Friday, January 29, 2010

We Are Six

--------A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
Three separate dear friends of mine from three separate times past gave birth to three separate beautiful baby girls in the past week. Life is beautiful.

And today is the fourth birthday of another friend’s baby girl who died a few months before her third birthday after a short life beset with inexplicable seizures and a shrinking brain. And here in this strange intersection of life and death, I am reminded to continue praying for my two other dear friends who lost newborn sons this past fall, one because he had inexplicably failed to form a skull during the early months in the womb, and the other because he inexplicably failed to keep on breathing in the early days of his seemingly healthy life outside it.

I could insert some well-known maxim here, something along the lines of the familiar “Life is short” or Tennyson’s “O life as futile, then, as frail!” or Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.” These are true of our experience, certainly of the experiences of those three grieving mothers.

But I wonder if these maxims are so often repeated because our spirit so thoroughly rejects them. If they are so true of our experience, true as obvious statements like “The sun is bright” or “The grass is green,” then why do we have to keep reminding ourselves of the shortness of life? If Macbeth was right that life is a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, why would we be so disturbed when my friend is given a full two hours (or two days, or two years) with her child?

Perhaps “the deeper magic,” to use Lewis’ lovingly weathered phrase, is that life is not a candle that can be extinguished. Perhaps my three friends are still grieving because the have been torn away from children who still exist. Perhaps (and pardon me if I’m being too erudite, too Platonic, or too Catholic here, especially for such a sensitive issue) love and life are parts of the same thing, as if life is the matter and love is the substance (or vice-versa?); and as the love exists no less in the grieving mother than in the celebrating one, perhaps we are assured that the life exists as strongly.

Perhaps I do not merely believe that the Church is a single body made up of the apostles and saints and my ancestors and my descendants because I learned it in a book or a sermon or a creed; perhaps my soul has always known it. As Christendom—Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike—affirm together that the soul is eternal and does not die when the body stops breathing, perhaps I do not believe it because I am brainwashed but because it is true. Whether we believe that we are anticipating a future reunion with our loved ones or that we can even speak to them now, we believe that we are mutually connected to a living unit of humanity that includes the not-yet-alive and the live and the even-more-alive.

Apart from that hope, I do not know how people can endure the severity of love. And to each of those six loving mothers out there, you are in my prayers.
"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid's reply,
"O Master! we are seven."

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

from “We Are Seven” by William Wordsworth

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bless me father for I have sinned

During my time in college, the American racial struggles that had always seemed truisms slowly and definitively began to change. As I shared laughter, tears, and bread with people of other races, racial violence was no longer merely wrong, a sin against humanity; it had become personal, a sin against my brothers.

One of those brothers grew closer to me during my sophomore year, and eventually my roommate pointed out that I saw more of Kyle in a given week than of her. Kyle and I had a tendency to find ourselves in the thick of conversations about theology, sociology, history, the church, and our purpose in the world, and when we had to pause the conversation for an inconvenience like class it was not unheard of for one of us to invite the other to join.

“Kyle,” I said one night as I kept him company on his midnight shift in the residence hall office, “you realize if we had lived two hundred years ago, we would never have been friends?”

Kyle nodded sadly. As a black man who spent significant portions of his week involved in a mostly-white campus organization, I suppose he was used to this fact that was somewhat jarring to nineteen-year-old me.

“What if I had enslaved you?” I asked him, something deeper than guilt stirring in my conscience. “Or even if I didn’t have slaves, what if I mistreated you when I saw you on the street, or didn’t even notice that you existed? I know there were plenty of abolitionists in the South and I like to think I would have been one, but there’s no way to know that about myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with slavery. Maybe I would have thought that was just the way the world worked. Maybe I would have enslaved you.”

It was deeper than guilt because I was struggling with sins that neither I nor my ancestors (at least half of whom were too busy starving to death on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time) had committed. I was struggling with the depravity that I knew was within me, waiting for opportune times to emerge. If those opportune times never came, the depravity would be just as present.

And rather than brush off my sins on the mere technicality that I hadn’t committed them or suggesting ways to ensure the monster inside me could never emerge, Kyle’s response shocked me, enough that I still remember it seven years later.

“Yeah,” the mused humbly, “I wonder about the same thing. If I had been given the chance to be a house slave, would I have taken it and looked down on my brothers sweating in the field?”

Momentarily, I was jarred as if Kyle had responded to my confession by changing the subject, ironically prefacing the subject-change by calling it “the same thing.” It was almost laughably comic: I had made a heart-felt confession that I might have oppressed him, and he echoed my confession by saying that, had he been oppressed, he might have accepted a lighter load. These were in no way congruous.

But slightly older than me and much more familiar with this kind of depravity that I was encountering as if it were foreign territory, Kyle had the grace to see the monsters living in his chest as the same monsters in the hypothetical oppressors. Rather than forgiving my depravity, he empathized with it.

He stumbled simply and casually upon a profound truth, like one who kicks a stone and finds oil pouring out of the ground. Not only did he manage to treat depravity as no less depraved for its being common, but he treated the common sin of humanity no less universal (and thus no more startling) for its being depraved.

Beyond that, I wonder if in his empathy he stumbled on the nature of Christ. While Christ may not have shared our depravity, he shared our frailty (perhaps different forms of the same thing, or at least near cousins?), and the author of Hebrews spends a lot of ink on the point that Christ is the Great High Priest because he sympathizes with our weakness, our temptations, our tears, and our unanswered prayers.

I wonder if Christ hears my confessions of frailty and depravity, actual or potential, and responds as Kyle had: “Yeah, I felt the same thing...”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fingerprints of God

The week that thousands were dying in Haiti from a catastrophic earthquake, my dear friend Seamus in Ireland very nearly died from a weather-related freak accident. In an unusually harsh Irish winter, Seamus was riding into town with his parents when a tree, roots weakened by the severe frost, fell directly on their vehicle and destroyed it. “At the extremest end of statistical unlikelihood,” Seamus called the situation. His crouch-instinct saved his life; the tree crushed past the headrest in the back seat where he was sitting. In the end, Seamus and his parents emerged from the pulverized vehicle without a scratch. “I’ve cut myself worse shaving,” he told me.

Unbeknownst to the three hapless passengers, Seamus’ devout grandmother had awoken at 6am afraid for her son’s life, and spent the next hour praying for him. The tree fell at 6:45.

It’s a bizarre situation that seems to have the intervention of God written all over it, but as I’ve mulled over it in the past week it strikes me that I cannot isolate specific locations for his fingerprints. Does God knock trees down on people to demonstrate his power and protection (by far the most uncanny part of the whole story)? Does God take the initiative to wake old women in order to answer their prayers, as if he could do the former unprompted but required prompting for the latter? Does God simply manufacture the physics of the world such that the tree did not crush the family (reverse entropy yet again?), so that the climax of the story is the most explainable, and the most joyous miracle can be accepted by a Deist?

I do not know. Nor exactly did I know how to pinpoint God’s intervention when my college friend hit a patch of ice in the mountains and found herself upside-down in a freezing river trapped in her seatbelt. Nor when an enormous tree fell where my little brother was playing in our childhood, scratching his arm as it came down. Nor when a car hit my housemate on her bike, or me on foot. Nor can I make sense of it when there seems to be no intervention, and friends get shot or hit by cars or drown.

Perhaps we meet God like any other person, not like a scientific phenomenon that we can test and analyze. Just as I cannot objectively qualify the actions of a friend, determining which are fueled by love and which by self-interest, but can nevertheless assert over time that I know my friend, perhaps in time we can come to know our God who is loving and powerful as we become familiar with the way he runs his world.

I do not know how to qualify God’s actions; all I know is what they say about him. And they seem to say that he is a God near enough for me to love.
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.
Job 33:13-14

Monday, January 18, 2010

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Just a small blurb for the sake of shameless advertising, which I normally don't do on this blog, and I promise not to begin with any frequency: today begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that happens every year January 18 through 25. Fittingly, this year it happens to begin on Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, where our racial history shows the tragic scandal of Church division most poignantly. If you are unfamiliar with this week of prayer or with the ecumenism movement as a whole, feel free to read up on it on the website for the World Council of Churches. In addition to the history of the WCC, you can find a brochure with daily readings to take you through this year's theme: "You are witnesses of these things."
During the 2010 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we are invited to follow the whole of chapter 24 of Luke's gospel. Whether it be the terrified women at the tomb, the two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus or the eleven disciples overtaken by doubt and fear, all who together encounter the Risen Christ are sent on mission: “You are witness of these things”. This mission of the Church is given by Christ and cannot be appropriated by anyone. It is the community of those who have been reconciled with God and in God, and who can witness to the truth of the power of salvation in Jesus Christ.

We sense that Mary Magdalene, Peter or the two Emmaus disciples will not witness in the same way. Yet it will be the victory of Jesus over death that all will place at the heart of their witness. The personal encounter with the risen One has radically changed their lives and in its uniqueness for each one of them one thing becomes imperative: “You are witnesses of these things.” Their story will accentuate different things, sometimes dissent may arise between them about what faithfulness to Christ requires, and yet all will work to announce the Good News.
Whether or not you can get take the time to follow all the readings, consider yourself invited to spend the next week praying with Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Churches around the world for Church unity.


I once promised that esoteric Greek posts would cease as soon as Greek boot camp ended in August, but I’ve already broken that promise several times. Now I break it again.

I stumbled on the word χαρα today in Philippians a verse or two after I had correctly identified the word χαρις as being “Grace” (non-readers of Greek, all you need to notice is that the words are identical at the beginning; Greek words change their endings depending on how they are used in sentences). I assumed it was a different form of the same word, and tried unsuccessfully to connect the words on any declension charts I could remember. Of course I was wrong, but only slightly: I was wrong because they are indeed different words, but only slightly wrong because they are etymologically related.

χαρα is the Greek word for “joy” or “delight,” and is related to χαρις, the Greek word for “grace.” Literally then, you could say that Grace, one of the most fundamental words to the Christian vocabulary, simply means joy-maker or delightfulness; in other pre-Christian contexts, it is often translated “sweetness.” This strikes me as quite different from the understanding of Grace I tend to have as being an abstract ideal involved in the cosmic matters of salvation. Somehow, the understanding of “sweetness” or “joy-makers” feels a bit more tangible and much warmer, and I wonder what it would do to my theology.

“Joy-makers to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”?
“It is by sweetness you are saved through faith”?

That amazing sunrise I saw on Saturday morning that brought me so much delight was a grace. That surprise meeting of an old friend, that bowl of Mom’s fantastic barley soup, that Sunday evening thunderstorm, that afternoon of throwing rocks on an icy pond with my nephews... these were all graces. The cosmic matters of salvation and the morning cup of hot tea are connected, and God’s grandiose dealings with humanity and his provision of a Sunday afternoon nap are part of the same motion.

It is by graces that we are saved.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Holy Innocents

I spent yesterday evening with my sister-in-law, receiving somber updates about her cousin who flew into Haiti on Tuesday 20 minutes before the earthquake hit. Sobered by the details as he sleeps in cornfields with the orphan girls he went to serve with little food or water and the looming threat of rampant disease as bodies decay, I was in no mood to receive a call from my old KKK friend Russ this morning on my way home from a mass offered for the victims of the tragedy. I should not have answered the phone. While his editorial is not worth repeating, it somehow connected the brokenness of the shattered country to the brokenness of our sinful hearts, the decay of death in the ravaged country to the decay of bitterness in our ravaged spirits. I pray for Haiti. I pray for my cousin-in-law. I pray for Russ.
We seek the living here among the dead,
But may we find you.
Where we discover our decay instead
And cannot find you,
Then be at least the cold that slows disease
And slithers through the shelter of debris.

I heard that Herod made a careful search
And could not find you;
But in the blood of Innocents the Church
Still strains to find you.
Be never as elusive as before
And more tenacious than the shattered floor.

We asked you for a king, but found his fist—
Now may we find you—
For life, but found a Cross behind the mist—
There may we find you.
And to the slave-girl when the dust is clear
Unveil your presence that was always near.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Albert Einstein* once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler,” and, trusting girl that I am, I believed him. After all, there is quite a beauty in the simplicity of the profound laws that govern the universe, in the seemingly dissimilar properties of autumn leaves and planetary rotation that are both dictated by the “simple” law of gravity.

But somewhere along the way, while trying to understand the “simple” laws of salvation (I think the one word that was supposed to answer every question and sum up the laws of the Universe was always “Jesus”), I confused simplicity for scarcity. Scarcity seemed to govern the economy of salvation, as if God wanted to figure out how he could efficiently save the greatest number of people with the least effort, and sending his only begotten son to suffer and die seemed to be the best (because it was the only) way to do it.

But as Robinson Jeffers once asked (in a poem I’ve quoted here before), “Is it not by his high superfluousness we know / Our God?” What if the Cross is better understood as extravagance, rather than the last-ditch effort to save the sinking ship of humanity? What if Grace is not the abstract Platonic ideal that saves us from hell, but the lavish graces God gets a kick out of pouring on us? What if the economy of salvation is governed by the excesses of God?

The Catholic Church believes that Mary is the Mediatrix of all Graces (not Grace, interestingly, but Graces), and additionally has quite a legion of mediators in all the saints. I always thought this seemed a bit over-the-top, considering the extent to which the book of Hebrews goes in presenting Christ as the Great High Priest and the Mediator of the New Covenant.

But even without the Catholic troupe of mediators, it strikes me that scripture is not so stingy with its graces: it can assert confidently in one place that Christ himself intercedes for us before the Father and console us in another that the Holy Spirit is interceding for us in our weakness. Actually, it dawns on me that in the simple, stripped-down version of the Gospel that I always assumed was desirable, the Holy Spirit is entirely superfluous; all we need is a God to create us and his Son to die for us (the Resurrection is also superfluous if all we needed was someone to pay the price for our sins so we can go to heaven when we die). Issues of Mary and the saints aside, it seems that there are graces aplenty.

Maybe Einstein is still right out there somewhere, but maybe we tend to make things quite a bit more simple than possible. Maybe the governing laws of salvation are much more lavish than I had ever imagined, and maybe the one answer brings together many more questions than I had been prepared to ask.

*As quoted by internet quotation databases, always a precarious source.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism of the Lord

Today is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany. We ponder the mystery of Christ entering the baptismal waters, of the master asking the blessing of the servant, of the healer kneeling in the waters of healing, of the Creator invoking the blessing of creation. He has honored the world he enters by his humility, and leaves a trail of healing in his footsteps for us to follow.
The soldier baptizes his King, the servant his Lord, John his Savior; the waters of the Jordan tremble, a dove hovers as a sign of witness, and the voice of the Father is heard: This is my Son.

Springs of water were made holy as Christ revealed his glory to the world. Draw water from the fountain of the Savior, for Christ our God has hallowed all creation.

Christ is baptized, the world is made holy; he has taken away our sins. We shall be purified by water and the holy spirit.

-from The Daily Office

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the day we celebrate the Magi's visit to the Holy Family, which symbolizes (and, in typical sacramental fashion, symbolizes because it actually enacts) the extension of the Gospel to the nations at large, the Messiah who has come to deliver Jew and Gentile alike, the Peace who has torn down the dividing wall of hostility and in one body has reconciled them both to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility. Happy feast day!

From the Daily Office:
Father of light, unchanging God,
today you reveal to men of faith
the resplendent fact of the Word made flesh.
Your light is strong,
your love is near;
draw us beyond the limit which this world imposes,
to the life where your Spirit makes all life complete.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Friday, January 1, 2010


I initially began writing a blog two and a half years ago as a spiritual discipline. It had come to my attention that, in my often self-absorbed obstinacy, I was not good at listening. I decided (a bit ironically, I knew) to start a blog to keep me in the posture of listening. Unlike in my volumes of journals from which I took a one-year sabbatical, ranting and soap boxes and pontifications would be banned in these writings; this blog would be a place to listen.

This Christmas as my family navigates a sticky situation with my nearly-blind 87-year-old grandmother, I realize a value in keeping records of what one hears. I wrote about Gramma around this time last year after a strange wisp of redemption gave me a surprising glimmer of hope. I had realized that my somewhat melodramatic grandmother, who never admits to being wrong but rather occasionally re-writes history, had begun to flavor her tales more sweetly, and for a strange moment I thought I smelled something akin to healing.

A year later as my parents prepare to take her in for a few days to give my aunt’s family a breather in days when Gramma attacks those whom she needs and manipulates those who love her, I need to remember what I had heard. In a strange way then, this blog has become a monument.

The Jews celebrate Passover to remind them of a God who delivers them from bondage. The Christians celebrate Christmas to remind them of the Messiah who enters our brokenness. The Church celebrates seasons of the year to take our part in the epic story of God’s dealings with humanity into which we have come somewhere in the middle. Our liturgies center around sacraments in which we encounter Grace anew. In all these ways, we remember that the story is bigger than the isolated place where we are today, that my grandmother’s life has a redemption that has begun before and will be completed later, that God still touches our broken places.

May we never forget.

I just linked the post about my grandmother on Elizabeth Esther’s Saturday Evening Blog Post, where she is inviting bloggers to post their best post of 2009. Hop over to her site if you’d enjoy reading other favorite posts of the year we have just completed, and blessings on your new year!