Dancing In The Pool

poolThere is something about an indoor pool; how the voices and the light bounce around wildly.  I took in the sight of them; flipping, splashing, hollering, sputtering, and swimming with great gusto, their arms slapping the water while their ineffectual kicks didn’t quite break the surface until stroke three.  A young one swimming can bring to mind someone blindly fighting horizontally, all flailing.

I swam away from them, keeping all their precious selves in full view.  Do you pretend any more?  That faithful childhood voyage of the mind into fiction?  If you say “fantasy” anymore only lurid connotations surface, unless, of course, you follow it with “football”.  How telling that we’ve pigeon-holed that word into our culture’s favorite gluts:  sex and sports.

Well…there my arm extended to the side, my slow-moving underwater form all grace and effortlessly on pointe.  I was a ballerina there for some stolen moments, twirling, dancing in the pool.  The kids were none the wiser.  Any passersby would think I was engaged in some water aerobics.  Because adults don’t pretend anymore…do they?

It happens too, whenever I wear a dress shoe with a hard sole; you know the ones that make that delightful mincing click when you walk?  It’s when that click meets stone walkways or brick sidewalks, right there, I am transported by imagination’s fancy, to being a princess in a castle or out in her gardens.  Heck, I can’t even don an apron without a jolt of pioneer-woman stealing over my good sense.

Perhaps why I enjoyed the stage so much.  I got to actually act out a life I wasn’t born into.  I was definitely a method actor, donning not only a costume but a whole new self for the span of an hour.  It made my tears real ones and my emotions ran raw or giddy alongside my character’s.  In one play I was to stage-slap a fellow actor across the face (meaning, I was supposed to slap lower on his neck and not actually on his cheek). Every show I had to apologize afterwards because every time I was so into character that I’d slap him right across the face in indignation.  Oh dear.

I moved back across the pool, satisfied by my temporary transport to the ballet stage, and became, in turn, a shark chasing minnows and a dolphin to ride on.

I thought about pretending, and really, I think it is more commonly engaged than realized.  Even reading a suspense novel, we have our hearts pounding, our palms sweat; we have in a way identified with the character and are living out what happens to them.  Television and movies are certainly voyeuristic and provoke engagement with our imaginations.  On a darker note, porn owes much of it’s consumption from the loneliness and discontent of men.

Pretending.

But here’s what I’ll promise you.  I may pretend briefly to be a ballerina or a shark or a princess fleeing in tippy-tappy shoes through her garden, but I won’t pretend to be okay.  I won’t pretend that life tips always in my favor, nor that my own sins don’t reek of rot.  I won’t pretend that faith is enough to wipe the sorrows away, nor that with Jesus at my side, I can make it through anything.  Because, really, He never said I could.  He only said that He would be with me, ceaselessly beside me, loving me.  I can’t pretend that doesn’t thrill me.  That the Lover of my soul, the Creator of all that is, is ever with me, ever loving imperfect me. That the sufferings of life on this terrestrial ball aren’t the eternal things, much as they pretend to be.

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On a Sabbath Made Strange

The song played as we drove.  We laced our fingers together, which was way too warm and just right.  Tears rolled freely down my face as the passing landscape smeared by.

We’d been invited to lunch with dear friends; we had looked forward to sharing of their warm hospitality and always-wonderful food, but we had to cancel.  The raging waves of grief were breaking hard on our first Sunday as “homeless” Christians.  We needed to drive, so we drove.

We let the song break right over us, let it pull the grief open for us, and we sang along, downright belting it out.  Not sure what the kids thought.

We pulled into the Baltimore Museum of Art; it was free and I needed beauty.  Maybe some won’t understand that.  Beauty has a way of pulling my soul up from my feet and feeding it.  It speaks to that soul laid-low in the language of color and line and strokes of cadmium red.

Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Matisse, Raphael, Klimt; they all showed up and did my soul a service.  1,700 year-old Antiochian mosaics helped too.  And “The Thinker”, stooped over in thought; at least I’m not the only one stumped.

I might be grieving a bit hard.  But that is because I love hard.  Mildness is not my modus operandi.  If you have once worked your way into my heart, it is highly probable that you shall always have a residence there.

The day winds down to a wash of grays growing darker.  But I see green coming up, I see green.

Below The Rind

Suji spread the pasty batter over the hot pan, widening it out into a thin circle with the back of a spoon.  Just the way I do it, actually.  Dosas only take a minute to cook, only a minute until they’re used, warm and delicious, to scoop up sambal and curry and potatoes with cumin and chili.  This was breakfast in her home on day two of our new friendship.

I took in the details of her apartment; metal plates, cups, and specialty cooking dishes.  A hefty industrial blender.  A sparkling new vintage-style bicycle in the living room with the price tag hanging on it.  The deep permeation of cooking spices so that to breathe is almost to taste curry.  Dried flowers glued to a framed portrait of Hindu gods.

I had brushed up on Indian dining etiquette before I came over, so I asked to wash my hands before I ate and carefully made sure the dosa and the sauces ended together.  I also, genuinely, complimented the food profusely which brought a quietly pleased half-smile to her face.

We went to a lecture together that my friend was giving on using natural and herbal remedies.  It was the first time she’d ever been in a church building and found it amazingly “huge”.  We visited another friend’s greenhouse and I tried to buy her flowers, but she would have none of it.  For some reason that I may never understand, the thought of it made her sad.

We talked and talked.  Ninety percent of our conversation was her asking for work, for a job, for me to tell people that she is a good cook and can sell a whole meal, that she has a clean kitchen, etc.  I honestly wish I were as well-connected as my refugee/immigrant friends think I am.  Or as rich (many have asked if they could clean for me, etc).  Most of all, I wish I were seen as a person rather than a resource.

I do understand it, I do.  It is very rattling to be without work and bills coming due.  And this all without the cushion of extended family nearby or even the security of speaking the local tongue.  After many years overseas in third world countries, I have developed a pretty thick skin to being seen as a rich resource rather than a person, but still it at times saddens me.  Can you not see below the rind?  I’m a person, not a means to an end.

Invariably though, as relationships progress, that does happen and true friendship emerges.  Sometimes they’re a bit embarrassed about how the relationship began.  In Chile a friend was chagrined that he made a big deal of showing me all the holes in his sweater the first day we met.

But here’s the grace, if you catch it….when you feel like a resource instead of a person, it is an excellent cautionary sign that you may be treating the other person like a charity case or a project instead of a person.  The sword cuts both ways.

We need to see and be seen.  We need to honor the sacred life before us and give it all the dignity owed to one of God’s creations.  We need to see below the rind and there begin, truly, to love.

Give Us This Day

daily…our daily bread.

Help us to not ask for tomorrow’s bread, or next year’s bread, or a promissory note for a lifetime’s worth of bread.  For bread security.

Just, let us awake each morning, finding that your care has not slacked.  Finding ourselves unforgotten.

daily1Food for the stomach and words for the soul.  In this time of rupture and grief, how very many biscuits and loaves and baguettes of sustaining words have been given to us.  How many arms linked together and hands reaching to catch us when the floor gave way.

Invitations to churches, to dinners, to communities.  It is overwhelming in the best sort of way.  It is like setting out on a journey, armed with a bit of bread and a bit of cheese, and being called in to a neighbor’s backyard barbecue feast.  And then another neighbor’s.  And then another’s.

Amazing.

Daily bread and surprising bread.  We are being sustained and cared for.  I gave birth to one of our sons in Chile, far from the supportive care of family.  I remember how vulnerable I felt.  And then the midwife drew near.  She kissed my cheeks when the pain came hard.  “Esta bien, mamita, esta bien”, she’d murmur.  I melted into that comfort.  I didn’t feel vulnerable; I felt mothered.

I feel the same now.  It doesn’t take away the pain, but frames it within bounds; it tells the pain that it is not the end of the story, nor the narrative of my life.  It is a passing thing, scream though it may.  It will be endured alongside the love and care of others; it will be borne in empathy.  It will accomplish its work within me and through me, and good will come of it, because God is not in the habit of wasting anything.

And again that verse from Isaiah….

Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”daily2

Broken

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We stood in the remnants of Juan’s home in Concepcion, Chile.  The walls tilted in wildly.  Tears ran down his cheeks; he had built this home with his own two hands.  Raised his children here.  The earthquake took all that away within minutes.  Unlike his neighbors who were crushed by debris, his family survived; they would live another day and make a new home elsewhere.  But, for now, there was just a lot of loss, a lot of grieving to be done.  How do you gather up the fragments, leave your beloved neighborhood, where people know your name and whose children played with yours, where the banter at day’s end was familiar and comforting as old slippers, broken-in just right?  How do you start over?  “Are you afraid to be in here?”, I asked Juan, because I certainly was afraid; the walls and ceilings bulged and sagged threateningly.  “Yes, I am afraid.  This could collapse at any second”.  Staying wasn’t an option.

It was Sunday, a day I had dreaded.  For the last time as a member, we slid into our pew and opened the hymnal.  Words stuck in my throat and I just found my eyes wandering to faces, to backs of heads.  I counted our losses, person by person.

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We left our church yesterday.  We didn’t sneak out the back door (though it was tempting).  We didn’t storm out either.  We got up front with our pastor and we shared a short letter:

Dearest Friends and Family,

We have a hard thing to share this morning.  We are leaving Landisville.  This has not been an easy nor a light decision to make.  You have been our community for many years.  You have nurtured us, you have sent us.  When I think of all that God did in Chile during our time there, I just thank Him for you; without you we could not have gone and made disciples.  We thank you so much for your generosity and support.  

There are issues being debated here and in the broader Mennonite Church that we do not believe are debatable.  Melodie Smith, now Melodie Dum, said recently that within the church there is room for diversity of belief on homosexuality.  There certainly may be room; the church may be like a large bus with a seat available for everyone, but if the bus is headed to New York and God has called you to Miami, it doesn’t matter if there’s a seat for you, it is not going the way you must go.  

Getting off the bus has all the pain and sting of a separation.  Please forgive us if we have offended or hurt you in our journeys together.  Our sincerest aim was to be a part of you, not to part from you.  We love you and will miss you.

Our assignment in Honduras has been postponed indefinitely as EMM does not send “homeless” missionaries.  If we find another church family who, after we have been rooted-in with them and knit together, agrees to send us, then we will have that hope of going.  If not, the monies you’ve invested into this vision will go toward sending others, but it will not be wasted, that we can be sure of.  Please pray for a family to be sent to fulfill the role in Honduras, one that could bring such blessing to so many.

In closing, I ask for your prayers; our family weeps at the loss of you.  Please pray for God’s Spirit to direct and guide us.  Please pray for our children, for whom transition has been the default of their young lives, that God would be their firm place which never shifts nor changes.  Please pray that God would give us hope in this time of trial. 

I was too afraid to look up as Dustin read.  My eyes blurred and I examined the wood grain of the podium.  I didn’t want to see the hurt, confusion, or ambivalence on those beloved faces.  Some would be glad to see us go.  Some would be offended, as if our leaving were a judgment on their staying.  Some would be quite sad.

We were outspoken, see, on both our love for people with homosexual dispositions AND our love of God’s Word.  We didn’t believe that stepping towards anyone in love involved a stepping away from the Bible and it’s teachings.  We believe that practicing homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery is, just as lying is.  We don’t vilify it as the worst, nor ignore it as unimportant.  We don’t want our own sins to be accepted, neither do we do anyone else that injury.

Maybe we weren’t in the minority, but we were quite alone in speaking openly.  It is odd to feel like a radical when you’re simply agreeing with orthodox Christian beliefs, which have been held true for millennia.  It is strange for the Bible to be treated as so pliable a thing and for human sympathy to be heralded over love.

We tried for three years.  We met with leaders, we prayed, we shared.  We waited semi-patiently.  Then it seems, our decision was drastically hurried up by several important turning points in the Mennonite church.  Eastern Mennonite University announced a listening/discerning time to see whether they would allow practicing homosexual professors.  One of the conferences ordained a practicing lesbian.  Our own church hosted a play about a man and his son who has just come out as gay, inviting viewers to laugh, to cry, to be confused.  Sure, it was a story, but it was clearly a platform; to continue this “dialogue” which so often has felt like a dogged monologue.

Our pastor helped us through the leaving process and we so valued his wisdom.  In emails back and forth, he asked if this was the only reason we were leaving.  I responded:

About cause for leaving; the debate about homosexuality is the surface manifestation (and to us a particularly disturbing one) of a deeper issue; sort of like the blue coloring of a bruise, the injury being actually under the skin.  How pliable we think scripture is is under there.  How we interpret scripture and whether we take into account two millennia of the church’s conclusions on sexuality, immorality, gender, and suffering.  Sometimes I imagine pre-schism unity as a thick trunk, then branching off into Rome, then branching again smaller yet post-Reformation, and then splintering yet more into denominations and then tiny twigs where we keep extending out our particular interpretations ad nauseum, are we not near to breaking in this persistent, growing, uniqueness?  Are our beliefs to be so very shifting and transient, like the culture’s?  I feel the strength of the tree so very much less under my feet each year it seems, the farther out on the twig we go.  But these are harder things yet to share on a Sunday morning with a shocked congregation taking it in that we are leaving them.  Roots are more tangled than the plants above them.  So, yes, it is too simplistic to say that disagreement over homosexuality is the reason we’re leaving, but it is the most tangible present reason; it’s the coloring over the injury that marks the spot of distress.  If the knot of contention were switched to questioning whether the miracles of the Bible actually happened, I dare say the bruise would be much the same; it questions the same thing, the veracity of scripture and whether we are compelled to take it plainly.

Juan and my teammate Bekii Kisamore and I bowed our heads in prayer.  Tears made wet trails down Juan’s face and hit the rubble-strewn floor.  “This, this is what people need”.  He then led us to his yard and showed us his “hope”.  A beautiful copihue vine with full, generous blooms, snaking up the crumbling wall of his neighbor’s home, where the couple died clutching their small child in their arms.  It was a “sign of life” for him, and he brought it water from the countryside to keep it going while all else was in ruin.  He shared cuttings with us, he shared his hope with us.

broken3We nurtured our little copihue cuttings, kept them in water and planted them in our yards in southern Chile, a constant reminder that God invites us to hope in the midst of ruin.

Our decision to leave our church meant that we had lost not only our community, but our vocation as well.  To be sent, you need a sending body.  Our beautiful dream came crashing down and I am still reeling from that.  I don’t know how to live without a dream.  I feel like I’m flailing, like the floor has given way beneath me.  If not for the peace that God has given us that we are obeying His voice, I do not know how I would go on.

There is just enough light to know that a path is before us.  I cling to this verse from Isaiah 30:20,21:

Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

broken4Please pray for us as we grieve.

On Being a Particular Pack Mule

God fits the back for the burden.

-Irish proverb

There is the weight of the everyday. The irksome crumbs all splayed over the counters where lunches were packed with all sorts of fits and starts.  The treadmill of laundry and the marathon of assigning dust to it’s place.  Imposing shalom on jumbles and smudges and the trailing remains from where one child read, or took off shoes, or cut paper, or such and such.

That is part of the burden, but not the bulk weight of it.

How is it that the invisible burdens are so much heavier than the ones in plain and frequent sight?  The inner fight of, and fondness for, sin.  The niggling question mark in my mother heart; do my children see God?  Do they long for Him at all?  Will they respond to His love with a life-long faith?  The agonizing examines at day’s end:  Oh, God, are you pleased with me at all?  Am I meeting Your expectations?  Am I hearing you right?

That is part of the burden, a large part.

There is also the corporate bit, the deep concern over the Church, that it shine with the gospel’s pure light, that it offer sound teaching and true water to thirsty souls.  That it not mash-up with the pervading culture’s mores to make the good news more round and less definite.  To smudge the stark lines and make of the Word a sea of gray.

That feels like the straw too many and my knees tremble under the load.

Fortunately, God “fits the back for the burden”.  He strengthens trembling knees and shores up the sagging spine.  He smiles into the face of the mule bent low and whispers, “Arise, strong one, I give you my strength”.

What can I say to Him?

When He who so lovingly burdens me, so lovingly encourages me, so lovingly shores me up?  What but, “Oh!  Amen!”

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Why I Need Spring

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It isn’t just the cabin fever.  The raucous noise level in our home with these four children gifted with high spirits and lots of energy.  The fact that even outdoor excursions produce indoor explosions of drippy boots, tracked-in mud, sopping wet mittens, and jackets drying over the backs of dining room chairs.  It isn’t just that.

It’s my weak heart, my weak faith, see.  I need that tangible, visual evidence that there’s hope, rebirth, renewal, life again.  That under fall’s leaf scatter, under winter’s hard white, life will again muscle its way up through all that, and thrive.  It is my favorite season; all that freshness and garden hose spray and flowers and thunder storm majesty.  It’s the whole world waking up with a smile.

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Oh, what a Lent.  Next Monday I’ll be able to share with you what has weighed us down so, what has sapped our joy and left us needing Spring in our very marrow.  Until then, oh, please pray.

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