Words

Words – they can tumble o’er the breaker of people’s minds

shattering walls succored by habit, time.

They can smash to bits thoughts of hatred conceived,

illuminate life as we long it to be.

 

Yet, words, these tools of men power’d strong,

can finish the goodness in man, one and all,

if they prey on the hell inside each of our souls,

if they bolster the thoughts we conceived long ago.

 

But, words, these tools of magic and pain,

can be used when by them no change seems yet gained.

When the words seem foul stopped –

and the walls will not crumble,

and the pow’rfuls’ souls will not yield to the clear bell

of change,

of activism,

of shifts in the world.

 

For the speaker doth gain

by the speaking, a victory.

If the words are true,

let them pummel the walls,

though they strongly won’t bend,

mayhap they’ll yet fall.

 

– written May 2013

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On Being Really Human

When I boarded my plane for Geneva, Switzerland, I didn’t imagine that I would meet death at my destination. I was more worried about coexisting peacefully with my host family and making deep friendships. My thought processes weren’t unusual. I was a 21-year-old college student about to study abroad for a semester. What student imagines, if they’ve experienced solid life for two decades, that they’ll encounter one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses and pains during their “semester off”?

Yet, with little under two months before I returned to the U.S., I suddenly and intimately became acquainted with the cobblestone streets, colorful humanity, and steep hills of Geneva’s Old Town. This familiarity came so quickly, not because I had discovered a newfound fascination with the city’s topography, but because one of my new friends had suddenly died. Death makes things vivid. The brilliance of the sun and the rise of a foggy mountain and the smile in a friend’s face become more vivid after death; and things become duller too, so that the things you do see are made brighter by the clouds that surround them.

In Geneva, I met an authentic man – strong and compassionate – who happened to work in extreme sports. A few weeks after I met him, he went to film that extreme sport, partaking in it while he captured it on film. During the shoot, there was an unforeseen problem and he and his fellows were killed.  I had never felt death’s reality; his death punched me in the gut and elicited emotions I didn’t know I could feel.

But his death was transformative, not debilitating.

I learned that death, in this broken world, makes us human. After my friend died, I tried to sing praises to God. I had prayed for my friend’s recovery, but I had also asked God to glorify himself in the accident. I knew that Father’s answer might involve my friend’s death. So, when that answer was given, I crouched in a secluded spot in one of Geneva’s parks and tried to sing.

I couldn’t. Instead, I sobbed and my tune went haywire as snot dripped from my nose and my eyes transformed into puffy slits (and as a helpful Swiss lady informed me that dogs normally urinate in the spot where I was crouching). You can almost laugh at the messiness and awfulness of human pain. The Swiss lady’s comment made my legs move, if only to get her disdainful glance to find another object. As I walked away, I called my mum. My mum gave me sage advice. She told me to cry.

“Reeeally?” I managed to choke into my cell. “Yes, sweetheart, good grief!” she said, exasperated.

Sitting outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, frightening delegates and passerbys with my wet face, I listened to my mum. I allowed my “Christian” mask of togetherness to completely slip from my face and posture.  My mum’s words prompted a conscious consent to the vulnerability that was already pulsing within me. Her words invited me to be vulnerable with my Father.

That first night, I was exhausted, spent from crying. The grief that billowed through my heart had spilled onto my face, into my voice, into my public persona. I let it seep into my conversation with Yahweh, which sounded less like a conversation and more like the silence of those who are quiet from mutual grief.

I lay on my bed, finally still. I think I spoke five words to Father. Yet, my heart asked him to come. Oh, he came. My heavenly Father drew nearer to me than I could ever have fantasized in my “holiest” dreams. His peace was like a thick blanket over my thoughts and my body. His peace didn’t erase my grief. He grieved with me. Jesus made my grief transformative, not debilitating.

From death, I came to believe that our attempts at Christian performance must fail.  I can’t express strongly enough how much I long for our actions of fake holiness to wither in damning darkness. When we attempt to be Christian in our own strength, we try to shove God from his place of worship, placing him beneath our feet – those of the new gods. He will not go there. We must embrace our weakness.  Our weakness is right because, in it, Jesus deigns to demonstrate his strength with love. In being really human, we allow him to show himself as really God. Death weakens humanity, but death can also open our hearts to the touch that makes us really human.

The Crunch of a Few Walnuts

Tonight, I’m awed by walnuts and the satisfying crunch they make when tread under the wheels of a rickety old van.  They carry me back to my childhood and adolescence.  I remember reaching down to gather walnuts from the dry ground of our backyard, ground parched from the onset of Fall, wispy with tendrils of hay-like grass.  The walnuts stained my hands – a deep, molasses-like color that seeped into my skin like ink.  The dirty brown of the walnut’s juice fascinated me in comparison with its avocado-green exterior.  Some walnuts were hard – I threw those into the rickety, orange wheelbarrow and heard the satisfying “clunk” and “ting!”  Other walnuts oozed with juice; I carefully pried those from the earth by my fingertips and chucked them after the hard walnuts.  My brother and I wheeled that wheelbarrow around the yard to collect our walnuts.  We earned 5 or 10 cents (I can’t remember which) for each nut; our parents had instituted the rule after our neighbors were given 50 cents for each walnut they collected.  Our yard was bigger and our walnut population more plentiful, so we did alright.

Funny how the simple crunch of a few walnuts can transport you back to old memories…and how the memories seem to pile on top of each other once you glance at one.  Remembering the dusty ground of our backyard, my mind’s eye dimly sees my brother (so much younger then – devoid of beard, muscle, and height) intensely eyeing my lightsaber, circling me – his enemy.  I whirled my weapon at Connor.  He parried my blow, but, at that age, he hadn’t yet become the expert sword-fighter.  My larger size and height made me more formidable (he would soon cream me and freak me out with his ability to use that sword).  We monologued – placing ourselves within a galaxy far, far away, but soon revealed our confusion.  Neither of us knew whether we were the good or bad guy.  Both of us had double-double crossed.  So, we argued about our identities while we whirled our blue and green lightsabers.  I think Connor told me I had to be Chewbacca.  I protested, vehemently.  I was an alien female, strong and agile.  I’m fairly retaliated – quite intelligently – by informing Connor that it was he who was Chewbacca.

My memory fades, though Connor’s young face still stares at me.  All this from a few walnuts…life and memories can be beautiful things.

Chastised

            Lucy, who recently became a follower of Jesus, was happily relating to me a conversation she’d had earlier that afternoon. Her lively conversation had transpired with a friend who followed both Buddhism and Christianity. Her friend thus believed in forgiveness, that the Universe is love, and that all people are part of God.

            My warning bells went off.

            Lucy came from a Buddhist background. I worried that, as a new Christian, she would find her friend’s syncretistic combination appealing. I became anxious that she would believe all people are part of God, thus cheapening the death and resurrection that Jesus experienced to bring us into right relationship with Father.

            So, I stood at the kitchen sink, staring at her as she sat at the kitchen table. How can I cut off any theological confusion without becoming a dictator of right and wrong? I don’t want to play the part of the Holy Spirit…he’s the one who convicts.

            As I attempted to wrangle my buzzing thoughts into order, a fellow housemate entered the kitchen and sat herself across from Lucy at the table. I bit my tongue and excused myself to the shower.

            Under the water, I prayed with confusion.

            “Lord, I don’t want her to believe that all people are in you. Yes, all people are in you in the sense that you made us in your image. But, Jesus bought for us a special relationship with you through his death and resurrection. That gift was costly. Doesn’t her friend’s thinking try to cheapen that gift?”

            As I turned the shower knob off, I prayed for an opportunity to speak to Lucy without our housemate intervening. I felt nervous, but I assumed I should speak.

            Post-shower, I wandered into the kitchen with my hair soaking-wet and retainer in. Lucy was still at the table. Alone. Sitting down beside her, I began to weasel my way toward the subject we had abruptly abandoned. When I finally got the conversation back on topic (not very gracefully), Lucy was peaceful and happy about her friend’s forgiveness and empathy. Her friend had been glad that Lucy finds joy and new life in Jesus.

            Wow, that’s good, I thought. But how to get to the theological question…?

            Tact left me and I mumbled random thoughts. My friend perceived my preoccupation. Kindly, she asked, “Is there something you’d like to ask me? Something you want to say?”

           Seeing a raw opening, I blurted out incoherently. “I was wondering what you thought about the thought that all people are in God.” “And,” I added for good measure, “what you thought about her idea of forgiveness. Does it mirror what we were discussing the other day?”

            “Oh,” she replied. “Well, I agree with her about forgiveness.”

            Yes, I thought, me too. But what about the universal abiding of all people in God?

            We finally got there. And I said my piece, with which she agreed. I breathed a sigh of relief. Sort of. I still felt kind of uneasy.

            Then, Lucy smiled and ventured, “Do you mind if I go get my Bible?”

            “Sure, go for it!” I said.

            When she came back into the kitchen, she opened to Mark 9:38-41. “I was reading here today,” she said. “And I was wondering what you think this means.”

            We read the text, which told a story.

           “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

            Lucy turned and looked at me, waiting for me to give my opinion on the story.

           Jesus was gently chastising me, so I told her that. I had worried about her friend’s theology; I was eager to correct heresy and prune doxology. I overlooked the good in her friend’s statement: that she values forgiveness, empathizes with others, and finds joy in Lucy’s joy in Jesus. Mark’s story could have been re-written last night as follows.

           Meredith said to Jesus, “Lord, someone was speaking of forgiveness and the truth that you are Love, and I tried to stop her because she didn’t adhere to doxology.” But Jesus said to Meredith, “Do not stop her; for no one who loves and forgives as I do will be able to speak ill of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever is glad with you because you bear the touch of Christ will by no means lose her reward.”

            I asked forgiveness of my sister and of Jesus. His love is greater than mine. By leaps and bounds, by valleys and mountains. My love could fill the hat of an acorn. His love drowns the earth. His forgiveness is far reaching. And he is more concerned with the important things of love than he is with the correctness of theology.

           Who should we rather be – the Pharisees, pristine in belief and broken in love, or the exorcist who imitated Jesus, but didn’t follow him? I think Jesus gave us his answer. It doesn’t fit with my understanding of theology, but it’s what Jesus said. I think Jesus is more radical than the mainstream church. Let’s be radical with him, more focused on Him than on rules.

Answered Prayer?

Some ask whether God answers prayers. I’m smiling while I consider that question. Father’s just given me another sweet example, another to add to the pile of answers already given.

My family was supposed to host a speaker for a class we help coordinate: Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. The speaker was due to arrive last night and would be staying at our home for the next few days. 

We were eager to host him, but felt the pressures of our week closing in on us. Our backdoor shattered several weeks ago; it’s currently boarded up with shaky plywood. Our siding is decayed, so planks also board up a whole outside wall. Our patio is a pile of mud. Naturally, our home has been a construction zone for the past several weeks; workers are converging on us this week in particular. Family-wise, my brother leaves for college on Thursday, a friend of mine is already staying with us, my Mum has a website reveal scheduled soon, and I’m running like mad to complete scholarship applications, senior theses, and last-minute back-to-school rushes.

While changing the sheets for our guest, my mum voiced her concerns. Would he be bothered by the construction? Could he possibly work with the clutter and the noise? And would he feel unwelcome if we couldn’t talk with him? Perhaps we could place him in a hotel instead?

I didn’t have an answer, so we asked the one who did. “Okay, Father. We need you to tell us what to do. We don’t want to be inhospitable to our guest, but we’re worried that we won’t be able to welcome him properly. Tell us what to do.”

Then, we kept working.

My mum got a text yesterday evening. Another family in the Perspectives class had picked up our instructor at the airport. This man was texting to ask whether the instructor could stay with his family instead of ours’. His family had planned to host some friends from Ecuador, but their friends had canceled spontaneously. Now, our friends had space, particularly since their son had just left for college.

We were floored. Loud screams of, “Yes!!!!” and, “Thank you, Jesus!” filled our home. Say what?? We didn’t ask our friends to offer their home and we didn’t tell them of our concerns. The only person to whom we communicated our worry happens to have a wide social circle. Father heard. He responded. Oh, how good he is.

That Squirrel

Whitened flakes from sky do fall,

From a tree standing crisp and tall,

Making those who see them pause

For they cannot see their cause.

 

Then I see, up in the tree,

Nestled ‘twixt the twigs and leaves,

Furry face and scruffy paws,

A feisty squirrel who dazes all.

 

Nibbling with his tiny limbs

on the fruit secured for him,

Buckeye-lover, Squirrely-tail –

his ingenuity can’t fail.

 

Then we laugh, we see the cause,

whitened flakes from furry paws,

tell of a delicious treat –

his snack this squirrel doth happ’ly eat.

 

– 30 July 2014

 

 

 

The Messy-Handed Gardener

He’s a messy-handed gardener, 

     his fingers clothed in dirt – 

reaching into muck, 

     digging deeply into earth. 

 

His hands aren’t pristine, covered 

     in gloves of satin white, 

Instead, it is his sweaty face

     that sheds a lively light. 

 

Stiff weeds that often flourish 

     fingers ever find to kill – 

struggles fought with thorns and brambles, 

     to bring their clutching lives to nill. 

 

He’s a messy-handed gardener, 

    bringing beauty in the mud, 

pruning back the weeds from roses, 

     cherishing their weakest buds. 

 

– written in Geneva, 20 mai 2014