Repetitions Count

Jacob Anthony

We know that in physical training, or in learning to read, or in perfecting the skills of a new job, that repeating the same work over and over helps us become more adept, helps us move our skills toward muscle memory, helps us master our craft.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule, my high school track coach made us run 200 meter dashes 20 times in an afternoon, experiencing the same disagreement with my husband over and over has started to teach us how to communicate with one another better.

I’m finding the same is true with babies, and maybe with the things I read and filled my mind with during pregnancy, too.

This is the third newborn I’ve cared for, the third trial-by-fire-first-two-weeks-of-life. I keep hoping for a birth story that doesn’t include medical hurdles, but I haven’t been granted one yet. They haven’t turned out to be major or scary (no heart defects or babies stopping breathing), but each one has helped me to be more equipped for the next.

My first was put in the NICU about 12 hours after birth for rapid breathing. He spent almost a week there, and it was heartbreaking to leave the hospital without my baby when I was discharged. But no cause or problem was ever found. He came home, and by the time he did, I didn’t feel anxious about having a newborn alone at home, I felt so eager to finally bring my baby to our family.

My second spent an extra day in hospital, with me, and then, 12 hours after being discharged, spiked a fever and we ran back to the ER in the middle of the night. His fever raged for another two days, and then he was fine. He came home, too.

My third, this one born two weeks ago, was exposed to COVID in the first 12 hours of life, and I ended up catching it. He’s had a cough and congestion, though he hasn’t tested positive. I’ve been so grateful for the experience of keeping a little one’s airways open, the “reps” I’ve gotten in with long nights and monitoring baby breathing, the practice I’ve logged with nursing. I can come to this maybe-COVID journey with what feel like tools, like confidence, like trust, to walk with this baby through his illness (and mine).

This reflection made me wonder, too, about the reps I’ve been getting in with Julian of Norwich this year. I’ve spent most of 2022 reading and wondering and writing with Julian and her own themes (maybe they’re repetitions — training — too). She repeats over and over that our perspectives are skewed and veiled, we cannot ever see the whole picture that our God has before him, and our work is to trust the hand that created and sustains us. She tells her readers again and again that our trials and suffering are real and present but that they are not the whole story, she urges her disciples to regard them as lightly and as little as possible. Julian reminds us continually that we are glorious creations of the living God, dwelling places for the Divine, made to be light-filled particles of the image of God.

Often when I was writing and recording my podcast episodes, my mind would visualize the hospital where I’d give birth. I’d never been in it, but, if you’ve see one hospital room, you’ve seen them all, right? I’m not sure why my mind kept bringing that image up as I sat with our teacher Julian, but I wonder if it was a way that Julian, as one of the communion of saints, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was able to pray with me over the birth and infancy of this little boy, whatever trials may arise.

The episodes from my podcast from the first weeks of this month (May) speak especially to Julian’s views on prayer; I encourage you to take a listen if you’re curious about what prayer might be, and if you have questions, leave a comment here, and I’d love to talk more.

Why I Hate to Miss Church (and Why Online Church Doesn’t Help Me)

I grew up going to church because my parents brought me. Later, I went to church because it was the right thing to do, and also because the boy I liked went there. In college I didn’t go to church for awhile because I had freedom, and then I ended up back in the pews as my intellect prodded me to dig and dig and dig into the meaning of the world and existence and truth.

For the last 10 years, I’ve not-gone-to-church about 15 Sundays, total. It’s pretty ingrained. And yet, a Sunday “off” from church doesn’t feel like freedom anymore, it feels like an emptiness, I mourn it. Like, every single time. And yes, the pandemic brought this realization into even sharper focus for me.

When I go to church, it’s not the on-fire preaching that draws me, or the rapturous music, or the gaggle of BFFs eager to chat. Church is the physical place where I go and practice the truth for an hour — it recalibrates me from the habits of my week.

I need to experience again the truth that I cannot do everything on my own, that I need to be poured into, that I need to face my shortcomings and choose a different path, that I am not self-sufficient, that I do not always have the right answer, that the world is too much for me to save and I’m not meant to do it anyway, that I am not alone, that my suffering is not unique, that I do have gifts to offer, that I have value.

No where else in my life does all this. The yoga mat might provide a few, affirmations or drinks with friends might provide a few more, reading or writing or a course might give me some others of these truths, but no where in my whole experience confronts me with all the truth all at once in an overwhelming tidal wave of surrender, conviction, forgiveness, peace, and joy.

And online, I’m way too distractible — I have the privilege of a healthy body and access to transportation, and I just haven’t found that I get tidal-waved if I’m staring at a screen. The truth is too easy for me to ignore, the attack from all sides which forces my re-focus on truth is easily averted by organizing my desk while church is “on” in the background. I need the accountability of a community, the disciplined drive of an order of worship, the inconvenience of a pew and the expectation of silence; these drag me toward the path of truth and I’m stuck there at their mercy — where my transformation begins.

Hey, I Launched a Podcast

Now, I don’t know much about podcasting, and I don’t know much about Julian of Norwich, but I do know that we’re in a real tough moment as a society and world, and that I’ve found a lot of wisdom in listening to my forebears in faith, and that my brain and spirit have been much soothed by the habit of meditation (I’ve also been told for years that I have a great voice for radio, haha!).

So I thought I’d just dive in and see what happens — I’m reading a bite-sized chunk of Julian’s writings every day and offering thought or reflection question to help you dig a bit deeper if you want to engage it. Grab it below, or look it up on Apple Podcasts or Spotify!

https://rss.com/podcasts/emilyhylden/

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

We read of God’s epiphany to 3 different people throughout the readings we’re given today; appropriate subject matter for this season of the church year, contemplating God’s revelation of himself to humanity, both as individuals and as a whole.

In all of the testimonies given this morning, we read of the same response from each person: when faced with almighty God, each one is pierced by humility, seeking immediate and full surrender to the obvious Lord and God standing in front of them. Each one admits their own shortcomings, their own unworthiness in the full light of Life, and yields completely.

Isaiah says, “I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips.” Simon Peter declares, “depart from me, I am a sinful man!” And Paul, here, and other places, boasts only of his failures and unworthiness as he is given the grace of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

What can we imagine our response might be other than this same one of the holy people we read this morning? Our own humble bowing, our own yielding and surrender, our own acknowledgement of our inadequacy, as our faces are filled with God’s light, our full selves exposed to his glory.

This is the same response that another holy person had to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ; I’ve been reading some Julian of Norwich recently, and near the beginning of her memoir, the Revelations of Divine Love, she writes of a near-death experience she has. She knows that death is creeping closer, indeed, she’s received Last Rites and describes fixing her eyes toward heaven, as she expected to be there very soon. She demonstrates this full surrender, this complete yielding, in the presence of Almighty God, and yet, as perhaps an analogy of what is recounted in the 6th chapter of Isaiah today, she misunderstands God’s purpose, even in her humility and her longing.

She is certain she will die; as he notices that the pain and suffering is relieved in her body, she prepares her soul more fully she says, knowing that God must mean to take her with all haste. And yet, this is only in chapter 2 of more than 100 that she writes of the visions God gives her and reflections on them over the ensuing 20 years. She indeed does not die, and her humility and yielding, though crucial to her intimacy with God, does not safeguard her from every myopia in her vision of God and his will.

“Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.

And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:9-13, ESV

Despite Julian’s faithfulness, she hears and does not understand, she sees, but does not perceive the fullness of God’s purpose for the experience she’s undergoing, or for her life. So, too, the people Isaiah addresses, the Israelites, do not understand the signs of the times, they do not perceive the message which is being preached to them. And as their heart is made dull, their eyes blinded, their lands, too, are laid waste, they experience great dissension and suffering, they endure the removal of their lives far away, as the prophet says; they go into exile. The desolation is so complete that not only is it like a tree that’s burned but one that’s been chopped down to boot. As hopeless and dead as can be.

But what do we read as the last line of this prophecy? “The holy seed is its stump.” That most-desolate moment, that most-hopeless-situation, that deadest-of-the-dead — there is where God in his will and for his kingdom brings forth a living, holy seed. It is through the exile that the fullness of time comes for God’s people and Jesus, God incarnate, is born. It is through his death on the cross that Easter Sunday is made possible and later, that Paul comes to belief. It is after Simon Peter’s disastrous night of fishing that he finds the revelation of God incarnate sitting in the stern of his very boat.

We read and learn and are reminded here in this words, brothers and sisters, that the God we worship, the God YHWH who has found us and drawn us to him even now, is the God who finds a holy seed in a dead, rotten, evil, oppressed, divisive stump.

We live in a moment of division, of the fraying of our society’s fabric, of tension politically and in our culture, and, I suspect, even in our very families and homes. We can be tempted, even in our humility, to think that we know what God has planned, that we have a clear vision of God’s will and plan, but even the most faithful throughout ages and ages have rarely if ever gotten it right. And so perhaps our work is to continue to yield, to continue to walk in humility, to continue to believe and practice and live as if even in the darkest times and the most painful brokenness and the most isolating fear that God will make the stump itself into a holy seed for the glory of his kingdom. Amen.

this version, more or less, was preached at Ascension in Lafayette, LA, on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 at the noonday service.

Smash Cake

Many years ago at a graduate school Christmas party, I brought a cake with melted frosting. To make the start of the party, I had to frost it before it was fully cooled, and the glops of sweetened butter were swirling around the platter, the cake rising like a castle above a sugary moat. This is a very whimsical and positive description of something that was disastrous to my eyes/heart/expectations.

The host told me, “sometimes you’ve got to let the cake fall on the ground.” I was horrified. I tried to take the good advice in stride. I think this was the same friend who told me during another cooking fiasco, “Never apologize, never explain” (in the kitchen at least, and according to Julia Child).

It’s funny the way we store quotations in our heads, and the way they come bubbling back up to the surface when we need them. As my own birthday cake stuck in its pans last Friday, and the frosting seized (and this, after my mom’s flight to celebrate my birthday with me was cancelled), I had to give up on the (seemingly reasonable dream!) of having a cake that day.

Beloved friends far away showed up for me through the miracle of Doordash and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse cheesecake, in addition to having had the foresight to gift me a gorgeous magnolia-inspired bundt pan, which I put to successful use the next day, but I do continue to learn over and over how much our expectations — however reasonable they seem! — can have such power over our experience.

What ways can we let go of expectations in order to really see and enjoy the world that’s already around us?