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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?