economic storm the entire country is weathering right now. The fact that churches are having so much trouble means that the people they serve are having even more trouble. When churches struggle, our baptismal promises become more important, not less.

I’m praying that St. Paul’s will pull through. In the meantime, I still volunteer as a lay hospital chaplain. That work reminds me, every week, how many people in this storm need any rescue we can offer, whether it takes the form of a hot meal, a cup of cold water, or simply the lifeline offered by anyone willing to listen. And it reminds me every week that when human rescues fail, God is still there, waiting to haul us out of the water by the scruff of our necks.

I don’t believe that belonging to a church is the only way to do God’s work of healing the world. It’s the way that works best for me, and for many of us. In church, we can all pull on the oars together. But church is only one vessel. God has given other people other vessels, and will give us other vessels, too, if we need them. Ultimately, though, the planet itself -- God’s beloved creation -- is the boat we share with everyone else who lives here. This ship, we can’t jump.

Shortly after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, poet Patrick O’Leary wrote a poem called “The Boat.” I would like to close by reading it. It speaks to the time when it was written, but I believe it speaks to our time, too, and to Jesus’.
The Boat
by Patrick O'Leary

I am in a boat.
No. We are in a boat.
And it's not a boat
but you know what I mean.

And the boat is going somewhere
Or maybe nowhere.
But it is floating for now.
Unless it's sinking.

It is so comforting to be in a boat.
To have a vessel. A destination.
We don't know the destination.
But at least we're floating.

But then there is the ocean
Or this small part of its depth
That surrounds us, buoys us
As if it wanted us to be here get there.

We do not think about the depths
Below us. The cold dark water
Unbreathable undrinkable.
Who would want to drink an ocean even if they could?

So this boat. This water.
You and I
between here and there.
Is somebody rowing?

In this whole world
There is only you and I and this boat
On this ocean. And what happens
depends on us or the ocean.

I say we have to be very careful.
We are only so strong.
A boat is a delicate thing.
And I have never seen an ocean broken.

I say we love each other
But that is so easy to say.
That means knowing
who we're rowing with.

We did not choose the ocean.
We did not choose the boat.
We did not choose each other.
But we must choose.
Amen.

Monday, August 01, 2011

First Woven Scarf


Actually, it's the second, but the first was so ugly I'm not counting it. This one's not perfect, but I'm still happy with it. It's 7 inches wide by 61 inches long; hard to tell scale from this photo. Weaving it took less than two days!