Thursday, April 26, 2007

Don't Apologize For Having A Nice Life

In spite of what it seems like, not everyone has had a sucky or tragic childhood.

Not everyone has had a harrowing young adulthood.

If you've had a nice life, don't apologize for it. Just be grateful.

Don't go looking for trouble just because you've had none. There are plenty of honest mistakes or blunders people simply make on their own, when they're not looking for trouble.

Don't apologize for having a nice life. It's reassuring to know someone has.

Monday, April 23, 2007

So What Good Is It To Go To Church?

This post is probably more fully in context read after my two earlier posts "The Good Work Thursday that became the Painful Friday" and "Proactive Prayer".

Plus this is also hitting on a few things that are all related ... so this post likely won't really be too linear, so much as a collection of related thoughts.

I guess getting hurt last Thursday and going to the doc on Friday has made me really consider some things; though I must confess I'd been meaning to post an entry like this for about two weeks now. It does, however, make more sense somehow to post it now, though.

I mentioned how we don't have a car right now, which also means that because we don't live near enough to the church we are members of -- or near enough to fellow members to catch a ride in to service -- we haven't been to church since before Christmas.

Frankly, I gotta admit not going to church has been a little weird.

And it's not like this is the first time I don't go to church -- I'd dropped going for a good few years when I was in my 20s. It's just weird and different to not be able to go when you want to.

This is also something that's not easily remedied by attending church "somewhere else that's closeby" in the meantime. We live in a part of town where there are literally no sidewalks. And no bus service on the weekends. You can't easily walk around to look for a substitute place to go then, since pedestrians don't have the right of way here. (But that's really a whole other bigger walk/Nashville/health issue, too.)

Now my journey so far with religion and figuring out my relationship with God has been interesting, to say the least. It's been a real struggle sometimes, figuring out what really fits. (Sometimes I wish we were all more tolerant and kinder to each other on our journey ...)

But I guess it's only fair to give context for my statements.

I was raised a Catholic -- and most of my family still are. By the time I was 16 I had been an altar girl, a catechism teacher, assistant to our nun staff, and had even worked as the church receptionist for a few months. My parents served and taught there as well, and led a prayer group.

Even with all this being in church 3 or 4 or more times a week, I still felt like I was literally spiritually starving ... for more of God. To me the time there was so much work to do, and yet the time we spent with God was only so much "sit-stand-kneel-sit-stand-kneel-sit-stand-kneel". There wasn't enough connection for me.

Sometime the year I was 16, a new pastor and new priest came to work at that parish. Soon, thanks to the one of the congregants (who wanted to curry favor for the sons she wanted to force into the priesthood and I don't think either ever joined after all) who gossiped to befriend him, one of the new guys began to cast doubts on my Dad's character. It was frightening how it developed.

As part of the prayer group, we're supposed to share stories on how God had helped us in various ways. One of the new guys didn't believe God had healed various people who had been prayed for there at the prayer meetings. It was crazy -- I mean, holy crap, isn't this guy a priest? Isn't he supposed to believe this sort of thing is possible?

This guy further called my Dad a liar for saying that God had been gracious enough to answer a prayer request of his directly! (See, Dad many years before, had prayed and asked God whether he should become a priest or marry my Mom. Obviously, Dad married Mom. Dad would share this story with people to help them know God does care about everything we do. I even drew a comic about this answered prayer.)

It's a terrible form of betrayal to have another person who "believes in God" basically tear you down in public, in front of a congregation you're supposed to both serve, and call you a liar for believing that God works and does what He says He does. If a situation develops where staff members need to clear the air about something, there is supposed to be a civilized manner in doing it. But here the pastor didn't know better. He just wasn't equipped to handle it. I can see that now. Back then it was just really bad.

After some awkward public scenes and several months of discord, in the interest of the greater peace, we had to leave that church. We had been there for over ten years and put in so much time with people. I was angry and thought we should have stayed and fought for the right to speak the truth. Prayers had been answered! Let the staff take it up with God if they didn't believe He truly helped.

I was very, very angry with those people. And also massively disgusted.

I had to figure out for myself WHY I wanted God in my life -- especially since I found His "Official Staff" seemed to contain idiots who inexplicably don't Trust Him. (Not all of them, mind you, just some. I didn't realize then that church -- just like everywhere else -- is staffed by people. Yes, people. Ordinary people with A Job To Do. Some of them have callings, and some actually don't. Some people do their jobs better than others. And bad workers do get batched up with good workers sometimes, just like at the office.)

So I started from scratch to figure out what was up with me and God ... but after about a week I figured out I missed Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for me, so I did want to stay Christian. (I just didn't know yet how deep that relationship can become.) Frankly I just wanted to shave my head and be a monk and live in the hills and get away from stupid people (I'm sure there are those who can relate). But that kinda set up was hard to find in NYC. So I just began looking for a new church to attend.

Fast forward over 20 years: At 18 I thought that to really serve God, I had to become a nun. I even visited a convent twice. Figured out by the end of the second visit that becoming a nun was just not my job. Kept looking. Met a new friend and started attending a Pentecostal church.

Got "Born Again". Just in time to quit going to church altogether. I prayed every week where we worked, but I didn't go to a real church for many, many years. Fell into a spiritual black hole and my life flat out unravelled.

At the very end of that rope (so to speak) I lost the leases to both my apartment and to the art studio on the same week. The apartment move almost wiped the last of what money I had (stupid rip-off moving company giving me a bad quote). I couldn't hire a moving company for all the studio crap I still had to move. I finally just prayed and literally asked God to cut me a break and help me find a "Man with Van" I could trust and afford.

The guy I hired to help move us turned out to be a Born Again Christian. Go figure. This guy literally prayed for me and the staff as we were moving. Like hands on pray, even. He helped me over two or three days, and before he left he gave me a copy of (don't laugh!) The Power of Positive Thinking (which actually does mention Jesus Christ here and there). I read that and realized what a horrible rut (canyon?) I had let myself fall into. I didn't liked what my life had become and I needed to change it.

I don't remember if it had been by or since the time Born Again Christian Moving Van Man had prayed for me, but it was around then when I started to go to that Pentecostal church again. I would go up to the altar during service and pray (and honestly, sometimes flat out fall asleep) but I always got up (woke up) and ran out before service ended so no one would stop and "preach at me". But I kept going there.

I became an official member of that church about a year later. Then got baptised maybe 2 years after that or so.

Once I became a member I found had to go to service two or three or four times a week. Not because they made me, or because they insisted (though they did insist because they were rather fundamentalist, but that's not why I went) I only went because I had to. (And I only really went on the days I enjoyed attending.)

I needed to be there. Sure, we had Sunday School and Sunday service, yeah, but we also had Prayer Mondays, Youth Group Tuesdays, Youth Meeting Wednesdays, Grown Up Service Thursdays, and Kids Service Fridays. I needed to go. My soul was still starving. I needed to hear the Word. I needed to hear and sing the songs at the top of my lungs and raise my arms and stomp my feet. I needed to kneel at the altar. I needed to kneel at the pews, I needed to pray to God. I was just in such desperate need of solace, of soul balming. The only real peace I could gain was in there.

And yeah, it wasn't perfect. Not by a long shot. We had some fanatical people in there. And yeah it was clumsy every once in a while, because they had a really strict doctrine that pretty much guaranteed they would always have a really small congregation. They didn't like TV or movies or even higher education cause it was all "corruptive". And don't get me started on the clothing rules. But I dealt with it and took it all with a grain of salt. Because I needed to understand what they understood. They had that all-intense focus by setting all that modern stuff aside not only because the bulk of them were over 60 and flat out didn't have any of that stuff when they were growing up, so they just didn't "get it" anyway -- but they did really know God works. To their deepest bone marrow they knew. He works NOW. Today. Here. With Us! And many of them experienced healing through prayer first hand. And I so needed that understanding. So much.

They knew it. They showed it. We prayed hard there.

So always while I was an active member, both when I was a Catholic kid and when I was a member of that Pentecostal church as a grown up, I really never lived further than 4 blocks away from church. I could get to church as I needed to during the week. Especially if I just needed to pray. It was easy. We were in NYC, where pedestrians have the right of way. All ya had to do was just walk to church.

When I married Chris and moved to Nashville, we became members of a Non-Denominational Christian church. The one we belong to had even started a branch up in NY right after 9/11/01 so I got to meet many of the Pastors before I moved.

Now Nashville is supposed to have the most churches per capita in the entire nation, and yet I found we had to DRIVE out of our neighborhood (okay like what, 25 minutes?) just to get to church. Say WHAT!? Now don't get me wrong, I know we're supposed to be members at this particular church, but driving so far out of your neighborhood to go to church ...? Is it me?

Is it that I've been spoiled by my church-can-be-walked to background? I'm just not used to living where there is so much sprawl. We couldn't get to all the cool things they had going on all there all the time during the week even when we HAD a car -- stuff like the bible classes and the church services on Wednesday nights.

So when our car broke down before Christmas I found myself for the first time not being able to go to church but really wanting to. That's actually never happened to me before.

I had to learn church has to also be portable.

I mean, yes, you can listen and watch church services on TV and play Christian CDs and read the Bible and pray all at home, or together in small groups, for instance. And all of these things I highly recommend. But there is also something about the actual going to church. To that building with other people. All joining in and sharing that prayer time, sharing that worship time with other people who just want to commune with the Spirit of God, that's just really valuable to do.

And yeah, sometimes they all rush out to "enjoy the rest of Sunday" once service is done, so you don't really connect with anyone afterwards and that can be a little sad. But I'm really just focusing in on that precious hour or two or so you're all actually there.

This not being able to go has further helped me discover what is it in me that is different because I'm not going ... or in other words, what good does going to church really do for me?

Well, I'm gonna be honest with you. It's a whole lot easier to swear when I'm not practicing self-discipline and feeding myself better Words to speak by going to church. It's also easier to lose my temper when I don't set aside specific time to worship God and cultivate peace and Word in my heart.

Now that I see this about myself, I will try to work harder on it. And yeah, I understand that kind of honesty makes some people uncomfortable. I mean, "a Christian that still swears? Oh no! You're supposed to be perfect!"

Look, I'm not bragging that I'm all potty-mouthed. I'm only saying I'm working on it. That I struggle. I'm just sharing with you because I think I should be truthful and because people have unrealistic expectations of what being a Christian means. That just gets in the way of true spiritual growth.

I'm not gonna pretend that I don't slip and say bad words because I really don't want you to be all shocked the next time I accidently say or deliberately write "damn". (Or something maybe worse.) So I'm saying I'm just working on it. And working on it forces me to think of other ways to express myself, as succinct and to the point as various bad words just might be on certain occasions.

Besides Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor. I'm trying to be a better neighbor by sharing my joy and not being a crazy, mean zealot fake perfectionist. (That tactic really just doesn't work.)

Church has helped me discover that I have to and need to be spiritually responsible and cultivate my spiritual development. There comes a point where all the priests and preachers in the world cannot do that for you. They are just trainers. They can only show you how to start off and how to maintain. They ultimately can't do the actual spiritual work for you. We each have to do that. That way too, should they ever personally screw up -- and they are only human, so that will happen sometimes -- you don't have to fall with them.

I mean we go to gyms to build muscles, we go to church to develop spiritual muscles. We go to cultivate literal spiritual fruit. Fruit which turns out to be modes of behavior, known as virtues. Peacefulness, even-temperedness, patience, joy, kindness -- all that healthy, good stuff. We're not always perfect at it but golly, we can work at it. It's not going to happen without any effort. Let's not fool ourselves.

Why is it we expect everyone else to take lessons or go to school to learn things and become a Doctor or a Teacher but the minute someone says they're a Christian they're supposed to know exactly how to behave perfectly and correctly right out of the box? Holy crap, talk about pressure! And then when one of them screws up along the way suddenly "ALL" Christians are then also idiots? I mean, if one doctor does malpractice, not all doctors become untrustworthy. That's not the way it works.

So yeah, I was mad at those stupid people way back when ... and yeah, the church actually closed some years later and the ground was sold and now it's all condos. I could be sad about it, and part of me is, but more for the sake of the people I knew there more than anything. I hope that all didn't cost them their relationship with God.

But on the other hand, in spite of some kooky or mean people, I've found going to church is good for something.

Church is not just the building I go to, or the people from the neighborhood. Church is all that and church is portable. Church is in the heart and house and church is in the small groups. Church is everyone that prayed for me when I got hurt.

Church is actually more intimate and also way bigger than I ever thought.

Proactive Prayer

I dunno how much sense this post will make. I do need to kinda "think" this "out loud" in a way.

So often we spend our time in Reactive prayer. Something bad happens, and we pray, as if God were just a last minute thought in our heads. Like it's an "oh yeah, That Big Guy" moment when stuff happens and we suddenly find we need Him. Now. Cause we're in trouble.

Prayer is good. I've seen results. (Yeah, okay. I've also seen non-results, but I don't have answers why that is sometimes. I only have answers for the answered ones, so I'm dealing with that right now.)

Prayer can and should be Proactive. Not just Reactive. The difference has the potential to create amazing results. I really feel that. I really know that.

Last Friday when I got hurt I emailed those nearest and dearest to me and asked them to pray for me -- and I knew they would. But what made this request Proactive and not just Reactive? Because I don't just pray when there's a problem. I find I really like to just pray in general --and I find I enjoy praying for people. I've started to do it do it during the day, like when I walk or when I cook. I guess in that way prayer for me has become a rather Buddhist form of meditative action (since Buddhists practice being in the moment and being aware of what they do) and I find it more fulfilling to pray that way. And yeah, sure, I could also pray even more often that I do, but I'm working at it.

So when I asked for prayer it was more like "help me pray".

When I updated everyone after we got back home, what I didn't expect was to hear that they had turned around and asked so many others join in and also pray for me. Even my good friend Val blogged for prayer for me. (That actually made me cry when I read her post and the comments.)

And that also just explained so much.

For I hadn't expected to get up from the X-Ray machine and no longer hear the grindy noises in my head. I literally felt better than before the X-Rays were taken. I was still waiting with bated breath what the report would be, but there was no bad noise.

The report later came back good.

What I didn't expect was that after such an excruciatingly painful 8 hours (I mean, my FINGERS had been literally TINGLING with pain!) to be able to pop my back and be in barely any pain by the time we got home from the doc's.

I didn't expect to wake up stiff as a board but basically have no bad pain on Saturday. (And that's without taking painkillers.)

Sunday I was a little stiff and tired, but we took it easy.

Today I am still a little tired, but it's understandable, considering the shock of the blow. I am recovering and improving. I will just take it easy this week.

This may sound silly or crazy to some folks, but there were literally periods where I could feel in waves that people prayed for me, and I felt better. I actually felt actual physical relief. I felt pain go away.

I realize this doesn't work for everyone. And I'm not trying to brag. I'm just saying, sometimes we can understand intellectually and know a thing works -- like how drawing every day helps you get better at it, or how practicing can help you play an instrument better -- but it can still be stunning to us when we actually see it WORK and see the results after months of application.

Prayer works. And I have to be thankful out loud for it. I have to. I am just so very grateful.

In some hispanic families there is a tradition in the home where the child -- before stepping out the door -- will call out to his mother "¡Bendicion!" (Bless me). The mother answers "¡Que Dios Te Bendiga!" (God bless you), then the kid will go out.

Prayer works. What can it do when we pray Proactively, instead of just Reactively ...?

The Good Work Thursday That Became The Painful Friday ...

When your mechanic tells you ya may as well save your money on that very expensive repair and put it towards a new car, you just KNOW the vehicle is done for.

We've been taking our car to this garage for about three years now ... so our guy's seen exactly what the poor thing has been through. He's got records. It's all on paper. Now that it's over ten years old, on its second transmission (!) and has a slew of even more things that are Just Not Working anymore, Chris and I finally had to admit it was time to let this one go and save up for a new car.

Key words: "SAVE UP". Oy.

Since we got this news right before Christmas, we've been dealing with this for a while now. And it's been a dry, dry freelance season for me, more full of developing pitches for new terrific projects that I care about. But it's all good ...

I have to say the biggest surprise was to find the silver lining in this situation. Thanks to our car not working, I have had to decline a lot of volunteering that I tend to normally enjoy doing ... and have had to concentrate on developing my work further so I can sell projects. So I've been doing all the things I always say I want to do, and always complain I never have enough time to do -- namely, write and draw.

(That also sets up a whole other post, but that one's for another day.)

It's amazing how much time you really have in your day when you're not frittering it away doing other things that aren't developing your skills and aren't making you any money. (And don't misunderstand me, I know volunteering and helping people out is valuable and worthy work of participating in. If everyone pitched in, the load would be lighter all around. Key word here: BALANCE.)

All this to set up and say that last Thursday had been a really good day ... I had written a chunk of a new chapter for one of the stories Chris and I are collaborating on. I uploaded a new one-page story on my ComicSpace profile page and updated my page there. Then I finished layouts for 7 pages of a project that really means a lot to me (more on that later!). I felt I was getting meaningful work done! I emailed the layouts to Val for feedback then headed upstairs to find some stuff.

I had gotten a call from one of our friends in our Nashville Comics Creators group a couple days earlier. He had been burned out of his apartment on Good Friday (he and about 100 other people in his complex). He was safe and back home now in another state, staying with his folks 'til he figured out his next move. He'd called me because I have the extra copies of our group's APAs, and I could get him replacement copies for about 6 of the 12 issues. I went to look for them.

I pulled the box of extras out and started to make a set. I also grouped out the extras, which I planned to drop off at our meeting place, so new members could have them. I spread the booklets out on the floor and just stopped to enjoy and admire the different covers for a bit. Since we each take turns drawing/creating the wraparound cover art, it was just fun looking at the great ideas everyone comes up with.

I re-boxed the back up set, and got up -- only to slam right into one of our filing cabinets. Hard. Talk about freak accident. I got up with some force -- since I was holding the box -- and hit the edge of the cabinet with the back of my hip bone, right at the base of my spine. The edge was so sharp, the metal cut right through at least two layers of clothes, and into my skin. I fell back down onto my left side, literally stunned. The shock felt like one of those cartoon moments where the mouse bonks the cat on the head with a mallet and the cat's whole body resonates from the blow and he kind of shimmers off the TV screen. I don't know how I didn't drop the box of APAs.

I lay there on my side a little while until the pain passed. Then got up. I felt basically okay so I really, thought nothing more of it. I did feel like a good chiropractic adjustment might be in order really soon. And it did hurt but I went about and did the rest of my work for the day (which I honestly don't even remember what that was. It might have been email. I might have written some more. I dunno.)

I didn't limp too much, considering. I mentioned the blow to Chris that night when I showed him the cut. The water from the shower didn't sting like I expected, so I was very relieved. We went to sleep.

Then I woke up at 2am in excruciating pain.

It was frightening, really. My neck hurt, my forehead hurt, and my fingers were all tingly. Actually the tingle went from my neck down my tendons all the way down to my hands to the ends of my fingertips. I got up.

I debated, but decided to let Chris sleep. I was VERY alert and really just hurt like hell. I thought it best to let him sleep because while I didn't think I was needing an ambulance, I knew I definitely needed to get x-rays. I was going to need him to bring me to the hospital as soon as it was daylight. Especially when I heard the grindy noises in between my ears. That just scared me.

So I stayed up and made sure I could stay awake. I could have woken him up, sure, but the extra 4 hours of sleep for him would be helpful. He would worry enough later when he got up. And frankly I was too tense to sleep, so I wasn't worried about passing out or anything.

I stayed up on the sofa and watched TV. (Lotsa boring crap on overnight, let me tell you.) Even our normally comforting public television station couldn't relax me. Maybe it was just as well, since I needed to not be sleeping anyway. Later when Chris' alarm woke him and he came downstairs, I asked him to bring me to our doctor. As he dressed I called the doc's office and made a request for an emergency appointment and they fit me in as soon as I could arrive. Before we left, I emailed 5 of my nearest and dearest, told them what happened and asked them to please pray for me.

I told my Doc how my brain felt bruised all along inside my forehead, like I was wearing a bandanna inside my head. It was weird. And even though part of me felt hyper-alert, part of my head also felt really "dumb" (though that could have been from the sheer lack of sleep.) From that and the tingly pain I described, then showing him how I got hurt, he suspected the blow had been hard enough to have caused me whiplash and even a possible concussion(!).

He sent me downstairs and within the hour I got several x-rays taken of my neck and upper back from different angles. After those grindy noises I was flat out scared what they would find. A technician read them right away and reported back to the doc and I went back upstairs. The x-rays -- THANK GOD -- came back okay. (To say I was relieved about that is a super-duper understatement.)

All this from just getting up to put a box away? Geez Louise.

Chris' job was to make sure I rested all weekend and that I didn't experience any neurological symptoms (blurry vision, hearing loss, slurred speech). The doc gave me a prescription for painkillers because it was all pretty bad and painful but when I stopped by the pharmacy later I was honestly afraid to get them, so I didn't. They would make me sleepy and I was afraid that if I was supposed to watch for neurological symptoms JUUUUUST in case, then I'd rather live with the pain for a little while, and know I was in proper working order, you know what I'm sayin'? Pain is supposed to be a helpful warning sign in some situations, after all.

When we were done at the Doc's we were starved, and had lunch nearby on the way home. We also decided to pick up some ice cream and M&Ms to help my recovery (YAY!) and a few groceries we needed for the weekend. We took it all pretty slow since we had to do this on foot.

But again, oddly enough, since we didn't have the car, the extra little walk we had to take to do these things and get back home actually helped my back considerably! I was able to crack/adjust it before we got on the bus to the grocery store. Then by the time we got home, my fingers no longer tingled ...

Talk about silver lining ...