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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.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Plain little houses

 Image result for little white house sketch      Matthew 18

It's inevitable that any discussion about Jesus's teachings comes around to that bit about how we need to become more like little children.  Someone always remarks on how sweet and loving kids are, naturally, and how we need to be more like that.  Everything about children is so admirable, they say.  People nod.  It just goes without saying, I guess, that this example makes perfect sense.  Only it doesn't to me, at least not in these general terms.

As a mother, I can testify that kids are pretty amazing.  My kids have forgiven me for numerous mistakes I'm too embarrassed to list here.  They tell me they love me all the time.  They're affectionate and generous.  But kids can also be bullies (even little kids - my son once shut his friend Ben in a closet at church and then stood in front of it so Ben couldn't get out, and he was 3).  They can whine, scream and kick when they don't get their way.  They can play all kinds of games to get out of chores, veggies, bedtime, you name it (real genius is a 2 year old who understands the power of manipulation).  And they can be downright naughty.  My sister-in-law used to teach fourth grade and liked to establish rules (because kids desperately need those).  If the kids didn't obey the class rules, she'd write their name on the board, and any subsequent problems added check marks next to their name.  One year she had a hispanic student named Jesus who was particularly difficult.  I remember her commenting how hard it was for her to write Jesus's name on the board and add multiple check marks next to it.  It felt so wrong.

There are plenty of things about kids' behavior that we shouldn't imitate as adults.  I realize that this is obvious, but nobody seems to cover that when we talk about the "become as little children" teaching.  So exactly what part about being a little child does Jesus (the adult one) mean?

It helps to go straight to the source.  In Matthew 18, Jesus squelches a competitive strain that seems to grow  even among his own disciples.  They come to him asking "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  And this sounds to me like childish behavior on full display.  This is like my kids racing to the car every day and yelling about who made it first.  This is arguing over who got the most animal crackers or who gets the favorite blue bowl or who is stronger or faster or taller.  Only these are adults we're talking about.  Disciples.

In response, Jesus brings over a little child as their visual aid and then tells them that "whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."  The key, then, is the humility.  And humility is greatness.

But visualizing how a grown up is supposed to be as humble as a child (and yes, children are very humble) can be hard. Until you meet an adult who is that humble, and then you get it.  There's something different there.

Up the street from us, on the next block, is a little white house that is so simple you could almost miss it.  There are no elaborate flower beds out front, no distinguishing bushes.  The sprinklers have made yellow arcs on the siding.  The only real characteristic that sets it apart is that it sits on the corner and looks somewhat quaint, in a 1950s sort of way.  The woman who lives there is a mild mannered, almost timid woman who my husband says talks like Piglet (that gentle, almost nervous voice) and who I think must have been very striking in her youth because she is pretty now, in her 80s.  We have been friends with her now for about seven years, and talking to her, it would be easy to assume that she was always as sweet and kind and patient with everyone as she seems to be now.  (I find I hold an unrealistic assumption that all old people are nice, and that they must have always been that way.)  Once when we were delivering dessert to her, my son dropped the plate, face down, right before we knocked and I said some choice words (rather loudly) and hadn't quite collected myself when she opened her front door.  I worried later that she'd heard me and I was mortified because, of course, she would never do anything like that.

But one day she related an incident that changed my whole outlook.  When she was young, she said, she'd had a boyfriend with whom she was very much in love and they planned to marry.  But he went off to serve in WWII and was killed.  Devastated, she nevertheless moved on and eventually found another man with whom she fell in love and was married.  Several years later, however, she found herself feeling frustrated with and distant from her husband.  He was not a member of her church, and although he supported her in her faith, she resented him for not going to church himself and for not being the kind of husband she wanted him to be, the kind she seemed to see all around her.  Her resentment continued to grow, until one day she told her daughters that she felt that her dead boyfriend was the real love of her life.  Her husband just didn't match up to what she really wanted or needed.  He wasn't the person she'd envisioned she'd spend her life with.

Her daughters, naturally, were upset and told her that she needed to re-think what she'd said because this was their dad, after all, and he was a good man.  

It was about this time that she'd started to take long walks.  She'd walk by herself for miles, just thinking.  And she thought about her marriage a lot.  She thought about how, every Sunday when she came home from church, he was waiting for her.  He'd make pancakes for her, and they'd sit at the table together and share them and talk.  "Every Sunday," she said.  "Our little brunch."

And slowly something happened.  It took her a while to come around completely, but when she did, she realized she'd been wrong.

Now, her husband is dead, and she lives in the little house alone.  But everywhere in her front room are pictures of her husband - young, after the war, and as a older man surrounded by his wife and three daughters.

Last year when we visited her she was agitated about her little house.  Several of the shingles had just been blown off in a windstorm, and with a storm coming in the next day or two, she was worried about the roof leaking.  She'd lost some sleep over it, so my husband promised we'd get someone there to look at it more closely.  It just so happened that, at dinner that night, my father-in-law mentioned the name of a man who had just fixed his neighbor's roof.  His name was Cesar, he was from Mexico, worked construction out of town, and lived on the street next to us.  I don't recall who called him (my father-in-law or me), but from the first mention of the old woman and the coming storm, Cesar committed to take care of it the next day.  True to his word,  the next evening, after a long day of work and a two-hour commute, he met us at her house.  I introduced them (he only speaks Spanish, and although mine is very rusty, I remembered enough of the basics), and he told her he would take care of everything.  And he did.  He insisted he buy the necessary shingles and told her she didn't need to pay him for the work.  "For this old woman," he told me, "I will do it.  It will snow tomorrow."

By this time, it was getting late.  It was dark now and cold.  Cesar's daughter came and held a giant spotlight.  She stood on the ground and positioned the light so it lit up exactly where on the roof he was working.  Our friend sat in her house, listening to him walk above her.  She told us later she wanted to cry because she realized that, even after he replaced the missing shingles, he was checking to make sure that each of the other shingles was tight.  "He checked every single one," she told us.  It took him two hours.  Cesar on the roof in the dark and cold, and his daughter waiting below with the light.  And our friend, listening to him almost dancing out his work above her.  

Cesar doesn't go to church either.  His wife and daughters go faithfully every week, but it isn't for him.  But I've rarely seen anyone do so much for a stranger.

And this is what I think Jesus is talking about when he talks about greatness and the kingdom of God.  Maybe I was too hard on the disciples.  Maybe they were really asking what greatness looked like.  Because sometimes it's hard to identify.

The thing with greatness, with humility, is that it’s very quiet.  It doesn't call attention to itself (which means that most things that are loud are not greatness).  You have to pay close attention to find it.  In fact, you have to be looking.  So often it’s in a small house on a corner just up the street from you.  It’s an old couple sharing a plate of pancakes on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s a man dancing his heart out on an old woman’s roof.    

If you're interested, I've also started blogging occasionally for a wonderful literary journal called "Rock and Sling."  My first post for them is live right now.  You can find it at

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Can you repeat that?

Matthew 16 & 17

I believe in evolution.  In order for a thing to be complete, it has to change.   But before that happens, repetition does its good work.  It builds a steadiness, a pattern we can follow and gain confidence in.  This is true in art, music, poetry, in all things "created."

Anyone with kids can tell you that repetition is vital to their development.  Bedtime routines, repeating words  and rules, reading the same book over and over again.  The best example of this is the notorious toddler habit (generally with a large bucket of toys) of dump, retrieve, repeat.  Early childhood specialists will tell you all kinds of great skills they are learning in this process, but if they did this forever, it would be weird.  At some point they learn the principle and then move on to a new set of repetitions.  Right now, we're stuck on some and, thankfully, past others.  I think we've been telling Cael (7) not to suck on his fingers while he reads for at least 4 years now.  That's his thinking position: not the muscular, stoic pose of a man resting his chin on his fist, but a first grader engrossed in "Percy Jackson" and drooling all over the pointer finger jammed to his back molars. But he finally makes his bed without us asking every morning (check!).  I've coached Beck (4) numerous times on avoiding the combination of black dress socks and shorts or stripes and camouflage.  The days he dresses himself and we're not going anywhere, he's quite a sight.  But he finally learned not to bring his toy weapons to the dinner table (something that kind of makes me sad). And baby Cooper, after hearing us ask, "What's this?" hundreds of times, now says, "this"  (which is actually kind of brilliant because this is this - he's light years ahead of us.)  For me, I'm stuck in a negative set of repetitions.  Every week I commit to stop my daily intake of chocolate and start running more.  And every week I sneak chocolate chips, revel in dessert, and sleep in too much. (What can I say?  My kids are smarter than I am.)

Even Jesus's ministry and the telling of it is steeped in repetition.  Every page there's a healing.  The same phrases find their way into nearly every teaching: "the kingdom of heaven is like...,"  "blessed are...," "thy faith hath made thee whole."   The stories themselves are retold several times between the four gospels.  It couldn't be that they didn't have anything else to write about, since John himself says that what we don't know about Jesus could fill so many books the world wouldn't have room for them.  In other words, a lot.  So why the same stories over and over?


The first time we are introduced to Peter, he's fishing.  There is a real routine to fishing - throwing out the nets, retrieving, sorting, then starting the process all over again.  I imagine the weather gets repetitive, the seasons, the same pull and drag of the net.  But Peter has obviously learned something beyond just expert fishing, some basic principles that make him ripe for discipleship because, when Jesus bursts on the scene, he is ready to start a new life.  He just didn't bargain on everything that new life would bring.

In these chapters, Peter has figured things out.  He's read the signs and has added up what they mean.  At least, to some degree.  They mean that Jesus - this man he's broken bread with, slept near, walked with mile after mile -  is the one all the prophecies have been about.  And when Peter confesses this to Jesus, Jesus tells him he'll build his church on this kind of rock, meaning Peter (petros, "a small rock" in Greek), meaning he trusts Peter, enough to do the work when he's gone.  Later, Peter himself calls his own followers "lively stones."  They, like him, help build up the kingdom of God.  All of this sounds so comforting, so sure.

And then Peter goes on displaying some of the grossest errors of any of the disciples.  Sometimes in the reading, I see him as that well-intended guy who is (almost) always saying the wrong thing (because he's talking more than anyone), who's living with his heart out on his sleeve but who is awkward and unsure, the one who knows a lot and is quick to understand but who falters at those critical moments.  He seems to constantly leap out and then retreat.  When he contradicts Jesus about his imminent death (right after the exchange about being a rock), Jesus calls him Satan and says he is an offense to him.  When he can't keep walking on that water, Jesus says his faith is too weak.  And when they're on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter lapses into what I can't help but read as a nervous babbling.  Is he really all that interested in building tabernacles or is he just trying desperately to find something to say?  (I'd be scared too if I were on a mountain top with the Son of God and two dead prophets.  The air itself must have been electrifying.)  And if that isn't embarrassing enough, in the middle of his babbling, he gets interrupted.  Suddenly a bright cloud overshadows them and God speaks.  Talk about awkward timing.

What I love most about Peter is how real he is.  At this point, things are in constant motion for him.  Just as soon as he gets his bearings in one thing, it changes.  And his flaws are on full display every time someone opens this book.  And yet, he was the right man for the job.  With all of his awkwardness, his "lack of faith" (who are we kidding? he left everything behind, he had loads of faith), his instinct to save his own skin when Jesus was arrested, he was still the stone Jesus said he'd build on.  He could be right for it while still being (glaringly) imperfect.  He was still evolving.


I've always known I have a bit of a temper, but it hadn't shown itself much since that one time in my late teens when I got mad at my friends while we were all working in Yellowstone for the summer.  I don't remember what the issue was, but I do remember stomping into my bedroom in our cabin and throwing all of my shoes against the door as hard as I could, leaving little dents in the original wood that had been there since 1905.   Since then I'd congratulated myself on growing up and out of my anger.  And I was sure it was all behind me.
But, years later, there I was, sitting on my bed and sobbing (again) because I'd lost my temper (again) and yelled at my son (again).   No doubt it was for something totally normal in Kid Land (tracking in mud or spilling orange juice on the rug... or playing with his poop, then wiping it all over the side of the bathroom vanity... that's normal, right?), but I'd had it, and this awful rage just burst right out of me and scared both of us.  And as many times as I committed to stay patient, it never seemed to happen.  No wonder the cell phone lay in pieces on the floor.

Later that day I calmly entered the cell phone store and had an exchange with the single, childless, couldn't-be-older-than-20, male employee.  I had to explain that, knowing my old phone was on the fritz anyway and in a moment of frustration in the never-ending saga known as Potty Training, I had taken out my anger on the most helpless and feeble item in the room: my phone.  In fact, I'd thrown it against the wall, and it was now a pile of sad-looking debris in my hand.  After a look of horror (and fear) crossed his face, he tried to laugh a little (I wasn't joking, I said seriously), and showed me the display of other phones, keeping his distance until his co-worker came back from lunch break, and she took over.

I am deeply flawed in the parenting department.  While I don't have that kind of anger anymore (thankfully), I still lose it sometimes.  And the windows are open.  And I'm sure some of the neighbors hear.  (Lucky for us our neighbors on one side are elderly and can't hear very well.)  But that doesn't mean that I wasn't meant to be a parent.

We can be the right person for the job and still be clueless about how to do it.  We can screw up and embarrass ourselves over and over again and still be getting somewhere so long as we're learning.

It's not a coincidence that my anger happened mainly with my first son.  I was new at being a mother.  I'd never done this before.  Since then, I've learned, through the patterns of daily life as a mother (where everything is repetition), how to juggle things a little better, and how to lower the bar of my expectations until it practically touches the floor.

Maybe we can be kinder, more merciful to leaders and disciples and parents and even kids who've never been those before.  It's all pretty new.  Give them some time to get more of it down because most of the time, they do.  How many times do I have to read the story of Peter until I believe that?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Against the Commodified Jesus

Map of Jerusalem, Israel            Matthew 15

I've never liked the term "Jesus freak."  Maybe because, aside from name-calling, it suggests that anyone who loves Jesus is automatically a fanatic.  At the same time, I get it.  If we're talking about a commercial production of Jesus, one that we wear or drive or chew loudly like so much stale gum, well, I don't like that either.

For a lot of society, Jesus is a commodity.  He takes the shape of whatever is convenient or trendy at the time, whatever we want him to be.  Hippie Jesus is heavy on the sandals and long hair.  Rebel Jesus revels in spitfire comebacks and, when he's not staging revolutions, spends his time as a loner in the mountains.  Peace Jesus just wants us all to love each other, hold hands, and sway to the music.  "Don't judge" Jesus doesn't want us to judge anyone.  Ever.  (Though I'm not sure how the "by their fruits ye shall know them" and "pearls before swine" comments factor in.  I guess they don't.)  Then there's the Jesus who is boiled down to almost slapstick one-liners paraded on church signs  ("2 nails + 2 boards = 4given" or "today's forecast: heavenly reign").   Bite-size Jesus hangs out on bumper stickers or bobbles from dashboards, an accessory next to mufflers or candy wrappers.  Funny Jesus is the butt of jokes but a good sport because, hey, he loved everybody.  There is, as always, the Jesus who offends.  My nephew was once talking about Jesus to his friend, a 9 year old whose parents have taught him to distrust religion.  My nephew innocently tried to explain why he likes church, but his friend curtly replied, "Jesus is creepy."  So, apparently there's even a Creepy Jesus.  (Okay, the images all over Google of Jesus with the flaming red heart on his chest.... those are kind of creepy.) 

Even people who have read his words over and over again, who have tried to live his teachings, who have taught other people his sermons and parables, still misunderstand Jesus and, without realizing it, try to fit him into a mold that has grown comfortable and comforting.  I know because I've been one of them.  For two weeks I've been mulling over something that happens in this chapter that is surprising to me each time I read it because I'm not sure where it "fits."

A woman comes to Jesus begging him to heal her daughter of an evil spirit.  This seems almost run-of-the-mill by now in the record of his ministry.  But this woman is a Canaanite, and rather than turning to her and saying any one of his now famous lines of forgiveness and healing, Jesus says nothing to her.  In fact, when she persists, he explains that she isn't one of the people he is sent to teach.  She's a Gentile.  His mission is to work with "the lost sheep of the House of Israel."  He's not being cruel, but that's his calling, and he's obedient to it.  The Gentiles will get the gospel later.  But right now, Jesus is teaching and healing his people, the ones who've had all those prophecies about him and who are supposed to accept him and tell the world about it.  And yet, this woman will not take "no" for an answer.  She continues to plead with him.  And when she says, "Lord, help me," he replies with a metaphor that almost stings.  He tells her "it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs."

That this woman has been compared to a dog is not lost on her, or me.  For years this response has shocked me.  Where's the love, Jesus?  How can you say something like this?  Up to now, these kinds of comments have been reserved for the "hypocrites" who tout the Law of Moses like bling in public and then patently disregard it in private.  The guys who, at the beginning of this chapter, get after Jesus because his disciples aren't washing their hands before they eat bread.  The guys who are so jealous of Jesus and his disciples -  healing, casting out evil spirits, drawing out thousands into the desert -  that their childish defense is to nitpick everything they do. So, logically, Jesus puts them in their place.

But this woman is begging, and there is no indication that her purpose is anything but selfless and loving and faithful.  Particularly so because she isn't even Jewish.  And above all of that, she isn't offended.  Instead, she agrees with him and says, "yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."   In other words, she'll take what she can get, even if she's not "worthy."

I could easily write about this woman's humility, how she is a perfect example of not being offended at the word.  In the end, she got what she wanted.  Her faith was so great that her daughter was healed immediately.  I could write about how Jesus had a mission, how his life was organized (teach Jews, not Gentiles) and how he was obedient to that but also compassionate.  He did heal her daughter.

But what draws me to this is the conversation itself.  It is intimate and ironic.  It is surprising and emotional.  It's almost as if you can hear them talking to each other, see them turn and face one another and recognize one another for who they are.  It is an encounter between two people who are as real and as individual as anyone.

And when Jesus says to her "O woman, great is thy faith," there is a profound sense of respect there that is both mutual and divine.  "Lord," she says to him. And he replies, "O woman."  She worships him, and he understands her.

I can't say I understand everything Jesus said and did.  He is a god, the Son of God, and what he does might not always make perfect sense to me.  But I can honestly say I prefer that living, breathing, honest, complex and still surprising Jesus over any two-dimensional representation of him.  Maybe that's why, in Isaiah and all those prophecies that celebrate him, he has dozens of names.  He is many things.  Not the least of which, he's real.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

There Is No Scoreboard

Image result for old scoreboard image      Matthew 14

In this week's chapter, Herod celebrates his birthday, and over the past week we have celebrated the birthdays of two of our sons: one who just turned 1, and the other, 7.  I can tell you that the birthday parties we threw were nothing like Herod's.  In fact, I've never been to a birthday party that resembles anything like Herod's. Birthdays in our world are largely full of balloons, homemade cakes that match the birthday theme (I do my best, but they are still so obviously homemade ), and a gathering of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our elderly neighbors who love to dote on my sons.  Stuffed into our tiny front room, we laugh, hug, and chatter, and do our best not to spill cake in the process.  Bright wrapping paper and bows peek out of a garbage bag, and the kids are off playing with all the new toys.  It's the essence of innocence.  So it struck me more than ever this time, that, in verse 6 when it reads "But when Herod's birthday was kept..." (that word "birthday" sitting there on the page like a bright balloon), I am still not fully prepared for the sinister and awful plots that ensue.

John, on the other hand, has to know what's coming.  At least to some degree.  For the last several chapters he's been locked in prison, awaiting his fate at the hands of someone he knows is merciless.  Someone who has slaughtered all the babies in Israel is certainly not going to bat an eye at killing one man.

And while he is there, alone, sitting in the cold dark, John knows that Jesus is out there, preaching and doing miracles and drawing out multitudes.  Many of them the same people who used to follow him.  They are calling Jesus's name and worshiping him.  What John spent his life working for - the coming of Jesus - is now unfolding.  But he is not there to see it.  And yet, by all records, there is not one note of jealousy or resentment from John. In fact, he sends his own followers to Jesus to confirm he is the Christ, and then, it would seem, admonishes them to follow him.

I spend my days taking care of my three sons.  If I'm not feeding, changing or tracking down the 1 year old (Cooper) and checking his mouth for tiny wads of wet paper (he has an affinity for paper and carpet, but, apparently, not for most fruit), I'm feeding, reading to or cleaning up after my 4 year old (Beck).   The 7 year old (Cael) is getting more independent and now does almost everything for himself.  The problem is that he doesn't do it very well yet (spilled food, globs of toothpaste, piles of books in every room abound) so, in some ways, he's like a 1 year old, he just eats more and has bigger clothes.  On top of that, laundry, carpooling to school, meals, and my part-time job mean that I am running all day long.  Some days I forget to even eat lunch, and most nights I go to bed so tired that my husband has to literally prop me back up into kneeling position as I'm saying my prayers.  I wake up early to write, but my poetry manuscript (10 + years in the writing) is coming along at a snail's pace, and I often feel so behind in my writing that I am embarrassed to tell anyone I do it.

In the meantime, one of my dear friends from graduate school just saw her first book of poetry published.  She's had wonderful success doing public readings and collaborations with other artists.  She's enjoyed the kind of attention that I've always felt she deserved.  Having exchanged poems and manuscripts with her now for almost 10 years, I know the quality of writing she produces and the talent she has. And I am genuinely happy for her.

And yet, there are days when I think of her success and wonder if it will ever happen to me.  I sit in this freezing cold, unfinished basement, surrounded by toys and laundry, trying hard to focus on my own writing, and I wonder if I'm kidding myself.  What if I'm just doomed to live a life of hopeless mediocrity?   Do I embarrass myself by even trying?  What if all of my chances are passing me by, right now?  And loudest and worst of all: What if I am, at the core, just a loser?

It's not as if this only happens in the adult arena either.  Friday night Cael went to a friend's birthday party at a family fun center.  On the way back home, when I asked how the party was, he grew quiet for a minute and then choked out, "I hate laser tag!"  When I asked why, he said, "I'm no good at it!"  And when I tried to help him brush it off, I realized there was something deeper going on.  He recounted for me how embarrassing it was that he was the only one who raised his hand when they asked who had never played before, how even though they suited him up, they didn't explain the rules very well, and how he spent the entire game confused and frustrated.  Then he ended by saying, "At the very end, they showed the scoreboard in front of everybody.  Everyone's name was listed and they had, like, 100 thousand points.  But 'Cael' was at the bottom and it had a big zero next to it."  Then these big tears fell down his cheeks and he covered his face with his hands and sobbed.

It was almost more than I could bear.  While I know that my son is extremely bright, articulate, funny, and talented, I have no doubts that that single experience at that moment was louder to him than anything else.  It told him he was a loser and that he was the only one who wasn't good enough.  I tried to explain to him that it didn't matter, that all the other things he's good at do matter, and that if he practiced laser tag he was sure to get better, but that bright scoreboard loomed large all night.

Of all the posts I've done so far, this one has been the timeliest.  John the Baptist taught me this week something I desperately needed to remember, something I need to be better at teaching my children: one person's success is not another's failure.  Our own good work stands alone and is not countered by anyone else's good work.  Or talents. Or time to shine.  In life, really, there is no scoreboard.  Things ebb and flow for us just like everyone else.  It just doesn't look like that sometimes.

It's easy to get caught in that moment when things are going extraordinarily well for other people and not so well for us and feel like we are nothing and that it's all been a waste.  But that's unwise and short-sighted.  Maybe the key to this, aside from John's perfect example, lies in the very things I say to my kids every day: "You can't both have the exact same things all the time.  It's not possible."  "Just be happy for each other." "It's his turn."


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dolly Parton and the Kingdom of Heaven

Image result for garden tomato image Matthew 13

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story of a man who sowed seeds into different ground, but only one of those kinds of grounds actually received the seed and produced something.  He tells the story to "great multitudes" who gather on the shore while he speaks to them from a ship.  Just after he tells this story, his disciples enter and ask what he's doing, and the rest of the chapter appears to be an in-depth explanation of his doctrine, one that is meant strictly for these disciples.  He tells them it's because they get to know "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven," but the rest of the population doesn't. 

This could sound pretty biased and exclusive.  Only a fraction of the people who hear him get to know what he's really saying?  But when he tells them the meaning of the parable of the sower, it becomes evident why. 

First, he goes through what each kind of ground represents: people who never really understand and are easily deceived, people who are happy to find truth  but have "no root" in themselves (they can't stick it out) and get offended, people who care more about worldliness.  Last is the good ground, and the only real distinction Jesus makes between this ground and the rest is that, not only do these people hear the word, they understand it.  That's it.  Once that happens, they bear fruit.  But they also bear different amounts of fruit; the amount itself doesn't seem to matter so much as that fruit happens.  That's the object of sowing seeds, after all. 

For the last month I've been listening to a book on tape called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  It's an account of her family's year-long goal to only eat food they have either grown or raised themselves or that has been grown or raised in their community by someone they know personally.  It's inspiring, and I think about how beautiful her descriptions of tomatoes are as I eat my peanut butter and honey sandwich made out of store-bought bread, mass-produced peanut butter and (okay, I did one thing right) my cousin's homemade honey.  Then I wash that down with store-bought, pasturized, 1% milk and a delicious processed chocolate bar.  I love the idea of eating the way Kingsolver does.  I even do a lot of the things she suggests.  But when it comes down to it, to eat exactly the way she does, well, that's a kind of devotion I'm just not ready to fully embrace. I believe in it, but I feel daunted by the task of changing my everyday habits.  Maybe I just don't fully understand  yet.

Kingsolver is a terrific example of someone who knows what sowing seeds and using good ground means because, in this one-year experiment of hers, that's her life.  So far, nearly half the book has just been her planting and reporting how her seeds are doing and how delicious those fruits are when they come. She watches the process unfold from that tiny tomato seed to the full, robust, hearty Dolly Parton tomato whose seductive shape speaks for itself.  She gives so much care to her garden, so much thought to planning out what to plant and when, how to avoid frost, how to keep out the weeds, that when that fruit finally shows up you can hear thehallelujah! in her voice. 

I'm happy to say that I do know what that feels like.  Every year we plant a garden.  Instead of a 40 acre garden like Kingsolver's, it's a tiny kitchen garden (just outside our kitchen window) that provides the perfect herbs and basic vegetables for me to run out just before dinner in the summer and gather whatever is ripe and plentiful, wash it, chop it up, steam, sautee or toss it in a salad, and enjoy its fresh flavor while my kids pull faces and beg to be excused from the table. That fruit sustains us through a good part of the summer, and those that don't get eaten immediately float in their glass jars on the shelves of the storage room until we gobble them all up in due time. 

Fruit, in the literal sense, takes a long time to develop.  Asparagus, one of the slowest growers, can take three years after it's been planted to finally show signs of life, but once it does, it becomes a perennial crop for up to 20 years.  (It's grown from "crowns" - the bulbs of one-year plants -  instead of seeds, but the ground is still a prime participant since it's got to be babied all that time in just the right drainage and mulch.)  In the meantime, the gardener goes by faith that, after all her best and continued efforts, something will come of it.  I'm guessing that fruits, in the context of the parable, are not simply actions then, but the results of those actions, whatever develops from them. And maybe, like the asparagus, they keep developing a long time after those actions.

Jesus essentially says that people who do not use the word (the seed) are unfruitful.  And this is when it sounds really radical to me.  They don't produce any fruit?  Understanding has nothing to do with talent or wealth, and certainly nothing to do with intellect.  For all the rewards we give people who embody those attributes, Jesus doesn't think much of them (on their own) in the end.  Understanding suggests a sincere desire to "get it."  It means we take something into ourselves and are changed by it.  In this way, Jesus's definitions of plentiful and barren are vastly different than the world's.

A pile of dirt (like our garden spot is from late October to early April) can become almost tropical, a maze of green with bulbous, bright yellows and reds hanging from their stems like cheerful holiday lights.  In a few weeks we'll start that process again.  We'll churn the dirt with our new tiller, open it with our trowels and gloved hands and drop in our heirloom seeds, one by one.  We'll water, and wait. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Job Description

Image result for counterfeit money images   Matthew 9 & 10

Maybe this week I feel a little more empathy for that writer whose remarks spurred this response, this blog.  There is plenty in the Bible that is terrifying and strange. The New Testament is full of seeming contradictions, confusions, betrayals, jealousies, and a full display of all of the weaknesses of humankind.  And that's just the disciples.  You'd think these twelve men whom Jesus hand-picked would turn out to be the saintliest of men, but anyone who knows the whole story knows that looming in those chapters only a dozen or so pages away wait 30 pieces of silver and a cock who crows three times.  

There are bleak moments in this story.  But in order to understand the men better, to be fair to them, it helps to remember how it all started.  Here's a recap of how they got recruited: they were at work.  Some were fishing.  One was tax collecting.  They were punching the time card or filing papers at the office or whatever example parallels your job now.  This man comes by and tells them to follow him.  And they do.  And then suddenly (because the accounts in this book are so brief that it sounds as if everything happens instantaneously) they find themselves in the middle of miracles and controversy.  And just as they are all gathered, probably still getting their bearings, maybe scratching their heads a little, this man finally discloses to them exactly what it is they are supposed to do.  Here's the job description:

1) Teach the Jews, nobody else.
2) Tell them "the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
3) Heal the sick. Even bring the dead back to life.  
4) Pack lightly.  You'll earn your keep.
5) When people reject your message, leave peacefully.
6) Be wise and harmless.

Aside from #3, these sound like simple principles from the Jewish do-gooder handbook.  #3 is daunting, but to be given the power to do that would be amazing.  Maybe at this point their mission sounded a little refreshing, even exciting.  But then come the occupational hazards:

1) You're going to make people angry.  Really angry.  
2) They'll take you to their leaders, both political and religious.
3) When that happens, don't even think about what you're going to say to these guys.  God will put the words in your mouth.  

In other words, instead of being a superstar, you'll be bullied and held captive.  You also cannot rely on your own intellect to get you out of it.

And then the description grows increasingly more troubling.

4) People are going to put each other to death over what you teach them.  You will break up families.  
5) Everybody's going to hate you.
6) When you have to run for your life, just go to another town, and start this process all over again.  
7) Whatever awful things they do to me (Jesus), they'll do to you, BUT
8) Don't be afraid.   

(That last one actually made me laugh last night because, really, the hardest thing of all of those would be to not be afraid.)  And then Jesus outlines for them his job:

1) Stand up for people who stand up for me.
2) Bring "a sword" instead of peace because I will   
      3) divide families because 
              a) anyone who loves even family members more than me isn't worthy of me, and
                     b) whoever isn't willing to suffer the way I do is also not worthy of me.

Of course, along the way Jesus has said that they'll be rewarded for this work.  They'll be "saved."  They'll be doing God's work and God is aware of them, even of the hairs on their head.  

And all of this sounds eerily similar to what I am reading in the paper these days.  Only it occurred to me that everything has its counterfeit.  If this whole story is true, if Jesus really did come from God and teach absolute truth, then some twisted version of this same story will surface.  And look really convincing.  And if it's successful, it will surface over and over again.

Counterfeit money imitates vast sums, not pennies or nickles.  It's not worth someone's time to imitate what is barely valuable but to imitate what is of most value.  

The biggest difference I can detect here is that, instead of being violent himself, Jesus predicts that the reaction to his message will be violence.  His followers are, if anything, supposed to be completely peaceable. (Remember the healing part?  Even bringing people back from the dead.  That's a mercy many people would give anything to have.)  He himself is peaceable save for saying things that really upset people.  But if his doctrine is proof enough, if the works we are supposed to judge people by are so obviously good in his case (ridiculously good, for how many healing stories do we have to read before we start getting that picture?), then why shouldn't we love him more than anyone else?  

Because that requires a kind of faith that seems almost impossible to muster.  And yet, we know that, for all of their failings, a small group of men did.  They went out and did what he asked of them.  They left behind families and comforts.  And safety.  They made mistakes, some grievous, but they devoted the rest of their lives to this work.  And many of them died for it.  They didn't explode themselves or fly their aircraft into buildings or, so far as we know, even lay a hand on anyone but to heal them.  Instead they died at the hands of people who just couldn't stand what they were saying.  And that distaste for their message has lived a long, long life. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Motley Crew

Image result for empty chairs images  Matthew 8

Recently the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  In one of the news articles that ran, one woman who survived that camp said that what got her through it was the fact that 1) she was imprisoned with her mother and childhood friends, and 2) they helped her remember herself so that, rather than losing her identity in the number on her arm, she kept alive within herself her own story: that she has a name and a family, memories and feelings and experiences that are entirely her own.  She feels that generalizations or groupings are not useful.  She even dislikes being called "a survivor" because there are many different things people have survived, and each experience is different.  She sees the world as a world of individual stories.

All through the gospels, Jesus meets individuals.  He must have met hundreds, probably thousands of people, but we only know of a few dozen, and we know them through their stories.  A woman with an issue of blood.  The demoniac of the Gadarenes.  The daughter of Jairus.  Zacchaeus, the short publican.  And my favorite this week, the centurion with a paralyzed servant. Each of these is healed or taught (and used to teach others) in a totally unique way.

In Matthew Chapter 8, the centurion takes up a total of 9 verses, but he leaves his mark.  He lives in Capernaum.  He comes seeking Jesus.  He's not worthy for Jesus to come to his house, but, as a man of authority himself, he understands the power Jesus holds.  He knows Jesus can simply tell his servants (the elements,  unclean spirits, even the bodies of other people) what to do and they'll do it.  He knows Jesus can heal this servant just by saying the words miles away.  His faith is so strong that it says, "Jesus marvelled" and says "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."  And then Jesus does a curious thing.  He considers this guy - Roman, a non-Jew, a military leader - and teaches his followers a critical point: it's the personal faith that matters.  It's the individual, not the group.  He sees this man wholly and clearly for who he is.  And for the reasons that really matter.  And he says to his followers, "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven."  You can almost see him holding his hand out toward this man to say, "Like him."

I can't help but imagine what the kingdom of heaven will look like.  Pretty eclectic from the sound of it.

And this is the message I get from this week's reading: 1) God sees us as distinct individuals.  We see ourselves that way.  God sees and judges us that way.  He sees far deeper than, say, our race or occupation or even the religion we happen to belong to.  Not that these things do not matter.  They all matter because they inform our lives and shape our stories, but they are never the ultimate distinction.  The ultimate distinction is what we believe and whether or not we believe in him.  Because if keeping our identity alive for ourselves (I have a name, I have a family) means we can overcome the most horrific of experiences in this life, what about keeping alive a deeper identity?  We belong to a broad and holy family.  God has called himself our Father for a reason.

2)  We do last.  Maybe our life as it is doesn't last (we see the changes around us, the minutia shifting or dying, or we live through the world turned upside down), but we do.  That is why the kingdom of heaven is there, couched in future tense and glimmering with the faces of the biblical fathers.  They are waiting for us to bring our selves to the table, to pull up a chair.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gentle, Bearded Men

John Muir
Matthew 7

By the time he was 11 years old, John Muir had the New Testament memorized.  Not purely out of interest (though he loved and used the language), but because his over-zealous father punished him if he didn't.  But the language stuck with him.  You can hear it, this undercurrent, in everything he writes.  He said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places we can play in and pray in."  He's this bearded 19th Century prophet ambling through wilderness and writing sermons about Yosemite and the water ouzel.  Besides founding the Sierra Club (and helping Yosemite become a National Park), his most famous work is petitioning to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a valley technically part of Yosemite Park that, by his estimation, was the prettiest site in the park, and, as it just so happened, the favored spot for San Francisco city to dam and use as a water source for its growing population.  He wrote letters, garnered a group of supporters, employed the newspapers to publish his plea.  If they did this, the flora, fauna, geography of the place would never be the same.  It would be unrecoverable.  Besides, there were other places they could use instead, places that would hold more water and do less damage.  He was a famous writer already, so I'd guess a lot of people listened.  But, then, the city wanted this place.  Politicians got involved.  They were hungry (okay, thirsty) for it.  And they claimed it wouldn't hurt anything.  Everything else would be left intact.

Centuries before Muir lived another tender-hearted, bearded man.  Incidentally, he was also a great writer, and he too loved nature and celebrated simplicity.  I read Thomas More for the first time about three years ago, when I was forcing my English 2010 students to read an excerpt from "Utopia," and what surprised me the most was how much I laughed.  He had a quick answer for everything, but he wasn't malicious, and he was honest in a way that would make most people uncomfortable.  Fashion: "those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned into anything better than a sheep."  Excessive "pleasures" (getting drunk.etc.) that become addictions: "...if you think that sort of thing will make you happy, you'll have to admit that your idea of perfect felicity would be a life consisting entirely of hunger, thirst, itching, eating, drinking, rubbing, and scratching - which would obviously be most unpleasant as well as quite disgusting."  He was known to be not only highly intelligent but also kind, gentle, and loyal.  But, then, he didn't agree with his friend Henry VIII's decision to marry Anne Boleyn and create his own church.  As Lord Chancellor to the King, he had to take a stand somewhere.

I was sitting in the bathtub thinking of this week's reading, how Jesus says we shouldn't give that which is holy to the dogs or cast our pearls before swine.  How many good causes are thwarted.  How many people - innocent, gifted, vulnerable - find a sad end.  Of course, life is life, you can say.  It has to have the good and the bad.  I get that.  But sometimes seeing what is precious fall into the hands of people who are mercenary at best and totally unconscionable at worst wears on you.

Maybe I'm taking this more personally because on Saturday I went to the funeral of my friend Diana, who I wrote about a few weeks ago.  It was always sad that she had health problems, but to add to it, just when her health was starting to decline, just when she needed family and friends the most, she was whisked away to live in another state in social isolation by her older sister, the sister she had never liked, the sister who had given her so much anxiety that she would get physically sick when she came to visit.  The same sister who has sued or alienated nearly every relative (save her own mother).  This is who oversaw the care of my sweet friend.

Yes, "the end" is not really the end, if this whole story of the New Testament is true.  But the end in this life can still be hard to face.  Hetch Hetchy was dammed.  Thomas More was beheaded.  Diana passed away peacefully but thousands of miles away from most of her family, who never got a chance to say goodbye.

When he's standing in front of Pilate for questioning, Jesus doesn't talk much.  I always figured it was because he knew Pilate wasn't ready to hear the truth.  But looking over the general workings of the world, there are other ways that pearls are cast before swine, every day.  Maybe what Jesus gave wasn't just good advice (we should avoid doing it if we ever can), but a chance to spare us the intense pain that inevitably accompanies such an error.

In context, that advice comes just as Jesus is telling us how to judge wisely.  By their fruits, he says.  A park.  A book.  A life.  That's a good place to start looking.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

An Organic Life

Matthew 6

Near the end of Chapter 6 of this first book of the Gospels, and in the middle of his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issues a call for simplicity.  He says, "take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on."  Lilies, birds, and all of the natural world are a testament that God takes care of his creations, better than we could ever hope to.  Of course, this was taught primarily to his disciples who would be moving from house to house, city to city, as he did, without food and clothing at the ready, but since it's here, on the page for general readers, surely we can get something out of it too.

In all of his doctrine, this is possibly the most liberating.  Don't worry about even the "necessities" of life; those will work themselves out. This is not to say that we make no effort in our lives or that we don't work.  On the contrary, becoming "simple" takes a lot of work.  To do so, it helps to keep two main things in mind:

1) Each day has its own life.  It begins with light and ends when that light is extinguished.  It is so sacred that we shouldn't even take thought for tomorrow, "for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."  It's already brewing, what can we do about it?  Because (this line puzzled me for years)  "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."  I'm not sure I have it right, but I think it means that there is plenty of evil just waiting there, in the future, even in tomorrow.

Seven pages before this, John the Baptist was eating his locusts and wild honey in the wilderness, teaching the first phrases of a new order and confessing his unworthiness of even Jesus's shoe's latchet.  Eight pages after this he is in prison, hearing from his disciples of Jesus's fame.  And seven pages after that, John, the much-anticipated, beloved only child of aged parents, beautiful wild man who single-handedly prepared his generation for the Son of God and who, once Jesus's ministry is underway, quietly steps aside, is beheaded.  "For Herod had laid hold on John."  All the time he is preaching, this end is waiting.  When the angel comes to Zaccharias bearing news that is so beyond his wildest dreams he can not believe it, and months later, when that good news leaps for joy in his mother's womb, the man who lays hold on a grown-up John is on his throne eating and drinking and wreaking havoc in a kingdom where he will soon kill all the Jewish babies in hopes to eradicate any contenders for his power.

And for every hour Jesus spent on the mountain top or at the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Gethsemane and Golgotha are waiting.  And he knew it.  He speaks of it more and more as it gets closer, as if the heaviness is slowly arriving.  In his poem "The Stolen Child," W. B. Yeats writes that " the world's more full of weeping/ than you can understand."  Who knew this better?  If anyone knows that enough evil is there, in each day in the world, it is him.

What do we do with this?  Evil is real.  It plays its part.  And yet, (and yet!) that light in that one day is not wasted.  It gave life to those lilies, those birds.  It gives life to us and, if the pattern of days tells us anything, it means that light will return.

2) Follow.  Interestingly,  Jesus never teaches us to lead.  He teaches us to be led. Every day he is led to those people who, having faith and needing him, become the stories by which he tells the world who he is.

His dearest companions are those men who, one day fishing with their father or collecting taxes, stopped what they were doing, changed plans on a dime, "straightway left" those things and became absolute followers.  Never again to be fishermen or tax collectors but to be something altogether new, a company of individuals who witnessed, first hand, the greatest miracles ever to take place.

What we follow obviously matters.  But the notion that we invent our lives, that we are rogue in any way, is absurd.  We all follow something.  If what we follow is intuitive rather than selfish or superficial, something deep within us that recognizes real purpose, then a funny thing happens.  We become the product of an organic life, one that is simple and natural, in the best sense of the word, because it grows. One that allows a person to be led to true greatness.  Because "your Heavenly Father knows you have need of these things."  We keep ourselves open to the wonder that comes to us, unsolicited, sometimes terrifying, often inconvenient.  It could be that the greatest act of creativity is simply waking up each day.  What is waiting for us?  What do we do with it?

In poetry, and most creative writing, there is a strong doctrine of allowing the writing to go where it wants to go.  Sitting down simply to prove one particular point in a poem, with a particular end in mind, generally does not work.  Hokey as it may sound to non-writers, writing is strongest when the movement and texture of the subject develop naturally, almost apart from the writer themselves, so that, by the end of the piece, the writer may be just as surprised as the reader.  It was not what they set out to do, but there it is, a piece wholly-individual, fully-realized, almost taking its own breath.  And as with a poem, maybe a day.  Maybe a whole life.