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Friday, July 22, 2016

The Year of the Squirrel

Image result for acorn image      Mark 2

Yesterday was my birthday.  One more year and I'll be 40, that dreaded year where "over the hill" actually starts to mean something.  And today I'm thinking about newness, about what that means as we get older, about what birth is and how we crave it even as our bodies start to show their wear: varicose veins (yes, I have them), wrinkles, weak joints, wiry, silver hairs that stick out oddly in the part of our hair and even our eyebrows.

Newness takes on a fascination it didn't before, and we see people older than us struggle to be re-born. Every semester I teach stay-at-home moms who are now college freshmen. My mother's step-brother left his career as a scientist and his position as a university professor to become an apprentice to a renowned painter.  He's working on his own paintings, hasn't sold any yet, but every day he shows up, eager to be taught. Every time I talk to him I think, we are never done becoming.

It's been a strange summer.  We've done the usual things: hiked in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains; camped, fished, and kayaked at Flaming Gorge; watched Monday night family movies on the grass at the city's amphitheater; barbecued in my in-laws backyard with great-grandpa simultaneously chewing a hot dog and hollering for my toddler to come give him a hug.  But something odd has been afoot in our own backyard, literally.

At the beginning of the summer, as I was walking out to water our kitchen garden one afternoon, one of the neighbor kids who'd grown tired of jumping on the trampoline and was playing with a firetruck on the patio ran over to tell me that we had a squirrel stuck in our window well.  I looked in, and sure enough, there was a frantic little squirrel running around in circles down there with the rocks.  I wondered if he was feeble, since I've seen squirrels scale brick walls all the time, but this one didn't seem capable of getting himself out.  I climbed in and after about two seconds of trying to get him out with my bare hands and yelping each time he scurried up my arm, I wised up and put on a pair of gardening gloves.  He was so skittish it took about five minutes to finally just scoop him into my hands and then toss him out.

By the time I crawled out and brushed off my pants, I was tired and sweaty and a little embarrassed by all of the squealing I'd just done in front of kids. I watched the squirrel dash haphazardly around the toys and tables on the patio, completely ignoring the dozens of trees we have around our yard, and then, to my dismay, he ran right back over toward the same window well at top speed and fell back down.  It was almost cartoonish: a little Wylie Coyote running over the edge of a cliff, holding there for one second, and then dropping into an abyss.  I climbed back in again, yelped, cursed, and flung him out.  He scurried over to the carport and hid there behind the Acura.

"Don't go near that squirrel," I warned the kids. "He's crazy or rabid or just incredibly stupid.  All of which means he's dangerous."

We turned back to our usual business and forgot about him.

The next day as I was cleaning up from lunch, my son hollered to me. "Mom!  He's back in the window well!  That squirrel is back!" Luckily my husband was home, and, in his dress shirt and tie, he crawled in and repeated the same routine of scoop and toss (minus the squeals) and once again the squirrel scurried around the patio and promptly fell right back in.

After screaming in laughter and frustration, we finally got him out and once again hoped it was the end of it.

That night I heard screeching noises coming from just outside our window.  It was too dark and I was too tired to look, but the next morning I peeked in and sure enough, there he was.  Only this time he had burrowed into a corner and lay there twitching, the little bag of his belly moving in and out slowly with each breath and no sound coming from him now. He was determined to die there.

My husband decided we didn't want a squirrel corpse rotting by our vegetable garden, and in a last hope to reunite him with his own, he scooped the squirrel into a shoe box and drove him a few blocks away to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains where there are miles of trees and thousands of squirrels.  Maybe his own could take care of him somehow.  My husband drove home and we all washed our hands of the whole affair.

The next morning my son screamed that there was a dead squirrel in the window well.

As if that weren't odd enough, a week later we found two newborn squirrels lying on the ground just outside of our covered porch.  Hairless and fragile, skin stretched over their eyes, freakishly large heads, they looked alien.  My toddler kept calling them baby giraffes.  My oldest thought they were shrews.  We stared at them for a minute, clueless about what to do, when suddenly an adult squirrel raced over, picked up one with its teeth, dropped it in its paws, licked it all over, then picked it back up by the back of its neck and scampered into the trees.  All of that took about 5 seconds. Mesmerized, we slowly backed away so that it could return and claim the second one too.

Over the next week we found two more newborn squirrels, same place.  I've searched all over and can't find a nest, can't figure out how they got there or why, after living in our house for 10 years, we are seeing this happen now. It's raining baby squirrels. The old are choosing their place to die. There's a whole world at work I can't quite understand.  

So what on earth does this have to do with Mark Chapter 2? This is where Jesus tells his adversaries that "no man putteth new wine into old bottles" or "seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment." New things have to start fresh. The old dies and the new begins and makes its own way to become what it is fully meant to be.

I guess that goes for the Mosaic Law and Jesus's gospel as much as it does for, say, the life cycles of small animals and even the way we, as humans, evolve. Not that we don't draw from the old.  We always do.  But what is new, what is born or re-born, has to live in its own way.  As much as we try to rescue the old, revive it, it is determined to die. It's time.

I'm determined to appreciate the new.  Birthdays always make me reflect on my life more, and that can be productive.  Sure, it can be depressing when I look at the list of "101 Things to Do Before I Die" that I wrote when I was a teenager. Globe-trotting, as it turns out, is far more expensive than I'd realized. But I'm so glad I included things like "learn how to make strawberry shortcake from scratch," which is pretty do-able in a day.

I hope I keep introducing myself to the new, that I remain open, interested, malleable. That, when it's time, I let the old in me burrow its way into a place to die and let the new, as odd as it may seem at first, as gangly and vulnerable, find a place to thrive.  

Europe in three weeks!  Strawberry shortcake today.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

To have a normal life

Image result for paper star

Mark 1

Last month kids all over the country celebrated Dr. Seuss Week, dressing up in red and white striped hats, gathering around the librarian to read Green Eggs and Ham, laughing still at all those clever, surprising turns. I helped out with the festivities at my sons' school, and one of the activities we had kids do, aside from vote for their favorite Seuss book and dress silly all week, was to decorate a paper star and write on it what they want to be when they grow up, in the spirit of Oh, the Places You'll Go!

After I gathered these stars from the teachers, a gaggle of PTA moms met to help hang up them up, and we laughed reading what the kids had written.  Astronaut, ballet dancer, fashion designer, Navy Seal were typical answers.  Some tear-jerkers said things like "be a teacher and change lives," and it made me think what heroes these teachers are to the kids they encourage every day.  A handful of truly brilliant children wrote "candy maker," an occupation I surely would have pursued if I'd ever been bright enough to think about it.

In the midst of our talking and laughing and reaching for the scotch tape, someone found a star, uncolored, undecorated, that said simply, "To have a normal life."  It was written in kid print but was steadier, more fine, so was clearly someone from the older grades, and since there was no name written on it, the anonymity made it all the more haunting.

Someone laughed about how it was probably a kid just comparing their little dramas to everyone else's, like we all do, imagining they're always left out of the fun stuff.  A little pity party kids often throw.  But I couldn't help but wonder if it was something more.

The first chapter of The Gospel According to Mark opens with John the Baptist dressed in what sounds like really uncomfortable clothes and surviving on a diet that, in the best of terms, could be called spartan and unvaried.   Which is generous, of course.  Locusts have never been what I call appetizing.  Thank heavens for the wild honey.  It's as if he's camping, but permanently, living a kind of exile in the wilderness, away from the comforts and company most people crave.  He spends all his time telling people to repent, that God's coming and they need to shape up. This doesn't seem entirely normal.

Then there's Simon and Andrew.  They're out in their boats fishing, doing their jobs, and Jesus walks up, and in one instant, talks them into walking away from everything they know and following him, a total stranger.  Then the same thing happens with James and John, who not only leave their nets but their own father.  There's nothing normal about that either.

And the rest of this chapter describes the situations of two more people: a man with "an unclean spirit" and a leper. These two men had long-term troubles, something that crippled them for life and made them outcasts to some degree.  In fact, no one in this chapter appears to be hanging with the usual crowd.  For better or for worse, they're weirdos.

Years ago I worked in a bookstore during graduate school, and I read a lot of book titles that came to the shelves.  One title still makes me laugh.  It was a book called All Families Are Psychotic, and even though it was fiction, a novel about a made-up family and all its troubles, it still spoke to me a truth that I've personally found comforting.

The family I grew up in I always considered the best (i.e. coolest, funniest, most creative), and there were oddities about us that made me particularly proud: no other girl's dad took them on twenty mile backpacking trips, no one else's mom was as beautiful or as talented, no one else's brothers were "wanted" by police at 5 years old or borrowed watermelons from neighbors or went fairy hunting with them up Logan Canyon.  And no one else had pets like us: tarantulas, newts, salamanders we'd caught in the wild, a python, a parrot, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches that really did hiss when you picked them up.  The neighbor kids approached our house the way you would an exotic petting zoo.

But we saw our fair share of frustrations, even heartaches.  As a teenager, I once confided in my friend some of our troubles and she didn't believe me - she thought I was exaggerating - so I stopped telling anyone and just kept things to myself, which was often lonely and heavier than I could always manage. I knew an adult would've believed me.  People talked about us, I was and still am sure of that.  

The older I get, the more I realize that our experience was not all that rare.  It might not have been the usual, but it wasn't unheard of, and besides, other families had troubles that, it turned out, we didn't.

Couched between these verses in Mark about troubled souls and lepers are verses that reveal they aren't the only ones suffering.  When people find out what Jesus can do, they come in throngs until, at one point, "all the city was gathered together at the door."  Suddenly everyone's a weirdo, everyone has problems they are begging to get fixed.

I still wonder if that student's star was a chance to express a deep-seated frustration at their own limitations and the unfairness of life that can feel (and be) crippling.  Each struggle is real and difficult.  At some point, everyone pines for a normality that feels out of reach.  For some kids, any kind of normalcy would be miraculous.  But it does help to realize, often later in life, that everyone is carrying their own burden and that even our version of abnormal is its own marvel.   After all, the miraculous moments in this chapter come when the abnormal happens: men strike out for a new life, either from the fishing boats to the streets or from physical impairments to healing.  Those moments, those transitions, are why we know them.  They are people who, thousands of years later, give us hope.

I just wish I knew how to find that student - walking the halls, stressing over tests, wondering where they fit in, just like everyone else - to tell them too.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Leaping Out

Image result for firehole river images

Matthew 28

It's Easter next week.  Two days ago my husband and I spent the day cleaning up the yard: dirt piles, rocks, and leaves on the lawn and in all the flower beds.  Our yard consists of two lots, both covered with trees - scrub oaks that scatter acorns and leaves all fall, and pines that drop their needles into thick piles - so the workload in the spring is heavy and monotonous.  My husband finally got rid of the giant dirt pile that's taken over our patio since last summer, when we dug out window wells to remodel our basement.  For months, the boys would climb the dirt pile, finding cool rocks and throwing them all over the patio or burying toys and then scavenging for them with beach shovels.  Their friends would walk the pointed ridge of the dirt pile like a tightrope, and scoot down on their bottoms, leaving a little bum trail.  Little Cooper took to eating some of that dirt, using the same beach shovels as spoons.  But ever since the window wells were finished and our indoor remodeling started coming to a close, that dirt pile has just needed to go.  Covered in snow for months, I forgot about it - it was just another contour of white out our bedroom window - but now, fully exposed, it's a blight to our backyard.  We wanted to clean things up for Easter, for an egg hunt, and it was finally good weather.  It was time.

I've thought about timing this morning as I write this.  For months, this last chapter of Matthew has hung around my head like a little cloud.  I had no idea what to say about it.  I wanted to be didactic and profound, to get it just right, because this is the final chapter for Matthew.  And what happens is a pretty big deal.  

According to Matthew, Mary Magdelene and "the other Mary" come back to the sepulchre after their Sabbath and outside it, sitting on a stone, they find an angel who tells them Jesus is gone.  This is the sum of everything Jesus has taught and would require the sum of all the faith his believers had shown so far.  But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself moving into defense rather than celebration.  After all, you either believe Jesus was really the Son of God or you don't.  You either believe he came back to life, or you don't.  I have no empirical evidence to convince anyone of what I believe.  But, really, they don't either.  

But something stood out to me.  Matthew says that Mary Magdelene and "the other Mary" left "with fear and great joy."  That those two emotions co-exist makes perfect sense to me.  In order to find that great joy, we generally have to step out into the fear.  And, in this life, they often remain together.  Fear comes because something great is at stake, something we don't want to lose.  And joy generally comes when we find or see or begin to comprehend that what is most precious to us is, in fact, ours or, really, that we are part of it, since it's often bigger than what we can hold or "own."  It's the yes and yes and yes where we feared the no.  Sometimes we carry both the yes and the no in our hands, trembling.  That's how I see the Marys, traveling back to the disciples to bring them the news, news so outrageous, so fantastic they won't believe them.

Timing can be everything in this too. There are times in my life when I've been more willing to risk the fear to get to the joy.  I was better at it when I was young, maybe best when I was just coming into that phase of life when the freshness of everything - the physical world, boys, my own internal life - was at its peak.  At just this time, in my first summer of college, I moved up to West Yellowstone, Montana with my four best friends.  

We all worked at Eagle's Store, and most days we spent making malts at the old soda fountain or selling t-shirts and trinkets or fitting cowboy boots for the flocks of tourists that came through town on their way to see the magnificence of Yellowstone.  We were stuck indoors those long hours while it seemed everyone else was out fishing on the river or hiking through meadows of wildflowers or sauntering down the streets of town, lingering in the doorway of souvenir shops, money in their pockets and a Dairy Queen blizzard in their hand.  

Life for us really started after dark.  We'd race back to our cabins from work, change into our swimsuits, grab the one towel we'd packed for the summer, and pile into a red Chevy Cavalier and a silver Geo Storm with a few of the boys from Jacklin's Fly Shop. And we'd drive past the empty park ranger station and on into the park. We’d wind along near the Madison River until we came to the small canyon drive that shot off from the main road.  And at the bottom of the cliffs that framed and hemmed in the Firehole river, we parked, stepped out into the night - no sound but the slamming of car doors, the music of the river, and our own laughter - and climbed the rocks to a ledge.  Twenty feet?  Thirty feet?  How high were we up in that moonlight above the river?  And what about those nights when the moon had waned into a thin sideways smile?  All that darkness around us and a long drop below.   

Our friend Nick would sit on a large rock below us and shine a flashlight onto the river.  One by one we would step out onto the edge and focus on a light that, in Nick's hands, jerked a little over the moving water.  The darkness all around and one small circle of light.  

Sometimes I feel like, in order to defend our own faith, we hold ourselves at gunpoint.  Give me the evidence, we often tell ourselves. More often I find that my faith returns when I've let go. But it's not as if it's all sunny and obvious when I do.  It's still work, often harder work. And the light is just enough to get back to a place I can hold onto.  And then it starts over again.

He is not here.

And then...

For he is risen.  

With fear and great joy.  

We would climb to the top and leap.  Yes, there was a light, but by the time we reached the bottom, it held us only for a moment and was gone again.  Instead, we swam in the dark, sometimes against a strong current.  The thrill of that falling we still carry in our bones, and the moment of standing under a starry sky, the river water dripping off of us and our breath returning in excited gasps. That was just as real as the darkness around us.  And the wonderful thing is not that we did this at all, but that we did it again and again.  That we still do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Coming Home

           Matthew 27

A few days ago we took our kids and my mother-in-law to see the kokanee salmon run.  Every year around Labor Day they begin to spawn, turning from silver to bright orange and then a deep red, and travel upstream to lay their eggs and die.  Kokanee are the landlocked version of sockeye salmon, and they live for four years before they mature, mate, and begin their journey home.  And that journey is work.

While Beck (5) spent most of his time poking holes in the mud with a giant stick and Cael (7) reported how many disgusting spiders he found along the banks of the river, the rest of us watched in amazement as these bright red fish fought their way upstream, against a strong current and around rocks and small eddies that constantly threatened to push them back, and often did.

At the beginning of a run, there are piles of salmon.  My dad and stepmom saw them weeks ago and marveled at how they clambered over each other in a wrestle to get just a little farther upstream, determined to arrive at their birthplace and to get there in time.  Years ago I watched this process in Alaska. Even the gutters were filled with them, as if all the waters had been turned red.  It was downright Biblical.  They were going home.  And nothing was stopping them.

That pull for home is real.  If a salmon feels it, knows it, is carried by it, why not humans?  In the end, our travels are generally not linear but circular.  If some magnetic field drives a fish to swim against all odds upstream to the place it began, that same magnet is invariably planted deep inside us.  We're not complete without it.  And it seems to increase the closer we are to the end of life.  My next door neighbor Jackie is 85, and her husband M.C. is in his mid 90s.  Alzheimer's and dementia are setting in for him, and every night before bed he asks Jackie where his mama and his sisters are.  She has to tell him, every night, that they're gone.  Most of them died more than twenty years ago.  He sits in his chair and cries for them.  Jackie comforts him, tries to reorient him, knowing she'll have to break the news the next night and watch him grieve for them all over again.

I've wondered for weeks what I could say about the death of Jesus.  What hasn't been said?  Everyone knows the story.  The mystery of that kind of love still eludes us, so much that many choose not to believe it. But in this chapter there are people for whom his death is the deepest of tragedies.

Joseph of Arimathaea, described as " a rich man" and a disciple of Jesus, comes and, in Matthew's words, "begged the body of Jesus."  That he must have had some sway, either with his money or his position, seems obvious since Pilate commands the body to be delivered to him.  And he takes this body and places it "in his own new tomb."  What would a wealthy man want to do with a poor prophet?  Something pulled him to Jesus, something that made him show up at a critical, political, chaotic moment and beg for his body.  There is a tenderness there that transcends normal interactions between grown men.  Something extraordinary is at play here.

The Marys are there too, having followed him from Galilee, "ministering unto him" through his travels, and now they are the last to stick around when the curtain falls.  After the tomb is sealed and everyone leaves, Matthew records, "And there was Mary Magdelene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre."    They can't leave.  It's as if they are staked to where he is.  I can't help but wonder if what they felt with him was a kind of coming home, as if he was their home.  He had no home - he had nowhere to lay his head, he says - but he was a home for the people who loved him.  His teachings are still a home.

But then, Jesus must have known how this felt, even deeper than they did.  He had a hard life.  The ending was excruciating.  And by his own words, it was all by choice. To wrestle every day against a world that hated you one would need to have a reason, something that pulled you, a craving that could only be filled by one thing: the chance to go home.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

What we leave behind

         Matthew 26
My maternal grandmother was a tiny, beautiful woman.  I never remember her being anything but lovely.  Even her shoes were lovely. I distinctly remember one set of high-heels that had a clear, plastic arch over the toes.  They looked like what I'd always imagined Cinderella's glass slippers to be.  When she wasn't looking, I'd slip them on and walk around for a moment, curtsying a little.  One summer (when I was about age 12) I couldn't squeeze my feet into them anymore, and I was heartbroken and embarrassed.  I hadn't inherited her genteel genes after all.  I was doomed to be average.

As the only girl in my immediate family, I often spent time alone with my grandma. She and her second husband lived in Palm Springs part of the year, but she would come back to her house in northern Utah to escape the California summer heat and enjoy the house by the river that her first husband - my grandpa - built her.  She often needed a little company, so I would sleep over with her in this house on the river.  At night, after we had both changed into our nightgowns, she would open the windows to let in the evening breeze and the sound of river. I would lie next to her in her bed, listening to her fall asleep, and watch her sheer curtains blow forward and drift back, like the rise and fall of her breath.  It was sacred and intimate in a way that almost seemed foreign the next morning as we moved about in the bright sunlight, getting breakfast and making our small talk.

A few weeks ago when we were passing through my hometown after a camping trip, we drove by that house by the river, a house that - during my childhood - had been my world.  It looked different.  Somehow all the magic was gone.  It was like those poor animals people shoot, stuff, and hang on their walls.  They aren't alive anymore, but they're still there, looking at you. That's what that house is like now.  It's there, but there's no real life in it.  I guess that's because it once looked so lively to me: my grandma's flower beds full of annuals she chose and planted every year, the succulents that opened like roses against the rocks, the flower pots I watered for her every summer.  It was alive to me because she was there.  Now her grave is up in the cemetery, near the mouth of the canyon and next to the university campus.  It's the most serene spot in the world.  But other than the gravestone, what evidence is left of her life?

So much of history is sad to me.  Countless people gone and  little evidence to show for their individual lives.  What is their proof of how they lived?  What do they leave behind?

In this chapter, Jesus is preparing to die.  He's been trying to tell his disciples, but they aren't ready to hear that.  He goes to eat dinner at the house of Simon the Leper (which, if I can be totally irreverent here, doesn't sound real appetizing), and as they are in the middle of eating, a woman comes in.  She does something that seems strange at first.  She pours oil on Jesus's head.  But instead of being surprised, the disciples are angry.  That oil is expensive. In fact, it's called "a very precious ointment," and is so special that she brings it in an alabaster box.  The disciples suggest she sell it and give the money to the poor instead of "wasting" it like this.  They are furious.

Jesus chastises them.  He explains that, unbeknownst to her, she was preparing him for his burial.  She was fulfilling prophecy.  She knew that, above all things in the world, he was the most sacred, and she worshiped him.  Then he says something that has been in my mind for weeks now.  He says that his gospel will be preached throughout the whole world, and when it is, "this, that this woman hath done, [will] be told for a memorial of her."  In other words, she's going to be famous for this.

Now, when we pick up this book, she is there.  Every time we read of the crucifixion, she is there.  She is intricately connected to what she loved most.

Some people have palaces or temples or statues built to memorialize them, to push against the erasure of death.  My grandma has a gravestone.  Some people have nothing.  But maybe, in the end, it's what others have to tell of us that is the greatest memorial.  Matthew, Mark, and John all include the woman in their telling of Jesus's life.  John even tells us her name: Mary.  Jesus prophesies that the world will always remember her.  She memorializes Jesus, and he does the same for her.

My grandmother once told me she felt 16 all her life, and I've seen her that way all of mine.  She once stopped a young boy on the street on a cold winter day.  He had no coat, and not being able to walk past him, she took him to the nearest department store and bought him one.  She cried over her children more than most mothers.  And had reason to.  Once, just after my grandpa died, she was pulled over for speeding.  When the policeman approached her window to talk to her, all she could do was weep, she was so lost and bereaved.  Once she carried a lot on her tiny shoulders.  Once she made a house sacred and her soft breathing kept me company through the long night.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What have you done with your eyes?

Matthew 25

My favorite writer is a man by the name of Antonio Machado.  Machado was a Spanish poet and philosopher who fled Spain during that country's civil war, crossing the Pyrenees in an old car with his elderly mother on his lap.  The two died only a few days apart.   In one notebook he writes about how, one day when he was young, he had a piece of sugar cane in his hand.  He saw another young boy with a piece of sugar cane too, and sure that his was bigger, he asked his mother to confirm it, just to be sure.  His mother told him no, it wasn't, and then asked him, "Son, what have you done with your eyes?"  It was the greatest reprimand she ever gave him, and he remembered it.

Much of scripture falls into the realm of poetry and philosophy, and this notion of seeing comes up frequently in the New Testament.  If you have any kind of spiritual life, you believe that much (even most) of what matters you can't see.  It's hidden.  Jesus is fully aware of this, which is why he's so big on faith, but it's also why he spends so much time trying to help people recognize when a likeness of that "unseen" thing is right before their eyes.  It's a new way of looking, and it generally means paying close attention to those small things that, it turns out, are both common and revealing.

1) All You Can't See.  In all of the parables of the Day of Reckoning or the stories about judgment, nothing fills me with more dread than the parable of the talents. Maybe it's because I'm paranoid about being irresponsible.  I worry constantly that I'm not making my life all it could be. Or maybe (admittedly) I wonder if I am more like the guy who gets one talent and is even screwing that up.

Over the last year I've stewed over this parable more than is probably healthy.  I've tried to look at my life, to "see" it for what it really is, and determine if I've multiplied anything I've been given.  Maybe not doubled it, I reassure myself, but just, you know, added a little?  But if I look too closely, all I see are mistakes.  And then I'm hazy on what the increase is supposed to look like anyway.  Accomplishments?  Personal happiness?  Prosperity?

The difficulty is that we can't always physically see the ramifications of our own lives, or other's lives for that matter.  We only see a fraction of what each individual life gives to the world.  All of those subtleties - the long talks in friendship, days of waking up to do work that is monotonous and endless, the countless times we forgive the ones we love - we often don't see where they go.  They are part of a work that, for the most part, washes away into a place unseen to us.  So how do we know if we, like the two wise servants, are multiplying our gifts?

I finally connected the parable of the talents to other stories in the New Testament that helped me understand better this notion of multiplying.  Twice Jesus feeds a multitude with far less food than is reasonable.  And twice that food is miraculously multiplied.  This happens under the very eyes of his disciples and they can't explain it.  The disciples didn't make it multiply, and neither did any of the multitude.  Jesus did.  That's the miracle.  So could it be that the same thing is at work here in the parable of the talents?  I know it says that the one who had five talents "went and traded with the same and made them other five talents," but could it be that while he did much of the work, it was someone greater who did the actual multiplying?  Is this also like the parable of the woman who divides up the yeast into different jars and when they all rise, she can feed three times as many people?  That yeast has its own powers outside of just the woman's doing.  It rises at night, when she isn't looking.  She did the work to spread it out, she was wise, but something else in the very elements of the yeast made it rise and work “till the whole was leavened.”  And when the multitude eats the bread and fish Jesus gives them, it says "they were filled."  In both examples, somehow, beyond logical calculations and visible evidence, what they had was enough.

In other words, the miracle of life is the way it multiplies without our understanding how, without our seeing it directly.  I guess that's why it's God himself that does the judging, and why he does it at the end of all things.  

2) See and do. It's true that a Day of Reckoning is coming.  I know that because all of the parables in this chapter speak of a day of accounting, when every person will be held responsible for their work.  In a world where we constantly fight "black and white scenarios," where we can see that things are not always so clear as they may first seem, and even in a book that tells us not to judge but to forgive and love, Jesus speaks in no uncertain terms that there is a very real judgment waiting for us.  But in each of these parables - the 10 virgins, the talents, the sheep and goats - the kingdom of God is "like unto" the most basic things in life.  Therefore, it's coming, but we are also living close to it right now.  It's likeness is all around us. We can see it if we look with the right eyes.

We are currently remodeling our basement.  Correction: we are currently living upstairs while our empty basement is waiting for the contractor to help us remodel.  We did our own demolition. Over the weeks our little 1950s basement became a warehouse of splintered wood, bent nails, and broken sheetrock.  We wore masks and gloves and goggles and hats.  (I looked like a kid playing astronaut.)  We pried asbestos-filled linoleum tiles off the floor.  We threw our sledgehammer against the walls.  We tore down asbestos-filled ceiling tiles.  And we walked back upstairs at midnight or 1:00 a.m., sore and tired and covered from head to toe in sheetrock dust, white, ghost-like footprints trailing behind us on the wood floors.  The next day we'd load the debris in the truck and drive across the train tracks to the dump.  After several weeks of this, our basement consisted of beams, natural light, and empty space: beautiful in the promise of its possibilities.  But this isn't a story about destruction, and how that destruction was necessary to make way for something greater.  It's not about the way I sorted through an entire basement of stuff and made piles of what we'd keep and what we wouldn't, though both of those points would work nicely in a post about the kingdom of God and judgment.  Instead, it's about the two things that do remain in the basement (under layers of that dust and piles of tools), the two things without which we'd cease to function.  I mean our washer and dryer.  We can live in a tight space.  My two older sons can share a bed, and they can share a room with the baby. We can move load after load of storage to the garage.  But we can't live without something to wash and dry our clothes.

My fondness for our old washer and dryer has grown beyond a normal relationship between a housewife and her trusty appliances.  Sometimes I stand on the steps and just look at them: two white buddhas churning away in the corner of a vast empty room, doing their good work out of sight and far away from the rest of the world.  They never fail me.  I open the washer and stuff it with dirty clothes, and when I return 30 minutes later, it presents me with clean clothes.  When I open the dryer and stuff in wet clothes, all I have to do is turn the dial, listen for the buzzer from upstairs, and return, knowing full well that when I open that door a load of warm, wonderfully-scented clothes will fall into my hands.  And it does.

Maybe it is a little like the end of the world, or the beginning of it, when all the elements are waiting on the sidelines and everything is quiet and a soft humming comes from somewhere almost out of sight.  Something is still working, has been working from the beginning, something that just does what it's supposed to do regardless of what's going on with everyone and everything else.  

Someday they will finally give out and we'll have them hauled away and replaced by newer models. But for as long as they can last, my washer and dryer know what they are supposed to do and they do it.  Likewise the kingdom of heaven is filled with people who see and do.  The wise virgins, the two wise servants, the sheep, all physically see and comprehend what it is they are to do.  And then they do it.

I'm crudely offering my own parable here: the parable of the Washer and Dryer.  The children of God are as savory as salt, as luminous as a candle in a dark house or a city on a hill, and maybe too as constant as an old washer and dryer, spinning away in an empty basement, turning whatever is in them into something miraculous. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Honor in Asking and the Art of Standing Still

   Matthew 20

If we get one shot at life, how do we know if we're doing it right?  How do we know when we're wasting our time?

Existential angst can be wearing.  And it makes for heavy conversations at lunch when your husband just wants to grab a sandwich and catch up on NBA news and instead he has to comfort you at the kitchen sink because you feel like maybe you're doing it all wrong and somehow, with all of your work, your life still adds up to nothing.  And after an hour of this he has to go, so he grabs a banana and runs out the door and you think he'd have had a better lunch alone in his office with just a few phones ringing and the swish of passing cars.

It's embarrassing to ask that question: what is the meaning of life?  Which really means, what is the meaning of my life?  Which no one wants to answer over lunch.  But how do you stop yourself?

One version of this question has to do with "greatness."  What is it?  How do we pursue it, and how do we recognize it?  I ask that a lot lately.  In fact, I am becoming expert at simply asking.  But it's in this very book that Jesus says "Ask and ye shall receive."  Here's what I've found he says about greatness:

1) It isn't in acclaim.  The kingdom of heaven is so hard for us to understand, Jesus has to constantly describe it to us.  It's that foreign.  At the beginning of this chapter, the mother of James and John (the already favored 2 disciples) comes to Jesus asking him to put her two sons on the left and on the right of him in his kingdom.  Now, this is a mother who loves her sons and who clearly believes in Jesus, but it makes one wonder where the rest of the disciples are supposed to fit in. (Not to mention the "multitudes.")  If James and John are poised to the left and right of him, where is everyone else sitting?  Behind?  In the nosebleed section of heaven, furiously waving their arms so their less zealous mothers can spot them?    

So Jesus takes this perfect opportunity to teach this mother and his own disciples (who were, understandably, pretty irked by this) a great principle.  (Which, by the way, seems to be the norm for him.  Every situation we read of in Jesus's ministry turns out to be the perfect opportunity for something.  Could it be that this is true for everyone?  Is every situation ripe for some kind of understanding?  How much are we missing on a daily basis?)

He goes to what they already know: those Gentiles have princes who "exercise dominion over them" and "they that are great exercise authority upon them."  Then he quickly follows up with a strong command: "But it shall not be so among you."  Instead of the chief being great, it's actually the servant.  As always with Jesus, everything in the kingdom of heaven is opposite from what we do.

So I have to ask: am I great yet?  I'm a servant at our house.  Sometimes I even feel like a prisoner. Are these existential traumas really the pains of advanced learning (the PhD program for "greatness") where it looks like I'm cleaning up spilled Cup o' Noodle soup (again) but I'm really practicing self-restraint, patience, forgiveness, faith and hope (after all, one of these days that styrofoam cup will stay upright)?  And the best part is that this is miles away from any kind of acclaim.  I get to do it without any thanks or recognition.  If I'm any kind of chief, my tribe is small and prefers crawling on me to clapping for me.

As with everything in Jesus's ministry, this teaching isn't simply one person's definition; it is a law of nature. Ironically, it is introduced by a concerned mother, someone who, without having realized it herself, has lived this law all of her life.  

2) Home trumps Harvard.  (Okay, he didn't say it like that exactly, but bear with me.)  If anybody gets the principle of the greatest being the servant, it should be parents. Deeper than any set of taught beliefs is the law of sacrifice for one's children. Generally speaking, babies come to parents who are the mature, independent version of the species.  However, rather than the newest members of the species serving the adults, it is the adults who must (tirelessly) serve the newbies, a system that looks backwards in every other social setting in the world.  It is not a coincidence that the law of nature stands in complete contrast to the law of mortal hubris.  It's not like the parents can try other methods either; this is it.  The child's life depends on this work. And if the parents' makeup follows the general laws of nature, their own happiness depends on it too.  After all, this is the work of the ages.

For some reason, we tend to celebrate greatness everywhere but at home.  But it's hard to see it there because the work it does looks so ridiculously commonplace, which, I think, is actually the point.  While Jesus didn't specify what kind of "ministering" he meant, work, in the sense of what servants do, is so basic that it is beneath most people.  It is the cutting and hauling of wood.  It's feeding the animals or tending the fire.  Or, to put it into a contemporary domestic context, changing diapers, making meals, cleaning the house.

To combine my last post with this one, maybe greatness starts to come into clearer view.  The definition of greatness, then, is one who is humble (like a small child) and who works their pants off helping other people (like a parent).  So greatness is largely learned (and largely displayed) at home.  Where else do you generally find small children and parents?

3) Sometimes, it stands still.  We live in a state of high volume at our house right now.  If Cooper (1) isn't screeching for something - a sippy cup, a ball stuck under the couch, my phone - then Beck (4) is hollering "Mom!  Mom!" so that I can watch him climb up the wall for the 20th time or jump from his giant cushion onto his bed or listen to him practice saying "Star Wars" without a lisp, again. Even Cael (7) still hollers "Mom!  Mom!" when I'm in the other room and he randomly remembers something funny from recess that day or when he finds a funny part in Junie B. Jones and just has to have me read it that second.  Some days I feel like I'm being pecked to death by tiny demands - Listen!  Read this!  Watch!  Get that!  Hold me!  And the most common: Help me! (wipe, tie my shoes, get the ball out of the street, eat, read this word, find my sandals, reach the cups, pull apart microscopic Legos, etc.).

The wonderful part about it is that, for now anyway, they want my help.  The problem is that, amid all of the other demands, I don't always pay attention to them the way I should. I zone them out.  I'm busy cooking dinner or trying to take a 5 minute power nap or for crying out loud using the bathroom.

In verse 32 of this chapter, Jesus passes by two blind men "by the wayside" who call to him for help.  There's a multitude, as always, and no doubt everyone wants something from him.  But these men call out incessantly.  The crowd tries their best to shush them, but something happens to silence everyone.  In verse 32 Matthew says, "Jesus stood still."

Up to this point there is no indication that Jesus even notices them there.  But once he stands still, he immediately calls to them and asks what they want from him.  Like everyone he heals, they leave the periphery and come center stage, and once they tell him what they want (sight), he gives it to them, freely and almost effortlessly.  Then they all move on.

This is the way we speak to each other, all kinds of children to all kinds of parents.  At the heart of it, the blind men were saying: we have a need and we know who you are.  The two are perfectly matched.  What they needed, he had.  They honored him by asking.