Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Lesson in Perspective

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

There's Sticks in My Manna and Other Discoveries

“Now the manna was like coriander seed.”
—Numbers 11:7

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

The Music of Prayer

“I called out to him with my mouth, my tongue shaped the sounds of music.”
—Psalm 66:17

“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.”
—Romans 8:26

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

He's God the Whole World in His Hands

“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.