Wednesday, December 24, 2008
—Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer
Having just passed the darkest days of the year, I know well how dark it must be at midnight. This time of year in Alberta it’s dark at 8:20am and dark again by 4:00pm. So by the time midnight rolls around, it’s good and night.
But at some point what happens is that the night ends and the dark begins to lighten. I imagine this like some kind of invisible tipping point. Though none of us could see it happen—the dark would still look just as dark—there is one crucial difference: from that point on, the darkness would be heading toward morning.
This Christmas Eve I remember that moment when the “midnight meets the morning” somewhere in the middle of a seemingly endless night. What we need at that moment is greater love. Because though the scales have tipped toward lightening, the midnight still surrounds us and we are tempted to fear.
When the midnight meets the morning, when I have all but given up hope of anything but shadow, when it’s the deepest point of night, let me love you even more. Let that love keep me from giving up on you when my heart is cold and let me believe that somewhere in the midst of that night, because of your love, the morning has already begun.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
“This is how one should regard us… as stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”
—1 Corinthians 4:1-2 (ESV)
There is a park near our house where I take the dog for his walk and let him run free. The minute he feels that subtle “click” freeing him from the leash, he goes nuts. He runs like a drunk, weaving in and out following invisible tracks, sniffing as he goes. Sometimes he doubles back, retracing his steps to get a closer smell of something; other times he pauses thoughtfully, head cocked sideways as if asking himself a question. I watch all this random haphazard intensity and I think, Stupid dog.
But with even the tiniest dusting of snow on the ground, something miraculous happens. What looks like random wandering suddenly makes sense, as there in the snow I can see the evidence of what draws his interest. There are the footprints of a person and beside it, prints of a smaller dog. There is the slightest brush of a bird’s wing and tiny v’s where birds stood. There are the tracks of a rabbit. There is the place another dog rolled in the snow. He follows those tracings religiously from one to another, following the path however winding it goes. And all at once, my dog goes from being a joy-filled idiot to being a wise and prudent tracker. I trust him now.
Maybe one day God will sprinkle the earth with something like snow so all the invisible mysteries of God will be made plain. In that day we’ll understand why the track doubled back, why we had to pause in that place, what the purpose was of following an inexplicable winding path. Until then we’ll have to trust that those who are stewards of the mysteries of God have got a whiff of something holy when we see them running in circles. And we’ll have to have imagination enough to chase along with them, with or without the snow to make it plain.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
But in the New Testament many of the interventions were quieter and (on the surface) very ordinary. There were people who talked together, walked from place to place, people who touched each other, people who asked questions and ate together, people who sometimes misunderstood each other and failed to see what was most needed at the time.
I wonder sometimes how I can wake up in a despairing mood, wondering why I can’t sense God’s presence when everywhere around me in the tiny, quiet moments, my life is screaming with evidence of his love: sunrise, sunset every single day again, and a bright blue sky overhead; friends to laugh with, chocolate to eat, hot tea to drink; dogs to pet and socks to put on. In a thousand tiny moments of predictable routine God undergirds my doubt with the quiet persistence of his promise.
Where was God today? Not in a booming voice from the sky or a dramatic conversion. God was in the shoes that protected my feet, in the faucet that gave me clean water, in the softness of late-evening light, and in a thousand seemingly little things that I easily could have missed.
Friday, November 21, 2008
When the days grow short and the dark is long, there is something in our spirits that yearns to hibernate. Give up all pretense of moving on, getting through the day, and just wrap up with warm drinks and big blankets at home and go into a state of quiet rest. Lower the expectations, embrace the melancholy and the weariness, and just do the minimum to continue to exist.
What if the spiritual life necessitates this time in the dark, this time of quiet stasis, and we are killing ourselves by refusing to Sabbath, refusing to stop, refusing to be still? Are we too busy to embrace the gifts of hibernation?
The kingdom of heaven is like waking up after long sleep, like light after long dark, like activity after long rest. The kingdom of heaven is like an animal that comes out of the comfortable sameness of its winter den and finds stiff muscles grown strong again, finds the earth generous in new life, finds (after a time of nothing) the joy of every tiny something. What if the kingdom of heaven is waiting for us on the other side of the dark and we never get still enough to find it?
Monday, November 10, 2008
Faith was then a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that proficiency in believing is not acquired either in days or in weeks.
—Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
If I had more courage or discipline, perhaps it would be easier to feel I was becoming proficient in faith. For me it is as much of a struggle today as it ever was. My belief in progress and hard work tell me that it should be just like proficiency with a musical instrument or some other art form: the more you work at it, the better you get. But it’s not that way at all.
It may be that proficiency in believing comes not in working harder, but in working less; not in mastering something but being mastered by it. Because the more I think I’ve mastered belief, the more it slips through my fingers into the outstretched hands of children; children who have not worked at it but receive it easily because they know they need it and are certain they deserve it. Perhaps I should stop trying so hard and remember what it means to be like a child, remember that of all the things I was made for the most blessed one is surely learning to receive.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I realize that often I weigh my life on an imaginary set of scales … on the one side is all that is good and restorative and life-giving; on the other side is all that is evil, painful, and broken. And my mental state depends on those scales coming out right. Too many bad things happen and the scales tip the wrong way. And in those moments I feel put upon, angry at the seeming injustice, wondering why God doesn’t throw more onto the “good” side to even things out a bit.
It strikes me that this mental picture is wrong. If it’s all about the scales, then I will never, ever catch up. I will forever doubt whether there is enough goodness in the world to even things out. I will perpetually be in need, waiting and wondering why things don’t seem to measure up fairly.
But what I have this completely wrong? What if grace is not something to add onto the scale, but instead the very air which surrounds the scale, the atoms that make up the scale, even the imagination that invents it? What if all the bad things that happen are not something to weigh out against the good, but simply one small blot in a universe of blessedness and love?
And what if it’s not a scale at all? What if I’m staring for all I’m worth at a crack and missing the point that the crack is but a tiny scar on a huge and lovely tree? A tree that for all the wailing in the world, will never, ever blow beyond the limits of the one who made the wind.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
“Now the manna was like coriander seed.”
This past weekend I did something I have never done before. Spending a day at the farm, I was faced with a mound of dried coriander plant. Still on the plant, the tiny balls had to be separated from the impossibly thin, dry stalks. In theory, this would leave you with a tidy bucket of coriander seeds to be ground and used as spice. What it left me with, however, was a bucket of dried leaves, sticks, and other sharp objects, sore hands, and a lot of little balls of coriander rolling all over the floor.
After this experience, I knew coriander in the biblical sense. I mean, I really knew coriander in a way that seeing it in a pristine glass jar with a green lid already ground up into a fine powder never, ever let me know it. Like most of the Christian faith, it’s not till we slow down and get our hands dirty that we figure anything out.
But even more amazing than my discovery of the truth about coriander was what I found that night when doing a casual search for the word “coriander” in the Bible. Coriander was MANNA. Or at least very close to it. And gone in an instant were my visions of perfect white flakes that people scooped up neatly into a bowl to be cooked. Instead, I pictured balls of manna running over the grass, getting mixed hopelessly with twigs, needing to be swept off the ground, poking people’s hands as they tried to separate it. God promises he will feed the people, but he doesn’t promise that it will be easy.
So to all of you whose coriander comes in pretty labeled jars, let give you two pieces of advice: 1. Look closely, look very closely at the picture of that little plant on the front and think just for a second about how it got from that plant into that jar, and thank God—I mean really, THANK God that there are farmers who know about these things. And 2: Realize that unless you’ve spent some time getting to know coriander, odds are very high you’re totally missing the point of manna.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
“I called out to him with my mouth, my tongue shaped the sounds of music.”
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
As part of the choir I belong to, we often sing in other languages. In the past year, I have sung in Latin, Russian, Italian, and Spanish. One thing that has surprised me is how much singing in a foreign tongue changes the way I understand the song. Even though I sometimes I have no idea what the words mean, there is the music to help me along, to cue me to the emotion and story being told with the notes, and perhaps to understand it more fully than I would have if ordinary English words had gotten in the way.
I wonder if prayer is like that. I can pray, half in love with my own words even as I do it, marveling over a turn of phrase or even at the depths of my piety. And instantly despite my best efforts at humility, it’s more about my words than an honest expression of relationship. Last fall around this time, I attended the Intermission silent retreat run by Rev. Ron Klok. In my spiritual direction time, one thing we worked toward was getting to that point of honesty in prayer, beyond the words I thought I should say, the words that sounded pretty and impressed other people—to the music and the truth underneath being whispered by my deepest self. What is your soul saying? Ron asked me, a question I continue to ask myself on a regular basis. With that question, I go further to the place beyond and below words and resonate with something deeper. Something I too easily ignore, like the inside of an onion I consider too pretty and too much work to peel.
The place of the Spirit’s move in my prayers is the place when I fall out of love with my words, when I strip back the expectations and pretensions with which I approach God, and find myself catching hints of the music underneath. How does the Holy Spirit intercede with groans? Today it was in the moment I was caught unaware on my daily commute by the beauty of yellow leaves blowing across the road and felt in equal parts sorrow and delight. And it was also in the moment where my dog raced across a field of grass to scatter a flock of birds. His black fur was shining in the sun; the birds were silhouetted perfectly against the blue sky. Those moments moved me to tears, with prayers on my heart for which I could find no words, in equal parts both thanks and heartache. The Spirit groans, and I am silent in the music that is all around me. And from that place of stillness, perhaps I will one day learn to speak.
Friday, October 3, 2008
“I have written your name on the palm of my hands.”
—Isaiah 49:15, NLT
“Under the current system, a new species does not officially exist until the scientific report of its discovery appears in print.”
—“Biologists wrangle over how to name every living thing,” Edmonton Journal, September 7, 2008, E6
The world is teeming with life. There are millions of species that even today remain unnamed. Out there in the mud, in the desert, in forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, there are birds, plants, and microorganisms without a name. Millions of them. And even those that scientists want to name are deemed not to exist until a report appears in print. Adam surrounded by the animals might as well not have bothered doling out names (“You are antelope”; “You are giraffe”; “You are hedgehog”) because nothing was in print yet and therefore, did not exist.
But there is a different way of being in print that honors the complexity in the world we can only hint at. While we play at trying to name things, trying to categorize and list every living thing, God holds it all in his hands—literally. His hands are marked over with names. “I have written your name on the palm of my hands.” The names of his children Israel, the names of his beloved people, the names of every living thing—all find room enough to be remembered on the hands of God. He’s got the whole world in his hands. Room enough on those hands to write every maggot, every bird, every fern, every living thing. Yet even with all those millions of things, it never gets crowded. Because while all of us are written there, there is also only just me. Quiet enough for just me, cradled in the hand of a loving God who has always known my name. Written on the palm of God’s hands, I exist. Whether I am worthy to appear in a scientific journal or not.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
“How long do we put up with this, God? Are you gone for good? … Where is the love you’re so famous for?”
—Psalm 89:46, 50, The Message
I hate it when he doesn’t talk to me. Especially when I feel like I’m dying for lack of a word from him. If I could just have a reminder of his love so I know he’s not walked off for good. But I get nothing. If I could see him, there are times I’d want to pound him with my fists and yell back into the quiet peace of his face: “Why don’t you just SAY SOMETHING!!”
Just as I am suspicious of people who too easily feel that Jesus is their friend—that he lives to make them content, that he can be summoned at a moment’s notice to bless their every want, speak to their every need and reply within seconds at their convenience, I am also suspicious of myself for thinking sometimes that Jesus is not my friend. “Who are you really mad at in that case?” a (real, live, here-on-earth) friend asked when we talked about that urge to shout back in Jesus’ invisible face.
Who indeed? Am I really mad at Jesus for not talking when I want to hear him most? Or am I mad at the same suffering and pain that caused Jesus to die for love of the ones who live through it? When I’m hurting, when I’m angry at the world, sometimes the last thing I want someone I love to do is put their hand on my shoulder in a wordless gesture of support. Buzz off, I want to say. Leave me alone and let me stew. Why do you show up now and not when I really needed you? There is a front of defensiveness I cling to stubbornly even when it takes all my energy to keep it going. But Jesus is like that friend who keeps his hand on my shoulder long enough for me to move past being angry and get to the place where realize that I am tired, tired, and what I really want more than anything is to let it all go and know that someone else is in charge, someone who has a plan, someone who will one day work things together for good. Do I believe that is true? Yes, I definitely do. Is it a comfort to me when I'm sick of the silence? Not much. But I do know that my faith often hangs in the split-second moment between being angry at the hand on my shoulder and then wanting to receive it.
What a friend we have in Jesus. If we could just learn to live with him …
Sunday, September 21, 2008
“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Even though I know there are all kinds of gulls, I am fascinated to spot what I still call seagulls in places very far from the sea. I often see them congregating in parking lots. Perhaps there is something in the long stretches of gray asphalt accented by white lines that brings to mind a vast and endless ocean and white-capped waves.
Perhaps I, too, was made for the water. And something restless in my soul calls from the wild places where the Spirit hovered in the beginning over the face of the deep. But I pull back, resist the lure of chaos and look instead for some artificial place of calm. I fly aimlessly over parking lots, hoping that rigid facsimile of the sea will keep things understandable.
In the end it never works. My heart is restless for the rhythmic persistence of the waves, for the place where all the crashing and foaming makes sense, speaks to some greater purpose, and tells me in wordless eloquence I am not alone. So why do I fight the sea? Why do I fear the ill-at-ease moments when all they say is I was made for something more? My heart is restless, restless. Spirit, sing your music and I’ll surrender to the sea.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
“Unless you become like a little child…” Matthew 18:3
“Peace be with you.” “And also with you.” We speak these words of blessing and response to one another in our church services. And there is wonder in that simple preposition, with. Peace be, not IN you, not FOR you, but WITH you. Peace not as a place we go or something we get, but a companion who is with us. Peace be with you.
And what would this companion Peace be? As otherworldly as a silent toddler, not whining when we fail to notice her, not kicking and crying when we don’t make space for her needs, but standing absolutely quiet with the patience of the ages, waiting, waiting, for our eyes to land on her long enough to notice the slight breeze that blows her hair, the translucent light that no amount of time on earth can shake from her skin, the ageless depths of her eyes, and the hint of smile we notice only after we keep gazing, the smile that comes to the corners of her mouth because she knows the secret things that only children know. Peace, peace, be with you.
Monday, September 8, 2008
This fall marks a first for my life: the first time I have been overcome on more than one occasion by the urge to photograph vegetables. I suspect it’s because I have a closer connection this time, having been part of the process of planting and harvesting on a farm, sharing tasks with three other families in the garden. To be honest, Will has done the lion’s share of the work this summer, but even though I but rarely got my hands dirty, there is something delightful about knowing where things started and then celebrating their end.
We bring home big baskets of produce and I enjoy how beautiful it all is. I line the various bundles up on the kitchen counter like distant relatives at a family reunion: a few potatoes, a bit of parsley, some broccoli peeking out, beans, carrots, lettuce, zucchini, and tomato. And I think, “How lovely you all look. So many different colors from the same dark dirt. Smile.”
But all-too-soon my celebration ends and I have a second “first” to add to my list: the first time I have felt oppressed by produce. There are mounds of peas that need to be shelled and beans to be blanched and frozen and tomatoes to be dried and sauced and zucchini to disguise in a hundred different dishes. There are more vegetables than I’ve ever had come to me at one time and I need new pots, new techniques, new recipes to deal with them all.
In this season of “firsts,” I thank God and the good earth for such loveliness. And I realize I don't mind feeling oppressed by vegetables because it leads me to newness and creativity in recipes, in how I spend my time, in what I eat, in how I live. And to think it all started with dirt ...
Sunday, August 24, 2008
—“Abide with Me”
The words to this old hymn have been in my head a lot lately, in particular the words above. It seems to me there should be some kind of organized defense to “foil the tempter’s power.” We should have strategies and equipment to ward off attacks, including things like prayer, worship, and scriptural study. We do have these things, and they are very good. But somehow the phrase “what but thy grace” lands all of them flat and powerless. In the end it is not our programs, our spiritual disciplines, our plans or even our best intentions that foil the tempter’s power. When that “foiling” happens, it happens only by God’s grace.
I can’t get my head around that. I want to be able to do something. I want to be able to fight. And sometimes, in the seasons of endless battles, just sometimes, I want to win. But victory is seductive, leading me quickly to believe that it was my plan that brought us there, that each step of my strategy ought to be measured and repeated to achieve the same results again. Victory hides the true source of success. It was grace alone that foiled the tempter’s power. It was grace, and not the precision of my plans. Grace is generous but she is also shy, unwilling to be forced into the narrow confines of my expectation.
Where does this land me? Do I sit around all day doing nothing in the face of evil, waiting and hoping for grace to appear? No. But maybe also yes. I am called to participate, to act, to fight against injustice and all that mars God’s image in humankind. But on some deep level, it is not up to me. I am called to be an active agent of renewal, and I am also called to open my hands and wait for grace. It is a liminal place where my good actions disappear, where they are not a means to an end or a strategy to be measured by success or failure, but maybe, if I am lucky, they become an opening for God’s grace where a bit of foiling may at last occur.
Friday, August 8, 2008
When you have less of something, you value it more. In desert places, water is guarded and conserved carefully as a precious natural resource. And the animals and plants that live there have to adapt to life with less water in order to survive.
For faith-seeking artists, the world can be a vast and dreadful desert, which is why my week at the Glen Workshop was for me a week of great worth, like water in a desert. And it strikes me how essential water is to that full and abundant life promised by Christ. I can go for years and years without it; I can pray for it, reminisce about it, dream about it, but eventually I have to be able to stick my face down and drink in order to remember who I am, in order to become who Christ tells me I am.
But there is an element of surprise to all of this—to water in the desert, which is so rare it almost shouldn’t be there; and to the long, deep satisfaction of communion, which is what I wrote about to begin with before I ever left for the workshop. The surprise is that no matter how many miles apart we are, we are also so close together, closer than I would have ever thought. Which makes me believe that water can show up anywhere. Even in the desert. And where there is water, there just might be flowers.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
“Open your ears and hear my prayer. Don’t pretend you don’t hear me knocking. Come close and whisper your answer. I really need you.”
—Psalm 55:1-2, The Message
There are times when we are, if not desperate, then at least fervently longing for some word of the Lord. There are things that happen that drain away all words, leaving you with a silence loud enough to make you shout back prayers all day and night to fill it, knocking, knocking at the gates of heaven. And that sense of need, of pleading, comes through in The Message translation of Psalm 55 in one honest statement: “I really need you.”
There are times when I am less desperate for an answer, but still want to know that there is some response to my questions of life. And for those times, I have the rather odd habit (though not that odd, I have discovered) of typing random things into Google: everything from “What should we have for supper tonight” to “Why are my kids acting crazy?” to the more philosophical “Why do people suffer?” And there is always, always, some word to be found. Sometimes it’s an informational web site with recipes or spiritual guidance, other times it’s just someone else’s blog complaining about unruly kids. There is always someone to answer back; there are always words in response.
It’s an odd impulse, but one that goes back to the very beginnings of creation. God speaks, and we are created. We speak back to God, to each other, and the dialogue continues. All of it reassuring us that we are not alone. And maybe that’s why I can’t abide the silence so well. With that kind of open-hearted vulnerability, “I really need you,” I would think anyone would be moved to respond. But so often there is only silence and a God seems to have closed his ears, pretending not to hear our desperate cries. The best we can do then is keep talking—keep telling ourselves the words that tell the stories of who we are … tell them to Google, to friends, to blogs, in sermons, emails, and phone calls. And in the practice of telling them, we may find at last that God is not in the answer, but in the very breath with which we are moved to ask the questions.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
“You may wonder where they have gone, those other dim dots that were you.”
—Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
Over the last weeks, I have done a lot of traveling back to places I used to live, rocketing through time quickly from the place I went to elementary school, to the place I went to college, and back to where I live now. I found this a very disorienting experience. Instead of telling a smooth story, tracing my life narrative from one place to the next, these visits made me wonder how many different places a person can spread their DNA without losing something of who they are each time. Where, in all of these places was home? Where, in all of those places, was me?
Was there some trace of me in the elementary school playground, in the red brick blockhouse where we’d come in with eyes squinting after being in the sun, smelling the stale milk, pushing into each other to go up the stairs more quickly? Could my voice or some tiny fleck of my skin still be present in the gray windows where we played “Squish, Squash, Out of the Box”? And if some trace of me was there, what about all the other places I have lived? How is it possible to leave bits of yourself in so many places and yet still have enough left to keep going? I find it harder as I get older to live with so many disconnected things. I resist this this scattering that seems to be spinning out farther and farther with every year I age. I live with what is bent, broken, and breaking down. And I am waiting, waiting, for things to be whole.
What hope I have now comes in a picture that might someday be true: A day when the breath of the Spirit will move across the surface of my soul, making all those disparate dots of dust spring to life and dance in the air, and the finger of God will trace through the light, joining together every speck into a story where there seemed to be none. There is a story that includes everything about me, a place where I can be at rest. This I believe. Lord, help my unbelief.
Friday, June 27, 2008
I enjoy a good polish as much as the next girl, but when you’re talking about holy things, I am deeply suspicious of that kind of shine. “Where’s the spit?” I want to ask. Evidence of spit would convince me that there was some cost here, that someone’s very essence went in to creating the illusion of spotless ease. Because for me, those rough edges are a clearer evidence of grace than all the polish in the world.
So when I see the gleam of perfect shine, I look closer, and ever closer, and hope with all my heart to find even the slightest trace of spit remaining somewhere on the surface.
Friday, June 13, 2008
“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”A sermon I heard last Sunday made me think differently about this psalm. I always pictured the green pastures and still waters like some kind of idyllic vacation spot for me to retreat to, a place of calm and rest to escape the hectic pace of my days. I would sit in a lawn chair, trail my hand on the cool grass, and stare at the peaceful water. It would restore my soul.
But this Sunday, the pastor said something that changed my mind. “It’s food.” Grass for sheep is not some far-off thing to dream about but never actually get. It’s food. As necessary for survival as oxygen.
So when I find myself swamped with stress, I think again how much I need food. I can’t put off the kind of rest I find in God’s green pastures and still waters anymore than I can put off my next meal. It’s food. And I’m starving.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
I heard this quote for the first time in church today, and was also privileged to hear words of hope spoken by a woman from China who professed her faith and was baptized. For her, the message of the gospel was beautiful because it was so simple: Love God, love others, love your enemies. As she explained her pull to this faith as a 36-year-old woman and how compelling the story of that love was for her, I was moved to tears, as were many who listened.
I realized today that most of my tears about God come when I realize that he loves us after all. When we wander, when we curse his name, when we despair, his love is always there, always waiting. And isn’t that all any of us want? To know that someone cares after all, someone loves us and loves others in our pain, someone has always loved us and always will?
It is far beyond the simplicity of a fake smile and a placid reassurance: “Jesus loves you.” It is the simplicity on the other side of complexity for the drug addict, the whore, the psychotic, the housewife, the CEO, the murderer, and the child. It is simplicity earned only because it comes again after more darkness than we ever dreamed possible: “Jesus loves you.” Still. Whether you call him or not. Forever without end. He loves you. He does. And for a deep and soul-stilling understanding of that simplicity, I would gladly give my life. And my tears.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
This week as I am alone with the kids, our car decided to breathe its last breath. And even before I had time to think about what I was going to do, a string of people lined up to offer rides, cars, money. In a long line of cars at my front door, I see in a very real way the love of family and friends. And every evidence of that kind of love is evidence I use to construct a picture of the love of God, a picture that grows clearer and easier to trust with every act of grace I receive.
Actions definitely speak louder than words. And really, when you consider the truth of grace, the depths of love, why not take your actions and shout for all you’re worth?
Sunday, May 25, 2008
“But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
—Psalm 131: 2
I have twice heard men preach on this verse and twice they have gotten it wrong. They take the image to be one of God’s nurturing care for us, and both used the metaphor of the nursing mother to talk about God’s provision for creation. But they missed the most important word in this verse, the word that any woman who has nursed a child would notice almost instantly—weaned.
A child that is weaned is no longer drinking at its mother’s breast. Unlike the nursing child, whose hunger becomes intensified, whose need is all-consuming the minute it detects its mother’s scent, the weaned child is still. The weaned child in its father’s arms is much as it ever was. The true test comes when the child is in its mother’s arms again—the place with primal associations for survival and sustenance, the place where longings have been met and needs satisfied. In that place, will all the old passions be stirred up, or will the child trust in its ability to find comfort elsewhere?
With God, I still and quiet my soul like a weaned child. Though the fretful infant within me cries out for God to end the pain of hunger, my soul is quiet like a weaned child, a child with safety and warmth enough to trust not in the breast or the milk that comes after, but the closeness, only the closeness, with the one who gave so much and in whose loving arms I have never stopped being held.
Monday, May 19, 2008
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Some translations use “patience” for this verse instead of “perseverance.” And though my working knowledge of Greek is fading fast, I looked up the word to see what the original says. And the word is a combination of two words, which together could mean something like “to stay by,” or “to remain under.”
So often I think it’s the great acts of selfless love or moments of pure faith that get God’s attention. But as much as that he may be simply wishing for me to stay by, to remain around him in and through the dullness and boredom as much as the moments of great passion and excitement.
It’s the consistent pressure of a light hand that changes the pot. Too much jabbing and the whole thing collapses. Not enough pressure and it stays exactly the same. So while I wish for dramatic evidence of God’s presence, I ask instead for perseverance to content myself with the everyday moments—talking with people, making dinner, doing laundry, feeding the dog, going for walks, praying with the same dull and ineffective repetition of words. To remain under the light touch of God’s hand and be changed by him. Hoping that in the determined effort of simply staying by God, I will come to realize the length of his efforts to stay by me.
Monday, May 5, 2008
“Now the body is not made of one part, but many.” 1 Corinthians 12:14
We have a new fish tank at our house. Although adding to the ridiculously large number of pets we have was not my plan, I have nonetheless found them interesting to watch. The whole process of acclimating the fish to their new environment was carefully orchestrated: first their bags are placed (closed) into the new tank so the water temperature can equalize. Then the bags are opened (at the top only) so they can get used to the new air. And only after a good stretch of time has passed are they ready to have a bit of the new water added to the inside of their bags. Bit by bit, more new water is mixed in, until it’s about half old and half new. And at the end of this long process they are finally, finally dumped out into the tank.
It’s a community, the sales lady told us. Everything depends on everything else. These fish will bring their own bacteria (good and bad) to the tank and each plant and rock in the tank will also bring its own unique bacteria to this carefully balanced system. It’s not just about the individual fish—it’s about all of the fish interacting together, it’s about the air and the water and the plants and even the algae forming on the walls of the tank.
Maybe if I gave myself as much time for long and gradual adjustment as we gave our fish, I wouldn’t be so worn out by living in a new place. But after being scooped up and dumped out in one swift motion, I find one tank so different from another I scarcely know myself to be a fish anymore. And that is the danger point—forgetting who I am, and simply taking on all the characteristics of my new tank as if they were my own. Some of that is good, but it also means the new tank loses out on what is different about me. I need to know how to be who I am in a new place. And my new place needs to get used to a new fish.
Acclimation is not easy. It’s definitely not fast. And it may never be finished, because things are always changing. But still, we’re working on it. Because in a community, everything depends on everything else.
Thursday, April 24, 2008
“Nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.”
“All’s lost. All’s found.”
—Godric, Frederick Buechner
The world of the gospel is often one of contradictions—lose your life in order to save it; the greatest is the servant of all; blessed are the ones who mourn. To grow a faith that is complex enough to sustain impossible questions, I often find myself lingering in the place of these contradictions. Rejecting the black-and-white answers of extremes, but standing in that place where I hold both things in my hand and consider how they can both be true at once, I find a kind of energy in the creative tension that these opposites produce.
In the midst of sorrow, there is also joy. In the midst of despair, there is also hope. In the midst of brokenness, there is also reconciliation. All these things can be true in equal measure and often at the very same time. There are moments I am brought to my knees with the weight of loss, and in the very next moment I find myself laughing at the lighthearted teasing of a friend. Moments I am filled with the unassailable mystery of the silence of God, and then again I am so convinced of his care for me that I am reduced to tears of praise and the only words I can choke out are “thank you, thank you…” Moments I am filled with grief at what seems an unredeemable break, yet at the same time I am grateful for the person I no longer see.
To live in the midst of these contradictions is the essence of what it is to be human. Frederick Buechner’s old saint Godric sums it up in these words: “Nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.” We live in the place where sin and sickness are mixed up in equal measure with holiness and grace. And in the midst of realizing everything we’ve lost, we discover with the joyous surprise of grace, all that we have at once and forever found.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
“It felt like biting stones to learn that sometimes there’s no healing.”
—“Grace After Pressure,” Jaqueline McLeod Rogers
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”
It’s one thing to agree, in theory, that you believe in the reconciliation of opposites, that two seemingly contrary things can be true at the same time. But it’s another to really live out that belief in the gritty everyday-ness of your life. For me, I can state two seeming opposites that I hold with almost equal weight:
- I believe prayer can heal.
- I believe that sometimes there is no healing.
My life was irrevocably changed through a time of healing and that happened almost entirely through prayer—both my own prayers and those of brothers and sisters offered on my behalf. It is no small exaggeration to say that those prayers and that period of time changed me, healed me, and renewed my faith in God as loving and good.
And yet. There is part of me that assumed the end of that time of healing would be the end of a certain kind of pain. That God, in his mercy, would simply lift that burden off me once and for all and I would know at last what it was like to be free, to be whole. But there are some wounds that don’t heal. And the recognition of that, alongside an ongoing belief in the certainty of a loving God, is like biting stones.
God loves me. Prayer heals … but not always. And I wonder: why not me? A process of change in my life (one that again is much easier to agree with in the abstract than to live out) has included a new appreciation of the suffering of Christ, and a willingness to live in and through my own suffering. To know there are things that will never fully be healed, to feel the pain of it again some days as sharp as though it just happened, and yet to go on believing is to put myself in a place where I may finally be open enough to see what faith really means, what life as a follower of Jesus may require: the willingness on the one hand to pray, believing that anything is possible, and on the other hand to be humble enough to eat stones if that “anything” never comes. And proclaim with voice firm (or wavering, but proclaiming it nonetheless): “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15).
Thursday, April 10, 2008
“Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.”
—Flannery O’ Connor
I have no idea if my cat Zelda is scared, but I can think of lots of reasons she might be. She lives in the house with 4 other pets, including a large black dog who tries desperately to be her friend and a large pushy cat who does not want to be her friend and eats all the food before she can get to it. Besides all that, Zelda has lived in 4 different houses and moved with us 3 times, including a 4-day cross-country trek to Canada. By nature, she is not a super-friendly cat and we have to warn our guests not to get too close lest they be scratched. So I’m guessing all this stress has taken its toll.
But one thing she does know, and that’s how to take Flannery O’Connor’s advice and “be scared” but go on doing what she has to do. And one of the things she has to do is find heat wherever she can to warm her skinny little body. Sometimes that’s found in my lap, but often it’s found on the stove after we’ve cooked something in the oven. And when she finds that warmth, she stretches out, blinks her eyes with contentment, and soaks up whatever heat is left until it’s gone.
Like her, I also try keep going, to let myself be scared, but then put things on the “back burner” in order to go on doing what I have to do. The advantage of putting things on the back burner (even temporarily) is it gets you near the stove. And when you’re near the stove, you’re more likely to soak up a little excess heat. Which sometimes is precisely what it takes to let yourself be scared and precisely what you need to go on doing what you have to do.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
My son begged to get a “grow-your-own sea creatures” kit from his school book order. The tiny creatures are called triops, and they are some kind of tiny shrimp that date to prehistoric times. The thing is, they live only about 2 weeks. So my first reaction was NO WAY. Not only do we already have 5 pets in the house, but adding another batch that were likely to live only 2 weeks was to my mind not at all worth the fuss. Why would we want to go through that?
Well, my son’s enthusiasm and love for science won out and he convinced me to let him spend his money on this kit. “You know they only live 2 weeks, right?” I asked, checking that he understood what he was getting into. “Yes,” he said simply. “But Mom,” he said with shining eyes, “when else do you get the chance to see an actual, living prehistoric creature?!” The tiny creatures hatched and to my horror, my son began to name them. His attachment was deep and instant and I could see already how this would end … badly. Soon, the largest one had eaten all his siblings. He darted quickly around the tank, so he was named “Missile.” Jon checked on him every day, talked to him, fed him, and even made drawings and wrote observations on his behaviors like a true scientist.
Then, true to all advertised info, the little guy died after 2 1/2 weeks. Jon was sad. Very sad. But he talked about how much he learned, how beautiful Missile was, and how much he would love to do it again.
As a mom, I wanted to spare him the pain of death; I wanted to keep things stable and happy, which for me seemed a greater good. But as a child, he taught me how much I miss, how much it’s totally worth it to do the hard thing even if our hearts twist and our hands shake as we do it, because prehistoric creatures are so cool and even though you cry when they die it’s worth it because you got to SEE them!
Thank God for so much beauty and for the heart of child ready to risk pain in order to see it.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Like that palm-strewn street, Jesus enters into our lives in ways comical and unexpected. And it is up to us to find the words, to translate into speech and action our response to Christ. When expectations are met, the words flow easier. But when we see the Messiah not in the strength of a political conqueror, but riding lopsided on a donkey, silent, looking for all the world like some kind of holy joke, we have two options: ignore what we see and shout “Hosanna!” anyhow, hoping that by our words we will remake Christ into who we want him to be; or, enter into the unexpected, embrace the Christ who is, and find in that moment both faith and joy.
Reinhold Niebuhr says: “Laughter is the beginning of prayer…. The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence.” Moments of comedy (described by Frederick Buechner in The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale) come from the unexpected moments, moments echoed through the life of Christ and the parables he spoke: the holy surprise of losers becoming winners, of outcasts being healed, the happy shock of lost coins found and sons welcomed home, of a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to get one that has left, a boss who pays workers the same wage at the start of the day or end of the day, a God who waits in hope for all of us to come home again.
This easter, may the God of the unexpected find you in places you are most lost and delight you again with laughter and the improbable, unexpected, unfailing hope of the redeemed.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
“… pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.”
—1 Timothy 6:11
It is far, far easier to withstand anger than gentleness. There is a kind of rage that feeds itself: when someone throws it at you, you build up an equal store to throw back; when the world is unjust, you give in to the easy energy of kicking back in protest. Anger is a self-perpetuating cycle because it demands every day again the very fuel it takes to fight it.
And then there is gentleness. When words like right and wrong cease to matter, when all the pent-up frustration of your fists is absorbed in the steady, solid chest of one who simply waits for you to finish.
That is gentleness, which rests as softly as new-fallen snow, perfectly balanced on the point of a pine needle, ready even in melting to slide off the morning frost and make everything smooth again.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
“Loss is as daily as bread.”
—Robert Clark, In the Deep Midwinter
“We cannot make life safe nor God tame … what we can do is turn our faces to the light.”
—Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way
Give us this day our daily bread. When I pray for daily bread using the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I never actually expect to go hungry. I am usually thinking not of physical food, but of the kind of spiritual “bread” that sustains my soul and keeps me alive in hope. But there is another meaning, perhaps, that I am less likely to reach for. The bread we break during communion symbolizes the broken body of Christ. So when I pray, “Give me my daily bread,” I am also praying, “Give me the broken body of Christ. Give me my daily dose of loss. Give me closeness with all those who suffer.” I pray this not as some kind of masochistic ritual, but to remind me again of the great compassion of God, his presence with me in all of life, and my call to represent that broken body to a world in need.
And there is such need. I have lived and learned well the truth written above: Life is not safe and God is not tame. But I have also learned this: When any of us turn our faces away from deep darkness to the light, when we do whatever it takes to hold on to promises even in the face of unimaginable grief, when our unaccustomed eyes wince and squint in the bright of that light, we will not be disappointed. We may be surprised. We may be taught. We may be humbled. But we will not be disappointed. And for the daily-ness of that bread, I give thanks and praise to God.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
There is something about the sound of singing that is so gentle, and that gentleness stood in stark contrast to the raw and open wound of grief we felt at the same time. On the one hand, there are all the questions, not understanding why one so young had to die, why such random things happen at all, why God in his love could not have stopped this. On the other hand, there are the promises of God, which we were reminded, are for times exactly like this. Times when, despite all evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe, continue to hold on to hope, continue to trust that the one who promises to preserve our lives will do so even in the face of death.
Though it is complicated in ways I don’t understand, I find that it is only in the Christian faith I am able to hold such opposites together. In A Grace Disguised, Gerald Sittser talks about the loss of his wife, his mother, and four-year-old daughter in an accident. He says,
“Sorrow enlarges the soul until it is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time” (p. 63).In moments like this, we feel the world’s pain keenly. And as we walk through the darkness of grief, I pray that God would allow us the grace of holding alongside that grief the hope for healing at the same time. Hope for the day when the sound of singing will at last and forever drown out the sounds of crying and every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth will be together united in joy before the throne of the Lamb who is worthy, whose death forever makes us live.
Monday, February 11, 2008
“True religion is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Seeing the picture above had the same kind of jarring effect I imagine the parables of Jesus had on those who heard them. “This is your true religion,” says the picture, and right away I recognize with shock that it is true. This is so far from the stories I want to name me, and yet this is where I have come. Maybe I’m not a jean hound or a shop-a-holic, but in so many other ways I have forsaken care of others in favor of my own faulty sense of what I need.
I slip into habits in my Christian walk as easily as I slip into a pair of jeans. I need a faith that is insistent, that cracks and crashes through the dullness of my self-centered living with a call to be more and better who Christ calls me to be. In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says: “To the hard of hearing, you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
So what is the job of the preacher, the writer, the theologian today? To shout, to draw large and startling figures in the hopes that people will at last understand, that with practice we will all learn to hear and to see … that one day, with the practiced discipline of sincerity, there is a grace that may become so much a part of us it seeps into our every action almost without thought. A grace that fits with the comfort and familiarity of an old pair of jeans.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.”
—Psalm 30:11 (NLT)
I asked God for joy this week. And he answered me with dancing.
I have a long history with dancing, and the saddest thing to me is how rarely I do it anymore. I definitely went through the ballerina phase as a young girl, and very often my sister and I would choreograph dramatic dance sequences (complete with costumes and props) in our living room. I know for a fact I danced in high school (I have a picture to prove it), and I still enjoyed letting loose every now and then at social dances during college.
At some point the dancing stopped, or at least got a lot less. There were so many reasons not to dance. I think it’s interesting that Psalm 30 does not say: “You turned my mourning into happiness.” The opposite of sadness is happiness. The opposite of the deep and endless dark of mourning has to be more than happiness, has to be something as wild and unpredictable as the journey of grief, has to be something like dancing.
This week, we got a dance game where you stomp a mat on the floor in time to music and the sequence of steps on the TV. I did it with my kids and I have not laughed so much in a long time. And I remember in the midst of sadness, there is always within me the potential for wildness. And I am so very glad that God wants me not to subdue that or be embarrassed by it or drown myself in self-consciousness, but to take that wildness and use it to put as much passion into celebration as I do to mourning. For now, I still dance in my living room. But maybe someday …
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.
It has not gone the way I pictured it and at times has not been anything close to what I imagined. But whether my life bewilders me or causes me joy, the word today is “sink yourself into that.” Know who I am and how God made me and do my creative best to live life—this life, here, now.
There are so many things that still call to me from my old life in Grand Rapids—family and dear friends, successes, even something as simple as knowing what road goes to where. But I am no longer living there. And I realize there is no new life without great loss. Two dreams I’ve had recently involving dead or dying babies remind me the pain involved in shifting your attention from the life you expected to the life that is before you. At some point there has to be a letting go, there has to be an open and honest journey through sadness before there is a chance of starting again. And sometimes the biggest hurdle in getting through that sadness is anger and the persistent refrain: this isn’t what I wanted.
Sinking into the place and work I’ve been given will mean having to chop through layers of ice, thawing parts of my heart I’ve held back in reserve “just in case.” It also might mean deciding to stop using the reactions of others as a yardstick by which I measure my self-esteem. But to live creatively and responsibly means there will almost surely be beauty. Beauty and joy to outlast the loss, melt my sorrow and bring me home again to the life God has waiting, to the path right in front of my feet.
Friday, January 25, 2008
“Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,
only wonderful stories, and we hadn’t a story
nearly as good.”
—Stephen Dunn, “At the Smithville Methodist Church”
When I was little we were taught the story of Jesus through a “wordless book” that consisted of no words, just pages of solid colors meant to represent different things. For me the struggle to find words is still part of my faith walk. There are things I have come to believe, to know on some deep level they are true. And yet when I try to find words to explain or describe those experiences, they are always so inadequate.
Sarah Groves has a song (“This Peace”) in which she describes that feeling of belief as a “whisper in my ear, a shiver up my spine, the gratitude I feel for all that’s right, a mystery appeal that’s been granted me tonight.” Her words are true and also seem to get at the difficulty in describing the way God’s Spirit works in and through us. It is a whisper in my ear, it is that deep well of gratitude that sometimes overwhelms me, it is also a kind of giving up or letting go… like someone who keeps a stiff upper lip for a long time and then welcomes the relief and hope of knowing it is no longer necessary.
When I am most convinced God is real are the times I witness the depths of our human frailty and together with that the almost embarrassing persistence of hope. It is the strength of a story that 2,000 years and lots of quiet later that makes us keep going, makes us believe or at least want to believe. The strength of a story that continues despite all the embarrassing things people have done since in the name of religion. The truth of a story that has the power to change me every time I hear it again. Yes, I believe. And I ask God every time words fail me or my heart wavers to help, help, my unbelief. Because I haven’t another story nearly as good.
Friday, January 18, 2008
This week we had a two-day interdisciplinary studies conference called “Thought for Food.” Along with reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it has gotten me thinking a lot about food security, global food issues, and the everyday habits of putting food on the table for my family to eat. It’s great to be in a place where such important questions get asked, great to come home with my head buzzing so full of ideas I can hardly sleep. But making the leap from a lot of great ideas to something that gets put into action is a tough one. Is it even possible?
At the evening panel discussion, Cathy Campbell (one of the conference speakers and author of Stations of the Banquet) was talking about how often we get bogged down in all the reasons we can’t do something. Instead, she suggested, we should focus on the “why yes” list—all the reasons it’s the right thing to do, all the reasons it’s a meaningful and necessary thing to do—and that, perhaps, can get us past the line of rational and accusing reasons “why not.”
Is it possible to change something so huge and so deeply entrenched as our food system? Is it possible to keep working for change in this or any area without getting discouraged, defeated, exhausted? Is it possible for a person to change, for a community to change, for the world to change? Of all the words I heard this week, the two that stick in my mind are the two that best answer these questions and the two I will hold on to as I come against all pulls to the contrary.
Is it possible? Why, yes.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
“Hurry and help me; I want some wide-open space in my life.”
—Psalm 38:22, The Message
“A religion without grace will wallop you with God’s image of the perfect human life; it will condemn you for not matching it in your own life. Religion clobbers you for your failures and sends you groveling in the sawdust of defeat. [Religion] tells us that we’re forever wrong unless we measure up to God’s ideal. … May grace come to convince you at the depths of your soul that it’s all right even though a lot is wrong with you.”
—Lewis Smedes, How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong?
“Herein lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing.”
—Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
The thing about impossible standards is they take up way too much space. First, there is the space for all the lines, the exactingly detailed images of the way things should be. Then there is the space for the self-recriminations and helpless frustration when reality inevitably falls short of those ideals. And when God himself is added in the mix as one more person whose stance is one of regretful disappointment, there is no room for anything that might bring life.
It is often from closed-off places of claustrophobia that I cry out to God, much like the psalmist, for “wide-open spaces.” And the moment of grace is always the moment when something held tightly is released, when something closed off breaks open. It is a moment of realizing how completely I’ve blown it and also the moment of realizing how completely I am loved still. And the times when I really get this, I feel a deep inner sense of relief, a gratitude so deep it moves me to tears. But there are lots of times I don’t get it because I am so walled off with self-contempt there is no room to be open to grace.
Some friends and I decided that we would proclaim 2007 the “year of grace”. For us this meant we would stop endlessly blaming ourselves for things that went wrong, but would just acknowledge our failings, confess them to one another, and move on. We would give grace to ourselves as we all stood on the brink of major life changes and we would willingly embrace the moments we were most aware of our weakness.
At the start of 2008, we have just come to the end of our self-appointed “year of grace,” and right away my first thought is I need another one. And another one. And I realize it is not really about a year and it is not for any of us to proclaim. Though I still find myself crushed with self-loathing, grace is what allows me now and then to rise above it and what keeps me from being destroyed by it. Grace is God himself, come down to love me. Grace is abundant, free ... there for a year of days and all the days God grants me space to receive it.