Tuesday, May 28

Midrash and Mist

The Jewish word meaning "to search out" is midrash.

Midrash is my summer practice.  During early mornings on the deck I dive right in -- scouring a bit of James, a little Nehemiah, finding the tough places, asking questions of the text and putting my imagination to work.  I cannot just walk away from the hazy and uncertain or throw up my hands.  I have to formulate some reply.  The fact that others give different answers tells me we, none of us, haven't quite got our finger on it.

In word and in life, this is my summer of midrash.

I'll espouse midrash of the Scripture and midrash of the heart.
I'll take sabbatical and reconnect with the call.
I'll take a journey -- going where I need to go for my soul.
I'll read and write.
I'll meet with a mentor and a model.

We have not drawn out a plan, a list of goals, a despotic checklist of objectives.  But, just like Lent, we have practices that we have given-up and are taking-up.  I cannot say that we'll actually reach anything or anywhere, only that we'll reach out as if to grasp it.  I can say that God-willing we will live and we will do and we will search.

I grew comfortable with this as I read through James -- the book that seems to push us harder into work.  (Often enough, we turn around and turn that work into tasks and in the course of time we then cease to do the deeper work at all.)  Yet, James is not a taskmaster and he challenges everyone who has a definite procedure:
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit - " yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.
What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 
Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills we will live and we will do this or that." 
As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.   
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
It actually sounded nice, this business of being mist.  I first wanted it to be a complement.  A recall of my memories: walking under refreshing misters on covered sidewalks in hot desert towns, growing-up waterskiing, running the sprinklers, practicing art techniques, and traveling the Lake District.  All of my experiences with mist have involved rejuvenation and refreshment.  Years living in the Pacific Northwest, the enduring gray mist was our connecting conversation and comfort.  It was the thing that joined and settled us.

And then midrash kicked in

I accepted the idea that I could be that connector, that settler, rejuvenater and restorer in my short life.  But James isn't offering that complement, because while mist appears it limits our visibility and blurs our perception.  It's present, but not completely.  Its influence is temporary.

How often do we think we're offering life and help and leadership, when we're actually clouding the way forward?  Our arrogance-filled wisdom -- maybe we send it as prophecy -- is really fogging the vision for others.  How often do we blur perceptions of God with our judgments and conclusions?  "This is what God wants..." "This is the way we must go forward..."

The mist is the half-presence of an immature sight.
The mist is the obstacle to clarity.
The mist is the claim that we know God's purpose, or that man's heart.

In our arrogant endeavors, we are the mist.

Mist is water broken up into a million little pieces.  Over the course of our days this is certainly what happens to us, taking hit after hit, learning more of what we don't know.  Or maybe broken is how we begin our life and we spend our days trying to congeal into one small redeeming drop that might join a pool, a river.  Which is our beginning and which is our end?

Now the midrash is in motion. 

{Summer of Midrash}

Thursday, May 23

What We Say When We Call it Faith

The hardest part of the surgery is watching those little eyes close.

When the banks along those two blue, blue pools of water fall and close in, I know he's off to see another shore for a while.

Then comes the sigh of relief.  He's resting in capable hands.

This youngest boy, taking on the world every day, is the gregarious one.  And today the bravest; never dragged feet, hesitated, shivered a bottom lip.  He breathed the gas, squeezed the arm, solid as a rock when the needle entered.  Just a poke.  A nervous giggle.  He took his peace into the chair and under the knife.  I wished him good sleep and left to my chair in waiting.

These words wanted to come in those minutes, as they ticked by, because its a story that reveals strength and vulnerability.  In the back of the mind of every mother who sits in this chair is the fear that she may never swim in those blue pools again.  Each time I reassured a brother about today's work, I reassured myself.  But when those eyes closed, it as as if the sun went dark.  This waiting place is the dim.

Both are here: dark and light, faith and relief.  Because I think that faith comes alive when the unknown seizes upon it.  I doubt my own reassurances and yet I still believe.  Assuming that belief is knowledge cheats us from really making it the trust that it is -- like looking at the darkness and calling it a presence instead of an absence.  It's still darkness, but it's still connected to light.

He walked into the darkness with mettle and nerve.  He lay down and trusted my direction; me who wears his name on my heart.  If he, boy of six, can peacefully contend with the unknown by placing himself in capable hands, then so can I.

Can't I?

Strapped safely in his seat belt, groggy from the procedure he says to me, limp upper lip, gauze in his mouth: "Mom, do I have to come back here?"
"Just once," I guarantee.

He doesn't fight.  He doesn't groan.  He just accepts his new sense of things unknowing that it's exactly what we say when we call it faith.

Friday, May 17

When You Can't

...sleep because the sun is already up and you remember last summer's generative habit of word and pen out on the deck before the small people emerged from their beds.  But there are still other books to finish before the summer's practice book begins and just a few pages in this journal to fill before the new one, fresh with the unknown can be opened.  And so you tussle in the in-between looking out at the chairs shaded under the Crabapple and whisper, "soon."

...eat because the stomach's knots are particularly fierce and the heart is beating too fast and you keep bounding back and forth between stuffing the entitlement down, down and trying to understand how grace can actually slow among friends.  Searching for a solution takes days and too much time and what else is there to think about?

...plan because the boy is in his last days learning under your wing and it's time for summer tutelage to begin from professor earth and water and baseball and bike.  In any other year, next week you'd rush out to the sandbox with joy, breathing in the freedom air and line up all the summer read-alouds giddy with the non-required.  But in this final year you find yourself gripping the days and projects and taking long looks that follow the shape of his perfect small nose.  You drink in his laughter like water before a drought.

...quiet because the appointments are popping up in your memory too late, and the Bible study that was the anchor is finished, and certain transactions are still incomplete, home and car repairs looming again, and the workout is not going to happen today.  When you sit on the tops of all the plates spinning and can't see how to get from one to the next to stop them. This,yes, happens to pastor's wives too.  When we see all the swirling around us and determine not to jump in, it only takes one morning to wake up anxious, drinking from a canteen filled with hot desert wind.

But God hasn’t moved to the mountains;
    his holy address hasn’t changed.
He’s in charge, as always, his eyes
    taking everything in, his eyelids
Unblinking, examining Adam’s unruly brood
    inside and out, not missing a thing.
He tests the good and the bad alike;
    if anyone cheats, God’s outraged.
Fail the test and you’re out,
    out in a hail of firestones,
Drinking from a canteen
    filled with hot desert wind.
God’s business is putting things right;
    he loves getting the lines straight,
Setting us straight. Once we’re standing tall,
    we can look him straight in the eye.
                             Psalm 11: 4-7

Tuesday, May 14

Spem in Alium*

I inherited the Allium.  They preceded me in the soil of my home and were a cheerful surprise just after our first month opening boxes, arranging beds, and finding our spoor roads to food and library and park.

Every year I dig up the bulbs and move them into a new shape to see if they can work together better in the spring.  I haven't found the right way to plant them yet; they don't quite feel like mine.

Wet spring snows bury and thwart them and I shake my fist wishing they could just live out their story so I could see what they really want to be after years of blooming and dying back in this place.

I don't know the stories of this house, the fights and families and flights that took place here, but I know that someone took a trowel and dug holes for these bulbs and watered them enough that they'd push their purple orbs toward the sky like flags to mark the path of the heartbeat inhumed in the soil.

The house we live in was chosen in a whirlwind of opening doors and ever increasing "yeses." We picked it like we picked our church -- pragmatically and missionally.

Will it do what it should?

Will it serve more than just us?

Will it enable us to live purposefully?

Will it stay on its foundation?

Can we make it something new?

We saw what it could become.  It was easy to spot the lesser strengths:  the lack of a garage, anything growing, a guest room, a place to play, a welcoming front walk and a sending one out the back.

We've reconciled much.  Now we can grow, protect, invite, house and nurture much more than we ever could when we first turned the key after those hopeful 1,250 miles of homeless transition.

Now some walls are painted but more beauty can still come.  Boys play on the thick back lawn and run laps in the softness just for the feel of it.  Grapevines reach for the arbor with years ahead of them until they reach their fullness.  Hydrangeas try so, so hard just to respire, forget about blooming; they're welcome to keep trying here.

Most recently, guests can now stay in their own comfortable room with a door that is not the-hide-a-bed-in-the-basement.  It was a particularly grown-up moment for me when I could say, "Here, I took this out of what I had and made this space for you."

It's not the most striking home, the most finished.  It's not close to perfect, but it's carrying the weight of purposeful.  And we realize, given its age and neighborhood, that we are near the limit of what we should reasonably invest in it.  But we'll continue to let it serve us and others because it has greater potential that is yet unknown.

The metaphor could go on and on.  But this home, and this people, has potential to be and become.  I'm not the first one to come do work here, but I am -- we are, we have always known-- to take it to the next thing it should be.  We'll keep rearranging and renovating until we at last can grow directly from the heartbeat we inherited in the soil.

*   Spem in Alium
     I have never put my hope in any other but in You,

O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness.
 -- Thomas Tallis  c.1570  

Tuesday, May 7

The Gladness that Meets Us

In the middle of everything else there was this moment.

  • Working on a busy little room renovation in our home.
  • The oldest son turned 14.  Sleepover and sugar included.
  • Youngest son was referred to the oral surgeon.  We knew this would be coming.
  • Connecting with the heater repairman, the leaders for a meeting, doing planning for the retreat.
  • Making a list of summer activities suited to boys by priority and price.

Meanwhile middle son is quietly trying to find his ankle brace, his mouthguard.  He's watching his forms on the DVD, privately practicing his board breaking kicks.  He's nervous and stops us from saying, "Sunday, after your test, we have..."  or even from mentioning "Sunday" at all.

The young boy is turning to young man quickly, almost as quickly as it takes to switch the blue belt to red.  But this was for brown and brown did not come easily.  The four-and-a-half hour test poured out everything he knew from white through red onto the dojang floor; all the forms and combinations, all the grappling and breaking and sparring.  He forged through the past four years of his life in one afternoon and stepped dogged into a new rank, the one he was becoming.

Oh, that we all could enter a new period as exhausted and proud and aware of what it took to get there.

It's the amazement that follows the gladness that follows the shipwreck.  Because, yes, even at 11 he thought he'd never make it through.  But he did and we do.  Because there is always a "Sunday, after your test..." And if we do survive shipwreck -- if we wash up to a new shore, perceiving more adequately how life really is -- there is eventually, gladness.1

And a new form of meaning is forged in that frightful struggle.  That gladness is not just relief but transformation. The belt actually changes from red to brown.  The sensei ties it around our waist.  We become and we see Becoming's power.

Brown is just before black, just before Master.  And he is just before adolescence, where no one is really  master at all.  But he knows now that there is another side of shipwreck and that gladness will be there to meet him much to his amazement and honor.

1   Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith by Sharon Daloz Parks 

Saturday, May 4

Power to Grasp

During my second attempt to join the new group, the words were read from the prayer of Ephesians, the book I had spent three months studying with good friends, that was as familiar to me as the face of my child.
"I ask that you'll comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ..."
Or that's what I thought it said, what I'd always paraphrased it as.  But this version was different:
"I ask that you'll have the power to grasp love's width and length, height and depth, together with all believers... "
Could it be something I'd overlooked?  Paul seems to ask on our behalf that God will give power to grasp this kind of love -- all encompassing, ever-widening -- not just that we'll understand it, or experience it, but that we'll hold on with the grip of Beowulf in order to get to God's fullness.

This is love like horsepower, we hold onto the reigns of the charging beast headed away from danger. This is love like a wet baby; lifting it from the bath with tender fingers sure and firm.  This is love like a steep slope, ever tall, that we scale across not looking down and not looking back.

This new layer challenged me. This love required more than my contemplation, but power, for me to grasp. This love was a force.

The words were said over us to prepare us for the next twenty minutes.  We were to do the Prayer of Examen and say and hear what could normally occupy a few hours.  And we all -- women of different generations, occupations, and expectations -- set out through the patio doors, spilled out into the spring grass, and the gardens, and the nook behind the cedars.

Prayer of Examen:  Become aware of God's presence.  Review the day with gratitude.  Pay attention to each emotion.  Choose one and pray from that place.  Move it into tomorrow.

Scanning through all of this, I made my lists of gratitudes and emotions.  Choosing one took me to the usual gym, early morning at 5 a.m. Gloves on, trainer relentless, sharing a bag with another determined woman.  But this day the other was a man and I could feel his strength radiate through and dead-stop my every punch.  Hooks and jabs and sidekicks, all met a hard resistance through that bag.  Glances at the clock, stopping for breath, but pushing until the hour was up.  He had no idea how deep was my "thanks" when we were done, gloves ripped off to wipe the sweat from our brows.

That sense of power and the place of my prayer in that twenty minutes, I know, surprises and awakens me because it comes from so many years of weakness.   I can be an adequate partner.  I can be a competent mother.  I can be an equal.  I have a voice and a vocation.   God loves it all.  And on that grassy hill, overlooking stream and field and path, muscles still relaxing from the morning workout I heard, "You are not powerless."

Love is not beyond reach.  But it is a fierce love, a moving love, a coercion and an impact; a strength of its own.  In order to move into tomorrow we must arrange our lives in order to receive power; in order to hold on, to grasp.