Thus It Pleases God

I leaned back against the bathroom door, the cold from the tile floor below, hot tears running down my face above, my shoulders bowed inward from deep crying.  It was just an argument, an impasse of heated words, and expectations let down.  When I couldn’t cross swords any longer without fear of inflicting deep wounds with my fiery tongue, I retreated.

Like usual a small thing had lain atop a big thing and then both had exploded together, and one could mistake the heat coming from just the small thing.  I hadn’t even gotten out of bed this morning and we were deep into a conversation about finances, the upcoming private school bills, our revenue streams, and we talked ourselves into circles, without a viable exit point, without a hopeful stratagem.  The big thing was:  How do we send our children to their school and not fall into debt?  Is it folly to try to send them at all?  But we feel a peace in our commitment to send them, but we don’t have enough money to pay the bills.  So is God telling us “no”?  Or are we to walk in faith?

We already economize, to the point that I’m accused of living in the wrong century; we garden, preserve our food, keep bees, mend our clothing, make bedding, cook from scratch, buy our clothes and shoes and sports equipment secondhand, we have no tv, no cable bill, I often line dry the wash, I buy at discount grocery stores, we butcher our own deer, make our candles and soap, and on and on.

The school bill went up this year, as school bills tend to do, and tutoring fees heaped on top of that for one of our kids who desperately needs timely help.  Our narrow margin got narrower.  We had to tell our daughter that she wouldn’t likely be able to attend with her friends past eighth grade.  There’s a mountain of grief in that for her, and we hurt for her pain.  It’s hard to see a nearly fourteen year-old girl, just absolutely thriving, surrounded by caring and kind friends, and excellent teachers who have made a good impact on her life, and imagine disrupting that, and sending her into a school where she knows nobody.

Do not say, “this happened by chance, while this came to be of itself.” In all that exists there is nothing disorderly, nothing indefinite, nothing without purpose, nothing by chance … How many hairs are on your head? God will not forget one of them. Do you see how nothing, even the smallest thing, escapes the gaze of God?
(St. Basil the Great)

How can you find out if you are living within the will of God? Here is the sign: If you are troubled about any thing, this means that you have not completely given yourself over to the will of God. A person who lives in the will of God is not concerned over anything. And if he needs anything, he gives both it and himself over to God. And if he does not receive the necessary thing, he remains calm nevertheless, as if he had it. The soul which has been given over to the will of God is afraid of nothing, not of thunder nor of thieves – nothing. But whatever happens, she says, “Thus it pleases God.” If she is sick, she thinks: this means that I need to be sick, or else God would not have given it to me. Thus peace is preserved in both soul and body.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VI.4)

Tears have rimmed my eyes the whole day, a whole day of aquarium vision.  There is a baby quilt to make, for this dear son who bumps and jolts about in my womb.  Fabric is another cost, it feels like a step down further into the hole.  I took the bundle of my husband’s worn-out or ill-fitting cotton dress shirts out of the yard sale pile and carefully cut out usable sections of cloth, filling a bowl with buttons for later use as I went.  One was the white shirt he wore as a smiling groom on our wedding day.  I cried as I cut it.  He looked like a prince to me; my breath caught when I saw him vowing his love to me, to me!  IMG_1413

The baby will have a quilt, not one of precisely chosen colors and patterns, put together like a textile symphony, blending in this way and that and harmonizing in this way and that.  But I will tell my son, when I wrap it around him that the quilt was born from hard times, and that each patch is a part of the years of struggle, but also joy.  I will tell him about the joy.  I will tell him how it won.

 

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A Tale of Two Kingdoms, or, Why a Conservative Christian Cried on Election Day

I rubbed tiredness from my eyes as they tapped red and blue-smattered digital maps and now and then cued the dramatic music for the next incoming projection.  A yellow checkmark shone beside the beaming candidate’s triumphal face, claiming another state, another trove of electoral votes.  There was disbelief, conjecture, and momentum towards an outcome radically different than expected.

When it ended I slipped into bed beside my sleeping husband, waking him.

“Trump won.”

“What?  You’re joking.  No way.”

“Yep.  Hillary conceded.  He’s going to be our President.”

“Wow.”

Then we lay in silence.

Tears came readily, for me, a pro-life Christian conservative.  Yes, when the power seemed to fall in my peoples’ laps.  The tears weren’t for Hillary, though I did feel sad for her own grief, having worked so hard.  I did not want her as my President, but I felt for her loss and frustration.  I grieved for the people whose hearts felt hope because of her support for the marginalized; I grieved for their fear.  You don’t have to agree to feel.  You can look into the eyes of those with whom you experience profound disagreement and feel compassion for their hurt, their disappointed hopes, their suffering.

No, I didn’t grieve for Clinton; I grieved for the Church.

History has taught me to grieve this; I cannot ignore it.  The government may or may not be improved with Christian morality legislated; this is complex and hard to quantify especially because Christian morality itself is interpreted so differently among Christians! Is it Christian to execute criminals?  Is it Christian to initiate war?  Is it Christian to tell non-Christians whom they can form a civil union with?  And clearly there are certain things that an effectively self-sustaining government must be ready to do that a good Christian could never do; we are constrained by the laws of another Kingdom which are incompatible with any earthly one.  How does a country operate in global relations if its beliefs include loving your enemy, blessing those who hurt you, turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor as you love yourself, not thinking only of your own interests, denying yourself, overcoming evil with good, welcoming the sojourners (immigrants and refugees), honoring them and caring for their needs without qualification?  History shows us that those who have attempted a Christian theocracy have either split their lives into two parts (public life and private life), or they have ignored the merciful and radically-loving commandments and used the Christian name to incite fervor and unity into their subjects.  Both distort Christianity.  When the Church and power hold hands, the Church loses, it loses its very heart and medicine.

Christianity is the path, the way, the hospital where our sin sickness is diagnosed and healed.  It is where we encounter Him, Christ, our very life.  Trying to make people behave like Christians through legislation ignores how each of us really experiences transformational change.  I would argue that we are changed by love, by humility, by joy, by good examples, by beauty, by heroes, by music, by art, by godly grandmothers’ prayers and the lives they led before us, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit’s work within us; not from top-down laws that govern our bodies but not our hearts.

Of course I want abortion to end, but I also don’t fool myself into thinking that true change will come if it’s made illegal.  Theft, perjury, child abuse, and rape are all illegal too, and yet how prevalent they continue to be.  Of course I don’t want to suffer persecution for holding on to God’s sexual ethics, but God never promised me a cost-free faith.  God does not say, “Make sure you don’t have to suffer for Me”; he calls me to suffer well for His sake, enduring.  We are to be the conscience of the nation, not the constable.

Which kingdom are we invested in seeing triumph?  And, importantly, at what cost?

“It has become more evident to me that we are to be given a great popular national Church, whose nature cannot be reconciled with Christianity, and that we must prepare our minds for the entirely new paths which we shall then have to follow.  The question is really:  Christianity or Germanism?  And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day the better.”  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor who was executed by the Nazis

When I see that 80% of evangelicals rallied behind a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, and that they’d let him because he’s a “star”, and who laughed at his own failed attempt to seduce a married woman, and who mocked both prisoners of war and a reporter with a disability, I am sickened (especially when I remember how they eviscerated Bill Clinton for his moral failures).  I am also disturbed by Christians who found the life of the unborn an insubstantial reason to not support Clinton.  I’m disturbed that they could so easily brush aside some very real concerns about her integrity.  I have heard all the justifications about voting for a platform rather than a person, about how God uses sinful people for His purposes, and so on, but what the world sees is far different.  They see that our bar is extremely low for the person we want in power and hypocritically high for those we don’t want in power.  Character matters until it doesn’t.

How did I want this election to go?  My hopes weren’t pinned there.  My hopes were that Christians would vote for those who both represented what they cared about AND were capable and experienced people of sound character and integrity, even if they lost.  That they would be kind and warm to those who disagreed with them.  That they wouldn’t vote if there was no one they felt in clear conscience that they could affirm.  That they wouldn’t choose a lesser evil, but would rather choose good always, even if it meant abstaining from voting.  That in all things, that they were more invested in God’s kingdom work than in the power plays of Washington.  I wanted the Church to be the Church, a distinct and beautiful thing that reaches not for power but for the downtrodden and broken, embracing them.

Last night at our local English as a Second Language program I sat down and played a board game with two young Muslim girls, their hijabs framing their playful, beautiful faces.  Their mother was in class, learning the language of her new home.  We laughed together.  I was so glad they’re here, and I hoped that their bright joy wouldn’t be stomped on by the hate and fear of my fellow Americans.  I stopped by the home of one of our Indian students, enjoying their delicious food and warm hospitality, laughing together, hugging them both as I left, saying “May God bless you, Mamagi (Mother, with respect).  May God bless you, Papagi (Father, with respect).”  These experiences were a balm on my raw heart.  Here was the kingdom work that I could be a part of, each connection a vote for love and compassion.burden

 

 

Bodily Tyranny

It made sense to me, laying there in the dark at two in the morning, after I remembered that moment in the kitchen, a few hours before, when he’d casually mentioned that he’d mixed his regular coffee into my leftover decaf.  I’d been just finishing up a reheated mug of it while cooking our dinner.  “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s just half-caff, shouldn’t affect me too badly.”

After prayers I went to bed because I should, not because of any tiredness gathering in my eyes.  I picked one of the five books on my nightstand, The Boys in the Boat, and started reading.  Since it’s a rowing book, and I rowed for six years, I thought it was the tense racing narratives that had me so alert.  My heart pounded as I read of the final sprints in the Olympic qualifying races; I could feel that pain and my lungs tightened in empathy, my legs stretching taut under the sheets.

Hours were passing, but I kept reading.  I was waiting for my body to signal me to sleep; any pinching around the eyes, any blurring of letters, any yawning.  None came.  And then I remembered what he’d told me as I deglazed the pan the sausages had been browning in. Half caff.

Then one toddler woke up, then the baby, who decided that he was also going to feel inexplicably chipper in the wee hours.  There were some hours of rest, maybe two of them, before the baby awoke at six.  All the tiredness the half caff had repressed had all piled up and settled on me like a ton of bricks.

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This picture was taken after laboring throughout the night and day and finally holding my dear Henrik.  I remember trying to smile but finding that I had only semi-smile-twitches left in my facial muscles.  My eyes felt like they were being pulled shut by invisible cords.  I was so full of joy and wonder and exhaustion.

I am still there.  At four in the morning I stroked my baby’s curly hair, even as my body screamed for rest.  I slogged my way into the boys’ room to comfort one who had cried out from a bad dream.  Parenthood has a way of subjugating the tyranny of the body’s wants and sometimes its needs; suspending them indefinitely, but it covers that insult to bodily comfort with sweetness and baby breath and the way a child sighs with joy when they are safe within our arms.

It is eleven thirty, and I’ve had my cup of decaf coffee (though I was greatly tempted to suppress my tiredness with the regular stuff), and have accomplished nothing except feeding my boys and monitoring their playful destruction of the house.  Oh, and writing this, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent.  It’s a far way off yet, but last year I participated in it in an introductory way, my priest encouraged me to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, since I would be doing so without my family.  Orthodox Christians fast from meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine for the 40+ days of Lent, and I was amazed at how hard this diet was for me just two days a week!  No cream for my coffee nor butter for my toast.  No eggs.  And that was just breakfast!

My body wanted what it wanted, and it wasn’t used to being told “no”.  My body craved fat and protein; I missed cheese.  But like getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child, it was time to tell the body no, and attend to the growth of things that don’t thrive in times of satiation and comfort; self control, humility, discipline, and meekness.  And the amazing joy and bright celebration of the feast at the end, Pascha, a wild frolic of meat and cheese and eggs and laughter; was only so sweet because of the bitterness that went before.

It’s like in rowing, when you’re halfway through a regatta and all you want to do, really, is die.  Just die and make the pain searing through your muscles stop.  But you keep slicing those oars into the heavy water, keep pounding the burning muscles in your legs, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms, in lung-crushing repetition.  You do it for the sweetness, at the end when the crowd is roaring and the air horn heralds your finish and you can flop over your oar handles and dry heave, so glad to have stopped, just stopped that torturous pain.  And when your legs and arms work again, to stroke back to the docks, to a pat on the back from your coach and medal around your neck and a hug from your double.

The sweetness, the prize, the thing that makes the “no” worth it; it calls us out of the plush arms of daily comfort and ease.  It calls us to be more than the collection of demands of our bodies and spirits.  But there has to be a prize, there has to be a yes at the end of no; whether it is a comforted baby, a medal, a feast, or a deep-seated sense that something wrong has been set right, and let us press forward to attain it.

Is Stress Inevitable?

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We were gathered over our Bonhoeffer biographies, ostensibly discussing Dietrich’s life story, but our words had skipped off trail into the lives we were living.  We were talking about stress; how everyone seems to have quite a lot of it, how it becomes unbearable, overwhelming.  How do we manage it, reduce it, live well with it?

As we spoke, I found I couldn’t fully relate to the levels of stress, anxiety, and it’s corollary, depression, that seem endemic in our society.  Yes, I’d had stressful moments; I think of those times when the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and someone spills the rice bag across the floor, but they are moments, not a chronic state of affairs.

“Is stress inevitable?” I asked.  The question left a wondering silence.

“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.”  -Psychology Today

Certainly there will always be stimuli that provoke us to internal agitation, but can we determine the dominance of that energy?  Can we contain that disruption and maintain inner peace?  Are we at the mercy of stress?  How does our faith, or lack thereof, inform our response to this malady?

I head to my bookshelf and open my 1970’s Webster Dictionary and look up stress.

stress:  tension; strain

That was it.  Wondering if “anxiety” would yield a more modern interpretation:

anxiety:  worry; concern; disquietude; uneasiness

The modern version of Webster’s Dictionary defines it thus:

stress:  a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.;  something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety

So is it, following Psychology Today’s wording, an omnipresent part of life, or is it a reaction to normal life that can be chosen or not chosen?

Clearly this isn’t only a modern problem; life’s stressors may have changed over time; we may no longer worry as much over marauding bands plundering us, nor famine, nor dying of a simple infection; but we fragile humans have always had provocations to worry.  What has changed though, is how we regard this agitation, and what we believe about it.

Christianity has always taught that worry and anxiety are sins; a choice to not trust God.

“O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:30–34)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

 “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  (Philippians 4:6)

Today though, it seems, we are led to believe that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression happen to us, and that it is the norm.  It is something, thus, to medicate, moderate, and live with.  When did it go from being a choice to a  chronic condition?  I do not speak here for those with chemical imbalances in their bodies who wisely have sought medical treatment; I am not a doctor and certainly not an expert on mental health; I address only here the very common experience of being regularly “stressed out”, anxious, and/or depressed without an underlying medical condition.

Understanding stress, anxiety, and depression as external to choice would have been unfathomable to our Christian predecessors; if God had commanded us to not worry, nor be anxious and cast down, would He not also provide us with help to fulfill that command? Could it be that we are to take life’s stressors as good medicine for us, rather than reasons to fall into despair and fretting?

“Sometimes men are tested by pleasure, sometimes by distress or by physical suffering. By means of His prescriptions the Physician of souls administers the remedy according to the cause of the passions lying hidden in the soul.”  -St. Maximos the Confessor

“You have anxieties about your life… Pray fervently to the Lord from your heart in this way: ‘I place my fate in Thy hands, O my Saviour. In the way that Thou knowest, arrange my life as is best. From now on I cut off every care about myself, having but one care, to do what is pleasing before Thee.’ Speak to God in this way, and by doing so you will already have placed yourself completely in His hands, not being concerned about anything, but calmly accepting every sort of situation, pleasant or unpleasant, as being arranged for you purposely by God. Your only concern should be to act according to God’s commandments in everything. This is all that is required of you.”  -Saint Theophan the Recluse

 “Without winter there would be no spring, and without spring there would be no summer. So it is also in the spiritual life: a little consolation, and then a little grief—and thus little by little we work out our salvation. Let us accept everything from the hand of God. If He comforts us, let us thank Him. And if He doesn’t comfort us—let us thank Him.”  – St. Anatoly Zertsalov, 19th Century Optina Elder

 

That admonition, “Let us accept everything from the hand of God,” has changed me deeply, causing joy to seep into the cracks where despair and anxiety had reigned.  If I truly trust God to be working diligently on my soul through the hardships, blessings, and day-to-day occurrences in my life, to make me more like Christ in all of it, then I have no reason to worry.  Being captivated by worry and anxiety would be like turning away my face from Him, the Great Physician of my soul, and declaring that the prescription was all wrong, and that I’d take care of my self, thank You very much.  I speak not as someone who has arrived at a constant state of peace, but as someone who has discovered a tool to help me get there.

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Well, how do we learn this trust then?  How do we stop the swirling, anxious thoughts, the mounting stress, and the harrowing depths of despair?

Here, as in many things, children are a good example for us.  If they have good and loving parents they do not worry that they’ll not be fed, clothed, and cared for.  They can look back and remember that all of their days everything necessary was provided for them with loving hands.  In speaking with their parents they feel the love and kindness in their voices; they hear good words and feel assured.

So also with us, we must look back and acknowledge that God has been faithful to us, bringing us through, sometimes in spite of ourselves.  We must speak with Him and listen to His loving voice.  When thoughts swirl we must take them captive, holding on to truth, praying for God to help us.  We must trust in His abiding love which does not let go.

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“O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will. Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”   – Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

Is stress inevitable?  The causes for stress, yes, however our reactions to stress need not follow a dark trajectory.  We have, through constant prayer, a good defense from fear and melancholy, from anxiety and fuss.  We choose, and we can learn to choose well.

But…I’m Already Happy…

IMG_4721It happens, now and again, as I scroll through my Facebook feed, to encounter a dangling carrot.  The dangler, or angler, or lifestyle salesperson, or multi-level marketing pitch-er, croons a solution and jiggles the carrot.  This presupposes that I have the problem they’re ready to help with.

I’ve never been a fan of motivational posters; I mean does anyone actually feel more heroic or brave or encouraged from reading some cliche splayed across a rugged mountain scene, with some self-actualized hiker standing at the edge with his fists raised double and high?

So when friends, acquaintances, and high school buddies post a triumphant selfie, product in hand, and then talk about wellness, no more migraines, boundless energy, community, opportunity, financial freedom, balanced chakras, vacation money, bonuses, Lexuses, joy, bravery, DREAMS, hot tubs, and talk abysmally about J-O-B-S (yes, some actually do spell it out like it’s a dirty word) that are implicitly heinous, life-wasting occupations for the cowardly, blind, subservient miserable masses, I find I genuinely have no understanding of what sort of fish is hungry for that bait.  And why, to me, it looks like a neon, rubber worm with a barbed hook inside?

And then I know it; you don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch.  If the fish is well-fed, even the flashiest of bait isn’t tempting.  See, I’m already happy.  I’m not hungry for that oddly-luminous, sparkly bait.

No, they’re right, I can’t afford to travel the world, nor drive a Lexus, nor buy a fancy hot tub, nor receive massive bonuses, but what I can afford to do still astounds me.

We can drive to the ocean, folks!  THE OCEAN!  Where I grew up in Montana, the ocean was several hundreds of dollars and hours upon hours away.  I didn’t see one until I was seventeen.  I get a thrill every time I see it, and getting tossed around in it’s rocking and rolling waves is pure joy.

And, seeing those dear faces, I get to have kids!!!  Lots of them!  I know so many folks whose bodies don’t have the ability to bear children, and that breaks my heart.  I don’t take it for granted that this unfathomable blessing has been given to me and my husband.

Every single day we eat and have clean water to drink!  There is a group I’m a part of in Facebookland called “Real Hope For Haiti“, and they regularly post pictures of incoming patients; little kids swollen from kwashiorkor (malnourishment), and ask for prayers for critical cases.  My eyes fill with tears.  How could I not be grateful, so very thankful for our daily sustenance?  It converts my hunger into hunger-to-help!  Keep your protein shakes and moon juice and algae-aloe-smoothie miracle powders; I’m astounded to have the food I have!

A lot of the pitches have three themes:  autonomy (you’re in charge, you own a business, you decide your hours), wealth (commissions, bonuses, free cars, cheaper or free products), and altruism (you’re helping other people achieve their dreams and/or improve their health) to make the first two seem like mere side benefits.  You can get the glow of a hero and the bank account of a CEO, all in one!

I almost feel bad for not having the problems they’re ready to fix; or in a lot of ways, I don’t see my particular sufferings in the same light as they do.  I don’t automatically assume that hard financial times are an altogether bad thing; they can be a crucible for one’s character, teach one frugal habits, activate humility, and make identification and empathy for the poor an immediate thing.  It’s hard to look down on someone you’re standing next to.

One seller posted accusingly, “Why be sick?  You can be free of that if you use essential oils, duh!” (my paraphrase).  I wonder how Job would have heard that, in his ash pile, covered in boils.  “Oh, so it wasn’t God allowing Satan to sift me?  I just needed tea tree oil?  Astounding!”  This sort of triumphalism in regards to health is the oddest bait of all of them.  The Bible says far more about the connection between our passions (envy, lust, resentment) and our bodily health than it does about what we put into us.  Even then, we’re cautioned from assuming a cause/effect outlook:

“His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened that the works of God would be displayed in him.”  -John 9:3

We can’t rummage through God’s toolbox and eject the tools we don’t like.  They may be just the right ones to fix something in us that is very broken.

I stood in front of a room full of sixth graders and asked if I could share my favorite inspirational platitude.  They nodded, grinning because I had already proven myself funny and odd.  “Die” I said, raising up my hands to make exaggerated quote marks for dramatic effect.  “Shouldn’t I embroider it and border it with flowers; wouldn’t that be lovely on the wall?”  They laughed and maybe they didn’t know what to think.  “Dying to myself, my desires, dying each day, even imperfectly, always, always leads to joy.”  I asked them how they could die each day; in what ways could they deny themselves in order to serve others or Christ?  They had really good ideas; they may have had some dissonance, sure, because our culture swaddles youth with soothing words of self importance and self fulfillment and such.  No one tells them to “die”.

But we do seem to tell each other how to “live”, how to be happy, how to digest our food better via pills, how to melt fat around our tums with body wraps, how to use our social networks as ladders into our bright futures, how to be successful and bright and better looking, and brave.

How come no one is telling each other to die?  To embrace unavoidable suffering with an obstinate love, patience, and trust in Christ?  To see limited finances as a gift from a wise Father?  To not buy hundreds of dollars worth of pills and wraps and creams and oils, but rather to give that money away so toddlers can not swell up and die?  Because that kind of stuff gets my attention; that scratches where I’m itching.

 

Rocks and Hard Places

 

burdenIt’s hard to write when a baby is crying.

I lay the words aside, over and over, and tumbleweeds roll across my blog and cobwebs hang dusty in the corner.

There’s pain too, and that can either release words in a torrent or swallow them whole in one dark gulp.

I threw out my back.  Stomach bugs went through the children.  Teething.  Babies up throughout the nights, fitful sleep.  My father had six bypasses put into his heart.  Fevers and hacking coughs.  Long hours caring for a friend who has no one; her hand gripping mine ever so tightly while pain wracks her body.  Tears like ripe fruit brimming my eyes; with the barest touch they fall, and a perpetual knot made swallowing hard.

There’s more, but that is enough.  Who am I to tell you that life can be hard?  You know it too; you have your own sorrows.

The match scraping against the box has become a part of my prayer time.  It’s like the pistol marking the beginning of the race.  We have begun.  The end ignites and I light the shrinking, puddling candles in my prayer corner and feel their warmth.  I blow out the match and lay it on a growing pile.  My prayer book has dog-eared corners; the book’s been opening easily to “Prayer for a Sick Person” and “Compline”.  “Prayer for Forgiveness” too.

My eyes read the words and my lips say the words that my soul longs to pray and set heavenward; they are whispered, and the candles lend beauty and warmth on gray days.  I tell it to myself, that prayer is the most important work I can offer; that I am not helpless.  The enemy knows these things; how often am I led away from my prayer corner, thinking, ah, I should get the laundry changed over first, and then this, then that.

My baby is crying again, and it is hard to write.  He is fed, changed; he needs to sleep but fights what is best for him.  He and I have much in common.

I used to pray at my bench, but my babies were routinely destroying that sacred space, scattering my candles, mouthing the spent matches, throwing the books on the floor.  I have this antique washstand, a beautiful piece, and I moved my prayer corner there, above the curious hands of my  toddlers.  My beeswax candles hang along the towel rail, my Bible, my lectionary reading calendar, and my prayer book lay unmolested.  It’s a place set apart and claimed for holy work.

And when squeezed between a rock and a hard place, you really need a holy place.  I didn’t used to believe in them; at least in my head, my theology did away with holy places when the curtain was torn.  It didn’t stop my soul from feeling the opposite when sitting in a cathedral, when wandering church ruins.  My soul was wiser than my constructs.

A lot changed for me when I read the Old Testament story…

As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.  

II Kings 13:21

Holiness lingered in the holy man’s bones.  Peter’s shadow healed the sick.  Handkerchiefs that Paul had touched were brought to the sick and they were made well (Acts 19:12).  Holiness permeated matter, and suddenly, matter mattered.

This made the keeping of relics of saints a whole lot more understandable; it wasn’t some macabre idolatry, but rather an acknowledgement that holiness remained; that God’s working Presence doesn’t desert our matter; that our matter truly matters.

As this hard season continues, I have deep gratitude for my holy work in my holy place, and the Holy One who catches every whispered word.

On Tenderness

I had just unloaded my two little sons from the car into the shopping cart, Henrik all grins and Tobi all wide-eyed with the wonder of being outside.

“Shut the f— up!  GET IN THERE!”

A man was shouting at his child.  The rest of the words were indistinguishable, but the tone was all cruelty and rage.  The man menacingly leaned his whole body into the vehicle as he roared.  I imagined the child within cowering before his anger.  My mouth went dry.

I couldn’t see the child, five rows away as I was, but I saw the mother, nonchalantly climbing up into their pick-up’s bed to situate grocery bags.  This while the man raged and raged and I felt sick.  I froze in place, staring at them.

I knew there wasn’t anything I could do; most likely confronting the man would make things worse for the child, not better.  And I had my little boys with me and wasn’t sure what he was capable of doing to a stranger if that’s how he treated the ones he loved.

The woman caught me standing there, looking right at her.  For a brief moment our gazes locked, mine saying “This isn’t okay” and hers saying “Oh, someone is noticing this”.  She looked away and I walked with leaden feet into the store, praying, praying.

This is the second time in two days that I’ve heard men raging at children.  Tantrums are unpleasant in children; in adults they are disturbing and ugly.  Edison was with me yesterday as a man belittled and insulted a child with him, raising his voice, and eventually disciplining her right there in the store aisle, her wails echoing about.

Edison blushed fiercely, his mouth tightening in stress and fear.  I know, son, I know.

Every parent hollers, every parent loses their temper (I certainly do), but there is something I’m seeing that is blacker.  Parents are raging.  Why are they so angry?

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Sophia had I curled up on the sofa, her likely-dying hamster cupped within our hands.  She sobbed and sighed and her cheeks were flushed and her eyes swollen; all the love was in her face.  “It’s okay”, she whispered in a choked voice to her little Peanut, who rested uncharacteristically still.  We offered a tiny spoon of water, a fresh leaf of lettuce; the last bits of a good hamster life.

I didn’t say any of the “well, at least…” statements that comfort no one, never.  I haven’t learned much, but I’ve learned that.  I held my daughter and I held her dying hamster and we carried the pain together.  The pain of loving and losing.

I am not a perfect mother; I am well within the league of shouters and temper-losers, but I realized that why I was so disturbed by the man today was that he was not merely losing his temper, but he was abusing that child; lashing with full throttle fury.  Not just blowing off steam, but scorching, scathing, looking to damage.  How can such a little one endure all that fire?  How many children go to bed each night burned in their very souls by the violence of their parents’ words?

As I pushed my grocery cart, looking out the wide store window as the couple finished unloading their groceries, I prayed those words which come so quickly and seem to encompass all my flailing emotions, “Lord have mercy”.  And as I held my grieving daughter, the same words.  And for me also, the same.  That God would keep me always constrained by tenderness and mercy and love from exhibiting the same sickening ways I had witnessed.  And for the children, oh the children, so harmed.

And again I say, Lord have mercy.