Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grace to the Gracious

I have a general policy about kindness and friendliness to strangers on the street that goes a good bit beyond most urban American standards. I may be wrong about this, I freely admit, but at some point I decided it would be better to err on the side of too extreme an adherence to Christ’s warning “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers you did to me” than on the side of over-caution. Somehow, I think the damage that over-caution could do to my soul is worse than the danger to my body everyone imagines is waiting behind the stranger on the street.

As you can imagine for a young woman, this has gotten me into quite a few sticky situations over the years. I admit that the caution that my friends in the conservative-right and the liberal-intelligentsia alike have tried to instill in me over the years would have saved me from many an awkward situation. But what I have also found is that most awkward situations are, in their strange, awkward ways, windows for grace.

Take today for example.

As I walked down a small, empty side-street around the corner from my regular coffee shop at 7am, I was hailed by a man in his 20s or 30s.

He says (politely enough): Excuse me, can I ask you a question?

I say (pleasantly, pausing my walk): Sure.

He says: I’m not from around here; is there a tattoo parlor on that street?

I think: You’re looking for a tattoo parlor at 7:00 in the morning?
I say: I feel like there’s one down that way, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.

He says: You’re not a tattoo person, I guess?

I think: Already changing the subject?
I say (maintaining my pleasantness): Nope, not so much.

He says: It’s for my girlfriend. She wants to get her belly-button pierced. [Face becoming contorted as if pondering a vexing issue] Do you know anyone with a belly-button ring?

I think: I should probably be wrapping this conversation up soon...
I say: Yeah, lots of people.

He says: How does that work? She’s an inny... can they pierce an inny?

I think: I don’t think he’s thinking a lot about his girlfriend right now...
I say: Yeah, they just pierce the skin on top, and the ring hangs down over the belly-button. It works. [Beginning to step away as if the conversation is ending.]

He says (quickly): Wait, it doesn’t make sense to me. Are you an inny? Can you just show me on your belly-button?

I think: Abandon ship! Abandon ship!
I say: Nah, it’s pretty simple... they just stick a needle right above it. [Making feeble hand motions to illustrate the phenomenon]

Right then, as if on cue from out of nowhere, my thesis director (a well-established Renaissance scholar and Catholic intellectual who always wears a suit with a hankie in the pocket and a hat over his gray beard like a proper gentleman) walks up to the post office that is right behind us.

My thesis director says (jovially): I just can’t get away from you!

I say (relieved): Nope, apparently not!
I think: [Grasping for an academic question that will involve walking away from the stranger] How thankful I am that I was not showing this fellow my belly-button right now!

To all of you out there who don’t find the balance between wisdom and grace toward the stranger on the street as easy as it seems to be to others, I empathize with the tension. But I am learning that there is an abundance of grace out there waiting to be poured back out on the gracious.

I mean, what if I had been showing that guy my belly-button right as my thesis director walked up? That’s one catastrophe I could do without two days before my defense!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Today in the Divine Office

Perhaps because I've been thinking so much about forgiveness this year, perhaps because I just stayed up until 3am grading papers that were anything but forgiving when it came to issues of American racial struggles (the most shocking moment was when a student declared that Huck Finn's father should be grateful that the government had not only allowed him to vote as an "ignorant drunk," but even to reproduce), the concluding prayer for this Sunday struck me. This is a beautiful picture of why forgiveness is tied to our salvation, and it also strikes me as an interesting parallel to the passage when the risen Christ tells his disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld":
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in your unbounded mercy
you have revealed the beauty of your power
through your constant forgiveness of our sins.
May the power of this love be in our hearts
to bring your pardon and your kingdom to all we meet.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
May we all be inheritors of the kingdom, and wear forgiveness like a weird birthmark or other strange family trait that characterizes the children of God.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Speaking Oddities

I grew up in the Assemblies of God church (a branch of the Pentecostals), so it should come as no surprise that at some point in my childhood I felt that God had spoken to me. God was speaking to everyone, after all; the Holy Spirit came upon people regularly during our worship services; some spoke in languages they did not know, and others received the translation. The fact that God spoke to people directly was one of the first things I learned about him.

But when it happened to me, it was not like anything I had seen at church or knew to expect (perhaps that was one of the primary reasons I knew it was him). It was not at church at all, and it was not in a sanctified time of worship.

On the contrary, it was right after one of the most violent fights I would ever have with my brother, and I was feeling about as unholy as an otherwise well-mannered child could feel. That afternoon, it had not been the Holy Spirit who had seized upon my body; it was a rage that was borderline demonic, and I wanted for a few frightening minutes to do nothing other than hurt him. Now, having been caught, restrained, and sent outside to cool down while the adults discussed whether or not an exorcism would be in order, I wandered in the woods to face my own inner demons of shame and isolation.

And I knew it was God who spoke to me then, not because he was loud enough to drown out the million other noises in my head—my unexplainable rage, the severe alarm of the adults, my liturgy of despair that repeated its insistence that I was utterly alone—but because it was so much quieter, and yet I heard it anyway. Suddenly—and I remember the exact square foot of sacred wooded ground where I was standing at this moment—a stillness came over me, a stillness that seemed to say one thing:

“I love you.”

In almost two decades since that day, I have never been so sure of God’s voice, nor have I grown out of the need to hear that inaugural message. In these almost two decades, I have cried out for direction that never came, and I have been certain God was telling me things that later seemed to come more from my own idealism. But as I experienced that afternoon, God's voice rarely says what my spirit is prepared to hear.

Christ said that his sheep know his voice, and will not follow a stranger because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. Perhaps one way we can identify his voice is by its peculiarity; that afternoon in the woods, I knew that voice of love was God’s voice because it was such an oddity. Perhaps he still speaks in oddities, in the last thing we expect or hope to hear, in the dirty baths to cure leprosy or the seven buckets of water to start a fire, in the still whisper that follows the thunder and storms.

I want God to speak to me loud enough to drown out the other voices; sometimes he only speaks in whispers. Odd whispers, at that.
Why do you contend against him,
saying, “He will answer none of man’s words”?
For God speaks in one way,
and in two, though man does not perceive it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Our Lady of Sorrows

Disclaimer: I have no desire to alienate my Protestant readers further (who I realize are 100% of my original readership), nor to say anything unknowingly offensive to the Catholic readers that seem to have trickled in recently. But today is the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, and so if there’s ever a right day for this post it’s today. Receive my apologies for all my inevitable heresies, and I’ll try to be brief.

August 15 had been the Feast of the Assumption, the day the Catholic and Orthodox Churches celebrate Mary rising from the dead and being assumed into heaven where she would be crowned Queen of Heaven. I hadn’t been especially looking forward to the prayers of that particular solemnity in the Daily Office, so when I talked to one of the seminarians the day before he recommended I read Pius XII’s declaration about the Assumption in the Apostolic Constitution, and a document Catholics and Anglicans wrote together about Mary.

The former, which was a bit disorganized and written with a different audience in mind, made me ponder some esoteric things about eschatology. The latter, which was kind and carefully written with a mutual longing for understanding, made me sad.

For Catholics, it is a day of hope fulfilled, of the Arc of the New Covenant entering Jerusalem with rejoicing, of the New Creation that Christ began already gathering the momentum of redemption, of the world suspended between the Already and the Not-Yet being ever so slightly closer to the Already. For a Protestant trying to suspend disbelief, it nevertheless felt stupid.

From any angle you look at it, it certainly seems a dark irony that Mary, whom Catholics believe is the one who draws us to Jesus, is the most repellent point of Catholic theology for Protestants. I’m sure someone in a dark abyss out there gets a good laugh out of that one at both of our expenses. Struck by the sorrow of the impasse, I was ready to solicit the prayers of anyone, even if it felt a little stupid. For better or worse, this is what came out of that.
Oh Mother of our Brokenness, please nod
From where you sit as Queen of all our tears,
The junction of humanity and God
From which your children’s rich division veers.
And Mother of our Sorrow, keep in mind
The sword that pierces the mosaic of
Our souls, for we your brood that trails behind
Have never been immaculate in love.
I do not envy you your crown, because
The price of it has been too great, the steel
That still is piercing, for the serpent was
Within our spirit as upon his heel.
But barren wombs have leapt in Nazareth,
So pray for us the hour of our death.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Miracle

“Well, I’m fading,” I interjected into a pause in the conversation, standing up and making my way across the room to my bereaved friend. It had been over six hours since I had arrived, hours that encompassed a funeral, a potluck, and a walk through the nearby university gardens, and were now dwindling to sitting around her living room with the few family members and friends who were still around.

My friend stood up smiling and met my embrace warmly. “Thanks for coming out,” she said, and then added in a whisper on my shoulder, “Thank you for loving our little boy.”

I realized two things in that moment: I realized that my friend had been comforted in my sharing of love for her son, and I realized that she was right... I did love him. Somehow, I had come to love a boy I would never see or touch.

In some ways, certainly, love is contagious. How could you not love the little guy after watching his parents love him so deeply since their giddy announcement in January, after hearing the weekly updates announcing that their baby was the size of a pea or had developed fingers, after seeing their commitment to love him continue past the tragic day in May when they learned he would not live, after watching slideshows of beautiful photos taken by a non-profit called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep that celebrated the family in the pregnancy and the two hours in the delivery room? The family had been a heartrending monument to love, and no one at the funeral was immune to it.

But while love may in some ways be a gift that we cannot produce ourselves (like faith), I wonder if prayer is an active agent in fertilizing soil that nurtures it. I love that little 3-pound-5-ounce baby I never met because his parents’ love entered into my heart that had been praying for him for three months and especially in the hour of his death. I once mused that prayer is often more a means of opening our own eyes than of catching God’s; now I wonder if it also opens our hearts. Prayer may be as much about our own sanctification as it is the needs of others.

Sometimes the call to love one another and to forgive our enemies feels as much beyond my control as the task of healing my friend’s son would have been. But at least we can pray nevertheless—for our friends, for the poor, for our enemies—and in the absence of the latter miracle, God may surprise us with the former. While the miracle for my friends’ son was not the ex nihilo creation of the bones and organs he was lacking, maybe it was the ex nihilo creation of love in the hearts of us who prayed for him.

Photo taken by Franklin Golden. Franklin is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit foundation that provides professional maternity and birth photos to parents who are losing a child.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Poets of the Word

Some of my readers indicated an appreciation for my esoteric Greek posts, which I promised were about to stop now that language school is over. Rejoice then, O Greek fans; my promises were empty, and Greek posts will evidently continue. My thesis director gave a delightful anecdote in class the other day, and I cannot help but post it.

In his Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney makes much of the fact that English gets its word for poet from the Greek (ποιητης), which is derived from the verb that means “make, do” (ποιεω). In a literal sense, poets are makers and doers.

For a literary scholar who also dabbles in theology, this is absolutely delightful.

Literally, then, when St. James tells us to be doers of the word rather than hearers only, he is commanding that we be poets of the word (ποιηται λογου). Don’t just be a hearer, he says; be a poet!

After all, we must remember, God himself is a poet. The Apostle’s Creed which Christians have been reciting for centuries declares in Greek, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, poet of heaven and earth” (ποιητην ουρανου και γης). Who could stand on a mountain or stroll through the forest without suspecting that the authors intended the double-meaning?

That alone validates spending a summer in an intensive course to study a dead language!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

To another lightning stroke

This is an old one, but it is pertinent again today.

For just a flash you winked your unformed eyes,
And, sideswiped by your miracle, we froze—
Receiving you like water from the skies
That baffles us the instant that it goes.
You slip between the fingers of the womb,
And we embrace the place you would have been
And decorate your nonexistent tomb
With our ex nihilo love from Eden’s pen.
And so my precious little lightning stroke
You leave just as you entered, I suppose:
With grace to fall asleep who never woke
And rise again who never once had rose.
So in your Easter death and unformed whole
I recognize my undeveloped soul.

Until Then

Monday afternoon I checked my email and saw that one of my old housemates had gone into labor. I sighed and began praying for her. We had known for months that her baby would not live long past delivery.

Just this past Christmas I watched as we welcomed my youngest nephew into our lives, and I was amazed at a world saturated with miracles. But when I went home on Monday and prayed for the little miracle of my friends’ son whose pieces had not come together tightly enough to give him a complete skull and some of his major organs, I felt the sobering tragedy of our brokenness. The little boy was a miracle that entered our lives like a lightning stroke and slipped away like sand between our fingers, and we were left to grieve the loss of someone we had never had.

Later while I was doing my evening prayers and somewhere in a hospital nearby my friends were celebrating the two hours they had with their son, I encountered an unfamiliar hymn in the prayer book.
Now fades all earthly splendor,
The shades of night descend;
The dying of the daylight
Foretells creation’s end.
Though noon gives place to sunset,
Yet dark gives place to light:
The promise of tomorrow
With dawn’s new hope is bright.

The silver notes of morning
Will greet the rising sun,
As once the Easter glory
Shone round the Risen One.
So will the night of dying
Give place to heaven’s day,
And hope of heaven’s vision,
Will light our pilgrim way.

So will the new creation
Rise from the old reborn
To splendor in Christ’s glory
And everlasting morn.
All darkness will be ended
As faith gives place to sight
Of Father, Son and Spirit,
One God, in heaven’s light.
Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning inwardly with the pains of childbirth in hope that it will be freed from its bondage to decay and brought to the glorious freedom of the children of God. I long for that day: the day the undeveloped miracle of that baby whom I never met is revealed in all his beauty, the day Benedict can have that cup of coffee with me in dignity, the day Russ’s crusty spirit can see clearly without being clouded by his racism or anti-Semitism or misogyny, the day we will no longer watch friends drown or get hit by cars or get shot or OD in despair, the day an offended father no longer needs to disregard the injustice committed against his daughter in order to forgive the offender, the day Church unity is no longer a mere scent in the air but the Kingdom we inhabit, the day we reflect on our struggles with loneliness and homosexuality and alcohol like old tales, the day the intercity kids whose papers I grade will no longer get shafted by corrupt government, the day God rewrites his own story the way my grandmother does, the day his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

Until then, Little One, goodnight.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Photo taken by Aimee Bickers of Pure Expressions Photography. Aimee is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit foundation that provides professional maternity and birth photos to parents who are losing a child.