Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Here are my mother and brothers!"

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

A Dominican friend of mine once explained the fascination with the Virgin Mary to me this way, which made sense even to a Protestant who grew up with sola scriptura on her tongue:

“What is it that makes a saint, Em? What makes a person truly holy?”

I pondered for a minute, knowing to avoid an answer that had anything to do with holy actions, as if the fruit of a holy life were the cause of the holiness. Faith could have been a viable answer, but it seemed a bit vague and would cry for further description, and I knew that I Corinthians 13 had declared another virtue superior even to faith.

“Love,” I finally concluded. “Love of Christ is what makes us holy.”

“Absolutely,” he answered. “And assuming that some of us grow further in love for Christ than others, who do you think loved Christ the most?”

When he put it that way, the answer was obvious. I love my nephews something fierce, but I know my sister-in-law’s love for them trumps mine from the beginning; I love my mother something fierce, but I know her love for me trumps that as well. And it was with that love, the intimate love of a mother that finds its object within her, that Mary loved Christ.

The rest of us are learning to love, some more quickly than others, some more purely than others. My own growth in love is often severely neglected, taking a back seat to other more pressing demands of teaching and research and homeownership and social demands, and now Advent has come and gone almost unnoticed in the bustle of my superficially significant pursuits.

Yet like the baby in Mary’s womb, Christ has been present all along, present within me and bursting out into the world around me. Maybe what is so fascinating about Mary is not what is unique to her—that she carried the physical body of Christ growing within her own body—but the mysterious sense in which she is an archetype of what is happening to all of us (though in our case, in a much less obtrusive, more ignorable way). Mary could not ignore him like I have over the past few months, yet even in my case he is present, spiritually and (sacramental theology would insist) physically.

There is grace to me in that reminder, grace to remember that, whether or not I have been aware of it, Christ has come within me and without me. My own journey of holiness will be a process of learning how to love the Christ who is already there.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Unless the Lord builds the house

Today we read the great twist in the story of Advent, the great wrinkle as we have been preparing the way for the Lord. David wants to build God a house of cedar, and God comes back to him and says:

“Who are you to build me a house? I built you a house. Look around you at your palace, David: I built this for you when you had been living in the fields with your sheep.”

It is God who builds houses, it is God who chooses the place of his dwelling, not David. David thinks he can make a place for God’s dwelling, but all along God had been building one for David.

Moreover, God does not stop at building David’s palace that can be destroyed a couple generations later when the nation is divided, or a dozen generations later when the Babylonians destroy the city. God responds to David’s well-intended desire to build him a house by saying:

“Furthermore, not only have I already placed you in the very house in which you are living, but I will build you a house that will not fall. From your body, not your cedar, I will build your house, my house, that will never be destroyed.”

From David’s home in the fields, God built him a palace. From David’s loins, God built Solomon. From David’s son Solomon, God built a temple. From David’s children, God built a dynasty. From David’s daughter Mary, God built his Son.

And as we begin the fourth week of Advent, having spent three weeks responding (such as we have) to the call to prepare the way for the Lord, we realize that it is God who has been preparing places. God prepared the way for himself, not in a house of cedar, not even in a tent, but in a womb. God prepared the house for his dwelling within his people, within a woman, within me.

I take comfort in that, as I know my preparations for his coming this year have been no better than that of the people of Bethlehem, as I know I have no palace nor even a tent to give him, as I know my own sleep-deprived, mal-fed body has been too absorbed in exams to prepare a place for him to enter, as I know my own soul is not even a tent but a dirty stable: God has prepared a place for himself despite me and my weariness, without me and my ambitions, within me and my dirtiness.

Advent calls us to prepare, yet we are preparing for the one who has already built his home as he had already built David’s palace, as he has already entered Mary’s body, as he has already entered our own in the Eucharist.

And now, humbled by so subtle a builder, we can only wait.

Friday, November 25, 2011

There be dogs

There’s a house on my regular walking route with a chain-link fence that contains several dogs whose sole purpose in life seems to be to alert the world to the existence of any passersby. I have long since given up being annoyed at them. They’re just dogs, after all.

Their owner, on the other hand, I find to be unbearably annoying. An otherwise nice old lady, albeit a bit eccentric with her dozen animals and cluttered yard and eagerness to chat your ear off about as much as you’re willing to listen to, she has a frustrating impression that she can get her dogs to stop barking by yelling at them. Were this true, I might not mind so much. Yet as it is, with her dogs to alert her of my presence, she comes running to the sidewalk to chat with me whenever I pass by, yelling at her dogs to shut up every couple seconds while she has me stuck there, even telling me to wait there while she goes to the fence to yell at them from at a closer distance. The dogs, of course, never respond.

There be dogs inside my head, as impossible to silence as these lady’s backyard barkers. I never noticed how incessant they are until a friend started a weekly contemplative prayer group in one of the chapels on campus.

“This is not a time to articulate prayers or come to deeper understandings,” he explained. “The monastic tradition holds that God is beyond understanding, and we find him past ‘the cloud of unknowing.’ This is a time to learn the posture of waiting before him, listening, receiving.”

As an academic who spends my day accumulating and interpreting information, I find silence to be a harder a discipline than any I have tried.

“Inevitably, you’ll find yourself thinking,” my friend went on. “Don’t be upset at yourself for doing so; just gently push the thoughts away and return to silence. Sometimes it helps to have a particular word like ‘love’ or ‘Jesus’ to say to push the thoughts away, but don’t meditate on those words; try to quiet yourself before the Lord.”

In these weekly gatherings, I find my attempts to silence my mind to be about as fruitless as the lady’s attempts to silence her dogs, my silencing words about as ineffective as her yells.

The contemplatives call us to let “your thought of self be as naked and simple as your thought of God, so that you may be with God in spirit without fragmentation and scattering of your mind.” My mind is fragmented and scattered indeed, but there is a longing in me to be whole, to be unfragmented, to be listening, to be in his presence without the constraints of my own understanding. One day, I might learn to be silent long enough to begin that journey.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

However long it takes

Over the summer, the small African-American parish I attend near my home had their annual youth vs. adults Father’s Day flag football game. The event was a fundraiser for the youth group and a generally fun time for all.

They had been preparing for months and, when the day came, it was cloudy and drizzly. As one would expect, the priest prayed in mass that morning that the rain would stop for the game, and I returned home rather dubious.

Yet in an hour when I drove to campus for the game, the sun was out, the grass was nearly dry, and the temperature had gone up to the upper 80s.

“We couldn’t have asked for better weather,” I commented to Deacon Alvin.

“Well, of course,” he said with a joyful laugh. “We did pray about it, after all!”

I was startled for a couple seconds, remembering how I had brushed the prayers off earlier that morning. “Funny how we prayer for things and are surprised when they actually happen,” I mused mostly to myself.

Deacon Alvin stopped in his tracks. “Oh, don’t be surprised,” he insisted. “You gotta believe that God is listening to our prayers.”

But truth be told I was surprised, and more inclined to interpret our amazing Father’s Day weather to Mother Nature’s finicky Midwestern temperament than to the intervention of God in response to the prayers of a little urban parish. I had lived in too many farming communities that had prayed for rain in times of drought to imagine that controlling the weather was as easy as asking God, even in times when people’s livelihoods were on the line. I had prayed for homeless friends or urban teenagers who later ended up in prison or back on the streets. If we want to insist that prayers are efficacious, I’d have to do some mental gymnastics to come up with how they could be.

So months later when it was not for good Sunday afternoon weather but for a friend’s safety from a murderous ex-boyfriend that I was praying for, I found myself with as little faith that my prayers were being heard than I had had back in June.

“We pray for so many things that don’t happen,” I cried to Deacon Alvin. “I feel like when I pray, ‘God, please may my friend not get murdered,’ I need those to be the prayers he hears.”

“He will,” Deacon Alvin assured me, with the same confidence that he had about the weather back in June. “You gotta have faith that the God who is hearing your prayers is a loving God who cares about your friend.”

Flashbacks of seemingly unanswered prayers crowded into my memory. “What if I can’t make myself believe that?” I asked with trembling voice.

“Then pray. Keep praying until you do believe, however long it takes.”

I wish I could end this post with a strong note of confidence in a God who is lovingly hearing and acting upon our prayers, especially the seemingly unanswered ones. I have to admit I still struggle to imagine God is acting in the places I have seen raw evil more obviously at work. In the mean time, all I can do is continue to pray “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” until the first part is true, to prepare the places for faith and entreat God to enter. As Deacon Alvin told me, all I can do is to keep praying until I do believe.

However long it takes...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Prayer of Padre Pio

Stay with me, Lord, for it is necessary to have You present so that I do not forget You. You know how easily I abandon You.

Stay with me, Lord, because I am weak and I need Your strength, that I may not fall so often.

Stay with me, Lord, for You are my life and without You I am without fervor.

Stay with me, Lord, for You are my light and without You I am in darkness.

Stay with me, Lord, to show me Your will.

Stay with me, Lord, so that I hear Your voice and follow You.

Stay with me, Lord, for I desire to love You very much and alway be in Your company.

Stay with me, Lord, if You wish me to be faithful to You.

Stay with me, Lord, as poor as my soul is I want it to be a place of consolation for You, a nest of Love.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Denominational lenses

Since I seem to be doing a bad job contributing to the blogosphere this semester, I thought I'd at least pass along a delightful chart that I have seen circulating it. As someone who has walked among people in each of these camps, I find it delightfully accurate.

Almighty and merciful God, you willed that the different nations should become one people through your Son. Grant in your kindness that those, who glory in being known as Christians, may put aside their differences and become one in truth and charity, and that all men, enlightened by the true faith, may be united in fraternal communion in the one Church. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I had a dream

A little over ten years ago, as I was preparing to go to college, I had a dream. In this dream I was given an unjust traffic ticket (by an officer who was played by David Spade, for some reason), and managed to go to court and get it thrown out. Officer Spade, who had never lost a case before, was quite enraged because the whole situation made him look bad and made him lose his perfect record, but justice was served.

Then in this dream, I was visiting local churches in my beginning weeks of college, trying to find a community of believers where I could be at home. I settled on a vibrant little church with an active college group, but soon ran into a serious problem: Officer Spade was also an active member of the group, and he refused so much as to look at me.

Apparently, in my dream, this went on for some time, and it soon became clear that the tension was getting unbearable for me. I would never be at home in the church if there was no peace. Finally, perhaps during a Sunday school discussion when we were all sitting in a circle, I got out of my chair and got down on my knees before Officer Spade, who kept his face turned away from me.

“David,” I said, “I know you’re hurt, and I’m sorry. I wish there was anything I could do to make it up to you, but I know I can’t. All I can do is beg you to forgive me. I was wrong [a lie, interestingly], and I am greatly sorry.”

From where I knelt in tears, I heard Officer Spade say my name, and I looked up to see him standing up and extending his arm out to me. I stood up and met his embrace, and the hug that the dream ended with made me feel happy for hours the next morning when I awoke.

Justice was not served in the dream, but peace was. As a young, idealistic eighteen-year-old, I decided peace was enough. God was in the justice department; he had called us to be a people of peace.

A month later, of course, “justice” and “peace” became rival buzz-words in the political chaos that erupted three weeks into my freshman year of college, ten years ago today. The world seemed to go mad in these first ten years of my adult life (maybe it always was), and I found myself unable to think clearly in the no-man’s-land between all the entrenched armies I was fluttering between: the small Southern town where I was from and Paris, France where my family moved, the evangelical Christian organization I was a part of and the African American political organization I joined, the intelligentsia in my classes and the homeless folks I met on the street. Justice and peace became equally unreachable ideals.

But today, ten years later, I remembered that dream this morning. There’s still a young idealist buried in me somewhere who wants to believe that it is still possible to be a people of peace, even when justice is unclear.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


This, ladies and gentlemen, is my first sestina. My apologies if it's a bit abstruse... the form took over, and I could only try to keep up with it.

The Summer breathes in rain and limestone crumbs
And nestles in the nettles for a rest
Beneath wool blankets of her heavy peace.
I sought her once, but found my eyes were blind
And feet too young to tread her ancient stones,
The incarnations of the stuff of Time.

But Summer’s chief possession is her time,
The time it takes for sprouts to grow from crumbs
Or walls to churn the weight of their own stones.
So in the pilgrimage that she calls “rest”
I rubbed my muddy eyes that lingered blind
And let her redefine the Irish “peace.”

And on the way I met a man, a piece
Of tender paper passing like the time
Between his brittle fingers with his blind
Routine of ritual tobacco crumbs.
He grinned a “Tóg go bóg é”—take a rest—
And perched to smoke his sculpture on the stones.

And as a child I might have cast some stones
Or at the least recited off a piece
Of dime-store jargon hoarded with the rest
Of my resourcefulness I lost in time.
Yet now I sat a spell to cull his crumbs,
Just old enough at least to know I’m blind.

For if there’s grace enough to heal the blind,
It tumbles down like execution stones
Beneath the slab where dogs can gather crumbs.
And on the coast of Inis Oírr there’s Peace
That soaks the rain of Irish summer-time
And trembles in the wind just like the rest

Of us. And we who take the yoke of rest
And find that mud and spittle leave us blind
May learn to see trees walking over time
(If trees could grow in Cheathrú Rua stones),
Or pass the sacramental sign of Peace
As if the dust were Eucharistic crumbs.

For here time passes like the pilgrim’s rest
And falls like sandwich crumbs that tumble blind
On stones that catch as many grains of peace.

Caoineadh Phádraig Shéamais

The story is told of a father and son in a small village outside of Galway who were crossing a channel late at night to get barley to make poitín, Irish moonshine. When they loaded the small boat and prepared to return home, a storm started to gather and they decided that the boat, laden with the barley, would not make it to the other side with both passengers. The father told the son to cross in the boat and walked several miles alone to a place he could walk across. When he reached the place the boat would have landed, he saw neither son or boat. The next day they found the shattered pieces of the boat and the dead body of his son.

For the next week as his wife and daughter sang keenings over the body of the young man, the father was entirely silent, eating nothing and talking to no one. His friends and family worried that he would follow his son to the grave in sorrow, but they could do nothing to ease his pain. Then one day as the daughter was walking by the river, she heard her father singing this song:
An chéad Mháirt de fhomhar ba bhrónach turseach mo scéal.
Lámh thapa a bhí cróga ag gabháil romham ar leaba na n-éag.
Ar charraig na nDeor is dó gur chaill mé mo radharc
Is go dté mé faoi fhód is ní thógfad m’aigne i do dhéidh.

Tá do mháthair is Niall faoi chian ‘s is fada leo an lá.
D’fhág tú osna ina gcliabh nach leigheasann dochtúir nó lia.
Ar sholáthair mé riamh is bíodh sé ‘lig cruinn i mo láimh,
go dtabharfainn é uaim ach fuascledh—Paidí bheith slán.

The first Tuesday of September sad and sorrowful was my plight:
The brave able hand going before me to the bed of death

On the Rock of Tears I lost my sight.
Till I go to my grave I’ll not lift my spirit after you.

Your mother and Niall are sorrowing and the day is long for them.

You left them a heavy heart that no doctor or physician can cure.

All that I ever earned, were it all gathered in my hand,

I would give it in ransom—that Paddy be safe.*
Never having heard her father sing before, the girl worried that his grief was driving him further from his sanity. She went to a friend of his and related the tale.

“Oh, don’t you worry,” the old man assured the girl. “If he’s singing, he’ll get better.” The father’s song, painful and agonizing though it might have been, was a sign of life in him, evidence of healing.

“When I heard that story,” the Irishman told me, “the pain of the father was so fresh in the words that I assumed it was a recent incident. I asked the storyteller if he had known Pádraig Shéamais or his father. The man shook his head, and I later learned that the incident had happened in 1811.”

*Text and translation by Breandán Ó Madagáin, author of Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile: Keening and other Old Irish Musics

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Notes from the Gaeltacht

If anyone has been wondering about the recent lack of posts, be aware that I’ve been in the middle of another summer language course, again in Ireland, this time for a living language that actually makes sense to study here: Irish. Oh yeah.

When my brain settles down a bit I might write something more interesting. For now I’ll just throw out some brief anecdotes from the Gaeltacht:

The Irish for “I’m sorry” is Tá brón orm, which literally translates as “There is sadness upon me.” I find it a lovely image.

The Irish for “Hello” is Dia dhuit, which means “God be with you.” As the Irish never like to be shown up in anything, even a greeting, the proper response is Dia ‘s Muire dhuit, “God and Mary be with you.” If more greetings are required afterwards, it continues Dia ‘s Muire dhuit is Pádraig, Dia ‘s Muire dhuit is Pádraig is Bríd, and Dia ‘s Muire dhuit is Pádraig is Bríd is Colmcille. I’m not sure what you do after using up the major Irish saints.

As the weather is generally terrible (a dhiabhail! – “Oh the devil!), one cannot comment on the rare beautiful day without inserting a buíochas le Dia! (“Thanks be to God!”) for good measure to avoid jinxing it. I imagine this involves a good healthy combination of devotion, superstition, and thoughtless convention, but it’s fun for a stranger to the language for sure.

A person with dark hair (like me) is called a dubh (“black”) person. To describe a person of African ancestry, on the other hand, they would use the word gorm (“blue”). Having always found the terms “black,” “white,” “red,” and “yellow” to describe skin color to be a bit ludicrous, I find this extremity almost delightful.

And, most illuminating for my fourth summer in Ireland, the Irish language does not have the words “yes” or “no.” The general rule seems to be: Ask a simple question, get a long-winded response. This also seems to explain the almost universal difficulty the Irish seem to have for committing to or refusing anything.

That’s all for tonight, but until next time always remember, Is minic a gheibhean beal oscailt diog dunta! (“An open mouth often catches a closed fist!”), a good reminder for people of any culture!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Eyes of Redemption

Right before I went out of town last week, a year into home-ownership, I got a hefty check in the mail from my mortgage company, along with an explanation that my mortgage was going down a considerable amount due to a correction in their prior over-estimation of my property value. According to the state, it seems, I live in a rather worthless area of a rather worthless city. It was a striking assessment because, a year into home-ownership, I still find myself quite charmed with the neighborhood.

“I think you have a rather idealized image of the neighborhood,” one of my more disillusioned friends once suggested. I didn’t argue. All is reasons for disillusionment (e.g. here and here) seemed equally valid as mine for fondness (e.g. here and here), and I didn’t feel that I had the right to assert my optimism over his pessimism.

I also didn’t argue because I’ve been told that with regard to another little city in Ireland many times before by various less enchanted friends. Three years after my first visit to Cork, I returned this past weekend for my fourth summer visit, and the residents cannot believe I would willingly spend so many vacations here. I seem to have a history of falling in love with odd places.

I don’t want to discredit the suggestion that I may over-idealize certain places, but it may be that (ideally, at least) the Christian does so in general, not because he is delusional but because he sees the world through eyes of redemption. Perhaps there is a way that my neighborhood can be seen in the light of the original goodness of creation and the hope of the New Creation that has begun already and will be completed in the future Resurrection. Perhaps in that light the robberies and drugs and even the gunshots cannot dampen its beauty.

Either way, I returned to Cork last week with a smile on my face, and I’m sure I’ll return to my neighborhood in five weeks time similarly smiling. If these be eyes of redemption, the world sure looks lovely through them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Flow gently, stream where heroes gathered stones
And I a rock or two to throw; for there
Be giants in my soul, and I have thrown
The first of many stones and stumbled where
The saints once fell as Saul looked on and smiled.
For waters cure the cripple, spittle eyes,
Yet I have stumbled on the very wild
Stones I threw, blind after seven tries.

So flow from hidden springs I cannot see
And wash the mud or scales that still remain,
And if I don't have faith enough to part the sea
With budding rods, then be at least my cane.
For you provided blindness to the ones
Who otherwise would cast a thousand stones.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Et tu, Brute?

One of the great advantages to being a single person living alone is that you get to feel like a mostly good person. It’s great: when your only interactions with other human beings are by your own volition in the times you’re feeling most on your game, it’s quite easy to be generous, friendly, and hospitable. The single life is a fantastic nurturer of oblivious pride and almost inevitable self-centeredness, and you can look like a saint in the midst of it. It’s quite the ego-trip, let me tell ya!

Married people, on the other hand, have to work their schedules and desires around another person, and their selfishness is bound to bump into the selfishness of the other person. By the time kids come around, there is no longer the faintest vestige of that rather appealing facade that the single person takes for granted. As a loving aunt, I remember holding my infant nephew in my arms as he wailed with colic, and I found myself filled with an inexplicable urge to throw the miserable baby across the room. It’s amazing what other people’s needs bring out in generally amiable people. Seriously—parents never cease to amaze me!

But recently, due to a hapless whim of generosity a couple months ago, I have been finding my single-person facade begin to crumble from beneath me.

It all started on a(n unseasonably warm) Sunday in April when I sat on my porch to enjoy some Sabbath rest in the midst of crunch time. A chorus of neighborhood girls on the porch next door were singing a gospel song and choreographing a rather involved dance to go along with it. I rocked on my rocking chair and enjoyed the sunshine and song, smiling at them whenever they looked my way, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had a package of Oreos in the kitchen that someone had left at my house. Never a fan of Oreos, I decided to offer them to the girls in appreciation for the performance.

I was swarmed by vultures as soon as I did. The five girls shouted into the house and a veritable army of (about ten) children emerged. I allowed them each two cookies, and returned to my house feeling generous.

What I had not planned on was the inevitable change in my relationship with my neighbors that came as a result. I went from the nameless lady next-door to a vending machine, and when any of the children saw me outside from that point forward (and with ten children in the small house, several are always outside), my presence would never again go unnoticed. Eventually I gave them all my Oreos. Then I came up with a few boxes of granola bars I had bought on sale but didn’t like. Then as the attention continued and I neglected to refill my pantry, I had to start getting more creative. I made Chinese tea for them, cringing as the squirmy kids precariously handled my fragile pottery. I invited them inside to make brownies or popcorn. I got out my colored pencils and let them draw. I let them “help” me mow the lawn and weed the garden. And sometimes, my hospitality quotient waning, I merely let them jump around on my porch while I tried to continue reading.

One evening last week, contentedly finished with my Greek homework, I made some couscous and put it over a bed of salad greens, contemplating taking my dinner out to the porch to eat. When I heard the shouts of rambunctious children on three sides of the house, I thought better of it and decided to eat inside. But before I could sit down, the voices unmistakably congregated on my porch, and right as I was deciding to pretend they weren’t there, the doorbell rang.

I identified the ring-leader as a girl who lives around the block whom I had met the day before via the kids next-door. She was distinctive in my memory because she was always filthy—filthy like a country girl, almost caked in mud. I also remembered her because she had tried to keep the neighbor girls from telling me that she hadn’t had dinner because her mom was too drunk to cook. This evening four equally filthy children were with her, and I was not in the mood to be compassionate.

“Can they see your house too?” the dirty girl asked with hardly any greeting.

“No, not right now,” I tried to say in a friendly voice. “I’m just about to eat dinner.”

“Oh, well, we haven’t had any dinner. Is there anything we could have?”

“No, I don’t have much of anything.” It was close to the truth, unless they wanted the last of my salad and couscous that I was trying to stretch for another week.

“Do you have any other snacks?”

“No, I haven’t been to the grocery store, and I don’t keep many snacks on me normally.”

“Can we have some tea?” She was clearly getting desperate, and there was no way I could claim to be out of tea. But I was not in the mood to referee another tea party with my fragile Chinese pottery, so I turned her down again.

“Can we sit here and have you read to us? Can you play some Irish music?”

In my college years I used to fanaticize living in the intercity with children gathered around me, reading and drawing and cooking and playing music. But that evening, with the muddy children gathered on my porch and my dinner getting cold on the table, with the next day’s homework entirely finished and with no other looming projects, I turned them down. I could not pretend not to have tea or books or Irish music or time. This time, it was generosity that had become depleted from my shelves.

The image of the children peering through my porch windows as I began my dinner until I closed the blinds haunts me. The kids next-door have provided many opportunities in the proceeding days for me to exercise my weakened muscles of hospitality, but the dirty kids from around the block have not returned. I hope I get that chance to read to them on the porch one day, but in the mean time the memory haunts me.

Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, you have my undying respect, as I slowly learn the humility that you can’t sneak your way around. Ironically, hospitality is one of the best teachers of ones own selfishness, and I too am selfish. Here’s to the hope of redemption, redemption that requires the gift of humility to begin.

Friday, June 24, 2011

El Roi - the God who sees me

I sought thee as the magi sought the star—
Be found by me—
For heaven is so high and earth too far
For ants like me.
But in these pebbles where I often crawl
I smell the crumbs of children. Let them fall.

And I have probed the annals of the wise
To find out thee,
But only saw the mirror of my eyes—
Be found by me.
We cross the globe and chase the setting sun
And find our end is where we had begun.

So in the hollow of my empty hands,
Be found by me,
Like springs that burst within the thirsty land
That’s found by thee.
And in my desert thou hast dug a hole
To be thy hermitage within my soul.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Old School

When I bought my home last year and took on the responsibilities thereof, I decided I wanted to find a old-fashioned, reel push-mower for the lawn. My mother, a veritable magician when it comes to second-hand shopping, found one at an estate sale a block away from my new home, and the owner of the antique machine was shocked that anyone was purchasing it. I think she paid ten bucks for it.

The old contraption always elicits a reaction from passersby:

“You need to get a power mower!” is a common reaction, which always makes me feel insulted.

“You need help with that?” one fellow asked when I was nearly done mowing one Saturday. Clearly, I don’t.

“That’s the old school!” brings out a smile on my sweaty face.

One neighbor flexed her biceps as she passed, and I responded by thumping my chest. Yes, I am strong!

“Can I try?” children always ask, which gives me a short break whether I want one or not, but does not save me any of the work.

But one interesting reaction this past weekend came from a neighbor who has a push-mower herself. “Wow, that one is pretty heavy-duty! Ours has a hard time handling this grass. Look how low it cuts too!”

It was an interesting reaction because it made me look differently and my ten-dollar estate-sale find. Suddenly, it went from a useless item from someone’s basement to a gem of push-mowers, a vestige from a time when people built machines to handle real work, machines that last.

It was especially interesting because it made me react differently to the next comment, made by old Harold who comes by from time to time asking if he can earn a few bucks with odd jobs. “That cuts really good!” he exclaimed. “Can I borrow it when you’re done?”

Things walk off in the neighborhood. In my first few days here, I had already had my little garden statue of St. Patrick stolen from my front yard (who steals statues of saints?!). I don’t know what antique-gems-of-push-mowers go for at pawn shops, but suddenly, by his mere proximity to my discovery of the merits of my specimen, Harold seemed like just the type to try to find out.

Nevertheless, when my doorbell rang a couple hours later and Harold appeared, asking if he could borrow my mower, I reluctantly handed it over, saying a quick prayer that I would see it again. I knew that the fact that he was poor was no reason to suspect vice of the old man, and I felt a little ashamed of myself for being worried nonetheless.

While I waited, I got back to my reading:
He that sheweth mercy, lendeth to his neighbour: and he that is stronger in hand, keepeth the commandments. Lend to thy neighbour in the time of his need, and pay thou thy neighbour again in due time. Reap thy word, and deal faithfully with him: and thou shalt always find that which is necessary for thee.

Many have looked upon a thing lent as a thing found, and have given trouble to them that helped them. Till they receive, they kiss the hands of the lender, and in promises they humble their voice: But when they should repay, they will ask time, and will return tedious and murmuring words, and will complain of the time: And if he be able to pay, he will stand off, he will scarce pay one half, and will count it as if he had found it: But if not, he will defraud him of his money, and he shall get him for an enemy without cause: And he will pay him with reproaches and curses, and instead of honour and good turn will repay him injuries. Many have refused to lend, not out of wickedness, but they were afraid to be defrauded without cause.

But yet towards the poor be thou more hearty, and delay not to shew him mercy. Help the poor because of the commandment: and send him not away empty handed because of his poverty. Lose thy money for thy brother and thy friend: and hide it not under a stone to be lost. Place thy treasure in the commandments of the Most High, and it shall bring thee more profit than gold.
-Ecclesiasticus 29:1-14
Harold did come back with the mower within half an hour. By that time I felt sufficiently humbled for having been hesitant to lend to my neighbor in the time of his need, for being tempted to send him away empty handed because of his poverty. After all, I knew that the fear of losing the thing lent was more old-school than my mower itself, and was taken into account when we were commanded to lend nevertheless. After all, I was reminded, I shall always find what is necessary for me.

I pray I become more willing to lose my money for my brother and friend, and that I learn to place my treasure in the commands of the Most High. In the mean time, I’m glad to get the mower back.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Language Barriers

A teacher at the local elementary school was once given a large donation of hundreds of bicycle helmets to distribute to her students. She was grateful for the gift, but was unsure of how many of her low-income students owned bicycles in their quickly-shifting lifestyles that often found them attending three different schools in a given semester.

“How many of you have a bicycle?” she asked a classroom of students. In response, a mere two students raised their hands. Though she was prepared for a non-universal response, the paucity shocked her.

“Are you serious?” she asked incredulously. “None of the rest of you have a bike?”

“Oh, you mean a bike!” the stupefied students responded. “You didn’t say a bike!”

A long-time teacher in this neighborhood, she was shocked at the language barrier she had just stumbled upon between her and her students. How many times had she unknowingly spoken over her students’ heads? How many times did they dumbly nod, chirping “Yes, Ms. Smith” without any idea what she was saying, too embarrassed to admit they were entirely lost? It was a sobering realization, one that still brought her to tears years later when she related the story to me this week.

Having learned from her error, she went into the next classroom prepared to meet this new challenge. “How many of you have a bicycle or bike?” Still, only one or two students raised their hands.

“Are you serious?” she asked again. “You mean that none of the rest of you have a bike?”

“We don’t have them here!” the students responded. “We took the bus!”

Obstacles to communication are endless, even outside the context of some of the drastic cultural and educational barriers she was facing that day. God give us the grace to learn how our words sound to those on the other end of them. God give us graciousness to handle the confusion that mounts in the mean time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


“I will be found by you,” declared the Lord,
But all I saw were lines of cornrows in
A child’s hair that glistened as she warred
The heat with mud, and so I looked again.
Her brother’s hose created seas upon
The shattered sidewalk as if on earth’s third day,
And her shrill screams outdid the birds in song
To chime that it was good. And who’s to say
That they won’t touch you with their muddy toes
While my well-educated fingers hoist
A heavy page, or that they chose
The better part who never got a choice,
While he who hovered on the waters and on men
Has giggled off for me to seek again?

Two Kinds of Gentry

“Why don’t we talk about the meeting last night for those who weren’t there?” a neighbor suggested as eight of us sat in her living room after a community dinner. My feelings about the event in question were still rather jumbled, so I passed the torch to another neighbor who had also been there.

The night before, over 25 people had crammed into a small nearby living room to discuss the kids of our urban, low-income neighborhood. As the various teachers, professors, non-profit workers, and councilors introduced themselves, I realized something: not only were only three of them male, but only two of them were black. As a white woman in the room, I felt like a statistic.

Many ideas were shared—a summer ceramics class, more publicity for our community garden, some kind of Saturday school—but I had an eerie sense that we were crippled from the start by our status as outsiders, a bunch of white women who sit around eating hummus, teaching art classes, and wondering why these urban kids aren’t flocking to our community garden.

“...There was a lot of good energy in the room,” my neighbor concluded as I was jerked back into the postprandial dinner conversation. “There are good people moving into the neighborhood, and I think they’ll do a lot of good.”

“Speaking of that,” another neighbor interjected, “did you hear the neighborhood association is considering raising the income requirements?”


“I know. I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to see gentrification happening here. I want it to keep its native culture.”

I scratched my head again. Had no one else noticed that of the eight white people in the room, all were college graduates, most had masters degrees, and several were working on PhDs? I assumed whatever was meant by “gentrification” involved a different class of folks, ones with larger paychecks who wanted lower taxes, not our over-educated selves who taught ceramics classes and planted community gardens and experimented with vegan recipes and bought energy efficient appliances.

Either way, I knew both kinds of “gentry” were equally far culturally from the kids we longed to serve, and I didn’t know how I could point my finger and cry “gentry” at other folks. I will try to help my neighbors serve the kids who walk our streets, but I know we do so rather perilously: we respect some aspects of the urban culture, but to serve the neighbors with the tools we have we unknowingly call them away from that culture.

We are of course well-meaning, and can only give what we have to give. For now, that’ll be ceramics classes and community gardens. I hope we can meet our neighbors somewhere in the middle.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rejecting the Rules

During my first semester of college, I attended a discussion between an Evangelical campus minister and an agnostic Religion professor (who is now a Unitarian pastor). After answering the question of what drew him toward the person of Christ, the professor was asked to explain what drew him away from Christ. A mere two months after 9/11, the issue of the suffering of the innocent came immediately to his mind.

“I understand all your arguments about free will and sin,” he interjected when dozens of hands shot up around the room to respond with their attempts to justify the ways of evil to man. “I understand that if the rules demand an option of evil to prevent us from being puppets, then a good God would give us the option, and that the choice of evil hurts all of creation, even the innocent. I understand retributive justice and atonement theology and eschatological justice at the world’s end. If those are the rules, then I guess that’s just the way it is.”

He paused, and then said something that still haunts me ten years later. “But... God made the rules. If something seems terrible, we have to accept it as the way the world works, but God made the way the world works. I know you’re going to tell me it wasn’t the way he intended it to be and explain a comprehensive system to understand evil, and I couldn’t necessarily tell you a different way it could have been. But I imagine that God could have. I don’t actually reject God; I just reject those rules, and I suppose if you equate them with God then it would look to you that I am rejecting him.”

Though I wouldn’t recognize it until years later, there was something of Job’s challenge to God in his words, and something of his friends’ rationalization of suffering in our theological responses. It was fitting that it came from someone on the outside, as it were, just as Job himself was outside the people of Israel. In any case, I started to wonder on that November evening if the professor’s demands for God’s goodness were more in keeping of faith than our canned acquittals were.

I bumped into that old professor this week in cyberspace. I don’t have the answer to those questions of ten years ago, but I am grateful for the way he helped me distinguish between my faith in Christ and a closed system of rationalizations that looks cold from the outside.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Amen, Go Lord Jesus?

There was a song that was popular when I was in high school among the Christian circles in which I was walking called “Trading My Sorrows.” The jist of the song was quite simple: we trade our sorrows to receive the joy of the Lord. Other common trades we would talk about include trading our sin to receive Christ’s righteousness, or trading our death to receive his life. These are all a bit unbalanced as far as trading goes, and in each case we seem to get the better end of the stick. Perhaps that was supposed to be the scandal of the gospel. (I’m not going to attack these happy trades right now, though I have taken the first one to task in an earlier post.)

There was one passage in particular that confused me as a college student that did not fit neatly into the trading rubric. While Luke’s version of the beatitudes says logically enough, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Matthew’s much more quoted version renders it, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” a strikingly less triumphant trade. Even if those who mourn have comfort to look forward to, I would ask, wouldn’t it be better not to have mourned at all? What is blessed about receiving comfort, at least as opposed to not mourning to begin with?

Moreover, the Ascension seemed like the worst trade of all. When Jesus is explaining to his disciples that he will be going to the Father and they will see him no more, he anticipates their grief and asserts, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” How is it to their advantage that he go away in order that he may send them someone to help in his absence, I would wonder. Wouldn’t it be better for him to stick around so that they wouldn’t need a helper? It would have seemed a rotten trade to me.

Thus there is a mystery we celebrate this weekend on the Feast of the Ascension, a mystery that looks ahead to Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the mystery that the comfort for the mourners and the Comforter whom the Father sends the disciples is not mere consolation: it/He is further blessing. It is for our good that we mourn, for we will receive his comfort. It is for our good that we seem to be bereaved, for the Spirit has come.

It is good theology to be certain, a theology that says that God will not abandon his people nor allow their weakness to triumph over his redemption. Half the time I don’t believe it; half the time I think mourning trumps comfort and human frailty trumps the Holy Spirit. Thus this weekend the biggest act of faith I can muster is to rejoice.

Go on up to your Father, Jesus, in order that we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Alleluia, I suppose.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jokes that had once been funny

“I may be 62,” my dad said with a wily twinkle in his eye after he blew out his birthday candles on Sunday, “but I can still pass for 61.”

The joke is always funny to a few non-family members in the room as it might have been to us the first several times we heard it many years ago. At this point for the family members who have heard him say it year after year, however, who have adapted it on their own numerically smaller birthdays (after all, though I am 28, I do not feel a day older than 27!), the joke is not funny as much as it is comforting. It is part of the liturgy of the family, the repeated phrases and jokes-that-had-once-been-funny that let us know that, while so much has changed around us over the decades, some things have remained the same.

“I’m deathly allergic to zucchini, and anything else I can’t spell.”

“It’s as I always say: feta makes everything betta!” (my joke, to which my dad’s response is “Gag me with a spoon!”—he is allergic to a great many things).

“Ahhhhhhhhh...choo-choo train!”

Once upon a time, these jokes had been funny in their own right. Now they produce laughter not because of the joke, but because of the teller. We laugh because the words have somehow molded into our image of the speaker himself, because the words have combined vacuous ideas with a living, breathing person whom we love. We laugh because we love.

And as we grow in the faith of a God who has revealed himself to us as the Word made flesh, the rereading of Scripture and the repetition of liturgy has every bit as much vitality as my father’s predictable jokes. We repeat words we have spoken when our hearts were breaking or when they rose in exaltation, and we are connected to the person from whom we first heard them, the person who spoke them to us time and time again, the person of Christ and his Church. The Word was made flesh in the Incarnation, and words are still a part of the person from whom they are born. Repetition becomes an expression of love.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The family in Asia

My brother and I wove our way down narrow, dirty Asian streets on which neither of us had been before, hoping almost against hope that we were following the vague directions correctly. Finally we made our best bet as to the correct side ally out of the furniture market, hung a right, and began up the hill, unable to see beyond a couple buildings ahead of us.

And suddenly, there it was: a small building tucked in the ally with a makeshift wire cross on top. No wonder our taxi driver had been unaware of the building’s whereabouts; had we not known exactly where to look, we would have never found the tiny Catholic church.

At 8:15, the room was not yet too crowded, and my brother and I managed to find a seat in which the altar was partially blocked by a large pillar. In many ways, the room felt familiar, as if I had been there before in America or Canada or Ireland or Italy: there was the same holy water by the door, the same kneelers on the pews, the same altar in front, the same statues of Mary and Joseph on either side, the same crucifix in the middle, and the same silently praying parishioners as the congregation gathered. Yet there were other indications that I was most definitely “not in Kansas anymore”—the flashing lights around the crucifix, the florescent, cheap plastic flowers that decorated the corners of the arches in place of marble carvings, the bright red paper Asian characters that adorned various prominent places on the stucco walls.

An old Asian woman on our pew got up and retrieved some prayer books from the back of the room, handing the useless items to us with good-natured hospitality. I smiled and whispered my thanks, one of the few words I knew of her language, and made a mental note to follow along in the completely unintelligible characters in order to be a gracious guest. The Asians made it clear that this pair of light-skinned Westerners were more than welcome in the parish, and their hospitality transcended the language boundary.

When the service began everyone knelt and remained in that posture for the next hour, chanting in the bouncing strains of their tonal language. It could have been a pagan rite for all I knew; it certainly sounded like the ritual of a foreign religion. Of course, it was not, and as the minutes wore on I eventually identified from the particular patterns of repetitions that they were chanting the rosary. After that they moved on to a litany as the room filled up, the old women from the beginning making room for the families that were gathering. Finally, when mine and my brother’s knees were crying out for relief while the old women around us were seemingly unaffected, the congregation sat down.

Rather than a service, the congregation moved on to readings that my brother identified from his rudimentary knowledge of the language were from Luke. They read straight through a lengthy passage, alternating between readers and gaudy recorded renditions with background music, and it became clear to me that there would be no mass at this parish. The reading continued for nearly half an hour before we had to leave to get to my brother’s team meeting, both a little disappointed that we would not have the chance to speak with the parishioners who had exchanged many friendly words and glances with the pair of visiting Westerners.

“She told us, ‘You are family,’” my brother had translated after the first old lady had greeting us in our pews. And I left knowing she was right, that we were family members in this strange mixture of foreignness and familiarity, in that intersection of the West and the East where we could share in their prayers for nearly two hours without knowing the words, underneath a spread of plastic neon flowers and Asian characters and Western statues, in a culture of religious persecution that stripped away any need to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants (considered different religions in that part of Asia) and varying levels of communion with the Vatican and language barriers since there was apparently no priest to celebrate mass anyway. In that small, crowded room that morning, as we knelt on aching knees and listened to prayers we could not utter, we were simply family.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The tallest building in the city

We left the pub that night and made our way to the cars, stopping in front of my car on the street.

“Is that the tallest building in the city?” my visiting friend said with a chuckle, pointing to a laughably short version of a skyscraper. I smiled and shrugged, the handful of tallish buildings not having merited my close attention in the months I had lived in the little Midwestern city.

“No,” another friend mused, cocking his head awkwardly at the other buildings in sight, “it’s not that one. I forget which one of these it is.”

“Is it that one?” I asked, pointing to another of approximately similar height to the last, suddenly engaged in the scavenger hunt now that I didn’t have to be the authority.

“No,” he hesitated, turning to scan the horizon the other direction. “The tallest building is obvious when you see it. I don’t see it.”

“Well,” I challenged, “it’s gotta be right around here. The city’s not big enough to have its skyscrapers distributed beyond a couple blocks.”

He turned his body in one final 360 around the city. “I don’t know why I can’t see it, but it’s not any of those.”

After the failed attempt to find the building, the three of us said our goodbyes and the skyscraper-authority walked toward his car, leaving the visitor and me to climb into my vehicle. Suddenly, from where he stood a half-block away from us, our friend shouted, “Come ‘ere, ya’ll! It’s right above you!”

Sure enough, we walked out to where he was standing and saw the skyscraper above us, obviously taller than any of the others we had been assessing. The five-story lobby attached to it had prevented us from seeing it as we stood directly next to it. As it turned out, we could not see it because we were so close, not because we were far away.

“It’s like the tallest building in the city,” my visiting friend said a few nights later in a conversation about the presence of God amidst our doubts, about his presence in the Church and the world and the sacraments, about Mary and other sticky theological points for me and my friends who grew up in a church tradition that made his theology seem so foreign, about the kingdom that was apparently in the already-but-not-yet as if the “not yet” did not nullify the “already.”

I looked at him dubiously.

“Really, Em,” he insisted. “We couldn’t see it because we were so close to it, not because we were far away. I think you are much closer than you realize.”

“You really think so?” I challenged flatly, absolutely skeptical about the dubious suggestion that I was missing so many things my friends of greater faith were seeing because I was just so “close” to them.

“I do,” I said unblinkingly. His faith seemed firm enough for the two of us.

Monday, May 2, 2011

All is not well

Late at night on the Thursday before Easter, a young man was shot on my street. I heard six gunshots and went outside to see him lying on my friends’ yard. We will probably never know why he was killed.

The night after Easter, a little ways south of me, a long-standing feud between two neighbors finally led to one stabbing the other with a kitchen knife.

The next night I heard a gunshot in the house behind me and called the police. I’m starting to think I should put 911 on speed-dial.

Yesterday evening I learned that a cousin who has struggled for years with infertility just had a miscarriage.

And then late yesterday night while I was finishing up a Latin paper, I heard the news that a man who killed a lot of people ten years ago in an event that would characterize world politics for the first decade of my adult life was killed in Pakistan. There were messages of celebrations being sent around the ciber-waves between my friends around the country.

But there was no celebration in me. I don’t have it in me to celebrate death—not this week. Yet in the middle of all those brushes with death, we commemorated the Lord’s death, the only hope we have that our tragedies have meaning. If there is any hope that death is redemptive, it is not because of its perceived justice, but because of its lavish grace. I hope to learn to see that one day.

At any rate, I can’t process my thoughts about death right now in crunch time, but I thought in commemoration of the events of yesterday I’d throw up an old poem from that day three weeks into my freshman year of college when I walked into my freshman composition class and learned the world was changing. Pardon the angst and the melodrama (but honestly, it was an appropriate day for it); I’ve changed as a poet since then, but in many ways my spirit is still screaming in the same way.

God have mercy on the souls of those who died in New York and DC ten years ago. God have mercy on the souls of those who died in Pakistan yesterday. God have mercy on us all.

* * *

September 11, 2001
You normally spend your time kicking the ground
Because he is the only close person around
To look up at you as you trample him down.
For the dirt is the only one who’at least understands
The feeling of crushing, the sickening sound.
Though you don’t always like all the mud on your hands
At least it is someone who’ll always be there.

Does anyone care?
You go to find love
But find only tolerance there.

And you finally scream at the top of your lungs
But the world is so big and your voice is so small
That your cries seem to add up to nothing at all.
And you cry “Hey, can you hear me?
All is not well.
Hey, can you hear me!”
But nobody hears ‘til you speak with your guns.

And wrong has become all you see anymore,
And life has become just one cankerous sore.
Will the wrongs that were done by the rich to the poor
Justify what you do now to get your word said?
You might learn not to hate if there was any more.
Well, if her god is love then he must be dead,
And your hate must be fine ‘cause at least you can feel.

Is anything real?
You sing when you hear
She’ll also have pain in the deal.

And you finally scream at the top of your lungs
But the world is so big and your voice is so small
That your cries seem to add up to nothing at all.
And you cry “Hey, can you hear me?
All is not well.
Hey, can you hear me!”
But nobody hears ‘til you speak with your guns.

Well I don’t have the answers; I’m only a child,
And the wrongs have become so incredibly vile
That thoughts of true peace are exceedingly wild.
But still I have faith—you can call me naïve—
That there’s power in grace and in love through this trial.
At least I have chosen what I will believe.
Maybe I’m chosen; I’m chosen to give.

A way to forgive?
I hope he can show
Us a worthier life we can live.

And now I will scream at the top of my lungs
Though the world is so big and my voice is so small
And my cries seem to add up to nothing at all.
So I’ll cry “Hey, can you hear me?
All is not well.
Hey, can you hear me!”
Perhaps they will hear when I speak with my love.

Monday, April 25, 2011

This is the night

I wish I had time to write, to process the events of the past week--from the six-hour procession around the city with the Bishop on Palm Sunday, to the night tainted by a murder on my street between leaving Christ weeping in the garden on Thursday night and observing his death Friday at noon, to faith in the resurrected Christ on Sunday that begins the new creation even on the very street on which I saw a dead man lie three nights earlier. You may get a lot of Easter posts as I process it all over the summer (if survive [academically] the next two weeks).

In the mean time, as we are still in some ways living in the night that the resurrected Christ has nevertheless entered, as the empty tomb still confuses us his friends who cannot always see him in a way we would expect, I thought I'd copy the words from the Easter vigil service on Saturday night, the night we celebrated the resurrection before even Mary Magdalen had discovered the empty tomb. These words take more faith than I can muster sometimes—try saying O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer! while a warm-but-dead body lies on your friends' yard, for example—but the Church says them nonetheless, and stands together in the faith that his Resurrection gives us.

Rejoice, my friends; rejoice, my neighborhood: Christ is risen, even as the night lingers.

* * *
Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God's people!

It is truly right
that with full hearts and minds and voices
we should praise the unseen God, the all-powerful Father,
and his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,
and paid for us the price of Adam's sin to our eternal Father!

This is our passover feast,
when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

This is the night
when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.

This is the night
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!

This is the night
when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night
when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."

The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace,
and humbles earthly pride.

Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
and man is reconciled with God!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

By this we know love

Late one night last month, a few days after the earthquake in Japan, my phone rang. It was my dear friend Benedict, the formerly homeless man I met in college. My heart leapt a bit, worried that a late-night phone call might forebode an emergency, and Lord-knows he’s had more than his share of those.

“Hello there!” I answered with masked cheerfulness, bracing myself for the worse.

“Hi,” his voice on the other end was serious, his gravity unburdened with pleasantries. “Em...” he struggled, and couldn’t continue.

“What is it, Benedict?” I asked, my voice sinking to match his somber tone.

“I was just watching the news tonight,” he explained, “and I saw what’s happening, and I remembered...” he struggled again... “what country was it where your family moved?”

A rush of relief flooded me. “Oh, Benedict,” I assured him, “it wasn’t Japan. They’re far inland in Asia, nowhere near Japan. Don’t worry, they’re quite safe.”

His voice on the other end let out an immediate gust of relief. “Ahhhhhhhhh! Okay, that’s what I needed to hear. I just couldn’t remember, and I was so afraid. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep tonight until I knew they were safe.”

And after we chatted for a few minutes about the whereabouts of my Asia-residing siblings and nephews, family members whom he has met only a handful of times in the past seven years of our friendship, I hung up the phone feeling quite humbled. In his love for me, Benedict has adopted the trials of my family as his own, despite his host of ever-gnawing trials.

Indeed, John tells us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, as we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” And though the opportunity to die a hero’s death does not present itself to many of us, I suppose that just as Christ showed us love by entering into our sufferings, we also ought to enter into the sufferings of others. Benedict at least has been willing to enter into the potential sufferings of my family as if they were his own.

That, coming from a man who knows what it is to suffer, was one of the most startling expressions of love I have heard in a while.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Earth felt the wound

(Apologies for the long blogger silence as I prepared for my recent conference in Montreal and entered the long push at the end semester. Posts will likely remain scarce as I work on final research and prepare for a trip to Asia.)

On Friday I had the moving experience of reading through all of Paradise Lost aloud in one marathon sitting with a group of students and faculty at the university. All morning and afternoon we moved through some of the most stunningly beautiful lines of English poetry, and I found myself shocked by the wonder of creation in Book VII as God separated the waters from the land:
over all the face of Earth
Main Ocean flow'd, not idle, but with warme
Prolific humour soft'ning all her Globe,
Fermented the great Mother to conceave,
Satiate with genial moisture...
But as the evening approached and we moved into Book IX, my professor retrieved his basket of apples, passing them out to all the women as Eve reached out “her rash hand in evil hour” and directing us to eat when
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
The men of course were not off the hook, and they were directed to follow as Adam “scrupl’d not to eat” and
Earth trembl’d from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan.
It was a moving experience, the first time my heart has ever been quite so grieved to consider the Fall in which I myself am complicit.

I too have taken. I too did eat.

The season of Lent reminds us of our part in this great epic of human history: not the part of the hero, not even only of the victim. Indeed, we who have committed to fast during this season and have found our vigilance waning over the weeks may have questioned such apparently arbitrary strictures to be “suspicious, reasonless,” and may have found our appetites to get the better of our piety. We may have also slighted
that sole command,
So easily obeyd amid the choice
Of all tastes else to please thir appetite,
Though wandring.
Lenten fasting may indeed be an opportunity for penance, but this year I have also found it to be a canvas on which I have painted my own sin. I am the woman who has taken from the tree. I am the friend sleeping in the garden. I am the disciple who has denied my tortured master.

I too need a savior.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

To Patrick

You wear obscurity like Joseph’s coat,
Meandering your way from history into myth
As if they were the same, as if you wrote
It on the wind and dared us probe its width.
For what is harder: banishing the snakes
From where they never were, or gathering them
Like sheep on Slemish, ‘til our memory wakes
Embedded in your verdant clover stems?
Walk on, as if it were the same to light
A fire on Slane as in our hearts or from
Your fingertips, and carve your crosses right
Where we would wrap our arms around the sun.
And where we can't sift form from matter, smile
Like a schoolboy, besting us in guile.

St. Patrick's breastplate

For my birthday, my parents' gave me a weekend of spring back down South to remind me of what will eventually (I hope!) arrive in the Midwest.

I'd love to write a lovely, inspirational anecdote to celebrate some obscure aspect of Irish culture. But it is my birthday, and my family calls, and the trees are budding under the warmth of the March sunshine. I'll have to settle for the tried-and-true, well-known "St. Patrick's Breastplate" that any ol' google search will assure you was "most certainly not" written by Patrick as if it matters, as if a possibly 8th-century hymn is not connected to the life of its 4th-century generator in this living body we call the Church.

And now I must arise in the light of sun...

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

He remembers that we are dust

In the two years that constituted my M.A. program, my sister had a frightening brush with death, my sister-in-law had a miscarriage, my three-year-old nephew had heart surgery, a friend from undergrad was shot, a grad-school friend was diagnosed with Leukemia, a friend from church lost her two-year-old, and two friends from former eras lost newborn babies.

Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

But this year, before I could prepare to enter the season that reminds us that sin and frailty ravage our bodies like my friend’s cancer, I was startled by the hope of the resurrection that awaits us on the other side of death. Old friends who have struggled for years with infertility just picked up their new son in Ethiopia. Two of the friends who lost babies are holding another in their arms, and the other is holding one in her womb. The frail bodies of my sister and nephew and grad-school friend have made it through the ailments of their blood and heart and bone and found life at the other side. My family just celebrated the second birthday of my nephew who was born nine months after his brother or sister passed imperceptibly out of the womb.

Bless the LORD, O my soul…
who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit…

Despite the beauty of life and healing in the previous paragraph, the mystery of the Christian story is that it holds both paragraphs together: Christ does not destroy death; he enters into it, paving the way for us to follow into life. Isaiah says that “He will swallow up Death forever”; he will consume it until “Death is swallowed up in Victory,” until it becomes the nutrients broken down and digested in Victory’s stomach.

As we enter Lent, we are not rewinding the story to an earlier scene before Christ’s Resurrection; we are progressing deeper into the story of the renewed creation. Our sin and frailty that we meditate upon for these next six weeks is the place Christ has chosen to enter; we go there to meet him. Lent is a time of grace.

As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.

For he knows our frame;

he remembers that we are dust.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

March dawns

Spring creeps in on elvish toes, imperceptibly magical, an enchantment that takes root in thawing earth beneath the snow long before its victory is revealed to weary eyes. But the victory is already complete, a subterranean furnace that silently chuckles at Winter’s empty domination. The tyrant with his weight of frozen oppression twitches uneasily, tossing his near-exhausted darts in groundless pride, trembling in anticipation of the assassin’s knife.

Yet the usurper’s final insult is his disregard, his ambivalence toward the emperor he has already defeated. Winter reigns on his throne of bleeding ice within a palace of straw, and Spring declines to waste his breath to huff and puff and blow it down; he would rather infiltrate the crags and caverns where Life has crouched in fear, shedding his vitality to melt the rigid hibernation. Hope stands poised to welcome his inevitable reign.

And here I am supposed to be preparing for Lent, yet the season of repentance has waited until Hope is undeniable to appear. It is another of the innumerable graces of the Church that sorrow is never divorced from Hope, that we are never called to enter utter darkness. Death is already invaded by Life, before we even have time to contemplate its dominion. Death may do his worst and it is terrible indeed, but he afflicts us like the Winter on an early March dawn, while Life lies laughing beneath an inch of slush.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

True Fasting

This is a bit of an early Lenten post, but since it’s about time to start preparing for Lent, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

* * *

A few weeks ago I was up late working on a paper when my doorbell rang. As a woman living alone in a rough neighborhood, red flags immediately went up, and I froze for a minute or two, hoping whoever it was would leave. When the doorbell resounded I decided to go downstairs and see who was there, though I did not open the door.

“It’s Johnny!” I heard from the other side.

“What is it, Johnny?” I asked in a friendly tone that disguised my sinking heart and cringing face, knowing very well that this homeless man was looking for money.

“I noticed the snowplows left a pile in your driveway, Ma’am,” he said. “I wanted to clear it off for you.”

“Oh, that’s okay Johnny,” I reasoned helplessly. “I’m not driving anywhere tomorrow.”

“Well, it’s just that, I can get it out of there for you for five dollars.”

“Johnny,” I insisted with an exaggerated cheerfulness, self-conscious of the fact that I had no intension of opening my door, “I can take care of it tomorrow. It’s a little late for shoveling.”

“But, Ma’am,” he struggled painfully, “I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight. For a couple dollars, I can stay with a man down the road.”

It was a familiar enough story I remembered from my college days with my homeless friends by campus. But I was no longer a college student in a well-lit, well-patrolled campus; I was a single woman living alone in a high-crime neighborhood. And thankfully for me, I had no cash on me.

“I’m sorry Johnny,” I yelled with that exaggerated pleasantness that felt quite hypocritically thin that night, “but I don’t have any cash on me here.”

There was a pause. “Well, do you have just a little change?”

I realized I did have some outside in my car, but I wasn’t about to announce the fact. “No,” I lied, “I don’t have any. I’m sorry, Johnny.”

The incident disturbed me for the next 24 hours or so. I do not know a single person who would suggest to me that I should have done otherwise that night, and I didn’t necessarily think I had made the wrong decision to keep my door locked as “the least of these” stood outside in the cold (don’t worry, Mom!). Perhaps all I could have done that night was to turn Christ away in the form of a homeless man, but there was no way I could have felt good about it.

And now, as we prepare for Lent, I am remembering some words my rector’s wife shared with the women of my church last year. A healthy season of repentance is not only characterized by a time of fasting, she explained to us: the Church has historically understood the discipline of repentance in terms of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving.

As I prepare for Lent and think about ways to include fasting, prayer, and alms-giving into my lifestyle, I am remembering that night with Johnny. We do indeed live in a time that generosity is plagued with the concern of enabling addictions and unhealthy lifestyles (not to mention personal danger). Indeed we do. So did the people to whom Christ initially spoke the radical words from the Sermon on the Mount.

Remembering that night with Johnny outside my locked door, I plan at least over the course of Lent to have cash on me, and to be prepared to “give to the one who begs from you,” as Christ commands us. I rather hope Johnny comes back (during the day!); I hope to be ready for Christ when he does.