October 28, 2009


"We are calling with an important message..." That was the computer voice on the other end of my phone at 5:30 this morning. Bleary-eyed, I grabbed the phone, thankfully sensing, even before I answered, that it wasn't going to be one of those night-time phone calls, the kind we dread. No. It was the public school district kindly informing us -- although we do not avail ourselves of their services -- that schools are closed today.

Several phone calls, e-mails, and inches of snow later, all our typical Wednesday activities were cancelled. Wednesday is a busy day, typically. Today, all activity has ground to a halt.

Snow days are different when you home school. The show, so to speak, can go on. And yet, even for us, today feels different.

After serveral days of this, I guess we all start to feel cooped up, but for one day, it is a strange and special sort of freedom. Suddenly the world bends. It bows low to the force of nature, of God. All of our busyness and the important appointments and meetings and all of the things that we cannot possibly miss, just stop. No one argues. No one worries too much. Because we're all in it together.

The snow, suddenly, is a great equalizer. We heave a collective sigh, inwardly smile as we slip into our slippers, heat some milk and mix in the cocoa.

As I lay in my warm bed, only half-cursing the automated-phone-call voice, I thought about the milk truck driver, the newspaper delivery man, the mail carrier, the garbage collector, and, of course, the snow plow drivers, all of those dedicated public servants who will persevere through the storm. But for most of us, we get to pause and admire the handiwork of God, who, sometimes, forces us to stop.

September 3, 2009

Ah, ha!

"The word community comes from the word common. Community isn't really created -- it's discovered. We discover what we've had in common all along." - Rob Bell in a note in Sex. God.

I had an "ah, ha!" moment today. Why is it that they're all, those ah, ha! moments, ultimately, "of course!" moments? I don't think I've ever in my life had a real insight that didn't, in retrospect, feel so painfully obvious I was almost embarrassed to say it out loud. This instance is no different.

It happened when I read this: "I'm part of a community, a movement of people who have been living, exploring, discussing, sharing, and experiencing new understandings of the Christian faith" (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, p. 14).

Remember in the Peanuts comics, when Lucy was counseling Charlie Brown (Psychiatric Help - 5 cents - The Doctor is IN). She'd suddenly hit on something, and Charlie Brown would shout, "That's it!" and Lucy would go rolling over backward at the force of the exclamation. That was me today, bowled over backward. Only to get up and think, "Duh."

When I read that line, I felt deeply jealous. That's what I want. That's what I want. That's what I want.

Then I thought again about the lines about community and commonality. When I first read them earlier today, I though, "Huh. I never thought of that before. I need to think about that some more." Then the ah, ha! happened, and I did think about it some more.

There are people, in my life right now, with whom I have this in common -- the desire to live, explore, discuss, share, and experience new understandings of the Christian faith. If I knew who they were, we'd have community, and maybe, just maybe, I'd understand how God is calling me to be the church. If only I knew who they were...who you are...

August 30, 2009


'He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Sama'ria and to the end of the earth."'
- Acts 1:7-8 (RSV)

I want an answer, now. Today. Yesterday, actually.

I feel pressured to know the answer. I'm the game show contestant. You can hear that Jeopardy! tune, can't you? Write down your answer! Time is running out. The championship, big cash prizes, and the respect of Alex Trebek are on the line.

Only on Jeopardy! they want you to write down a question. The answer is a question.

What if I had to write down my question before the song was over? What if that were all -- the question.

I was driving in the car one day, on my way to church, as it happens. I was struggling and praying. (This was a number of years ago, but it reminds me that struggling on my way to church is nothing new.) Something strange happened. I heard a voice in my ear. I knew it wasn't out loud. My kids were in the car, and I knew they couldn't hear it. But I heard it. I heard it. The voice said, "You, ask the questions." You, as in me. Ask the questions. Not "figure out the answers." Ask the questions.

When I am struggling for an answer, I know that the problem is not that the answer won't come. The problem is in the question. It's the wrong question. The answer will never come until I ask a different question and a different question until an answer comes. So I should keep looking for questions. Not for answers.

April 11, 2009

Religion, Part Two

"I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen." - Martin Luther

It was late. Both kids were soundly sleeping in the next room. I was sitting on the bed, book in hand, bawling. Between sobs I told my puzzled husband, "I think I'm going to be a Protestant!"

I was reading -- muddling through, really -- a book of Christian history that was far over my head. It was written by a Lutheran theologian, it so happens. I got to the part about the Reformation. To my great dismay, I was rooting helplessly for the reformers.

After much soul searching, I decided that the only thing my conscience would allow me to do was to begin worshipping in a Lutheran church. I wonder if anyone not raised Catholic could understand my great sorrow and reluctance. The world had been divided for me long since into Catholics and non-Catholics, and now I was non-.

My reluctance never abated, but I acted in obedience to what I believed then -- and believe now -- to be a call from God. For seven years I lived as a too-Catholic Protestant. Today, I am a too-Protestant Catholic.

Religion is how I have always understood and defined my faith. Rote prayer and spontaneous. Lectionary and Bible. Tradition and scripture. Authority and freedom. Alpha and omega.

Today, I have to face this solemn and painful truth: Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant iterations of religion has encompassed my lived experience. The rhythms of the mass resonate to my core. The scriptures do too -- when I study them and come to my own understanding of them as history and story and truth. Sacrament embodies the reality of the Risen Christ. But I am saved by grace through faith.

Nine years ago I became willing to abandon my Catholicism as a way to respond radically to God's call. I received in return nothing less than Christ, who can never now be taken from me. Am I willing today to abandon the desire to fit into a single religious mold, Catholic or Protestant, and discover what I may receive from God in return?

Religion, Part One

'A man arrives at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter asks, "Religion?" The man replies, "Methodist." St. Peter looks down his list and says,"Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." As the man walks past Room 8, he hears raucous celebration, but he heeds St. Peter's admonition and tiptoes past. A woman then arrives at the Pearly Gates. "Religion?" "Jewish." '"Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." She complies. Another woman. "Religion?" "Baptist." "Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." The woman pauses and asks, "I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?" St. Peter pulls her aside and whispers, "Well, the Catholics are in Room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."'

I grew up Catholic -- not the traditional rosary and incense and saints kind, but the post Vatican II, felt-banners, guitar mass, nuns in street clothes kind. Traditional or not, as far as I knew, the world was divided into Catholics and non-Catholics, and I was a Catholic.

I never dreamed of being anything but a Catholic -- unless I could somehow be Jewish. Perhaps I didn't quite have the Jesus part down. What I did understand is that being Catholic, even the felt-banner kind, means being steeped in ritual, and so does being Jewish. That was the heart of my experience of religion, of God. Sunday morning mass was all there was.

That, and bed time prayers. They were rote: The Lord's Prayer, a Hail Mary, and "God bless Mommy and Daddy and my sisters, and make me a good girl. Amen." Long into young adulthood I could not go to sleep without this little routine. It had become like a lucky rabbit's foot or a four-leaf clover. I was afraid not to do it, as if the ritual itself had some power to ward off demons.

But it wasn't enough. The demons encroached. Finally, in young motherhood, I was in a deep spiritual crisis. I wasn't a "good girl." Oh, I tried to do all the right things, but life was proving too much for me. Bed time prayers weren't enough. Ritual was not enough.

For a long time I had sat through sermons, listened to the gospel stories thinking, How could Sunday morning and bed time prayers be all there is? This Jesus was saying something far more radical. What was I supposed to be doing about it? Now I was desperate for an answer. If God could not be found by just showing up on Sunday morning and at bed time, how would I find him?

In desperation, I did what I had scarcely ever in my life done: I asked for help. I reached out first from some younger but more spiritually secure members of my family, and then from whatever books I could get my hands on.

There were the many spiritual volumes sitting on our shelves from our Catholic college days. There was the 12 inches worth of shelving at the local public library devoted to religion. I didn't even know what I was looking for as I searched. For God, yes, but what did that mean? So I just read and read and read.

I don't know what happened next or when it happened. If I were a Christian of a certain stripe, I would say I was saved. Converted? I don't really know. I can't say the day or the time. But I didn't know Jesus, except in a vague, historical character/mythological figure sort of way. And then I did.

And then he asked me to do something I never, ever expected.

April 5, 2009

Chapter and Verse

"The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them." ~Isaiah 50:4a (NAB)

I didn't grow up with the Bible. I had a children's Bible, which I received as a gift. I remember looking at the pictures, but never reading it.

My grandmother's family Bible was a missal. I loved it, because it was the closest thing I knew to a holy book. I still have it. The ribbons are in tatters, but I can still read my birth record and my sisters' on the inside front cover. I wrote in my own children's.

When I was a young teen, I asked for a Bible for Christmas. I am a book-lover, and it seemed like a book I ought to have. On our annual Christmas shopping trip, my grandmother obliged me with a tiny, red-bound copy of the King James Version.

When I opened my Christmas present, I moved the red ribbon to where the tiny type read "Genesis." Begin at the beginning. An unoriginal novice, I got about half-way through Exodus before quitting in boredom and despair. How were you supposed to read this thing anyway?

Needless to say, I did not grow up memorizing chapter and verse. But I used to lector at mass. For many years running I read on Palm Sunday. Isaiah 50:4-7 and Philippians 2:6-11 were the first scriptures I learned by heart.

And "by heart" is precisely what it was. Not memorized. The words became part of my heart, became flesh.

Today I can quote many verses. "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13) "I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Revelation 3:20). "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).

But none can compare to Isaiah 50:4-7 and Philippians 2:6-11. As I hear them and recite the words along with the lectors, I think about the time when they were all I had, what I have since received, what is yet to come.

"Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; And I have not rebelled, have not turned back." ~Isaiah 50-4b-5

April 4, 2009


"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, 'Let there be light.'" ~ Genesis 1:1-2 from the Robert Alter translation, Genesis

I don't read Hebrew, although I wish I could. Maybe someday. In the meantime, I pretend by reading Robert Alter's biblical translations. He endeavors to retain the poetic feel of the original.

Here's his note on "welter and waste": "The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one.... Tohu by itself means emptiness or futility..."

Housework sometimes feels like that -- welter and waste, emptiness and futility. Then one day, I was folding the clothes. How many loads of laundry have I folded? Hundreds, certainly. But on this day, something new occurred to me. I looked at the pile of rumpled shirts and socks and sheets and underwear, and I thought of chaos.

Then I thought about other household tasks waiting to be completed. I thought about dirty bathrooms. Uncooked food. Littered floors. Full trashcans. Unmade beds. Chaos.

And then I thought about God. The whole cosmos was once nothing but chaos, welter and waste. The fundamental task of creation was bringing order out of chaos. The Word was spoken and there was light. The waters were divided by a vault and gathered together. There was dry land and grass and trees and fruit and evening and morning. Fish and birds and beasts and cattle and creeping crawling things. There were man and woman, you and me. There were -- and are -- variety and multitudes, but within and among and all through there is a strange and mysterious and indubitable order.

When I sweep and scrub and especially when I fold, I bring order out of chaos. It is hallowed work, God's work.

April 3, 2009


"Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" ~Isaiah 53:1

'He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ ~Luke 16:27-31 (NRSV)

If you hang around Christians long enough, you're bound to hear it. A friend went to a funeral recently and heard it there. The gist is, Christians will be happy in heaven while everybody else will burn in hell, so make sure you're on God's good side, the Christian side. Or else.

When I was in high school I had two friends whose families were of this ilk. One's mother believed, without doubt, that her own mother was headed for hell. The other, Bible firmly in hand, once left a Buddhist classmate in tears.

What argument can we make if "they will [not] be convinced even if someone rises from the dead"? Must we who believe somehow convince, cajole, bully, berate, or threaten those who do not, cannot, will not?

Paul says to the recalcitrant Corinthians: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Not Jesus Christ raised bodily from the dead. Not fire and brimstone, hellfire and damnation. Crucifixion. Suffering. Brokenness.

When God's image was finally, finally borne in the world, it was upon a Roman cross. Humanity, at last, revealing God's glory.

Here, only here, have we ever, will we ever, see the arm of the Lord revealed.

March 31, 2009

In Memoriam

I never believed that anything could defeat her. She grew up an only child. Her mother and father had to work. A lot. She had stories about days, nights, weekends, holidays, spent alone or with neighbors. It was a lonely place to be. I wonder how she managed. But she certainly learned to take care of business.

Maybe the nuns helped during eight years of Catholic school. Make that seven; she skipped first grade. The Baltimore Catechism, daily mass, perfect penmanship – she developed a keen sense of personal discipline that would carry her through life’s later troubles

Like getting pregnant at twenty. Imagine! She, the straight-A student, had to drop out of college to get married. But that didn’t stop her. Neither did the divorce less than ten years later, or the prospect of raising three young daughters alone. She took care of everything somehow. The years alone ended. She remarried and had a son. But through it all she never lost sight of what she needed to realize her goal for herself.

She finally finished her degree 25 years after she started college; we graduated in the same year. A year after that she was teaching elementary school.

She juggled teaching alongside service to the church, marriage, mothering, grandmothering, and caring for her own mother for ten years, managing to spend every spare summer minute on the beach in Tahoe, reading like crazy and laughing with good friends. I thought she could take care of anything.

But even she couldn’t take care of the leukemia. It took care of her, in six short weeks.

She was so many things to so many people, -- teacher, wife, daughter, friend, grandma – but I was the first one to call her “mom.”

Marilyn Grace Handley
January 10,1947 - April 1, 2000

March 29, 2009


"What if I'm lonely?" Daniel, age 5

He loves going, but he doesn't want to go. It's an ordinary Sunday morning, and, after weeks in a row of joyfully heading off to Sunday school, my baby is suddenly afraid.

"What if I have a stomach ache?" They've been frequent, but the doctor assures us that everything is fine. It's just a stage.

At first, it seemed like it would just go away, like most stages do, but then he asked this unexpected question: "What if I'm lonely?" He was imagining it, lonliness in a room full of others, teachers, friends.

I know that feeling. It's a cliche: Lonely in a crowded room. Then I knew it wasn't a stage that would soon pass.

At nearly five plus thirty-seven years, it hasn't passed for me. I remain aware that even in the most intimate of company, I can still feel alone. There exists this deep place inside where no one can really go with me. My baby still trusts that I, at least, can meet him in his deep place. For now, that's enough for him. Someday it won't be.

Daniel does not understand the absence, the longing he is beginning to recognize. I think I might. Barely. Another cliche: The God-shaped hole inside.

I used to try to fill it with other things -- food, fantasy, noise. Sometimes I still want to try, even though I know it never really helps.

"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" (Isaiah 55:2, NRSV). Good question. Like Daniel's question: "What if I'm lonely?" What shall I do then?

"Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other" (Isaiah 45:22).

March 21, 2009

Carrying Cash

"Give to every one who begs from you..." - Luke 6:30

I hardly ever carry cash. My mother was appalled at the idea of paying for groceries with a credit card, so it was a long time before I could. But I pay the bill off every month, so why resist? Now I pay for everything with a credit card. It's so convenient. Most of the time.

Beggars don't take credit cards. Or debit cards. Or checks.

She was driving a mini-van with no license plates. Her daughter -- I guess -- was asleep in the front seat. Maybe she was eight or nine.

The mini-van just pulled up beside us in a parking lot, right in the middle of the middle class world in which we live. I thought she needed directions. She needed money.

She said the child was sick, and they needed medicine. They needed food. I only had a five dollar bill.

I gave her the five dollars, but I felt sad. I was on my way from talking with a contractor about making some improvements to our home. I'm about to write a check to that man for thousands of dollars. But I only had five to give the woman whose child needs medicine and food.

I intend to start carrying cash.

March 20, 2009


"Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle." -Helen Keller

My daughter said, "Every time you try to put chili in the crock pot..." The first time I sliced my finger open. The next time I opened the refrigerator and, for the second time in as many months, one of my glass milk bottles had shattered. There was a quart of milk dribbling all down my fridge and onto the floor. I thought about screaming, but instead I wiped a bit, walked out of the kitchen, read some e-mails, came back to the kitchen, covered the chopped onions so they wouldn't dry out and proceeded to empty and clean the refrigerator. I was fuming, but calm, and I tried to think about what happens inside of me at moments like this. I present to you some inner dialogue:

There are these three voices inside me. Voice one is my "Inner Bitch" (IB). She's a rebel. She swears (so please forgive her). She's gritty and edgy. She wears black and does funky things to her hair. She's powerful, but not terribly compassionate. She blames everyone and everything for her problems. She is put-upon. I like some things about her. She's funny and strong.

Voice two is my "Inner Priss" (IP). She is a scold. She knows very well what is right and what is wrong. She is quick to judge IB (and everybody else). She stuffs her feelings. She is everything on the outside that IB isn't -- socially appropriate, polite. Nothing is ever anyone else's fault. She thinks she's compassionate and loving, but really she is a repressed phony. I don't like her as well as I like IB, but she's around a lot more. Maybe I'm just sick of her. What I do like about her is that she keeps the IB in check. She allows my outward behavior to be appropriate, even when my inside feelings are not. She protects other people -- and me -- from the havoc that IB would like to wreck, which is good.

Finally, voice three is the mature adult me (ME). She is trying desperately to acknowledge IB and honor her voice while not letting her take over. She encourages IP to be more honest.

When we opened the refrigerator and saw all that milk, IB was on fire. She was so mad! Here we were, trying to get dinner ready in advance -- SO RESPONSIBLE! Now, instead of everything being ready we had to spend the whole blessed morning cleaning the refrigerator. And we just washed the floor too. And we're out a half-gallon of milk. Do you know how expensive milk is? Why does this keep happening? Maybe we need to stop getting glass bottles. Someone needs to fix that stupid refrigerator. Shouldn't someone be able to figure something out so this doesn't happen again? This is a real pain, you know?

But then there's IP twittering in the background. She's got the voice of every person on earth who is having a good day when we're not. She says that we should just calm down. What a lovely opportunity to learn something. Isn't it wonderful that the refrigerator will be clean?! Just go with the flow, let go and let God. IB wants to kick her ass.

Then, there is ME. You know what she did? She shut our mouth, because anything that was going to come out of it would be NOT HELPFUL. She picked up a rag and a roll of paper towels and little by little cleaned the refrigerator.

It takes the greatest act of tolerance for ME to accept the dueling IB and IP. But when I do, we don't fall off the bicycle.

March 17, 2009


"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." - Matthew 5:5

Or the clothes.

Several months ago, my husband's grandmother died. She was in her late 80's and was driving herself to the store and church until the week she went into the hospital. My mother-in-law gave me bags and bags of Grandma's clothes to go through and keep or donate. My prideful thought was, "I don't want to wear old lady clothes." I was ready just to put all those bags on my porch for the donation pick-up tomorrow, sight unseen.

But then I thought, Would it kill me to at least look and see what's there?

Well. Most of it looks practically new, because she was a meticulous housekeeper, right down to the laundry. Most of it is much nicer -- and more fashionable -- than anything hanging in my closet. Most of it is the right size. And there is tons. And it's free.

Now, a new wardrobe may not be the earth. But, as an inheritance, it's a sight better than laziness and stubborn pride.

What if I hadn't looked in those bags? Of course, I'd never have known what I was missing. What other bags have I put out or given away without a thought, because I was too proud to think there could be anything in there that was good enough for me?

March 16, 2009


"Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain." ~Isaiah 53:10

There's no denying that the world is rife with it -- war, cancer, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, famine, heartbreak. The list goes on all day and into the dark, dark night.

Death is the shadow beneath it all, the darkest darkness. Our destiny. My destiny.

A former Christian, current agnostic, was featured on a radio interview program the other day. You might have heard of him. He's written a popular book about Jesus. He says what finally drove him from Christianity was his inability to reconcile suffering with the idea of a good God. He's not the first one to say so. But I don't get it.

Now, that's not to say that people can't come up with reasons to question the veracity of the Christian story. But suffering? Christianity offers the only reconciliation of suffering and a loving God the world has ever known.

"The last enemy to be destroyed is death," proclaims Paul to the Corinthians. Death, our final enemy. All of our suffering is ultimately unto death; death is the real and only weapon wielded by the powers and principalities. But its destiny is destruction. Death's destiny is death.

"For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."

March 15, 2009


"Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." - Joshua 24:15 (NRSV)

I'm an addict. I don't mean that in some vague, metaphorical sense. Which behavior or substance is irrelevant. In my experience, an addict is an addict.

And addiction, in my experience, is a new-fangled way of saying, "idol-worship."

In the ancient world, there was a real competition going on. Which god was the most powerful? Most people didn't want to take chances, so they worshipped as many gods as they could. Most gods were fine with this. The more the merrier.

God said, No. Not in Israel. The foundational prayer in Judaism is the Sh'ma: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NRSV).

I've been intensively working the 12 Steps these past several weeks. I'm on the verge of Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

One piece of sure knowledge that God has revealed to me is that abstinence from addiction is his will for me. "For us," says Step 11. All of us? Us addicts. Us idol-worshippers.

The "Big Book," Alcoholics Anonymous says, "Half-measure availed us nothing." It's God or idols. Take your pick.

March 2, 2009


I'm fond of jigsaw puzzles, but once I start, it's hard for me to quit until I'm finished. I don't have time for that kind of thing nowadays, but I have discovered a differnt kind of jigsaw work that God is completing in me. He's started, and it doesn't look like he's going to quit until the thing is finished.

I thought I "got" my life. I really did. I've always thought of myself as introspective, enlightened, self-aware. "The unexamined life is not worth living." And all that.

Lately I've been in for a dose or two, or ten, of truth, and it's brought some unexpected realizations. My life is not what I thought it was. I've got all these pieces, see? I had put them all together and they made a picture that I recognized as "me." But I've been noticing lately that some of them don't really fit where I've put them. The colors don't really match. The little bumps don't exactly fit into the little openings.

As I've stepped back, God has stepped in. He didn't just remove a couple of errant pieces either. He's disassembled the whole darned thing. Maybe he left the frame, you know, those edge and corner pieces that you do first, because they're easy to figure out. The rest, the whole middle, undone.

These pieces -- I recognize them individually, remember how I fit them together before -- are scattered about in front of me. God is taking them up, one by one, and putting them back together. The picture looks surprisingly different. That wasn't a snake at all! It's part of the sturdy trunk of the tree. This isn't a garbage heap! It's a garden.

The life I thought I knew? All the same pieces are there, but the image looks different now. It's still looks like me, more like me than ever, really. And the image looks more like God too.

February 17, 2009

The Healing Power of Facebook

"When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed..." - Joshua 6:20a (NIV)

'"As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes...' - John 9:5-6 (NRSV)

I am not technologically illiterate. I love that I live in the era of the internet. I was made to be able to answer arcane questions (In what year was George Washington born? What can I make with three zucchini and a can of diced tomatoes? Who is the current president of Zimbabwe?) with a click of the mouse.

But social networking web-sites? That's another thing. I am intimidated by them. They are so nosey! What are my interests? My favorite rock band? Who are my friends?

Since I am The Sister Who Never Bothers to Take Pictures, my sisters have urged me to get connected. So now I have a Facebook profile (FB, a friend in the know tells me. No, that does not mean "football.").

Suddenly, my past has opened up before me like an old school yearbook. Names I haven't heard in (ahem) 23 years keep showing up on my computer screen. I got an e-mail from a woman I went to kindergarten with.

It feels like doors and windows in my mind have been opened and a cool breeze is blowing through. Remember? I didn't know I had so many closed up places. I am remembering some things I didn't know I had forgotten and other things I thought I wanted to forget.

God works in the most unexpected ways. He makes the walls fall down with a trumpet blast. He heals blindness with spitty mud. He cleans out the closets of my life on a Facebook page.

February 14, 2009

Sound Booth

A sound booth is a strange, unearthly place, like a room without air, except that you can breathe – although not comfortably if it’s your first time and you have your three year old son sitting anxiously in your lap. This, as it happens, was not our first time but our third. It is a ridiculous understatement to say so, but it would not be our last.

Our first foray into the sound booth had been seventeen months earlier. It was a different sound booth, a different audiologist, and a different outcome. She assured me that his hearing was fine. How can she tell? I wondered to myself. Even I, his mother, couldn’t tell whether he was really hearing those tones, which sounded vaguely like the signal from the Emergency Broadcasting System, or whether he just looked around until he saw the bear or the rabbit light up in their boxes. But she’s the expert! And she had just told me what I wanted to hear.

Hear? Of course he can hear. He loves music. He sings along! He talks too, only a little, but he’ll catch up. His sister was a late talker too. She didn’t talk, not at all, until she was 26 months old, and then she was talking in sentences. He’s just like his sister.

That was what I told myself, and that is what I believed in my heart, so when the audiologist told me his hearing was fine, it was quite what I expected to hear. But it wasn’t true.

Now we sat for the third time in this padded room where sounds sound flat and dead, unless they don’t. I listened and watched the bear light up, then the rabbit, but only as the sound grew loud and louder. Then my little boy would turn and smile. The tone or the voice would come again and I’d hear it, but there was no bear, no rabbit, because he didn’t look, just stared around, waiting, waiting to hear what I heard.

The second time we’d been in the booth it was the same booth, the same audiologist, the same outcome. He’d had a cold, so we needed to wait, come back in a few weeks, just to be sure.

Sure? I was already sure. I was there in the booth, and I heard what I heard, heard what he did not hear. This audiologist was sure too, the look on her face, as flat as the sound in the booth. Who wants to deliver bad news? How bad?

“What will it mean if we come back and the result is the same?” I asked, because I wanted to know, even as I did not want to know.

“He’ll have to wear hearing aids…”

That is most of what I heard. The rest was noise, like the pure tones, meaningless. What? As if I could not hear. Hearing aids. What had I expected to hear? People who can’t hear wear hearing aids. But my little boy can hear.

That day, before the world changed, and we became a family-with-a-child-with-a-hearing-loss, my vocabulary didn’t include the words “hard of hearing,” let alone “moderate, binaural, sloping, sensorineural, hearing loss,” only the words hearing and deaf. Now I use words like otolaryngologist and Conceptually Accurate Signed English and amplification technology in casual conversation. It’s hard to believe that a few very, very long months ago the words “hearing aids” had made me feel afraid.

So our third visit to the sound booth brought us no surprises, just verification. More pure tones, not so pure when your baby can’t hear them, more vain attempts at calling his name. Daniel. Daniel, can you hear me? No.

And yes. Daniel can hear his name. He can hear it when I say it as I hold him and rock him and put my voice near his ear. He can hear it from across the room when he is wearing his blue earmolds, their curving tubes connected to loaner hearing aids, flesh-colored – when we get him his own, they’ll be sparkled and spangled, bright, demanding to be seen and admired. Because now hearing aids do not make me feel afraid. They make me feel hopeful and grateful and only a little tiny bit sad.

February 13, 2009


"For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." - Jeremiah 29:11 (RSV)

You'd think I'd learn. God holds my future in his capable hands. He can act to prepare me today for things I cannot begin to imagine.

When I was in the fourth grade, I first learned the manual alphabet. I fell in love. I was fascinated by sign language and deafness. I got myself a book of signs and practiced them. Then, when I was in high school, I had a chance to take a class. Once a week for eight weeks I drove across town and sat for an hour after school to learn about deaf culture and to master a few dozen signs for which I had no use. I never forgot them.

That was more than twenty-five years ago. Then, five years ago, my third child was born. Everything seemed fine -- beautiful, healthy boy. But time went on and he passed his first and then his second birthday without talking. Questions, tests, speech therapy yielded nothing. It took another eighteen months before we knew: My son has a moderate-severe hearing loss.

When my mother died, I read a proverb somewhere that said, in essence, if you put everyone's problems on a shelf and had to choose one, you'd always choose your own. If God had told me I would have a child with a "disability," I'd have chosen deafness, hands down.

Of course, it's not all I imagined, and I don't ever think of my son as disabled. He uses oral language, although we toy with signing. Maybe he'll learn it well some day, so he can communicate with deaf friends. Maybe I will too.

Meanwhile, I marvel that, years and years ago, my God, who knew I would have this precious boy, prepared me so I would be neither afraid nor unprepared to love and care for him.

February 3, 2009

Letting Go

What is it about letting go that's so difficult? Particularly baffling is the way I hold onto things that I don't even want. It's not just the big stuff either. For years I kept this very, very ugly gravy boat in the shape of a turkey. We're really talking about Not Big Stuff here. Why did I keep it? I never intended to use it, but I couldn't give it up.

It's the same thing with my sins. I say I don't want them. They're ugly and useless. Worse than useless. And yet... They are mine. They are familiar. They are always there, like that gravy boat that I used to see every time I opened the cabinet. They have been with me a long time. I've wrapped, packed and upacked them as I've moved from place to place in my life, my sins and the gravy boat. They're part of who I am.

You see, it's my identity I'm loathe to part with. Who will I be if I am not who I have been, the woman with the ugly turkey gravy boat? Who am I when I am not judgmental or dishonest or phony or shallow?

Eventually I got tired of taking care of the gravy boat, of moving it out of the way to get to the silver or the china. I put it in a box, set the box on the porch, and watched some burly guy come and take it away in a truck.

The fact is, my sins have long since been packed up and taken away, in the waters of baptism. The old me, the turkey gravy boat me, has already been replaced by something new. I just need to catch up to what is.

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." - Galatians 2:19b-20 (NRSV)

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! " - 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)

January 29, 2009

Everybody Else

"To be nobody but myself, in a world which is doing its best night and day to make me everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting." - e.e. cummings

"O LORD, you have searched me and known me....I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. " - Psalm 139:1, 14a

e.e. cummings ought to know. Here's a poet with no capital letters in his name. Right off the bat, he claims his truth: I am not everybody else.

I am struck by the claim that the world is doing its damndest to make sure I fail in the quest for integrity. It affirms my experience. My Self is a dark threat to the Powers of This World. Even in the realm of spirituality, there is the strong tug of pantheism (God is everything) and panentheism (God is in everything), which ultimately compresses all individuality into a cosmic soup.

In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis's devils want to consume the souls they lead to hell -- to destroy their individuality.

That's not what the God of the Bible has to say. No, he has counted every hair on my head. He knit me in my mother's womb. Me, in my mother's womb. He affirms that there is a uniqueness to me, intended by my creator.

Yet, living in the world, I feel pushed and pulled on the inside and the outside to be what someone else, or even my moralistic, judgmental self, thinks I ought to be. As if what God created isn't enough. That's how I so often feel -- like I'm not enough.

I think one of the biggest lies is that there is a "normal" to which "most people" can or should or do conform. I'm not normal. Who is? What does that even mean? I don't know. What I'm learning is that, in my very best moments, I know, maybe, a tiny fraction of the person God has created me to be. I need to go inside and find the Spirit of Christ, and find the "me" who He redeems and recreates, and live from there. I'm not everybody else.

January 26, 2009


"Edgar Allen Poe had it In his tell tale heart
It’s the finest time to strike
Said Napolean Bonaparte
Inmates make their break
into it Cavemen make their art
Spy planes fly and
spelunkers hunker
Somewhere in the dark

"Batman catches criminals in the dark of night
Saving Gotham City from evil designs
Darkness, lovers love in and
Dreamers tend to like
And if you think you’re neither one
Well, in the dark, that’s just what
You might become

"Some celestial bodies like to
Strut their stuff a lot
But we know Mr. Black Hole is the Big boy on the block
King Tut looked pretty comfy
In that old dark tomb
What’s good for an Egyptian mummy
Might be right for you

"What’s the fun relying on something you can see?
That’s just so passe when you run toward the light
Why not make a dangerous tryst with mystery?
It’s a downright frightening hole
Watch your head
Down you go

"Larry lost his inhibitions
Sally felt a spark
Jacob saw a mystic vision
Somewhere in the dark

"Black cats eke out a descent living
Monsters make it far
You might find what you’ve been missing
Somewhere in
The Dark "
- lyrics, "The Dark" by Peter Mayer

"On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

"In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

"In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

"This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me--
A place where none appeared.

"Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

"Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

"The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

"I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."
- "The Dark Night of the Soul," St. John of the Cross

Sometimes I'm afraid of the dark. It's not the monsters under the bed. It's not the threat of burglars. It's nothing, and it's everything.

I can lie in bed at night and squirm as nameless demons crawl out and roam around my brain, scaring sleep away.

I pray. I want it to help immediately. I want to be flooded with peace and joy and relief, so I can drift off to sweet dreamland. But it doesn't work that way. Not for me, not most of the time anyway.

I've heard people call insomnia "God's night school." Someone even wrote a book. What's He trying to teach me? I'd like here to impart some lofty words of wisdom. I'd like Peter Mayer's sly spirit of adventure and mystery, St. John's mystical enlightenment. Instead, I am left with dark circles under my eyes and more questions than answers.

God meets us, meets me, in the dark, that is certain: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5, RSV).

A light is meaningless when it shines at noon. But when it shines in the dark... It has famously been said, "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." Be Thou my candle, O Lord.

* Fear of dark or night

January 25, 2009

Reflected Glory

'Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."' - Acts 9:1-20

This must be one of the most enthralling stories in the whole of the scriptures. Where to dig in? There are so many possibilities! Discuss Saul of Tarsus' fire-breathing zeal turned into the zeal of Paul the Apostle. What does it mean to me that, when Saul persecutes the early Christians, he is persecuting the Lord himself? What about the implications of Saul's blindness?

But here's what strikes me most today: The person of Ananias. He is a footnote, really. Paul is a figure of heroic proportions in the life of the early church. His influence on world history as the apostle to the Gentiles is immeasurable. Then there is Ananias.

First, it is impossible to ignore the scriptural echo with last Sunday's first reading, from 1 Samuel, where Eli the priest, when he realizes that young Samuel is being called by the Lord, instructs him to reply, "Here I am." Here is Ananias, with the same reply, "Here I am, Lord." Samuel, in the end, is called to anoint the king -- first Saul, then, in turn, David. Ananias is given a similar call -- anointing another Saul, through the laying on of hands, in the name of the King of Kings.

Apart from this singular act, Ananias evaporates into history. His glory is reflected at infinite remove; he is the man who invokes the Holy Spirit upon Paul, who reflects the glory of Christ, who reflects the glory of Almighty God. And yet, without the obedience of Ananias, who courageously makes his way to the street called Straight against all reason and good sense, Paul the Apostle remains Saul of Tarsus, neither eating nor drinking, his eyes covered with scales. Did Ananias ever even know what he had done?

Today, I ask God that I might be given the faith of Ananias. I ask that I may be given the grace to serve in obscurity; to say, "Here I am," whenever the Lord decides to call; to obey irrespective of reason or common sense. That I may somehow reflect his glory, at infinite remove.

January 23, 2009

Dance Like No One Is Watching

'As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.... David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, "How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!"' - 2 Samuel 6:16, 20 (NRSV)

One Friday night in May, when I was in college, some friends and I, rather inexplicably, decided to ride up and down the elevator of our nine-storey residence hall singing Christmas carols to the lobbies of each floor. The next day one of my neighbors approached me laughingly and said, "You guys were really drunk last night, weren't you?" What a funny question, I thought. We'd been, I assured her, stone-cold sober. Was alcohol necessary for such silliness? Not for us.

I wish I had more stories like that. I know people who do, people who have littanies of dancing on tables with lampshades on their heads after drinking nothing stronger than a strong draught of joy. High on life.

Unfortunatley, I'm a lot more like my neighbor, and Michal, more often judging cynically or scoldingly the frivolity around me. I'm jealous, of course. It takes courage and self-forgetfulness to leap and dance before the Lord. I'm afraid. I'm caught up in my image. What would people think?

No one is carting the ark of the Lord around my suburban neighborhood. What would it look like for me to get up and dance today?

January 22, 2009

Hooray for Captain Spaulding

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know." - Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers (1930)

I take things too seriously -- life, myself, everything. I often think I ought to spend more time laughing. I was watching a friend's two year old play tug-of-war with his mother and a scarf and laughing until he cried. I wished aloud that I could laugh like that, so easily. Maybe it's part of what God means by calling us to become like little children.

A couple of summers ago, on a whim, I brought the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers home from the library for the kids to watch. I was thinking of Harpo, the silent clown, thinking that the kids would enjoy him.

At first, they thought I was crazy. "You want us to watch this? It's in black and white!"

But we did, and then spent the rest of the summer with Harpo and Groucho, Chico ("Chick-o," because he was so popular with the ladies) and Zeppo. We watched all the early films over and over, laughing until we cried.

There are all kinds of cliches about laughter, the best medicine and all that. But my favorite moments with loved ones tend to involve that deep laughter, the kind that you can't explain, the kind that, once it starts, you can't stop. The Marx Brothers, The Simpsons, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, Calvin and Hobbes -- they give us this precious gift of release and freedom from the seriousness of life.

Because life is serious, but Jesus promised, "I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly." I never feel more alive than when I'm laughing.

January 21, 2009

The Cave

'[Elijah] wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Eli'jah?" He said, "I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." And the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus...' -1 Kings 19:13-15

This, of course, is the end of the beautifully familiar story where Elijah is searching for word of the Lord in the wind and the earthquake and the fire and finally hears it in the still, small voice. But today, I am caught up in the cave.

I suppose we all have days like this, but when I have one, I feel alone. I want to be alone, in my cave. Elijah is running from evil Queen Jezebel who is more than a little put-out that
Elijah has destroyed all the prophets of her favorite god, Baal. Elijah, meanwhile, is tired of his thankless prophet job, so he does what any sensible person whose life was on the line would do -- he runs away. He goes quite a distance and finds a nice cave and along the way sleeps for a good long time (with an angelically provided lunch on the side).

Caves make me think not just of Elijah, but of hermits and millenium cults. They are for people who want to be left alone.

I feel like that sometimes too. It's just plain easier, isn't it? Other people can be so demanding. They ask me to do things when I'd rather sit and read the paper and drink my coffee. They have opinions that I don't always like. They praise me for things I think are lousy and ignore my great achievements. Living in my head promises to be so much easier. Like an old Joni Mitchell song says, "Nobody calling me up for favors, and no one's future to decide." I get to be the god of my little private dominion. Like Jezebel and her Baals.

But God says in response to Elijah's perfectly valid complaint: Get back to work. No hanging out in the cave. You've had a rest, now there are things to do.

I may have some very good reasons to want to stay in the cave, but, like Elijah, in the end I am here so I can outrun the queen and her Baals and hear the voice of God. And he says, Get back to work.

January 20, 2009

With Malice Towards None

"With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." - President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." - President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009

I'm not usually in the minority. I'm white. I'm a woman. I'm married. I'm a Christian in America. During the election campaign of 2008, I felt like a minority. Among weekly churchgoers, the majority supported the other candidate. I did not.

As a result, there were incidents. I avoid incidents. I don't like to be in the center of conflict. Who does? But I really supported the other guy, so I wore a button and put a bumper sticker on my car. So people knew.

The day after the election, I was with someone who was really disappointed, and said so in a way that made all the blood run to my face -- unfortunately by-passing my brain, fortunately missing my mouth. I protested in silence, by the grace of God; no words to later regret. But I was mad and hurt, and everybody knew. There were witnesses.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of misunderstanding at work. She didn't mean... I didn't mean... Days intervened before we were together again. I was afraid; she was too, I later learned. I did what God needed me to do -- I showed up. She did what I (and maybe God) needed her to do -- she said, "Wanna talk?"

So we did. First we hugged. Then we prayed. Then we talked. We agreed to disagree and agreed to agree -- because we had a lot more to agree than disagree about. And all the witnesses got to witness again.

This is exactly what it looks like to live in the Kingdom of God, I thought and said. And it is. "With malice towards none; with charity for all," we had "chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

January 19, 2009

Speak, Lord

'Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."' - 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (NRSV)

This story is so familiar that it's hard to hear. Like Samuel, I hear the literal words, but they don't necessarily lead me where I need to be led, because I think I already know. Samuel keeps running back to Eli; I keep running back to all my old assumptions about what it looks like to serve God.

This Sunday I heard something new. I noticed -- why did I never notice before? -- that "Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him." That's funny. He's been living with Eli the priest since his weaning. He was "lying down in the temple, where the ark of God was," and yet he "did not yet know the Lord," because "...the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him." He didn't just soak it up? Even if, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days [and] visions were not widespread," you'd think that living in the temple, Samuel would have picked up on what was what. Didn't Eli fill him in?

Eli seems to see what's going on even though his "eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see." Once he wakes up enough to realize what's going on, he tells Samuel right away what to do: Listen.

But no. Samuel doesn't know what's going on until Eli tells him. But then Samuel immediately does what Eli tells him to do.

That got me to thinking. God knows he's got a plan for Samuel. Hannah has promised God her son and followed through by turning him over to Eli. God's got Samuel where he will need him, but then God waits. And I imagine Eli was waiting too, on God.

Then, suddenly, God determines that it's time, and he calls out to Samuel. But Samuel doesn't know what to do... Or does he? He runs to Eli again and again, because that is his duty. He serves Eli, or so he believes. But in serving Eli, he is being prepared to serve God.

I imagine Samuel's temple work was thankless -- lost to his doting mother, his horse hitched to this old man's wagon. Read a little of Leviticus or Deuteronomy and remember how bloody things were around the temple. I expect Samuel did a lot of the dirty -- and I mean dirty -- work.
Being steeped in church or religion isn't enough, although I've often wanted it to be. I've thought, If I could just devote all my time to churchy stuff, then I'd be really serving God.

Instead, God has called me to do the dirty work. It can be pretty dirty too, sometimes blood or other bodily fluids flowing from a child or a pet. More often my dirt is just dirt -- on mountains of dishes and heaps of clothes and floors and toilets and sinks. Maybe here, in the dirt I am just where God wants me, so when he calls, I can run to my duty and be led to listen.

January 17, 2009

Evil Be Gone

"For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." - Romans 8:38-39

I used to roll my eyes at the idea of "spiritual warfare." I'd hear people talk about it and imagine some B-movie silliness involving demons and angels and darkness and flames. Now I'm not so sure. I notice that in the times when I draw close to God, chaos encroaches on my life in new ways. Sometimes it's dreams, weird, disturbing, vaguely evil.

C.S. Lewis begins The Screwtape Letters with the following two quotations:

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."—Luther

"The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked."—Thomas More

Consequently, in one sense, I try not to take evil too seriously, but to take it just seriously enough. Right in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus instructs us to pray for deliverance "from the Evil One," even if we don't always translate it just that way.

St. Theresa of Avila, in her dense, mysterious writings, talks about how the spiritual dangers increase dramatically the closer we draw to the person of God. The only refuge is to draw closer still. She warns of how one can fall from the greatest heights of union with God to the lowest depths of Hell.

In me, there is nothing dramatic about my fall away from grace. It is a pitifully short lurch from heighth to depth; if Theresa is descending from Everest, I'm falling out of bed. I just get lazy and quit my evening prayer, then my morning prayer. I forget that I'm not God. Again.

And that's that, and evil has managed again to separate me from God. For the moment. I, in my sin and weakness and doubt, am left with the climax of Romans 8. I have thought, if I were left with only two verses of scripture, I hope they'd be these. Because they give me hope long past the point of my deserving to hope. Neither death, nor life, nor laziness, nor ignorance, nor stupidity nor any other human failing... Nothing. Ever.

January 16, 2009

Walking in Babylon

'Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hid from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.' - Isaiah 40:27-31

"My right is disregarded by my God," says Israel. And I. "He does not grow faint," but I do.

There are so many days when it's easy to think I've got it handled. I am riding high, doing my thing. God, who? He can keep his distance, because I've got it under control. Israel too. There they were with the great king they'd asked for, conquering the land. They were on top of the world. It didn't last. A few lousy kings, marauding hoardes of Assyrians, a conquering mob of Babylonians, and it was all a distant memory.

It takes far less than armed soldiers to throw me off my game. Something happens that disrupts my plans for the day. Someone makes a comment that gets under my skin. Next thing I know, I'm in some God-forsaken Babylon, wondering what happened. Where is He anyway?

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. " The ends of the earth. That's where I feel like I have slunk off to some days. You mean to say He's here too?

"Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." Someone wiser than I once pointed out in my hearing that this says: Maybe you can fly. If not, maybe you can run. Or at least get up and walk.

On the worst day, I can put one foot in front of the other, because "He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength." And maybe once I'm up, walking, I'll learn to run. And then, maybe, I'll fly. Even today.

January 15, 2009

The Empty Pot

It's probably a very old story. Demi's version at least is set in China. The aging emperor is looking for a successor. Being a lover of flowers, he provides a seed to every child in the land. The child who can produce the most beautiful flower from his or her seed will be rewarded by becoming his royal heir.

Little Ping loves flowers too, and he is a master gardener. He is filled with great joy over the opportunity to engage the challenge. He lovingly places his seed in a small pot filled with rich soil. He waters and tends it. It does not sprout. He moves his little seed to a roomier pot with soil that is black as ink. Days and weeks and months go past, and still the soil remains unbroken.

In despair, Ping returns to the throne of the emperor with an empty pot. Surrounding him are happy children with unimaginablely beautiful blossoms bursting from their pots. Ping is doubly heartsick knowing that he has grown flowers more beautiful still. But not this time.

The emperor examines the children's flowers one by one. Though each is more exquisite than the last, the emperor becomes more and more sullen. As he reaches the last child's flower, his face is darkly clouded and creased deeply with sadness.

At last he espies Ping. Ping's head is hung in shame, yet he bravely approaches the king. "Your pot is empty," says he. "Why?"

Ping haltingly and earnestly explains the small pot and the rich soil and the large pot and the black soil and the watering and the tender words and the hope and the love and the abject failure.

The emperor, to everyone's great shock, laughs with joy and embraces little Ping.

"Meet your new emperor!" he cries. "I do not know where you got those seeds," he says passingly to the hoard of speechless children still holding their beautiful blooms. "Every seed I gave to you was cooked and so could never grow."

The test was never what it appeared to be. It looked to all the world to be flower growing, but it wasn't. It was virtue growing: patience, endurance, hope, honesty, humility, courage.

My pot may be empty today. I may hold it with an empty heart too, and with shame and disappointment and a feeling of real failure. I could have grown a beautiful flower, but my pot stands empty. The emperor is waiting. Will I come and lay it at his feet?

January 14, 2009


'Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."' - John 20:24-29 (RSV)

I've been thinking a lot about resurrection and what it means. My five year old son is excited for his resurrection body, because he'll be able to go through doors when they are shut. I feel excited about the scars.

I have long thought it is intensely interesting that the risen Christ bears "the print of the nails." If I'd planned it, I'd have healed those up. When I play God, I want the wounds to disappear and the flesh to be as if there were never nails or thorns or the rough wood of the cross. God begs to differ. We only know about one resurrected body, Jesus', and we know that Jesus enters new life carrying the deepest scars of the old.

So will I. If I think that God is going to remove the evidence of either the sin I've committed or the sin I've suffered, I've got another thing coming. The scars will all be there when creation is renewed. When I meet Jesus face to face, I'll see his. He already sees mine. There's no point in pretending.

That's what's so exciting. If I believe, and I do, that I have been born by baptism into the renewed creation starting now then I can claim my scars today. I can look at the scars I've caused and the ones I carry in my flesh. I don't have to show them off, but neither do I have to hide them.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," but I suspect that most of us are more like Thomas. I am. It's easier for me to believe when I see the scars, both my own and others'. Did Thomas really touch the wounds of Christ? Maybe. Or maybe it was enough that the offer was made. If I'm called to bear the image of God, like Christ, then I need to make the offer too.