Miss Jane

Originally published on the Emerging Voices blog, 2/8/2015

Hello, friends.

I’m going to level with you: My thesis is due in less than a month and I am nowhere near done. As I tried to come up with something of substance to write about this month, I found myself completely at a loss. After several failed attempts at something more easily identifiable as an actual blog post, I’ve decided that, this week, story counts as a post, and so I’ve written the following snippet of fiction. Bonus, this also fulfills an assignment for one of my classes. So, I’m sorry I’m lazy, here, have a story.

Love, Denika


Miss Jane lives in 1502B, the downstairs half of this sorry old duplex. She, like the house, is seemingly indestructible, despite whatever acts of God or teenage boys eager to prove themselves may come our way. I have yet to figure out the age of either one; they both seem to have been in this neighborhood since before it existed.

Miss Jane wears her hair in a single tight braid, though her hair—like her spirit—is far too wild to be tamed by such constriction. She isn’t one for “beauty products,” but she is tidy and neat; despite the fact that she never seems to stop moving, her dresses are always pressed and not one of them bears a single stain.

Miss Jane never married or had kids of her own. “I don’t need a man, and there are too many babies to watch out for in this neighborhood to worry about my own.” And that she does. Though she has been known to yell at miscreants from her porch, she always watches to make sure they get home safe from school, and she knows every one of their names. The kids always wake up on their birthdays to find a plate of cookies has been delivered to them without any name attached, though the smell of baked goods emanates from 1502B as its own not-so-inconspicuous calling card.

Miss Jane doesn’t go to church—it’s hard to go to church here, since churches seem to come and go with the seasons, each intent on “bringing Jesus to this block,” yet seemingly unaware of what life is actually like on this block, and that, in spite of its crime rate and lack of curb appeal, this might be the closest thing to Nazareth one could find in this century—but she talks to God more than anyone I’ve ever met. If I weren’t so afraid of being struck by lightning, I’d say that God was taking direction from her, rather than the other way around.

I wouldn’t call Miss Jane holy. Definitely not to her face, and I don’t think I would behind her back, either. But she is real. She is fierce, and she is kind. She has both discipline and grace. And when she is near, She is close.

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The Damn Rain.

This morning, the clouds turn grey and I hear others around me complaining,
“I wish it would stop raining–it’s spring, it’s supposed to be nice out.”
And I cannot help but think–

The seasons in my psyche look an awful lot like this. “I’ve been working so hard for so long!”, I shout towards the heavens, “Why am I still so fucked up?!”

Because, truth be told, I want sunny and 75.

I want to be better.

I am tired of daily donning the raincoat of my isolation, the galoshes of my self-preservation, the umbrella of my well-intended doubt. I am tired of the rain.

And oh how very wrong I am. Minnesota, my first true love, has yet to live up to my expectations to be expectable. We have a joke, one too slippery for my memory, about simultaneously clothing ourselves in parkas and shorts. “Expect the unexpected,” they tell us, “be prepared for anything.”

But, after a while, my parka is heavy and my legs are cold. I am no longer able to carry both mittens and sunscreen.

When it rains, the sky opens her arms and graces us with her bounty. She pours all her love on us. She nourishes our ground and clears our air. She brings us life–at once, release.

This morning, the clouds turn grey and I hear others around me complaining,
“I wish it would stop raining–it’s spring, it’s supposed to be nice out.”
And I cannot help but think–

“I think I’ll go out in the rain.”

A Cosmic Mother’s Day

Life begins with birth.

At the beginning, She strains against the pain,
Each burst a star exploding into existence.
She screams and the heavens are formed.
Each breath She breathes creates a new world.

This creation She carried for so very long,
This piece of Her, this being that bears Her features,
Pregnantly waited within Her,
A swirling maelstrom anxiously expecting existence.

And, in a moment, it is born.
She breathes deeply in relief,
Sending Her spirit forward
To protect and nurture this new life.

As She gazes into the eyes of Her newborn child,
She smiles and laughs with joy,
The former agony instantly forgotten,
And She declares,

It is good.

Beatnik Theology

Hey everyone! Yet again, I am recycling material I wrote for a class. Such is the life of a seminarian. This was my final project for my J-Term class on John Cobb and Process Theology. Enjoy!

I am relatively certain that the field of theopoetics exists because, at one point, John Cobb, Alan Ginsberg, and Homer walked into a bar. This is obviously facetious, but nonetheless, the form of epic poem as conceived in ancient Greek mythology and the zeitgeist of the Beat Generation have much in common with Cobb’s process theology, especially in terms of narrative. Though the three speak, on the surface, to different locations entirely, their concepts are not altogether dissimilar. All three focus not on the final destination, per se, of any moment, but on the journey that brings one there.

As an exercise in this, I have penned a set of poetry found in the latter part of this essay that seeks to draw these together. This, however, is something to explore later. First, it is necessary to explore exactly what is meant by Cobb’s process theology.

Cobb writes at length in works such as Is it Too Late? and Reclaiming the Church about particular issues in Christian theology and praxis, namely, the climate crisis and the state of the church (respectively). While these are certainly wise and informative, they are not the nexus of his theology, and focus more on the practical implications of process thought than on process thought itself. Therefore, they are not my area of concern here.

The primary, fundamental element of Cobb’s process theology is concrescence, if nothing else.[1] Concrescence refers to the process by which a moment happens or is actualized. It is hard to say where it “begins” and “ends” because this process is a cycle that repeats indefinitely. Some would start with God, others with the past, others with the present, but nonetheless, this does not start and end anywhere in particular. Cobb, however, chooses the human prehension of the present moment, and therefore, I will begin there..

In the present moment, every element of the past is prehended, or considered. Some of these narratives are accepted and some are rejected; some are prehended consciously and others subconsciously. For a dynamic being, in this case, for the sake of simplicity, a human, this prehension has the responsibility of shaping the next moment and creating a new present reality. This is the subjective stage of concrescence. This is the supplemental stage.

In this process of prehension, the initial aim from God, that is, God’s suggestion or will for that moment or God’s superject, is also prehended. This is the means by which novelty enters any given situation. God sends forth the initial aim from God’s primordial nature and it is accepted or rejected to varying degrees.

Once this process of prehension has occurred, the superject goes forth from the moment of prehension to create a new objective datum that is received into the consequent nature of God and becomes a part of the objective past. This is the satisfaction stage. The next moment will then have this moment, as well as all of history, to prehend in its time. This then becomes the conformal or initial stage, and the cycle repeats.[2]

I suggested earlier that this understanding of concrescence is the primary foundation for Cobb’s theology. Primary implies that there are secondary elements, and perhaps tertiary and beyond. These secondary elements are found in the process of concrescence: creation, God, Christ/Logos/creative transformation, the soul, and humanity. In a surely heretical way, they each fit somewhere in the elements of this process.

Creation can be said to be the objective past, as well as (perhaps confusingly) also the future. It is everything that has ever happened and the possibility of what could happen, but is not subjective or capable of prehension as it does not presently exist in such a way. It informs the present moment without acting on its own.

God is fairly easy to point to in this process, as there is an element named God as part of its fundamental description. God is the supplier of the initial aim from God’s primordial nature and the being into which every objective moment is received (in God’s consequent nature). In this way, God is temporal, but not spatial.

Christ, or the Logos, or creative transformation, depending on how one wishes to explore and understand the concept, could be said to be God’s initial aim. This Christ is transcendent and eternal but also does not have actuality until it becomes part of the present moment. This is the novelty I mentioned previously, the way in which God acts in our realm and creates new experiences.

The soul could be considered to be the present moment, or perhaps, the act of prehension. Cobb claims that beings that possess a prefrontal cortex have souls, and are therefore capable of prehension.[3] This is in comparison to, say, a rock, which exists in each moment, but stays relatively static throughout time and tends not to change unless acted upon by an outside force. The degree to which a being is sentient impacts the degree of prehension that occurs in its soul. This soul is, by nature, social and interconnected to all things as prehension is interconnected to all of history.

Finally, humanity is most like the superject. This is the realm in which we act and decide. We respond to our prehensions and to God’s initial aim and act accordingly. We relate to all of creation. We create a new future as we go. This is not unique to humanity, but, as one could argue that humans are the pinnacle of sentience as far as we know, then humans have the greatest capacity for creation of new moments as well as prehension.

Taking full poetic license, I have crafted characters that represent each of these five secondary elements. These are further explored in the poetry that follows, but first it is necessary to introduce each of them. Though in my earlier exploration of the process of concrescence, I began with the concrescing moment or supplemental stage, for this, I will begin with the past or the initial stage. I previously paired this with creation, and, considering Cobb’s emphasis on the climate crisis, I have constructed the character of the Prophet for this role. The Prophet calls out for change and action but is incapable of facilitating the level of change needed on its own. The Prophet is similar to an activist, not a religious “future-teller” as we might conceive.

Next, then, is God, or, as I call the being, the Sage. The Sage is keeper of village stories and/or wisdom, similar to the character found in Greek and Norse mythology. The Sage is a person seldom listened to or heard properly, but is stories, when understood as intended, have the potential to do great good.

It then follows that the Logos, as the emanation from God, should be explored. I have named this character the Muse. Like Cobb’s Logos, the Muse has no actuality until embodied in one way or another. Like Cobb’s creative transformation, the Muse is the means by which inspiration comes. Finally, the Muse is accessible by anyone and everyone, but requires intentionality.

Next is the soul, or the Visions in my terms. This is defined here not as a prophecy or trance-like experience, but is more in line with such things as motivation, goals, existential desires, and so on. The Visions are plural because the soul, in Cobb’s definition, is social in nature and I thus find it necessary to refer to this character as a collective.

Finally, we reach the Poet, or the character representing humanity. The Poet has a unique role in society as one that can determine the ethos and, to an extent, the fate of a generation. Humans as the highest beings we know have the potential to do the greatest amount of good or evil. Likewise, artists (such as the Poet) have so much impact on society that it can almost be said that they move the world along. The Poet characterizes and shapes the future. Though it would seem this is the beginning of change from a human perspective, this is actually the last possible element of subjectivity before a moment becomes an objective datum.

I began this explanation by calling upon the Greek tradition of epic poetry and the Beat Generation’s zeitgeist. It does make sense, then, that I make a case for its incorporation. Greek mythology, like most mythology, seeks to explain the world and why things happen. Epic poetry follows a character through his or her quest and the process of becoming a hero/ine.[4] Process theology follows everything that exists in the process of becoming itself and thus the transformation is not altogether different. Additionally, particularly Greek mythology and epic poetry incorporates the gods into the framework, making it particularly fitting for a theological discussion.[5] The one glaring exception would be, in epic poetry, there is often a final destination, whereas process theology would not argue for this.

Similarly, the Beat Generation bears much in common with process theology. The openness to spontaneity, the focus on human connection with one another and with the rest of the universe, the willingness to experiment, and the rejection of preconceived understandings characterize both.[6] The names for the characters I have chosen draw from relevant characters in this time period.[7]

It is hard to go much further into this without infringing on the necessary liberties and nuances of the following poetry. Thus follows my exercise in theopoetics as an attempt to explain Cobb’s process thought.

O Muse, sing in me, and through me tell the story…[8]

The streetcorner Prophet shouts for justice

To a ticker-tape parade of empty ears.

Immobile on its own

The prophet lives in the age of great dreams.

But following through is not a virtue

And one soldier does not an army make

(Especially when the war is undetectable by sophomoric radar).

Its words, unintelligible groans

And its pamphlets covered in foreign scribbles.

Is it because we don’t understand?

Or because we don’t want to know?

We exist in its realm

Without noticing—

There’s too much to hear so we tune it all out.

Heaven forbid

We actually be motivated to something.

Higher callings are the aspiration of starry-eyed academics.

Not I, ever the pragmatist.

I am an island.

Our apprehensions

Only take account

Of moments we have already seen

And provide different names

For the same thing.[9]

The wizened Sage

Sits on a bench in the middle of the village

And waits.

It is present, but does not intrude.

It is in harmony

With the imminent world,

But somehow beyond it,

Like light from a distant star

That only reaches the Earth after millions of years.

It keeps the stories of this village

Neither locked up nor shouted from the rooftops,

Like open secrets

That we might chance to know

If we take the time to listen.

All the while, new stories are being written,

And it knows them all.

Its identity is wrapped up in narrative

And seems lacking without.

“Listen, child,

Listen to the stories being told all around you.”[10]

Though seemingly ancient,

The Sage always has a new story to tell.

The Muse, like a drug,

Beats, beats, beats

Through veins and arteries.

Same old drug

But always a new experience.

Common sense

And modern piety

Tell us that drugs are bad.

But oh, for the way it transforms,

The novelty it brings.

Should we desire inspiration,

We would be silly to reject it.

This bodily experience

Is somehow transcendent;

This drug has no meaning

Until it’s ingested,

But takes us to somewhere

We have not yet been.

Our best ideas

Never seem to come from sober minds.

Rooted to the earth

And stretching towards the sky

Bodiless Visions grasp hands

And together draw out the prana[11]

That comes as a side effect of sentience.

Arms branching out forward and back

The past and future are of no concern.

In this moment

Their feet, their roots are their focus.

They are now.

A channel for all of history

To become all of the future,

They contemplate without dwelling

And consider without worrying.

The Visions create a melody

Of notes sung and unsung.

The next note not yet chosen

And the previous chord no longer rings in the air.

Young and hopeful and

Worldly and cynical and

Always curious

The Poet is porous

Soaking up the world around it.

Strong and courageous and

Scared and anxious and

Constantly considering

It thinks about the line

That does not yet have words.

Beautiful and honest and

Ugly and deceitful and

Never completely certain

It realizes just how heavy

These lines are.

With that, it writes.

It is all in the same city

Where the Prophet shouts

And the Sage abides

And the Muse inspires

And the Visions sing

And the Poet writes.

Each a different thread

In a tapestry woven

Of chaos and order

Each moment weaves a new story.


[1] John B. Cobb Jr, A Christian Natural Theology, second edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 50-54.

[2] Terms and explanations of the process of concrescence taken from the author’s compilation of class notes.

[3] Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, 19.

[4] Stephen Cushman and Roland Greene, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition, “Epic” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 439-448.

[5] Cushman and Greene, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 443-444.

[6] David Sterrit, The Beats: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 22-26.

[7] Taken largely from the language used in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, 57th printing (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2001), 9-28.

[8] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by George Chapman, edited by Tom Griffith (Hertfordshire, GB: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2000), book 1, line 1.

[9] Ben Gibbard, “Different Names for the Same Thing,” in Plans (New York, NY: Atlantic Recording Corporation, 2005).

[10] Denika Anderson, “Mama G. and the Immanent Music,” Wandering the Desert, November 8, 2013, https://wanderingthedesert.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/mama-g-and-the-immanent-music/.

[11] Term in yoga for life force or energy.

Where Process and Mental Illness Meet

Hey all! Over this past J-Term, I took a course on Process Theology. As this is the parent field from which my future field–theopoetics–comes, I found it to be one of the most interesting and engaging courses I’ve ever taken, despite the 8:45 a.m. start time and the three and a half hour classes that met four times per week. As an assignment for it, I wrote a (short) sermon from a process perspective on mental illness and the church. This is that sermon.

Let us begin today with a brief exercise. I would like everyone to stand up (as you are able) and greet four people. There is no rule regarding who you need to greet; they need not be strangers or friends, people who look like you or do not, or nearby or across the room. Any four people will do.

You may have noticed some demographics of the four people you greeted. You may have considered their respective ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, levels of physical ability, height, weight, eye color, hair color, and the list continues. We take in incredible amounts of information about a person just by seeing them, and interacting with them brings even more, such as noticing accents, levels of energy, or even signs of recent illness. We are bombarded with information in these interactions, and, for better or worse, we store that information in our brains as the characteristics of a given person.

One thing you probably did not notice, however, was if any of the people you greeted has a mental illness. There are signs, yes, but they are not often visible in such short interactions. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health informs us that 26.2 percent of the population—roughly one in every four people—has a diagnosable mental illness.[1] That means, statistically speaking, one of the four people you greeted deals with the harsh realities of mental illness on a daily basis.

This is difficult news for most people, and rightly so. It is heart-wrenching to know that a quarter of the people we know and love struggle with their own minds, bodies, and the chemistry between them.

Why, though, should this be of particular concern to people of faith? Is there a reason that, as religious and/or spiritual people, we should care more about mental illness than a person who does not associate with religion or spirituality?

The simple answer is, yes. We do need to care more. We claim to be people of hope and thus have a responsibility to share that hope. The beautiful thing about hope, too, is that it is an unlimited resource. Like the flame of a candle that can be infinitely shared without any decrease in its original light, hope can spread without being sacrificed.

Some of you might be thinking, “Yes, I agree, but what do you mean by ‘hope?’” To you, I say, good question! Hope is a difficult concept to pin down, as, like other such concepts as love, happiness, success, and peace, it means different things to different people. Regardless, hope is an extremely powerful and meaningful word to those who struggle with mental illness.

Hope, for us, as people of faith, means this: we trust that God is active in our realm and is innately in relationship with all of creation—humanity included—without exception. We trust that the God in whom we believe does not make us suffer and desires that our lives be full of good things. We trust that this God does not stand back and let us suffer, but tries relentlessly to inject hope into our brokenness with each passing moment. We trust that this God is the Hope Divine.

Let us follow the proverbial rabbit trail for a moment and discuss the word “broken.” When we think of this word, many of us picture a shattered dish, or perhaps an electronic device that has lived out its functioning days. I would suggest that, when using this word in relationship to living beings, we think of it more as a broken bone. There is pain, suffering, and difficulty in such a situation, but there is also immense room for healing. The bone might never look quite the same again, as that past fracture has become part of its history and has left scars and memories in its wake, but it will become functional and whole again, with the proper help. In this way, people with mental illnesses can be said to be “broken”—in need of healing—but not terminally so. There is room for hope.

People with mental illnesses can often look at their lives as broken, shattered pieces that no amount of super glue will put back together. How could the hope of which we speak possibly enter in to this situation? It seems to be unfixable, and in many cases, there might be a lot of evidence pointing towards this, but it is not the case.

While a person with a mental illness is staring at the shards of his or her being scattered around him or her, the Hope Divine steps in and sees intrinsic beauty. The person sees something that was once whole, where the Hope Divine sees beautiful, intricate pieces that can make a new thing. The person wonders what happened to the lovely piece of pottery that once was, but the Hope Divine sees a mosaic waiting to happen, and while the person is consumed by the loss, the Hope Divine takes advantage of every moment as an opportunity to inject a new perspective into the story of that person’s life.

It is often difficult to pay attention to God’s aims, however. This is especially true for people whose internal narratives are so loud and overwhelming that hearing a story other than the one they know and believe to be true feels impossible. We have faith in a relentless God of reckless love and unabashed hope, and we trust that this God lives up to these expectations, but we do not claim to believe in God’s omnipotence or think that we have no role in doing God’s work. We are mediators of this hope and have the blessed opportunity and responsibility to speak this into the lives of others around us.

Remember too that people of faith are not exempt from this kind of suffering. According to the Pew Forum, roughly 54 percent of United States inhabitants attend religious gatherings regularly.[2] [3] When combined with the previously mentioned 26.2 percent of the population with diagnosable mental illnesses, basic statistics informs us that around 14 percent of people in this country are regularly attending religious services and have a diagnosable mental illness. This is not an “us and them” situation; this affects all of us without exception.

Therefore, this is not a “mission” or “evangelism.” We are not talking about something those of us in this building have and those outside it do not. This is, however, a way of living—we are called to live as people of hope. It is our responsibility to point to the intrinsic beauty in the broken pieces of our lives, whatever those pieces might be. We are to live as artists, creating mosaics with a zealous fervor that the attention of others might be drawn from the brokenness to the beauty being created from them. We point to the “something new” that hope inspires in a situation and try to show how the difficult and sometimes terrifying parts of our histories can tell a new story.

As we leave this place, let us be people of hope for those who are suffering, and speak new life into even the bleakest of situations. Amen.


[1] “NIMH: Statistics: Any Disorder Among Adults,” National Institute of Mental Health, accessed January 21, 2014, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/Statistics/1ANYDIS_ADULT.shtml.

[2] Information adapted from “Portrait and Demographics of United States Religious Affiliation,” Pew Research Religions & Public Life Project, accessed January 22, 2014, http://religions.pewforum.org/portraits.

[3] “Regularly” is here defined as attending religious gatherings at least once per month.

Mama G. and the Immanent Music

I used to walk down to the Gottliebs’ house every day after school. They were retired farmers, sold off most of their land years ago, but kept a few acres. Farmers don’t ever really retire. Their kids had long since moved away, but everyone still called them Mama and Papa G. They were, in a way, the parental figures of our little town. Papa G was always out in the fields, and didn’t have much to say beyond the current state of the wheat, but his presence was warm. Mama G sat on the porch and protected the neighborhood with her watchful, loving eye.

 

Mama G would tell us stories. It didn’t matter about what; she always captivated us. There was so much wisdom in her words.

“Listen, dear. Listen to the world around you. Listen to the stories being told.

“There is music in everything.”

She took me on a journey. The rustling of the shafts of wheat, the squabbling of geese on the lake, the evaporation of the tea she always seemed to have ready. The howls of the wind and the blooming of flowers. The icy warmth of fresh drifts of snow and the piercing way in which the sun got under our skin. The itchy shifting of farmhouse floorboards. The softness in her arms as she picked me up when I fell. The sweet, waxy smell of fresh-picked vegetables.

“Listen, child! There are stories being told all around you! Listen to the rhythm beating out from the core of the Earth, as all of creation joins in the song! Can you hear it?

“There is music in everything.”