Monday, June 4, 2012
Saturday, June 2, 2012
Today I went to my neighborhood pool to swim laps - well, by "swim laps" I mostly mean, swim two laps, catch my breath, swim a lap, wait 30 seconds... I only halfway know what I'm doing and it's very, very hard. Which is why, when I approached the gate and saw a middle-aged couple enjoying the cool evening in those plastic-slatty lounge chairs, my first instinct was to flee. In coming to the pool, I meant to flounder about in peace (or as peacefully as trying desperately not to breathe water can be), as I've been doing this whole week. But it's a long walk to the pool, I thought, and eventually someone would have to witness my struggle, and if the unsuspecting neighbors became too embarrassed on my behalf they could leave just as well as I. So I waved at the people with my fresh-faced girl-smile and resolutely pretended to be a Swimmer. We exchanged comments about the temperature of the water.
So of course they were watching me, probably talking about me, and I tried to just focus on left, right, breathe so no one would feel too awkward. I wanted my audience to propel me to do better but that mostly didn't happen; I was my normal, slow, gaspy self. And so I was completely taken aback when on lap six I lost the rhythm (again), stood up sputtering and heard the sound of CHEERING. My unknown neighbors were totally impressed that I could swim at all; they wanted me to get to the other side even more than I did. "Keep going! You can do it!" So I did, just for them.
Their sheer earnestness was completely disarming. They didn't say to me later, as a conversation starter, "Not to be a creeper but I saw you are fairly competent at swimming". They didn't say, "Aw, come on, why'd you quit?". For whatever reason they became emotionally invested in my progress and took the risk of cheering me on, and they certainly didn't look any cooler but I think we were all happier. When I got out of the pool I even started a conversation with them, and I don't talk to strangers, but I just wanted to be their friend.
I was raised in a sarcastic family before sarcasm was cool. I satire for a hobby. I self-deprecate compulsively even though I honestly have a very high opinion of myself. I don't think I could ever eliminate the dry wit from my speech or the sarcasm from my thoughts (although I can filter fairly well). But I also think we could all use a reminder: the carefully studied indifference and backhanded compliments and sarcasm battles that define our generation's attitudes are, more often than not, simple cowardice. Sarcasm has become so pervasive that half the time it's not even funny, just a knee-jerk reaction. But to strip down to the simple, straightforward sentence, to be disingenuous - that is the real skill, the real test, not of how hip you are but how little you can bear to hide behind.
When was the last time you cheered someone on? When was the last time someone cheered you on?
One of many themes that emerged throughout my degree program is the fact that Christianity is not Gnosticism - the belief that the material world was created by accident, through stupidity, or by evil, and (in all three cases) is itself evil and must be got rid of*. Christians had a terrible time resisting this religion and its influences, because its assumptions jived really well with Greek philosophy and Christianity, being based in Judaism and not philosophy, didn't. Since Christians didn't fit readily into a predefined category (people need their labels), the authors of the New Testament had to constantly explain how they were only kind of Jewish but definitely not Gnostic. This was really, really important to them, and as a result you can't spill coffee on your Bible without staining some sort of anti-Gnostic statement. For example, if you read something like "Jesus Christ, who came in the flesh", it's not just a phrase that rolls well off the tongue; it's a reminder that the Son of God had a real human body, and that was possible because God is good; creation is good; bodies are good.
So before Christians established very much at all about their theology, they took great pains to reaffirm this very Jewish idea that he saw what he had made, and it was good. But in the intervening years we have never gotten Greek philosophy quite out of our systems; we can't shake the suspicion that Christians should be striving to live on some higher plane, in our minds or our souls or our spirits where the dirt and goo and sweat don't touch us anymore. This heterodox position is everywhere in our church rhetoric.
I think this contributed, for the first 19 years of my life, to my perception of my body as a liability to be managed. I've never been athletic or even very healthy, and of course I won't be the right size or proportion until I am Scarlett Johansson. And I've always been a thinker - it's not really an exaggeration to say I spent my entire childhood reading. I've decided the main source of my clumsiness is that I can't really be bothered to keep track of all my limbs when I'm analyzing.
But when I came to college I became close friends with several people who like to engage in something they called "voluntary exercise". Being surrounded by these people forced me to think about how I used the resource that was my body. And then came the summer of mono, when after waking from a four-week stupor I managed to convince my mother that "yoga isn't that hard"** and started doing it every day out of sheer boredom while I waited to fully recover.
The art of standing funny forced me to notice my body. I had to look at myself from strange angles whether they were flattering or not, and connect elbows to knees or chin to shoulder. But even more importantly, I stopped connecting fingers to ankles, and connected them to my toes, and then one magical day I reached out easy as falling and put the palm of my hand on the back of my heel. My body, it turns out, is a marvel of engineering, capable of changing and adapting and doing just the wildest things; the main reason it couldn't do things before is because... it had never done anything before. I had never had the discipline to go through the not-being-able.
Now I know how to like exercise; but the church still doesn't know how to talk about bodies. And that is not just a minor oversight; when we ignore or misuse our bodies, we are neglecting a glorious gift of God by which I mean we are being bad stewards. So very much of the Bible is trying to tell us what is indisputable in science - that the health of our bodies is inextricably related to the health of the rest of us - so why do we insist on believing our selves reside in our grey matter or in some spiritual dimension?
Here is what I want to see change: when someone says, "I don't know what to do with this emotional energy/insomnia/sexual temptation," we usually answer, "You should pray". The less spiritual, more Biblical answer? "Pray while you run."
*it can get more complicated. you don't want it to.
** this was and is a lie
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
God thinks he is soooooooooooo funny, I know it. I know he is snickering somewhere, because this is like a bad practical joke, like when I was ten and I hid these tiny pull-string firecrackers behind all the doors for my grandma to find. [that was mean.]
But for real, I am a victim here. For the past five months he's been dropping this ONE passage back into my life at least once a week. Of all the things I want to hear from God, the thing I'm not interested in hearing is the one he chooses to throw all subtlety aside for. I stand unamused.
So here it is:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
This is not even one of those cool verses you can tell people about, like "me and the Holy Spirit discovered this verse in the middle of Joel last week". But the other normally-ubiquitous verses haven't been around much. Proverbs 3:5-6? Jeremiah 29:11? Off haunting someone else's every footstep, I suppose.
There's just this one, mocking me, kindly and calmly exhorting me to do something which is literally not possible. I'm tired of it, especially when I keep rounding corners and it smacks me in the face like a low-hanging lamp at a trendy restaurant. And besides, I have some great excuses. After you graduate, unemployment isn't cute anymore - it's your job to worry.
I'd like to transition here to a meek and humble self-response, about how God is really a patient and insistently wise father, not a cruel ten-year-old. But if I'm being honest [and I am, it's this new thing I'm trying out] then I can't write that. If I'm being honest, I'm just pissed. I don't care that Jesus' words are true and gentle and lovely but challenging, and it doesn't matter that I involuntarily memorized this passage doing a Greek project on it this semester so that it should be part of me now.
If I'm being honest, I don't know what it means to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, but I haven't tried very hard to find out.
I'm not ready for this passage we all throw around like some kind of harmless fun bouncy ball. Because if I truly let its light shine any deeper into my life, the way it wants to, it's going to worm its way in there and start messing everything up and I ALREADY HAVE THINGS ARRANGED THE WAY I WANT THEM.
[Because that's how I want them, that's why.]
Sunday, May 27, 2012
That is why I have not prayed for humility recently. Having only a few months ago emerged from a long and terrible depression only very partially documented below, it would have seemed... morose. But it appears God is in the habit of dispensing unrequested blessings [we who hold B.A.'s in theology call this Grace], and so I am currently swallowing large chunks of Humility garnished with Dependence and I think there are supposed to be some Trust sprinkles on the top, but I tend to peel those off and not eat them. This extended food metaphor, because my feelings about this whole life situation are exactly like the time my wonderful beautiful friend made homemade moon cakes for Chinese New Year. She had worked so hard and been so kind to share with us, and I love trying new foods and wanted very badly to like them; however I could barely swallow a bite of moon cake but I just kept doing it anyway. [to recap: God = underappreciated Asian friend, moon cake = current life lessons, me ungratefully wanting to be somewhere else = identical in both situations].
Because everyone is asking me what my plans are now, and my only choice is to tell them I don't know. What I want to say is, "I worked very, very hard to do a lot of things well in college, and I worked very, very hard to apply for jobs that use those things, but it's a real tough Job Market as you may have heard. And I am not in Grad School because I thought I was supposed to do noble things this year instead but it turns out no one wants me to do noble things for them." But mostly all I have the opportunity to say is, "I don't know".
Looking people in the eye and saying "I don't know" is the hardest thing.
And it shouldn't be. Unemployment is happening to a lot of people, especially college grads. And I don't have to be ashamed that I don't understand the point of this calling right now. And the people asking the question care about me; they're not looking for reasons to secretly belittle me. It's just pride, just a lie that says if I was really good enough I'd have a purpose beyond following Christ for today.
But as I wait I am reminded that I think of myself more highly than I ought, that I do not deserve a job or a boyfriend or turn-by-turn life directions. I do not deserve anything, but God loves me and I am being absolutely lavished with his gifts, and the reasons for that have nothing to do with how I earn money for the next year. I am his daughter and he wants me still; he has not abandoned nor forgotten me. But neither does he need my approval before enacting his plans.
That is humility for me, now.
A few months ago my brother convinced me that it was important to jump in freezing cold water at least once in one's life. He said you can't understand until you've done it, but you simply must do it. I remembered his wise 19-year-old words while at the beach in New Hampshire last week, and determined to run into the 51-degree ocean until in over my head. By the time the water came above my knees, I couldn't breathe; everything in my body was revolting against this torture and the only thing I could think was keep running, keep running, this is important somehow. And he was right. I got in over my head, ran back out, toweled off my icy salty skin and felt like a better, newer person. There is something exhilarating about the cold when you have endured it through sheer willpower and the defiance of being alive.
But dear GOD, am I humble enough yet?
"Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; he will bring out the top stone amid shouts of 'grace, grace to it!'... He who has despised the day of small things will rejoice." Zechariah 4:6,7,10
Friday, May 25, 2012
On the drive home I explored a couple of the places I've always wanted to stop at, but never had the time for. This abandoned house was locked:
Thursday, March 29, 2012
It’s not that I don’t have enough thoughts about Havenplace. It’s that there are too many, and I’m worried I’ll accidentally write a book and then where would we be? I’m worried I’ll misrepresent myself or other people; I’m worried I won’t make sense.
Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that everything is too complicated. People talk about poverty, abuse, evangelism and love like they are simple things but they are not. They occur in patterns, cycles, probabilities, it’s true, but no one who proves the rule is not also an exception to it. These are not problems or solutions, they are people – beautiful shattered people whose strength I’ll never know because I’ve never felt their pain. All unique, all valuable, all absolutely infinite and so how could I presume to fill their needs?
I can’t. It is a thing too wonderful for me when the Spirit translates my pitiful efforts into the spark I sometimes see – the light of recognition: this is love. Too often I look into the eyes of the neglected, the forgotten, the scarred, and I worry they’ve lost the ability to recognize grace where it’s found. And so the glancing connection of spirit to Spirit to spirit in that moment makes me able to trudge back again even when the weight of unrecognized sacrifice reminds me how unworthy I am to carry my Savior’s cross. I suppose on that road, step after step, he remembered the laughter of his brothers amidst the breaking of bread, but also the tear-lined face mirroring the fissured heart of one begging only that her story be heard. These are the things worth dying for; this road the crucible where life is truly lived. Left foot, joy – a joke, a hug, the begrudgingly-offered friendship of a longtime pool competitor. Right foot, pain – drugs. incest. the twins are in state care and their father’s up on drug charges. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, but not like a magic hat takes away your quarter. Like your grandmother takes away your hunger, trapping it inside herself and hiding it as it grows. Eat your bread and go play.
And yet somehow I feel richer, fuller than I was before I started losing every Tuesday to eat Little Debbies for dinner. It was a good bet, on the whole, the smaller version of how mothering is a good investment. I could never say they had nothing to give me, nothing to teach me, that they didn’t change me gallons more than I changed them. These are my friends and I love them and they love me in their ways. They are my mirror, poverty the magnifying glass to blow up sin writ large, and yet they shame me with their generosity, their strength and the ease with which they tell me who they are. In a room full of food stamp recipients, paranoid schizophrenics, felons and sex abuse victims, artifice is the most laughable fault of all; and so my precious friends remind me: the pretense of perfection is the most idiotic of upper-middle-class luxuries, a damn expensive waste of all our time.
So here is the grace in it all: that I could have set out on a noble course toward Service or Justice and found myself, in the end, blessed beyond measure, served and justified by those the world would abuse and judge. That I could blithely go about “changing the world” when all along I alone was being changed; that somehow I will only begin to become set apart if I burrow down deep into the middle of the darkness.That love is not a shining deed done at the play’s crisis but the mundane repetition of putting out snacks and yielding a thousandfold harvest of trash strewn about and then I wonder what gifts I, too, have diligently ignored and yet my Father still gives, always gives. The grace in it all is that the command was the gift all along, that the faith and obedience by which I thought I offered so much were only the instruments by which God blessed me. That the anger I once felt at the stubbornly gluttonous church has burned away, leaving only an ardent longing that she would behold with me the face of our King hidden there in the ashes.