Mar 9, 2010


One March afternoon in my first year of college, I stopped at the school’s theater box office to buy tickets to some nihilistic bucket-o-blood experimental theater production. I had to see it for class credit. I noticed the woman behind the glass had a black smear on her forehead. Maybe she had to do scene painting for class credit. So I kindly informed her of the schmutz.

“It’s Ash Wednesday,” she glared.
“Oh, yes of course!” I apologized. I may have added that I was Lutheran and was on her team. She kept glaring. Maybe she was a staunch Catholic, and viewed my Lutheran people as The First Defectors.

Still, I left feeling elated, knowing there was at least one other Christian in the theater department. One person who was bold enough to say, “Screw you, nihilist bucket-o-blood theater majors! From dust you came and to dust you shall return!”

Growing up Lutheran, we didn’t give up things for Lent. We just thought sobering thoughts. When I reached adulthood, I joined a non-denominational church, threw off the old liturgy and embraced total formless freedom in Christ. I immersed myself in God’s love, disappeared into long rock worship sets, attended healing conference and hung out with Jesus. It was awesome, as my hippie pastor said.

But as I got older, I started to miss the liturgy. (Besides, the non-denom did have a liturgy: 45 minutes of rock music, followed by a 45-minute sermon. It’s still a liturgy.) I wanted less spectatorship and more participation. I wanted to recite the creed. Most of all, I wanted to take communion every week. I would gladly cut 25 minutes out of a 45-minute sermon to make room for communion. So many of those 45- minute sermons only had 20 minutes of content anyway.

Two years ago my husband and I landed at an Episcopal church. We observe the liturgy and the church year. The rectors wear robes and swing the incense ball. We read the appointed scriptures and the pastor preaches on the appointed text. (It’s not all scheduled stuff: we pray for each other, the Holy Spirit shows up, and God is moving on our little parish). Church isn’t always an earth-shattering experience. Sometimes the hymns are dull, dull, DULL! But for some reason – maybe it’s the Age, or maybe it’s my age – the liturgy is working on me.

I started observing Lent a couple of years ago. Lent is the forty days before Easter when we honor the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness, and we do this by giving up or adding something to our life. (I’m not really sure how they count the forty days of Lent. I think they skip Saturdays and government holidays). In any event, I decided to go with the liturgical flow and see how Lent would work on me.

This year I gave up facebook and twitter. It was a selfish move, really. I was getting too many updates and the notifications were clogging my email In Box. And facebook sent me four emails for every single event that occurred on facebook that it was getting insane. Besides, I didn’t have time to trade useless factoids or Farmville animals or Monty Python dead parrots. I've already blocked Mafia Wars for cryin' out loud.  Anyway, I needed to spend that time on important things, like writing, my husband and God. Facebook and twitter had to go.

The first thing I did with all that free time was to catch up with “30 Rock” on Hulu, play online scrabble with a friend, and check craigslist for a used IKEA day bed. I also thought about the things I was supposed to do with my free time. (In my defense, my husband was busy updating his status on facebook. All he gave up for Lent was Tostitos Lime Chips.)

Time with God still eluded me, or maybe I eluded time with God. Nature abhors a vacuum, and maybe my human nature abhors silence. But I know better. Whenever I’ve spent time alone with God, I’ve loved it. I’ve even gone on a few silent retreats. The first hour is always excruciating, but by the time the weekend is over, I kinda don't want to start talking. I like the silence.  Well, Lent is not yet over and I hope that I can master some time alone with God.

But there’s something else I feel called to abstain from: righteous anger. When it comes to Fight or Flight: I get my dukes up. I recently kicked a BMW SUV when it knowingly barreled through a crosswalk I was walking in. Yeah: It slowed down, saw me, and then sped up and right through. (The license plate was GRNYMAE. If you know Granny Mae, warn her never to drive through Pasadena. I’m looking for her.)  But even if the driver was jerk, it’s not a good idea to attack a moving piece of machinery.

It’s easy to make a vague promise like “turning the other cheek.” That is until God gives you a specific person to whom you should turn the other cheek. I recently got a specific person. Our dog. Well, Wally doesn’t want to be my dog; he wants to be my husband’s dog. He’s a 9-month old corgi, and corgis are stubborn. In the past month and a half, Wally has decided he needs to push me out of the pack. Because Wally has decided to hate me.

My husband says that’s not true. Wally is a dog; he’s not capable of feeling human emotions like hatred.

“Well,” I reply, “What would you call it if the dog you’ve been feeding and walking and praising and loving on, decides to growl whenever you come near? If he lavishes affection on complete strangers but ignores you? If when you try to pet him he recoils at your touch?

"That's because he picks up on your anger and sees it as a threat," Larry suggested.
“I thought you said he doesn’t feel human emotions!”

Larry suggested I praise him and treat him even more. But that’s what I had been doing all along! Besides, someone told me that dogs can interpret your kindness as weakness, and then try to push you out of the pack! And the Dog Whisperer said I needed to act like The Boss. Which Wally interprets as threatening.

(There are other mobius strips of rationale in the Dog Training world. Like: “Don’t punish a dog. They don’t remember what they did five seconds ago.” VS: “If you punish a dog, the dog will remember that about you and be scared of you.” Which is it? The dog remembers or the dog doesn’t remember?! The dog wants me to be nice or the dog wants me to be tough? Which because I can’t figure it out!! I can’t win. I am a wimp or a threat!)

This insanity sent me into fits of righteous apoplectic anger. Which in turn sent my husband recoiling from me as well. So everyone hated me. I wanted to hate everyone right back. Which made me hate myself. If there is anything I am ashamed of about myself, it is my anger.  Anger wasn't modeled well in my household. My father got angry at everything, and when he cursed it felt like I was getting battery acid thrown in my face. Needless to say I don't like getting angry. But people get angry. And I'm a fighter. So when I get angry, it feels like it swallows everything else in my life.  I hate it and then I hate me.

Amazing the amount of drama and self-loathing, launched over a teenaged dog.

The Dog drama did get me thinking about God, in a palindrome kind of way. I wondered how God must have felt when I complained he was neglecting me, or when he brought something good my way and I feared it was a trap. I shuddered to remember the times recoiled from God altogether. And yet God never banished me to the proverbial service porch, as I had done to our dog. or squirted me with a spiritual squirt gun, as I was told to do to the dog to stop bad behavior.  (Come to think of it maybe God had leveled me with his cosmic squirt gun. Exhibit A: The year 2003.  See also opening chapter of Angry Conversations.)

Two weeks ago, before the Wally Debacle hit its peak, we attended the Ash Wednesday service at church. It was my first Ash Wednesday service. I’d never had ashes spread across my forehead. It took me by surprise when the pressure of my pastor’s thumb on my forehead and the words whispered to me made me cry.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”

To dust I will return. I will not be here forever. It felt like a sobering call to duty: to go out into God’s world and do what he’s called me to do. Go out and live a big story, as Don Miller says. Do something bold and risky and remarkable. Like blessing Granny Mae when she sideswipes me in her car. Or continuing to love a dog that isn’t loving me back. Or something even scarier I haven’t begun to imagine.

But I couldn’t possibly do those things. I wasn’t capable! I was the jerk in my own story!

The other part of the sentence came to mind: From dust I came. I thought of Psalm 103: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” He has compassion because he knows how weak we are.

If only I could extend that compassion to Granny Mae, or to our dog. Or to myself when I get angry.

My husband scheduled a private session with a trainer at PetSmart. I resented it. I had cleared my Lenten schedule to do important things like write (and watch Hulu). How could I take time to see a private dog trainer?

But I went. Well, I protested by spending the day at the library, and met Larry and Wally at the last minute. I was shocked when Wally greeted me with a wagging tail. The trainer said it was because we were meeting on neutral ground, where we’d had no history of acrimony. “Wait until we get back home,” I muttered.

She asked me to remember how much I loved Wally up until a month and a half ago. I wondered just what Larry had shared with the trainer.  Did he come in crying, "my wife hates my dog! This cute adorable corgi!"  I wanted to protest to the trainer, "hey I don't hate this adorable dog! I love him!  But when I thought of how much heartache he'd caused me, I had to stop and think back on how much I truly did adore him before he turned into Iago. It was hard not to remember how much I'd loved him. If I’d never loved him I wouldn’t be so upset over it.

“You can get that happy relationship back,” she promised me. “Just forget what happened before.” I didn’t believe her. I didn’t think Wally would forget. I didn’t think I could forget. Or maybe I couldn’t forgive. Or maybe I couldn’t get over my emotions.

In one hour, she identified Larry’s and my behaviors that sent Wally the wrong message. She told me what to do instead: to react to his growl by staying confident and calm. (Really, squirting him with a water bottle made him more scared? Who knew.) She taught me a new bonding game to play with the dog (Really? So “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” encouraged competition not bonding? Who Knew.)

I tried her suggestions at home. Wally did react differently. I didn’t want to get overly excited, this would take some time. But Wally had begun to change, and so did I.

Not long after that, we discovered Wally had some smelly open sores on his tail. He’g gotten some flea bites and just chewed his skin raw. We trimmed back his fur, applied antiseptic and some anti-itch cream, and then Larry snapped on the “Cone of Shame” to prevent him from biting. It really is a shaming cone: Wally hung his head, tucked his tail and sunk into a corner. I came over and sat down next to him. And he let me stay there. He buried his nose against my thigh. Isn't that the way: we have to reach total humiliation and pain before we let Someone get close to us.

“There, there Wally. We aren’t going to kick you out of the pack. Don’t be ashamed of your weakness. We love you even more.”

He stood up, crawled up into my lap, sighed, and plopped his head across my legs.
I sat there petting him for a good long while, until he drifted off to sleep.


Cynthia said...

Lent is all about change, isn't it? Glad you and Wally are coming back to neutral ground. Who knew dogs could be so complicated:) Thanks for sharing your Lenten journey thus far! Miss you!

Marie said...

Loved this post. Thanks for making me laugh today. And remember about returning to dust.

I left the Lutheran church briefly in my early 30s and tried a LARGE New Thought church instead. In the end, the crisis we experienced (having an extremely premature baby in the NICU for 4 months) brought me back to my church, because of the love, support, and prayers of the community. But I too missed the liturgy.

I'm not giving up anything for Lent this year, but I like the righteous anger move.

Stretch Mark Mama said...

Loved that. Good to hear more of the story behind why you landed at a Lutheran church.

Jim said...

I left a Bible Church in Portland in 2001 and landed at a evangelical Episcopal church in Portland a week later. I loved the silence and reflection. The prayers in the red prayer book were so filling and satisfying to pray. In the silence, I was reminded of the constant noise in the typical evangelical church. They do have a liturgy and it seems to be perfect every Sunday. [1 minute welcome - 4 minutes announcements - 12 minutes singing - offering w/solo 5 minutes - 38 minute sermon - 13 minutes of closing songs = 75 minutes ....and bonus **Communion is on the first Sunday of each month!**]

I had always accused the Catholics of mindless repetitions as a Evangelical. Now I was seeing the repetitive mindless in "main-streamers". Yes there are exception but its seems to be few.

I don't need a new experience every Sunday . . I just want the service and some of the people to be real. I am tired of pulpit centered churches. Claims like "we teach the word here" but really its reading a few verses then 30 minutes of commentary. Most liturgical churches get thru the new testament from the pulpit every year or two right? Who teaching the word?

Non liturgical church services have become so loud that the leaders and its people cannot hear what is going on!

I wish evangelical leaders had the courage to rise up against the "system" and lead in a way where the Pastors were not afraid for their jobs and afraid of the faces in the pews. That every Pastor would teach from his convictions that burn in his soul!

I have been at Imago Dei 8 years this month. Not a perfect place . . but it is a place in process. Good enough for me. Sometimes liturgical and sometimes noisy but that is not the reason to gather at all. It is to edify our church family with our on lives, gifts, and talent and treasure. You go to church to give yourself away in worship and give yourself away to your church body. A good message is a bonus!

Loved your book and your last visit to Imago. Your voice has been needed for a long time on both sides. So glad you jumped in. Sorry I went so long.

This fine night,

Jim S
Portland/Mt. Hood

Susan Isaacs said...

Hey Jim S, thanks for your comments. I totally agree about too much noise in most of our modern churches, and that a good message is a bonus. I'm fine with that format.

I really appreciate Imago Dei too. Last year when I did that event, we came Imago on Palm Sunday. The worship team sang "Beautiful Scandalous Night." It was so moving. You've definitely got a good thing going there. Thanks for your comments.

Kristin Russell said...

I think all Corgis have Napoleon complexes. The one we had growing up, Butterscotch, did that protective snappy thing a lot. We had to get down on her level to approach her. Poor things, with those little bitty short legs——everyone looks like giants threatening to swoop in. I wish we had thought to take her to a class when she was a puppy.

She also got those crazy hotspots; it was maddening. But the dog was a champ at keeping a balloon up in the air by standing on her short little hind legs and tapping it with her nose. Try it with Larry and see if he can do it. Oh! I mean Wally! :)

Susan Isaacs said...

Thanks Kristin! Wally's started to get up on his hind legs and balance for a good while. I may try to encourage that and get him balancing a ball or something. He definitely needs tasks to keep him occupied.

Larry met a corgi owner at the dog park, who took her corgi to herding school: give her something to do. The corgi loved it, but got kicked out of Doggy Day Care: she managed to herd 21 other dogs into a corner and wouldn't let them out!

Jennifer Goertzen said...

I just wrote an enormous comment that seemed like much too much and yet didn't say anything at all. I've deleted it and instead I'll just say this: thank you for this post, it meant a tremendous amount to me and helped turn my perspective around when it really needed it.

Ted and Lori said...

Yep, this made me cry. I miss you.

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