Monday, May 22, 2017

As Much As There Is


He catapults out of bed in the middle of the night and I hear his bare feet slapping against the hallway’s wooden floor as he hustles through the darkness.  All of this comes to me as sleep’s heavy shadow gives way to a dim and growing awareness.  Then, he stands beside the bed. 

“Daddy,” he says.

“What?” my husband mumbles.

“I love you as much as there is,” he says. 

“Ok, Levi,” my husband replies, his voice clearer now, rising to meet his son’s offer of love.  “I love you too.”

“Ok, good night.  I’ll see you in the morning,” Levi adds.

“Good night, see you in the morning,” my husband answers, completing the call and response.

Levi runs back down the hallway and sleep descends again upon our house.

//

“I love you as much as there is” is the latest attempt in five-year-old Levi’s ongoing effort to verbalize the depths of his love for us which, apparently, is particularly intense around two or three in the morning.  He’s fascinated by math and, for a while, tried using the biggest numbers he could think of to express the magnitude of his love.  “I love you 100 times 100,” he would say. 

But it wasn’t enough. 

He knows there are bigger numbers and he doesn’t want to undersize his love.  So, for now, he’s sticking to the enigmatic phrase, “as much as there is.”

Last night, before I fell back to sleep, I saw for a moment the simple humility of that phrase – a child’s willingness to believe in and try to convey that which is beyond words. 

//

Real love is like that.  God’s love is like that, so real and yet so big it’s hard to explain. 

The apostle Paul, struggling to convey God’s love to the church at Ephesus, put it this way,

“I pray that you might have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19).”

Paul tries to sketch out the dimensions of what he realizes is beyond description, he prays for the Ephesians to somehow receive the ability to comprehend the incomprehensible.  In so doing, he invites them – invites us all – to enter into the depths of God’s love which is both measurable (because it exists) and beyond measure (because of the limits of human comprehension and communication).

Paul’s prayer comes to us like a voice in the night, the words of someone struggling to communicate what he clearly knows is beyond communication: God loves you as much as there is.   


Monday, May 15, 2017

Slow Down (an invitation)

(I call this picture "Converse in the Wild")


slow down,
just be

be still
be present

listen to, and dwell in, what is
here, now, this moment

what love?
what fear?
and what possible doorway
between the two?

(grace, always, is the door)


Monday, May 8, 2017

A Painter Stopped By, Out of the Blue


I started painting three years ago because our new-old farm house had large wall spaces; wide, paneled surfaces. 

I started painting because we couldn’t afford to buy art to hang. 

Driving home from the grocery store one day with the twins buckled in to their car seats in the middle of the van, I eased around a corner, down a steep hill in a wooded stretch of road and saw several large framed paintings and prints in a stand of overgrown brush, leaning against a tree.  I quickly pulled over to the side of the road, popped the trunk, and pulled the paintings inside.  Two, in wood frames with glass, showed hunting scenes, ducks rising out of wooded brush.   Another was a large print of a white wicker basket overflowing with pink, teal and baby blue flowers, something your grandmother might have hung over her couch in the eighties. 

I bought magenta paint, turquoise and midnight blue and started painting over top of the prints and on other found canvases.  I borrowed more colors from a friend.

I started painting because the bright colors made me happy.  The slick movement of spreading paint across a surface was calming, like coloring with crayons, like trailing your fingers through fine sand.

I painted words because I didn’t believe I could paint images and because the words in my head and heart needed space, needed a place to land, to become incarnate, objects of permanence.  I painted words because I saw a tutorial online about how to do it well with sticker stencils. 

I painted words and hung them on the walls of our house like tattoos.

//

Last week, a real painter stopped by our farm house.  He paints in oils, sells his work in galleries.  He wanted to know if he could take pictures of our chickens, our polish rooster in particular.

“I paint,” I said, “I just started this fall.” 

“It’s always nice to meet another artist,” I said.  

He showed me pictures of his oil paintings, scrolling through the images of landscapes and farm scenes on his phone. I didn’t show him my paintings, which suddenly felt like child’s play. 

“I paint words.  I’m a word person,” I said.

Later, after he left me with his business card in hand, I looked him up online.  His website is outdated.  I found grammatical and spelling errors and was pleased.  He, at least, is not a word person. 

//

I wondered if his visit was the encouragement I had prayed for fervently that morning; prayers filled with longing, prayers beyond words.  But after he left I looked at my own work with a cutting eye.  It’s hard to write when you’re discouraged, hard to create when you don’t believe. 

When I returned to my studio, my computer, I saw that a friend had sent a message about a job opening – an opening for a position I have kept an eye on for years.  I looked it up.  The job is full time, in my field.   It would leave no time for painting, for writing, for working at the library.  But, in exchange, there would be money, status, a title and many other things I image are more substantial, more valuable, than words tattooed on walls with stencils and acrylic, words strung across pages, hung like spiders’ webs, simultaneously sturdy and insubstantial. 

//

I had asked the painter whether he retired before painting full time.  He smiled and said, “In a way.”  Then, he explained that they live off of his wife’s job.  I told him about my husband who works for the state. 

“It’s a good steady job,” I said, “but we’re not getting rich.”  I didn’t say what I meant, which is that we’re not making ends meet. 

I told him about working part time at the library, about adding a tab on my website for design services.  “But how much can I do?” I asked myself aloud and him, because he was standing there.  “How much can I do and still be able to write?”

He didn’t have an answer.  But he said he’d stop by sometime to take pictures of the chickens, the view of the fields, the distant mountains across the street.  I told him if he was going to take pictures of the hens, he’d want some of our handsome black cat too.  Maybe he will set up his easel here sometime and paint plein air.  The kids would love that, I would too.

//

A letter came in the mail recently, notifying us that the farm land across the street is in the process of being rezoned; if the local vote passes, it will be protected farmland, unable to be sold or divvied up for development.  We never expected to buy a house like this with its view of open fields and rolling hills in the distance.  We’ve often assumed it would someday be sold for development like so many of the surrounding fields. 

I mentioned the rezoning to my Dad the other day, over lunch.  “It’s good for us,” I said. “Value-wise,” I added.

I don’t know why I said that, though.  Maybe because that’s the way he thinks, the way he talks, in dollars and cents.  But, the truth is, we don’t want to lose the view to progress and development because we love it.  It's something like the way I don’t want to lose my life with words and paint to a paycheck and a title: I love it.

I started painting and writing because I needed to. 

I’ll keep painting and writing because it’s still true.


Monday, May 1, 2017

This is What God is Like


Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!   - Matthew 7:9-11 

Our kitchen has a drawer we refer to as “The Snack Drawer.”  Unlike “The Weapons Drawer” – which is a thing of my five-year-old’s making and does not actually hold weapons, but instead holds things that could potentially be used for weapons – The Snack Drawer, as its name would imply, does hold snacks. 

Each of my four kids are allowed to have a snack during the day at school, so each of them reaches their hand into The Snack Drawer once every morning or two to grab something to stash in their backpack for later in the day.  Some things in the snack drawer (like Cheezits or Goldfish crackers) are considered to be top notch, and these go first.  Mid-level snacks (like pretzels and granola bars) go next.  Last resort snacks include, but are not limited to, boxes of raisins and things they claim to be allergic to.    

On a recent morning, a murmuring and rumble of discontent arose in the kitchen as three of four kids stood peering into the snack drawer.  From where I stood, near the kitchen sink, I could see the drawer wasn’t empty.  But still, they complained.  I moved in for a closer look and the children split like the sea and lifted their gaze from the near-empty drawer to me.   

It was, indeed, time to replenish.  

“Hold on,” I said.

I went to the pantry in the laundry room and pulled out the box I’d been saving.  I carried it into the kitchen, with the twins trailing behind me, and held it high over the open drawer.  I tipped the box, dramatically, and assorted snacks in red packages, orange and green, poured down like rain.  The kids circled and pawed at the pile, as though I’d cracked open a piƱata. 

My one son, the one with the Weapons Drawer, grabbed an off-brand peanut butter granola bar.  

“Mom!” he said, in a deep voice he puts on when he feels the moment demands, “I LOVE THESE!”

Everyone’s hand found something good.  

Isaiah, exuberant in the face of so many good choices, eager to hoard the things he loves best, announced that he was going to take four or five snacks to school with him that day.  I quickly restated our one snack a day limit.    

That moment, with its flash of color and exclamations of delight hangs, like a snapshot in the corner of my mind.  That's what God's like, I think.  God - the giver of good gifts, the filler of drawers we once thought too empty or sparse to satisfy.  

* I'm well aware that too often 'the drawer' of life is empty, sparse, or filled with things we'd rather avoid.  But, scripture is clear that there may not always be a direct correlation between the circumstances of our lives and the character of God.  So, rather than drawing conclusions about God based on what we find in life's drawer, we might be better served to see the good things as signs of God's presence because, even in the midst of life's struggles, we can still be certain of the God's character.   

Monday, April 24, 2017

Communion (A Seminarian's Perspective)


During Seminary, another student and I, interned at a tiny, historic, Methodist church in New Jersey.  She was Methodist, I was not; but we were both welcomed into the fold in equal measure. 

The congregation was small and aged and the thing they appreciated most about the few sermons I gave was how well they could hear my voice and how clearly I enunciated.  The thing I appreciated most about preaching there was how the cleric’s robe covered me from head to toe, obscuring my feminine figure, rearranging me into a blank slate of black polyester.  Only my flat, tan shoes and the bottom of my dress pants showed and only then when I stepped out away from the pulpit, which was not often. 

My fellow intern, a heavyset single girl, shorter than me and rounder, also wore the robe while speaking.  On other Sundays, though, she dressed to the nines in strappy dresses with tight waists and full skirts like the ones housewives are pictured wearing in magazine ads from the 1950's.  She completed the look by pairing the dresses with impossibly high heeled shoes, the height and skinniness of which, caused her to teeter and totter precariously.

She didn’t seem at home in those dresses and matching shoes and I wondered why she wore them.  But I also probably didn’t seem at home in my drab business-casual attire that I’d purchased specially for the internship and possible future interviews.  Neither of us, I guess, were entirely at home in ourselves or our pastoral positions, which I suppose is the plight of many an intern.   

The small church was traditionally built, with old wooden pews and a long center aisle that led to a kneeling rail and altar.  Each service began with a processional from the narthex, down the center aisle, to the altar where candles were lit while the organist played. 

One of my most distinct memories of that church is of watching my fellow intern make her wobbly way down the carpeted center aisle with a plate of communion bread in hand.  The plate was wide, flat and loaded with bits of bread and she was so precariously perched in her heels that I felt for sure she was going to wipe out at any moment, scattering the body of Christ across the dense carpet.  I held my breath as she mounted the altar’s two steps and exhaled when she finally set the plate down. 

Having grown up Baptist and turned Anabaptist, the rituals of the Methodist church were foreign to me and struck me as overly formal.  I longed for something more personal, less prescribed.  I imagined with equal measures of horror and delight, what it would be like if she simply dropped the whole plate.  Some part of me longed for the broken body to spill, even just once; for us all to have to deal with the sudden beauty, the surprise of Christ spread among us in such an earthy, unscripted way.  

My colleague never dropped the host, but crumbs did often fall as we handed the bread to the congregants kneeling along the rail.  No matter how rigidly we try to contain him, Christ is always breaking through.  Mercy and grace scatter everywhere like crumbs, and who we are and who God is, is always being revealed.  Christ is always spreading out in our midst, disrupting our scripted ways, like the beige shoes and dress pants of a young woman sticking out beneath her robe, like a young woman in a flared out dress and heels making her wobbly way up the aisle, truth that cannot be hidden or disguised. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Communion (A Five-year-old's Perspective)


The Communion with God is simple, so we will not be dazzled; so we can eat and drink His love and still go about our lives; so our souls will burn slowly rather than blaze.  . . . the Last Supper did not take place on one night in one room, and to eat God's love, we do not have to even open our mouths; we can be walking, sorrowful and confused, with a friend; or working on whatever our boat is, fishing whatever it is we fish for; or we can be running naked, alone in the dark.  The Eucharist is with us, and it is ordinary.  To me, that is its essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way that we receive the sun and sky, the moon and earth, and breathing.  
                   - Andre Dubus in Meditations from a Movable Chair

Five-year-old Isaiah loves bread almost as much as he loves his Mama, which is to say, quite a lot.  He also loves juice.  When there's no Sunday school and he's forced to endure the long church service upstairs in the pews, communion - with its tempting combination of both bread and juice - offers a bright respite in the midst of the otherwise boring service. 

Seated during prayer at the service’s beginning on Easter Sunday, he bobs and weaves his head from side to side, searching out the low table at the front of the church.  Then, he exclaims, “I see bread and juice!”

His brother, Levi, sees it too.  “Mom,” Levi says, like someone who’s just discovered cake and ice cream is on the menu for breakfast, “We’re dippin' bread!”

I turn to them, scandalized by their outdoor voices, and stretch my neck forward, my eyes wide, one finger pressed to my lips.  I silently tap my finger to my closed lips.

They settle back in the hard pew to wait.

My boys love communion and my hunch is it’s because they love to eat.  Sometimes this strikes me as sacrilegious, but, mostly, something in their enthusiasm - the way simple appetite and desire breed longing and consummation - also feels right to me.  They're happy to be part, to take part, and receive something good and nourishing.  

When the time comes, at last, I send Levi under his father’s guidance and push Isaiah along ahead of me.  I wonder again, as we exit the end of the pew, about the rightness of allowing children so young to participate in communion, but they’re so happy, so eager, I can’t see holding them back.  We move slowly toward the altar in two lines that bulge and clot the aisle as adults shepherd groups of children.  Seeing my older son behind me, I push him forward too, intending to lean over he and Isaiah both and orchestrate, regulate, their reception of grace.  

Isaiah reaches the half loaf of Italian bread first.  It sits on a plate outstretched in front of his face, level with his big brown eyes.  He reaches for it two-handed, manhandling the loaf which slides forward precariously the slanted plate and the server and I both lunge to stop the fall.  In my mind, Isaiah’s hands are everywhere (germs!) and I grab the loaf to steady it, tearing off a small piece of soft white dough while he wrestles with the dry, flaky crust.  He peels back a sturdy piece as big as his forearm and we turn to the dipping, then back to our seats.  

While the rest of us have quickly dipped and swallowed our own crumbs, he sits in the pew tearing off bite after bite of flaky crust.  When his twin brother asks about the size of his serving, Isaiah replies, with deep contentment, “I didn’t try to get it so big, but it came off, so I kept it.”  

Monday, April 10, 2017

To Experience Resurrection (a Poem for Holy Week)


You have to return to the tomb
to experience resurrection. 
Return to the place where once
you knew without doubt
all hope was gone, the last
dying gasp of breath expelled.
Then silence, stillness
and the great tearing open
of sky and earth. 

The first sign of spring
is the revelation of all
that’s died.  Snow’s clean
slate hides decay,
but when the sun’s warmth rises
its first disclosure is the depth
of loss – the grass,
brown and trampled, barren
broken limbs scattered, earth
exposed and the empty stretch
of field filled with brown stalks
of decomposition.

This is the time of waiting,
the time in which we grow
weary and lose heart. 

You have to watch the barren
earth, pull back brown leaves,
lean close scanning the hidden
places.  You have to stand beside
the stone, Martha would tell us,
your trembling hand pressed against       
its cold, hard surface.  You have to enter
the dark cave, Peter whispers, not knowing
what you’ll find. 

You have to sit through the long,
dark night to see the first light of morning,        
to feel the sharp intake of breath
as the sky’s closed eye, cold and gray,
cracks open slowly, then with growing
determination.  This is what you must do
to experience resurrection.