Now and Forever: Two Perspectives

English: The side wall of St John The Divine.Last week I took part in the wedding of a dear friend. I journeyed thousands of miles and missed my five-year college reunion to be there, and never for a moment did I question whether it was worth it. The joyful thought of celebrating this union was so great that nothing could have held me back. I decked myself in flowers and cried through the ceremony and signed my name to their wedding vows. Then I feasted and drank wine and danced like the silly, shameless white girl I am until they shut us down.

That day I saw two lives become one life, witnessed the eternal becoming visible. It was a great mystery. I practiced for the great Wedding to which I’ll someday be called. Hopefully when I get the invitation I’ll drop everything and run with a joy that cannot be held back.

The next morning I was cruel to a friend. It was nothing particularly horrendous, just a common cruelty like so many I’ve inflicted on my loved ones over the years. I swore and snapped and brushed away a hand that tried to comfort me. I lost my temper, lost my faith in the love that had danced through me the night before, that it could carry me though the sadness and uncertainty of the morning.

That morning I saw Christ in my friend’s face, in the blunt betrayal she felt, the stricken tenderness of her eyes. And I saw Peter in the mirror. Peter, whose promises of love until death still rang in his ears as his lips betrayed his friend. Peter, who chose to bask in the warmth of a fire and his own pride rather than brave the darkness of a brief night. Peter, who was forgiven and, despite everything, given more chances to say, “You know I love you.” Thank God, I was given that chance too.

Then I visited New York City for the first time. In the crush of bodies and the chaos of lights I felt like an alien on earth. I saw marble cathedrals swarming with angels but almost empty of humans. I saw Times Square, objects of desire all over everything, ludicrously larger than life. I walked the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I saw the face of Christ all over the walls, and then I looked away and it was all around me too.

I could see all the sights of New York and look right past what was truly worth noticing. If my faith is true, the most magnificent buildings will erode to marble dust and every light in the metropolis will burn out someday, but human beings will last forever. If my faith is true, I just walked among over eight million unique, irreplaceable, handcrafted works of art, more valuable than anything in any museum.

Jesus offers a change in perspective to those with eyes to see. He invites me to see things his way every day. These are the glimpses I try to see through the darkness of my smudged glasses. When the light behind my eyes is darkness, everything seems meaningless, random, and cruel. But when my eyes flood my body with light, I see every moment as an echo of forever.

See You Next Week!

Hi everyone! Just wanted to let you know I am off on a fabulous vacation this week, including the wedding of a dear friend. I love weddings for obvious reasons, and I’m sure I will cry buckets at this one. I was hoping to have some content to auto-post while I was gone, but life got in the way. So I’ll just enjoy the spirit of Sabbath for now and come back to you next week refreshed! Take care!

The Good News Cupcake

My family had just gone out to eat at Govinda’s, an Indian restaurant in the nearest city. After we enjoyed the buffet, we browsed the gift shop that adjoined the restaurant. Never bored where books were at hand, my eyes skimmed the shelves, until I heard my dad and the restaurant owner having a polite but somewhat tense discussion. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I wondered. Dad told us in the car on the way home that the owner had handed him a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and tried to convince him to consider Hinduism.

My dad was philosophical about this exchange. “It’s like a cupcake,” he said. “When you eat a cupcake and you think it’s really great, you want everyone else to try it too. That’s where people come from when they’re telling you about religion. They’re trying to share something good with you.”

Teenage me was a little shocked at this. I knew my father, Jewish by birth, had been evangelized by not a few of his business clients over the years. Mostly, this consisted of a matter-of-fact declaration that he was going to Hell unless he accepted Jesus into his heart. Their out-of-the-blue efforts had made him feel disrespected and devalued as a person, left without any chance to share his own experiences, feelings, and needs. So I couldn’t help but admire his reaction to another attempt, his statement that all these conversations were just an attempt to share joy, to give someone else a delicious taste of happiness.

Now, ten years since that night at Govinda’s, I’m tempted to share my own source of sweetness. I’d be lying if I said that’s not partly why I write here. My dad’s analogy was apt: my relationship with Jesus is like a rich dessert that begs to be shared with those I love.  I write to invite those who hunger for more, whose mouths long to lose their bitter taste, to take a bite. Taste and see.

My dear friends who don’t call yourselves Christian, I hope you all can be as gracious as Dad was that night. Whether or not you bite, I hope you know my flawed words are driven by a desire to share what is good out of love.

If you don’t want a taste, I don’t blame you. I know, from my family’s experience and also my own, how quickly what was meant to be sweet can become bitter. How someone can say they want to share good news with you and you wonder why this good news sounds so bad. Why, if this person comes to share a great love with you, their words can be so unloving, so angry and hateful.

I’ve been there myself. And I want to say sincerely, I am sorry. Sorry that we Christians don’t live up to our words, that we’re so often slow to listen, quick to condemn, quick to get angry. There is no excuse. I’m sorry.

Honestly, it took a lot of courage for me to write the first entry on this blog. There were months of stops and starts. I didn’t want to be that person, someone who sees people as projects, who reduces the world to black and white, who’s too busy talking to listen. But I realized that if I love friends and family and strangers, I have to be real with them. I have to share what I love. I have to say in all honesty and joy, “This cupcake is amazing! If you want, you can have a bite!”

So thank you for bearing with me and my cupcake obsession. Maybe my particular recipe will never tempt your tastes. Maybe sweetness and fulfilment will find you in some completely different way. God is big, and the banquet prepared for us is inexhaustible. I just want to thank you for sitting at the table with me and sharing its delights.

In the Darkness: A Father’s Day Post

My father cried in the movie theater when the hunter shot Bambi’s mom.

When I think of him, I often think of this, and the unguarded way he told us kids about it. This is a fact about my dad: he’s not ashamed to cry.

My dad is not your typical dad in a lot of ways. Your typical Father’s Day card themes just don’t fit him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wear a tie. Before he sold the carpet cleaning business he owned, he liked working for himself, working with his hands, pushing his body to the edge sometimes. He’s never played golf, never watched sports games. I didn’t even know what the Superbowl was as a kid.

Also unlike a lot of dads, he’s never been afraid to say things right out loud. When I was a kid, he and my mom were both incredibly vocal about their confidence in my future. There was obviously never a doubt in their minds I would attend and graduate college, for instance, and because of that, I never really doubted it myself. Even now, he never misses a chance to tell me he’s proud of me and trusts the decisions I make.

Dad also enjoys analyzing things and arguing for his point of view, a trait I inherited. He and I got into some heated discussions during my teen years about religion, science, technology, political issues. My sister shook her head and left the room, astounded by how passionately we could fight over cosmic issues that seemingly had little to do with our daily lives. I remember some times that we ended up all-out screaming at each other. But the thing is, I could do that with him. I felt safe with him. I knew I could scream my heart out to him without any fear that he would stop loving me.

Of course, there were several years in my teens when I barely spoke to him. Because of my mom’s addiction, because of how my dad tried to protect us from it and how he sometimes failed to do so, I felt profoundly unsafe around both my parents at times. I felt I had to shut them out of my heart just to survive. I know my near-total silence hurt him worse than any screaming could have done.

I remember vividly one late night or early morning when he came and sat down in the computer room where I spent most of my time. I’d been up all night chatting with friends across the country, my new partners in friendly debate, about subjects I never brought to my dad anymore. In a few hours, I’d go to bed, living on an opposite schedule from everyone else in the house, minimizing my contact with them.

There was no light in the room except for the glow of the computer. Dad sat there in the dark for awhile. Then he said something like, “You know, the way you’re treating me right now, ignoring me, not talking to me, it really hurts, and I don’t even understand why you’re doing it. But you know what, that’s okay. I’m going to wait. I know we’ll be close again someday, and I’m going to wait for you to come around. I know you will. I love you.”

Among all my memories of my dad,  this one stands out to me . I wasn’t able to appreciate at the time the enormous love that motivated his words that night. Rather than writing me off or even venting his frustration to me, he sat there in the dark and said he would wait for me, in love, to move closer to him again.

My father isn’t God (obviously), but I believe the God who is often called a Heavenly Father has often shown himself to me in my earthly father. I believe in a tenderhearted God, one who cries over a hurting, orphaned child. I believe in a God who is quick to show love, whose visions and promises give us hope for the future. I believe in a God who can take our frustrated screaming or our stony silence. I believe in a God who is unafraid to sit in darkness, loving us utterly despite our refusal to reciprocate or our inability to trust, waiting patiently for us to come around.

No Ordinary Time: Incarnation and Easter

Jesus mary

(Photo credit: @Doug88888)

We’re officially back in Ordinary Time in the Church calendar. I know, that’s kind of hilarious – wouldn’t you just love being able to say, “Great! A break from all the highs and lows of life, the rat race, all my issues and frantic hopes. Now we get to take a breath and live in ordinary time.” I know I would.

Ordinary Time just means the holidays, feasts, and fasts are over for the moment. It means that in the great Story we play out every year, we are back in the middle of Jesus’s life, neither gestation nor passion. We get to hear stories about Jesus’s ordinary life, such as it was: healing people, breaking bread with them, wandering, praying.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my heart was kind of stuck in Lent this year, not readily able to wrap around such an enormous miracle as Resurrection. If you haven’t guessed, I can be too serious for my own good. Deserts and fasting I understand. But what does it mean to say not only that Jesus rose, but that he is presently risen? That the baby named “God with us” is still with us, to the end of time?

I’ve been reading a book called The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser. I would really recommend it to anyone as an introduction to Christian spirituality, because a) he asks hard questions honestly, and b) he uses plain, simple language throughout. In one chapter he talks about what an incarnational faith might look like. That is to say, what does it mean to realize fully that the Incarnation of Jesus isn’t something that happened for a thirty-year period and then never again, but rather it never stopped. Incarnational faith means believing the world was changed when God lived in it, and now every living thing is infected with holiness. We can never go back to a life in which God is remote and distant or the world hostile and irredeemable. We’ve been living in the Kingdom ever since the King came to us.

Rolheiser’s simple words satisfied something deep in my heart. Philip Yancey writes in his book The Jesus I Never Knew that it’s harder for him to accept the Ascension in his heart than the Passion or the Resurrection; why would Jesus leave us? I guess the same question was weighing on me too. But he didn’t leave us. He promised he wouldn’t. He dwells now in all kinds of fragile flesh and ephemeral beauty, in all my loved ones, in the beauty and power of nature, in every living thing that stakes a claim on our heart. Just like Jesus to make himself so humble, so vulnerable. Just like him to reveal his glory slowly, gently, only to those who have eyes to see.

Go On, Break My Heart

When I volunteered at the refugee soup kitchen in Athens, before doors opened for the day, the staff would sit down at one of the mangled cafeteria-style tables to pray out loud together. Being a rookie, I mostly listened. There was this Greek woman on staff, and she would pray in English with a warm, velvety, accented voice for Jesus to “break our hearts today.”

At the time, this seemed kind of odd to me. I figured it was because English wasn’t her first language. I thought she must mean soften our hearts today.

Now I know she knew what she meant. Those big double doors flew open each day and the masses poured in like a flash flood. So many countries, so many wounds, so many needs, so many children. I was often the greeter for the day, sitting by the door with a cheat sheet for Hello, How many tickets? and Thank you in at least a dozen different languages. Secondhand sadness clung to me even from these casual encounters. In some cases, I learned to guess a person’s nationality by the particular shade of dejection on their face.

Sometimes it felt like too much, and I tuned out. I smiled and handed out meal tickets mechanically. I set up a wall in my heart, then hung a sign on the wall that said, That much loss will never be known here. You and I are basically different.

That is the opposite of compassion. Compassion is letting someone in so they’re no longer alone with their pain. And the when you’re in there with their pain, it gets all over you too. Sometimes all you can do is cry together.

I’m just now beginning to realize how much I shy away from brokenheartedness, my own and other people’s. Someone tells me they’re going through a hard time and instead of empathizing, I tell them to look on the bright side. I have a hard day and I try to shoulder it alone until I totally fall apart. On some level, sharing burdens feels like sharing germs.

So I guess that was a good prayer after all.

I never signed up to have my heart broken… or maybe I did. Jesus tried to warn me.

Forgetting: A Story Retold

Conversion detail, St. Paul's, Cambridge

Conversion detail, St. Paul’s, Cambridge (Photo credit: TheRevSteve)

I could spend my time remembering being perfect. I could trace the river of my blood back to the beginning of time; the holy books were written on my heart. I never missed a day set apart in solemnity or celebration. My sacrifices were pleasing, my heart and hands clean. I thanked God I was not some heretic following a lunatic. I was on the side of right.

Forget that garbage.

I could buckle under the weight of the gaze Stephen fixed on me, his words ringing uncomprehended in my ears. I could dredge the memory up from my body: the crowd of witnesses rushing toward him, throwing their cloaks at my feet, scooping up stones. I can still hear the sound of the first one falling. The satisfaction I felt at that moment, knowing his words would be silenced, lives in my body like a poison, a pollution, a stain.

Forget this body.

I no longer need to be pure. I no longer live in mortal guilt. Now I am a new creation. New name, new family, new homeland, new mission, new life. I can’t afford to waste a second in regretting the prestige I lost, the power I abused. There is only the voice that called me, the power that threw me to the ground, the light that came after the blindness. There is no time but eternity. There’s nothing to do but run the race in the sure knowledge it’s already won.